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.
This was, Oren points out, "a precedent for future American presidents." The United States did not win at first, but it had taken to heart the advice of our consul in Tunis, William Eaton, who claimed the only language the enemy understood "is terror." Paying tribute only backfired, earning more disdain for America. "Experience," Oren writes, "had taught [Eaton] that in the Middle East power alone was respected and, that in order to gain peace, the United States had no alternative but to wield it." Eventually, the use of power proved to be worth it: It cost over $3 million between 1802 and 1805 to fight the pirates, but it gained world respect for the United States, and reinforced a sense of national pride at home. In 1815 an American fleet sank a large Algerian fighting ship, a step which led to the demise of the Barbary incursions. By 1826, America's 50th birthday, the nation's Mediterranean naval squad was on permanent duty in the Middle East.
Nor was American interest in the Middle East confined to the use of military power. After the soldiers and merchants came men of religion, who sought to gain their own entrée into lands they loved from reading the Bible. Missionaries sought to instill American morals, virtues, and Christianity in a region they considered inhabited by people who practiced a backwards, heathen religion and culture. Some travelers viewed the Middle East through the prism of romance; many would go to find their hopes shattered on arrival. Instead of the romantic, mystical land of literature they had hoped to find, they were chastened to discover a region enveloped by tyranny, poverty, and degradation.
Nevertheless, many Christian missionaries sought to fulfill the biblical injunction by seeking to bring Christianity and freedom to the Muslims. Many of these religious pioneers practiced what might be called Christian Zionism, announcing their intent to secure the area of Palestine for the Jews of the Middle East. That goal, the restorationist idea, had penetrated America's mainstream from its start among evangelical churches in colonial America. Their reasons had a particular religious rationale. As Oren explains, American Protestants and evangelists
held the Jews as their cousins in faith and as the agents of future redemption. By expediting the fulfillment of God's promises to repatriate the Jews to their homeland, Christians could re-create the conditions of Jewish sovereignty that existed in Jesus' time and so set the stage for his reappearance.
It is with amazement that one learns about the attempts of early missionaries to build settlements in the Holy Land, to prepare them for the return of the Jews who had been dispossessed since biblical times. In the 1850s, for example, Walter Dickson sought to establish a colony eventually to be settled by Jews; but Dickson and his family met with failure after a group of Arabs entered their farm and slaughtered the members of his community. Nevertheless, the efforts of these and other Christian settlers led, in the long run, to the creation of lasting institutions, including what would become the American University in Beirut, along with medical facilities that would evolve into great hospitals. Their good works, Oren concludes, helped "lay the foundations of an educational network that would help instill local populations with republican and patriotic ideas."
Thus, it was American Protestants, not Jews, who began to call for an independent, Jewish Palestine. Meeting with Abraham Lincoln in 1863, a Canadian churchman, Henry W. Monk, told the president: "There can be no permanent peace in the world until the civilized nations . . . atone . . . for their two thousand years of persecution [of the Jews] by restoring them to their national home in Palestine." Lincoln responded: "Restoring the Jews to their national home . . . is a noble dream and one shared by many Americans." The restorationist dream was shared by a broad cross-section of the American populace, many of whom actually traveled to Palestine after the end of the Civil War. As the New York Times put it: The Jews "certainly deserve Jerusalem."
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.