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Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Michael B. Oren

America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present

(W.W. Norton)

Arabian Nights

After 9/11, many Americans acted as though the Middle East, with its Arab people and some religion called Islam had sprung up out of the sandy soil to surprise us all. Copies of the Koran and Bernard Lewis books flew off the shelves while people mulled over words like “Afghanistan” and “Wahhabism.” More than standard American complacency, this sudden curiosity actually stemmed from a belief that America really just didn’t have that much to do with the region, or if we did, it was a relatively recent development. (This is an offshoot of the “gentle giant” school of thought, which holds that America doesn’t like to get involved in the messy complexities of the world beyond its borders, but when it does, it’s only out of absolute necessity and for the purest of intentions.) The truth, of course, is that thinking America hasn’t been deeply committed for most of its history to influencing developments in the Middle East is the purest bunk.

Most serious people understand that America’s relationship with the region didn’t begin on 9/11, but they would tend to point to things like the country’s support of Israel or the current administration’s ties to the Saudi royal family. What Michael Oren—best known for his popular and definitive account of Israel 1967 conflict Six Days of War—points out in his sweeping and magisterial new tome, Power, Faith, and Fantasy, is that the involvement in fact dates all the way back to the founding of America. The Barbary pirate crisis, which began with raids on American shipping in the 1780s and accelerated over the next several years, sparked a constitutional crisis in a fledgling and war-weary country that hadn’t even accepted the idea of federalism, much less raising a standing military and sending them abroad.

When it became obvious that in order to protect the country’s shipping and civilians in the Mediterranean (the tradition of paying ransom and tribute, as many European countries did, having become too embarrassing and onerous a burden), a Congress was needed that had the right to declare war and “to provide and maintain a navy.” As Oren writes, “A threat from the Middle East had played a concrete role in creating a truly United States, a consolidated nation capable of defending not only its borders at home but its vital economic interests overseas.” So, a military intervention against Muslim powers in the Middle East could actually be said to have helped create the America that exists today. America’s oldest overseas legation building is in Tangier. In 1830 alone, America began selling arms in the region and built a U.S. Navy shipyard in Istanbul, which began churning out warships for the Ottoman Empire. How’s that for involvement?

Oren states pretty early on that he wants to provide one single all-encompassing survey of the ties between America and the Middle East. To that end, he has absolutely succeeded, and not just because he uses about 800 pages to work through those skirmishes (ideological, mercantile and military), but because he’s done so with nary an ideological axe to grind. Given the amount of ideological baggage being hurled about by the main participants in this history—and especially the brittle kind of idealism that is continually disenchanted by the region’s harsh realities—that feat is even more impressive.

Primary among the ideologies discussed at length here is missionary Protestantism, the 19th century forebears to today’s evangelicals, who could see no higher purpose than to reclaim the Middle East for Christianity. It was a religious form of Manifest Destiny, that wanted not land, but souls, and churches across the country were obsessed with the idea, “not as an end in itself, but rather as a means for hastening Christ’s return.” These missionaries were so fascinated by the region they practically invented Zionism: an NYU biblical scholar and professor of Hebrew named George Bush—actually a forebear of both Presidents Bush—published a book in 1844 that called for recreating a Jewish state in Palestinian. This missionary effort to get Jews to resettle as farmers in Palestine was an effort doomed to failure by their own naiveté, lack of interested Jews, local Arab hostility, and an unforgiving land. John Steinbeck’s grandfather was among those Protestant Zionists who ran an early sort of kibbutz (Melville visited once) until a vicious attack by several Arabs in 1858 sent them back home.

Throughout Power, Faith, and Fantasy, Oren is able to return time and again to this cycle of idealism and disenchantment, that volatile mix of faith in America’s ability to have a positive effect in the Middle East, tempered with ludicrously romantic visions taken straight from 1001 Arabian Nights (or more recently, the mostly fictional Lawrence of Arabia). It’s a tough journey at times, as the cycle proves numbingly impervious to change, whether one is talking about the post-WWI struggle for domination after the collapse of the Ottomans or the invasion of Iraq. Throughout it all, though, Oren tells a grounded and dramatic story, digging up a batch of fantastic details along the way. The tales of Protestant Zionist farmers are fascinating enough, but no more so than the image of Confederate veterans training and leading an Egyptian army on a conquest of the Sudan, or the fact that it was the Saudi tribes’ leader Ibn Saud’s good experiences with American doctors which largely convinced him to ally his new, suddenly oil-rich country with America instead of Britain or France.

Oren’s call at the end of the book for Americans to “engage in brave introspection” about the region makes perfect sense, especially as their nation currently occupies one Middle Eastern country, could be planning to attack a second, and is heavily involved in the internal politics of at least a couple others. But given that it took a cataclysmic terrorist event to make many Americans even start thinking about a place which some of their countrymen had been meddling in and dealing with for centuries, the chance for brave introspection seems less than likely.

Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.

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