Atallah on Wolfe-Hunnicutt, 'The Paranoid Style in American Diplomacy: Oil and Arab Nationalism in Iraq'

Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt
Philippe Atallah

Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt. The Paranoid Style in American Diplomacy: Oil and Arab Nationalism in Iraq. Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021. 332 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-1382-9; $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5036-2791-8.

Reviewed by Philippe Atallah (University of Pennsylvania) Published on H-War (November, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt’s The Paranoid Style in American Diplomacy: Oil and Arab Nationalism in Iraq presents the formation of the modern Iraqi state as a dialectical process, as the successive governments of Iraq come into conflict with the American-backed Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC). Drawing information from primary sources including the IPC archives, US State Department records, and recollections of the Iraqi government officials central to the politics of the era, Wolfe-Hunnicutt weaves an engaging narrative as convincing as it is well researched.

By tracing the relationship between the shifting governments of Iraq and the IPC, an enterprise jointly owned by the major international oil companies, this text argues that the question of oil nationalization was central to the construction of Iraqi nationalism and state institutions. This struggle over oil exposed contradictions within American foreign policy that tried to serve the interests of American capital, the state, British allies, and anticommunism, while maintaining rhetorical support for national self-determination. These contradictions led to the propagation of the myth of oil scarcity: that the enemies of NATO would restrict the flow of oil to America’s European allies to gain a strategic advantage in the Cold War. This text thoroughly critiques this security-state horror story, describing several instances in which the true threat to American corporate oil interests was increased production of oil by nonaligned states.

Wolfe-Hunnicutt chronologically recounts the history of modern Iraq, exploring the perspectives of a variety of subjects to provide insight into the many factions at play. The book begins with the installation of the Hashemite monarchy by the British Empire following the First World War (chapter 1). Mounting popular resistance against the international colonial oil regime of the IPC culminated in a military coup against the monarchy in 1958 (chapter 2). These chapters present an image of Iraq’s political landscape that bears little resemblance to the Iraq of the era succeeding the 2003 American invasion; communists and secular pan-Arab nationalists dominated the opposition to the conservative colonial regime while political Islam remained only a marginal influence.

The following section describes Iraq’s first foray into radical oil politics under the leadership of General Qassim and the backlash that led to his overthrow in 1963 by the IPC-supported Ba’ath party, which in turn fell to an internal coup (chapters 3, 4, and 5). The left-wing nationalist faction that took power resumed the challenge to the IPC through the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Nations (OPEC) and the creation of the Iraqi National Oil Company (INOC); chapter 6 presents the perspective of Khair el-Din Haseeb, the “key architect of Iraq’s radical oil policy” and an interviewee for this book (p. 137). The final sections deal with the effects of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War on the international oil market, the 1968 coup that returned the Ba’ath party to government, and the actions the party took to consolidate power allowing for the nationalization of the IPC in the 1970s (chapters 7,8, and 9).

Though Saddam Hussein did not become a key player until the end of this period, he rose to power due to his experience navigating the dangerous and coup-ridden politics of Iraq in the era covered in this text. Wolfe-Hunnicut emphasizes the active role of American intelligence played in the downfall of previous governments, and the ways in which Hussein learned from his predecessors’ failures and was able to expertly navigate Cold War geopolitics, oscillating between Soviet and American spheres to consolidate Iraqi state control of the oil industry and military (p. 226). It is this revelation that drives home the title’s adaptation of Richard Hofstadter’s article titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”[1] American diplomacy, in the era of the Cold War, created the environments out of which America’s enemies emerged, sharp, violent, and uncooperative.

This book encounters the same obstacle as many other texts exploring the role of intelligence agencies in international affairs: when dealing with organizations whose goal is to operate in secrecy and maintain plausible deniability for their government, how can researchers complete a narrative with pieces of data that have been intentionally obscured? Wolfe-Hunnicutt addresses this difficulty with full transparency in chapter 3 when discussing the expansion of CIA powers under the Eisenhower administration and the development of the cult of covert action among the foreign policy elite of the era. These institutional developments obfuscate the role of the CIA in the Ba’athist coup and terror in 1963, requiring this text to rely on some informed speculation in chapter 5. In the absence of official CIA documents, Wolfe-Hunnicutt draws from the often contradictory testimony of William Lakeland, a foreign service officer stationed in Baghdad, and the gloating statements of James Atkins, the second secretary of the US Baghdad embassy, both of whom compiled lists of Iraqi communists that may have aided the Ba’ath party in choosing targets for the terror following their rise to power. Wolfe-Hunnicutt provides a plausible and convincing explanation for the covert events in modern Iraqi history by making the most of the available testimony and information gleaned from previous studies by Hanna Batutu and Weldon C. Mathews.[2] Wolfe-Hunnicutt’s examination of the development of the American international intelligence regime places his work in conversation with recent studies of CIA tactics such as Vincent Bevins’s The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World (2020).

This book offers historians and scholars of the modern Middle East an institutionalist and materialist analysis of the construction of the Iraqi state, drawing from primary sources that would be of interest to any academic writing on a similar time period. Wolfe-Hunnicutt does not, however, sacrifice clarity for rigor. The writing is concise and the subject matter has additional appeal to a lay audience interested in American foreign policy and espionage.


[1]. Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper's,November 1964,

[2]. Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Moments of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978); Weldon C. Matthews, “The Kennedy Administration and Arms Transfers to Ba’athist Iraq,” Diplomatic History 43, no. 3 (2019): 469-92.

Citation: Philippe Atallah. Review of Wolfe-Hunnicutt, Brandon, The Paranoid Style in American Diplomacy: Oil and Arab Nationalism in Iraq. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL:

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