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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None of these arguments for a Jewish national home, however, compared to that written by a distinguished professor of Hebrew at New York University in 1844. The professor, another Protestant restorationist who shared the common hope for a Jewish home in Palestine, put it this way in his own volume, The Valley of Vision: Or, The Dry Bones of Israel Revived. He denounced the oppression that had for so long ground the Jews to dust, and called for "elevating" them "to a rank of honorable repute among the nations of the earth" by creating again a state for them in Jerusalem. That state would be "a link of communication between humanity and God," he wrote, and "blaze in notoriety. It will flash a splendid demonstration upon all kindred and tongues of the truth." (The professor, his work forgotten until Oren rescued him from obscurity, was named George Bush, an ancestor of the two American presidents of the same name!)

Of course, not all Christian evangelicals favored a Jewish home in Palestine, and Oren meticulously traces those Christians and diplomats who strongly opposed it. Elbert Eli Farman, American consul at Alexandria in the 1880s, was sympathetic to native nationalism, which he saw as a justified response to European imperialism. In the 1830s Edward W. Blyden, a black evangelist, encountered Islam as he traveled in West Africa. Showing sympathy with this new religion he encountered, he broke with his evangelical brothers and worked to build ties between Christians and Muslims, crediting Islam with saving native peoples from destruction. And Selah Merrill, a theologian who served as U.S. consul in Jerusalem in the 1880s, opposed the early Zionist settlers, Oren writes, holding "rancor toward Jews and their nascent Zionist movement." A strain in American Protestantism was developing that became strongly antipathetic to the goals of the Christian Zionists.

Woodrow Wilson, a descendant of Presbyterian clergymen, followed in the tradition of his Christian Zionist ancestors. "If ever I have the occasion to help in the restoration of the Jewish people to Palestine, I shall surely do so," he said during his 1912 presidential campaign. With Wilson's backing, Britain assumed its League of Nations mandate over Palestine, issuing the Balfour Declaration that served as a commitment on behalf of Jewish statehood in Palestine. As Oren writes, "Jews throughout the world believed that it could not have been formulated without Wilson's consent." Indeed, so strong was Wilson's belief that he supported the Jewish legion, created by Vladimir Jabotinsky, that enlisted Jews to form a separate legion of the British Army, the first Jewish combat force in 2,000 years, whose members bore the Star of David on its flags and insignia.

Wilson was the first American president to make overt support of Zionism a major focus of American foreign policy. He had promised Justice Louis Brandeis that he would give his support, and in 1918, as war in the Middle East was waning, Wilson fulfilled that promise. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, he expressed his "satisfaction . . . in the progress of the Zionist movement," as well as his delight in Britain's support of a national home for Jews in Palestine. Wilson did so against the opposition of many of his most trusted advisers, including Secretary of State Robert Lansing and Colonel Edward M. House. "I have a kindly feeling for the Arabs and my influence will be thrown in their direction whenever they are right," said House. Along with industrialists and, in particular, oil men, a faction would emerge that, as Oren puts it, "sought a mutually lucrative alliance between the United States and Arab nationalism." They were quickly joined by State Department career officers, the spiritual descendants of those missionaries who had favored Arab nationalism.

Oren makes it clear that it took great courage for Wilson, and later Harry S. Truman, to oppose the naysayers within their own government, and to stand firm against both the Department of State and what would become, in Truman's era, the oil lobby. Disagreeing with those who saw "Arabism as a long-term American interest," Wilson and Truman worked to turn their sympathy with the plight of dispossessed Jews into fervent backing for the cause of a Jewish homeland. Oren shows that Truman, despite buffeting from his own State Department, the British, and from militant Zionists, in the end "supported the right of Jewish refugees to immigrate to Palestine, endorsed partition, and acknowledged Israel's independence."

Colored by his Baptist upbringing, and his own study of the Bible, Truman was committed to spreading democracy in the Middle East, and urged standing "against the vast forces of evil that seek to destroy" America's spiritual values. He sent the Navy to patrol the Eastern Mediterranean, thereby "massively and permanently [projecting American] power into the Middle East." Most important, it was Truman who decided to forge U.S. policy not in terms of protecting oil interests but for the purpose of attaining justice. Like Wilson, Truman resisted powerful advisers and cabinet officers, including Secretary of State George Marshall and Defense Secretary James Forrestal, with his decision to grant recognition to the new state of Israel in 1948.

Throughout the turbulent decades since Truman's decision, America's chief executives have stood with Israel, despite differences in the degree of commitment. In the crises that have emerged, Oren shows how events at our nation's very beginning seem to have repeated themselves in a different time and place. Indeed, as Oren concludes, "Americans read about the fighting in Iraq and hear the echoes of the Barbary wars and Operation Torch [when Americans went into action in North Africa during World War II] or follow presidential efforts to mediate between Palestinians and Israelis and see the shadows of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson."

As for our current commander in chief, Oren contrasts him favorably with his father, a "straitlaced Episcopalian," while the son gravitated toward evangelical churches, whose members had long been sympathetic towards the legacy of the early Christian Zionists. Calling him a true "spiritual heir" of his namesake and ancestor George Bush in 1844, Oren clearly views George W. Bush as a man who has continued in the tradition of those who posted early warnings of the dangers of militant Islam. Oren considers Bush to be solidly in the tradition begun by Woodrow Wilson: of an American policy of standing with Zionism. Yet in contrast to Wilson, who sought to avoid war in the region, Bush was spurred "to decide in favor of war." Oren notes the irony of how, having gone to war to depose Saddam Hussein, the United States found itself isolated from its major European allies, much as those same nations had refused, 200 years ago, to forge an alliance against the Barbary pirates.

Surely, Michael Oren's linking of Bush with the grand tradition enunciated first by Woodrow Wilson will seem controversial. He is fully aware of the problems and dilemmas stemming from the assertion of American power in the Middle East--the many failures despite the best of intentions. Yet, on balance, Oren concludes that this American presence and the exercise of power have "brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East and caused significantly less harm than good." Those who read this magisterial study will find themselves hard-pressed to disagree.

Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is working with Allis Radosh on a book about Harry S. Truman, the creation of Israel, and American foreign policy.