The Magazine

Close Encounters

American foreign policy at home in the Middle East.

Feb 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 20 • By RONALD RADOSH
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Power, Faith, and Fantasy

America in the Middle East:

1776 to the Present

by Michael B. Oren

Norton, 778 pp., $35

Michael Oren is known to Americans as the author of the bestselling Six Days of War, his account of the Israeli war against the Arab states in 1967. Now he has sought to take on a much wider subject, a broad history of our nation's involvement in the Middle East since 1776. Based on a wide-ranging and impressive use of the major secondary sources and original manuscript collections in the United States, Israel, Turkey, and Great Britain, Oren gives us a study that pulls no punches: a dazzling book that combines amazing stories of long-forgotten players with a subtle analysis of how our American statesmen and leaders made momentous choices in dealing with the region.

Power, Faith, and Fantasy revolves around what Oren terms the central themes surrounding America's involvement in the Middle East, which recur throughout our history. The first is power: military, economic, and diplomatic. The second is faith: the ways in which religion shaped Americans' attitudes and policies. The final theme Oren calls fantasy: the enticing and mythical Middle East beloved by many Americans, whether in books such as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, songs like Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis" (1974, written by David Nichtern), or in movies like Lawrence of Arabia.

As Oren proves, these themes have persisted through two centuries, and the interplay among them shaped the way Americans responded to the Middle East. In the present day, with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict looming so large, along with the rise of radical Islam, few would question how important the region is to America's well-being. But most Americans are surely unaware of how large the Middle East loomed at the dawn of our nation's development.

Oren starts with the threat posed to the new nation by the Mussulman--as Muslims were then called--as pirates threatened the great profits enjoyed by merchants who traded timber, tobacco, sugar, and rum for Turkish opium, raisins, figs, and other staples of America's export market. Indeed, Oren shows that the very decision of young America's leaders to build a powerful navy came from an inability to respond to the threat without a strong military force.

Americans learned that their ships were being taken and used by enemy forces, their sailors captured and brutalized--and without a way for Americans to respond in kind, aside from payment of tribute and hoping for the best. The new nation's leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington, were forced to confront the threat immediately. Washington felt "the highest disgrace," Oren tells us, at seeing America "become tributary to such banditti who might for half the sum that is paid them be exterminated from the Earth."

Our first president was talking about the Barbary pirates, the name Americans gave to Muslim marauders from Morocco and the Ottoman regencies of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers. Their incursions led John Adams to try negotiation with a representative of the pasha of Tripoli, to whom Adams offered $200,000 in tribute, hoping that the sum would be less than the risk of losing a million pounds in trade annually. Adams and others were shocked to be told by the pasha's man that the Koran demanded that all nations acknowledge Muslim authority, or be faced with the "right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise."

By 1790 Thomas Jefferson asked for war to defend America's interests. Rejecting his plea, the Senate allocated $140,000--a gigantic sum for the day--to be used for further ransom and tribute. The United States ended up paying some 20 percent of its annual revenue to the Barbary states. But it was not until the late date of 1801 that new American frigates were sent to blockade the port of Tripoli, the first step in the use of American military power in the Middle East. Bypassing Congress (which he assumed would not vote in favor of war), Jefferson ordered a policing action that was all but war in fact.