Power, Faith, and Fantasy (by Michael B. Oren)

How America Met the Mideast

Theodore Roosevelt and a companion ride camels  in Sudan, c. 1909
Theodore Roosevelt and a companion ride camels in Sudan, c. 1909 (Bettmann / Corbis)
Sunday, January 21, 2007


America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present

By Michael B. Oren

Norton. 778 pp. $35

We often hear that Americans know little about other nations; a bigger problem is that we know too little about ourselves, our history and our national character. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, in particular, we were all born yesterday, unaware of how present policies and attitudes fit into persistent historical patterns. So when a brilliant, lucid historian such as Michael B. Oren does bring the past back to life for us, revealing both what has changed and what has stayed the same, it is a shaft of light in a dark sky.

Today, the conventional view is that George W. Bush took the United States on a radical departure when he declared a policy to transform the Middle East and that, as soon as he leaves office, U.S. policy will return to an alleged tradition of realism, rooted in the hard-headed pursuit of tangible national interests. This is both bad history and bad prophecy, as Oren shows in Power, Faith, and Fantasy, a series of fascinating and beautifully written stories about individual Americans over the past four centuries and their contact with Middle Eastern cultures.

As a historian, Oren is more storyteller than grand theorist, so as a study of the complex and contradictory motives of American behavior, his book is a bit thin. Nevertheless, three powerful themes emerge from his tales: that from the Founders onward, Americans have repeatedly tried to transform Arab and Muslim peoples -- politically, spiritually and economically -- to conform to liberal and Christian principles; that since the days of the Puritans, many Americans have been obsessed with the idea of "restoring" Palestine to the Jews; and that from the colonial era to the present, many (and perhaps most) Americans have regarded Islam as a barbaric, violent and despotic religion. Whether these purposes and perceptions have been intelligent or misguided, based on reality or fantasy, Oren shows that they have been the dominant features of our foreign policy tradition in the Middle East.

Oren demonstrates that suspicion and hostility toward Islam are almost as old as the nation. John Quincy Adams called it a "fanatic and fraudulent" religion, founded on "the natural hatred of Mussulmen towards the infidel."

This was partly religious prejudice, of course, but that prejudice was reinforced by unfortunate experience. In the perilous early years of the republic, the Muslim Barbary powers preyed on American shipping and captured, tortured and enslaved hundreds of innocent men and women. When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson implored the pasha of Tripoli to stop, Oren recounts, the pasha's emissary insisted that the Koran made it the "right and duty" of Muslims "to make war upon" whichever infidels "they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners." George Washington raged, "Would to Heaven we had a navy to reform those enemies to mankind, or crush them into non-existence." And Congress did create a navy in the 1790s primarily to crush the Barbary powers and protect American traders and missionaries. President Jefferson -- so often mislabeled as an idealist, pacifist and isolationist -- eagerly launched the war and ordered the permanent stationing of U.S. naval forces thousands of miles from the nation's shores.

As Oren relates, the modest number of 19th-century Americans who lived in the Middle East largely considered Islam -- in the words of a former Confederate officer hired to improve the Egyptian army -- a religion "born of the sword," one that was "opposed to enlightenment" and crushed "all independence of thought and action." They found the oppression of Muslim women appalling. Being Americans, they thought the best antidote was a thorough transformation of culture and society. Protestant missionaries utterly failed to convert Muslims to Christianity, but they did work to spread the "gospel of Americanism": liberalism, technology and democracy.

Over the next century, American politicians and policymakers repeatedly imagined they could liberalize a people who seemed to them bursting with "democratic aspirations," as one New Dealer put it in 1943. This may have been hubris, but if so, it was an enduring hubris. Oren quotes a mid-19th-century Arab guide warning a missionary: "You Americans think that you can do everything . . . that money can buy or that strength can accomplish. But you cannot conquer Almighty God." Yet a century later, Harry S. Truman insisted, "God has created us and brought us to our present position of power . . . for some great purpose. . . . It is given to us to defend the spiritual values . . . against the vast forces of evil that seek to destroy them."

No act of international social engineering was more audacious than American support for the establishment of a Jewish state in the middle of an implacably hostile Arab world. But this idea, too, had deep roots. The earliest members of the "Israel lobby" were the Puritan settlers, who even before they reached America had petitioned the Dutch government to "transport Izraell's sons and daughters . . . to the Land promised their forefathers . . . for an everlasting Inheritance." Their prominent heirs included John Adams, who imagined "a hundred thousand Israelites" conquering Palestine; Lincoln's secretary of state, William Henry Seward; and, a century later, Woodrow Wilson, who delighted in the thought that he might "be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people." Thus, President Truman felt a deep sense of historical and religious destiny when he recognized the newly created state of Israel in May 1948, comparing himself to the ancient Persian king who also had repatriated the Jewish exiles and helped rebuild a Judean state. "I am Cyrus," Truman crowed. "I am Cyrus!"

Few acts in the history of U.S. foreign policy have been less in accord with "realist" principles. Oren, an Israeli historian whose previous book was the bestselling Six Days of War, shows that U.S. backing for the establishment of Israel was rooted in religious convictions going back more than four centuries. Americans' response to the enormity of the Holocaust helped transform old Puritan dreams into reality. But even so, the essential element here was the rise of the United States to global predominance; it is doubtful that any other country -- including Great Britain, which ruled Palestine after World War I -- would have placed religious conviction and moral sentiment above selfish and practical interests.

Critics from World War I onward warned that American support for a Jewish state would produce unending war, severely damage America's otherwise amicable relations with the Muslim world and, after the discovery of massive deposits of Middle Eastern oil in the 1930s, endanger access to this vital commodity. Saudi Arabia's pro-American first king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, flatly warned Franklin D. Roosevelt that the "Jews have no right to Palestine" and that Arabs would die fighting to resist a Jewish state. When the typically American president spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust, the typically Arab king questioned the fairness of making "the innocent bystander," Palestine's Arabs, pay for the crimes of others. If 3 million Jews had been murdered in Poland, ibn Saud reasoned, then there was now room there for 3 million more. Many Muslims' sentiments have not changed over the past six decades.

And neither have those of many Americans. Despite all the crises of the past years, including the present war in Iraq, Oren predicts that the United States will continue "to pursue the traditional patterns of its Middle East involvement." Policymakers "will press on with their civic mission as mediators and liberators in the area and strive for a pax Americana." American "churches and evangelist groups will still seek to save the region spiritually." And Americans will regard the region as both "mysterious" and "menacing," as they have for centuries, and will seek to transform it in their own image. Many today may want to disagree, but they will have to wrestle first with the long history of American behavior that Oren has so luminously portrayed. ยท

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Washington Post. He is the author of "Dangerous Nation" and "Of Paradise and Power."

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