January 28, 2007, New York Times, Midnight at the Oasis, By Max Rodenbeck.
POWER, FAITH, AND FANTASY, America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, By Michael B. Oren, Illustrated. 778 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $35.
Around the time of the War of Independence, Americas main contact with the Middle East consisted in trading Caribbean rum for Turkish opium. Its hard not to wish, reading the epic story of this 230-year relationship, now usefully condensed into a single well-researched volume, that things could have remained as simple as the swapping of your recreational poison for mine.
But things never were quite so simple. Even then the potential for friction loomed as large as the possibility of mutual gain. Before the end of the Napoleonic wars, Christian sailors risked capture and enslavement by Muslim pirates from the Barbary ports of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. Governments could either front protection money, cough up ransom or threaten force.
America tried all three approaches, and its erratic policy echoes with sad familiarity in the 21st century. We find the same wrangling in Washington between those who counsel appeasement (the cheaper, saner option) and those who demand armed action (the more glorious); bickering among Western capitals over whether to act singly or in concert (Thomas Jefferson tried to corral a coalition, but Congress balked); and daring strikes carried out with near-fatal clumsiness (an attempt to blockade Tripoli led to the capture, in 1803, of the U.S.S. Philadelphia and its 308-man crew, and a subsequent, heroically farcical attempt to free them by effecting regime change).
Michael B. Oren, an American-born Israeli scholar and the author of a well-received study of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, recounts such exploits with admirable detachment. Power, Faith, and Fantasy is hugely ambitious, drawing on hundreds of original sources to create a finely balanced overview of this enormously complex subject. Out of understandable necessity, the later chapters, dealing with more recent times and Americas role as a superpower, preoccupied with a multilayered and often contradictory agenda in the Middle East, grow sketchier and less conclusive.
Yet it is a diverting tale over all, full of forgotten twists and memorable characters. Who remembers now, for instance, that the Statue of Liberty was initially conceived by her French sculptor as an Egyptian peasant girl, intended to adorn the entrance to the Suez Canal? Or that the first Zionists to settle in Palestine were in fact American Protestants, who planted successive, ill-fated colonies aimed at restoring the Holy Land to Jews, so that their subsequent conversion to Christianity would speed the Second Coming? Or that Civil War veterans officered Egyptian campaigns in Sudan and Abyssinia? Or that before landing in North Africa during World War II, the United States Army dropped leaflets advertising the arrival of Holy Warriors ... to fight the great jihad of freedom?
Some of these episodes may sound trivial or obscure, but Oren cleverly weaves them into the overarching themes of his title. Consider Americas missionary effort. The printing of native-language Bibles, and the founding of schools, clinics and three universities, in Cairo, Beirut and Istanbul, that remain among the best in the region, failed to win more than a trickle of converts. Yet a hundred years of American mission work produced some unexpected change.
It was, in part, the missionary doctors reputation for altruism that persuaded the Saudi king to offer his oil patch not to British, but to American prospectors. And while the proto-Zionist restorationist movement faded to the fringes of Protestant preaching at least, until its revival by some modern evangelicals a sentimental attachment to the ancient Hebrews infused the religious upbringing of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, the two presidents who did most to cement American ties with Israel.
Such underlying trends have seldom been so well explored, but Oren occasionally overstates their importance. Trumans own words reveal that faith was perhaps a secondary motive behind his crucial decision to back the creation of Israel. I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism, Oren quotes Truman as explaining. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs in my constituents.
Important context is missing from some of the books pages. Oren artfully touches on Middle Eastern influence on American popular culture, from the hootchy-kootchy dance to Camel cigarettes, but tends to dissociate this from the wider Western tradition of Orientalism. There is much gory detail about the Armenian genocide, but scant mention of the fact that Ottoman Turkey faced repeated invasion by a Russia whose czars, disastrously for the Ottomans Armenian subjects, claimed leadership of all Orthodox Christians. At several junctures, Oren paints Europe as stubbornly resistant to American policy, without adequately substantiating the charge or explaining European motives. We hear nothing of how Americas fateful, post-World War I decision to restrict immigration helped push desperate Jewish refugees toward Palestine.
While correctly noting the peculiar mix of cultural disdain and romantic fascination that has marked American attitudes to Muslim Middle Easterners, Oren curiously declines to distance himself from some unflattering views. We hear, for instance, of an 18th-century diplomat whose experience had taught him that in the Middle East power alone was respected, as if this were a quality unique to the region. And a hint of distaste sometimes infuses his language. The landmass of the Middle East curves scimitar-like through Arabia. Elsewhere, Oren speaks blithely of nameless Middle Eastern thugs and the ubiquity of Arab terror. Such shopworn phrases tend to compound, rather than dispel, preconceived notions of the Middle East as a kind of unfathomable Badland.
Commendably, in a work of such scope, there are very few errors of fact or omission. Yet, as a reserve major in the Israeli Army, Oren ought to know that Israels 1982 invasion of Lebanon was not provoked by the P.L.O. regularly striking at Galilee. Yasir Arafats group was certainly an elemental threat to the Jewish state, but had actually been observing a long, American-brokered cease-fire before Ariel Sharons drive to Beirut. It is also odd that the author hardly touches upon the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, or on the issue of United States financial and military aid to Israel, factors undeniably crucial to any understanding of Americas involvement with todays Middle East.
Oren mostly avoids the temptation to seek historical parallels to modern events. The occasions when he succumbs reveal the peril for historians of this habit. Toward the books conclusion, for instance, he avers that by protecting themselves from Middle Eastern threats while simultaneously trying to assist native people, U.S. forces in Iraq were, in effect, revisiting the earliest American involvement in the region. Surely, as we now know, the threat to America posed by Saddam Husseins Iraq was more fantastical than real, until, that is, American forces hit the ground there.
Such subtle reinforcement of Americas self-image as an innocent among Middle Eastern sharks mars an otherwise exemplary work. This is a pity, since, as Oren amply illustrates, it is Americas failure to be clear and honest about its own motives, as much as its serial failure to interpret the Middle East, that has so often befuddled relations with the region.
Max Rodenbeck is the Middle East correspondent for The Economist.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company