- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007


By Michael B. Oren

W.W. Norton, $35, 778 pages, illus.


Early on in “Lawrence of Arabia,” Alec Guinness’ Feisal tells Lawrence that “the English have a great hunger for desolate places. I fear they hunger for Arabia.” The roster of notable Englishmen who were so drawn includes not only T.E. Lawrence, of course, but countless others.

In Michael B. Oren’s wonderful new “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present,” it becomes clear that just as many Americans through the years, both the notable and the nameless, have been drawn not only to Arabia but to the broader region today known as the Middle East. And like its people, so too has the American government been inexorably drawn.

That the United States has long been involved in one way or another with the Middle East might come as a surprise to some, but even those who have heard of the conflict with Barbary State pirates back in the 1780s and ‘90s, or know of the long list of American missionaries who as early as the 1800s risked life and limb to travel to what became known as the Holy Land to set up schools and hospitals, will find much here that is new. It is an illuminating and admirable book that clarifies the present by looking closely at the past.

Mr. Oren makes the case for his book upfront. “In spite of the paramount importance of the Middle East,” he says, “Americans remain largely unaware of their country’s rich and multidimensional history in the area.” This ignorance comes, he adds, “at least partially, from the absence of a comprehensive book on the subject.”

Mr. Oren goes on to list almost a dozen titles, some very highly regarded, on America and the Middle East that have fallen short of providing “the full sweep of America’s centuries-old engagement with the Middle East in all of its military, economic, and cultural aspects.” This is exactly what he provides, and much of the pleasure of working through the book is realizing how well he does it.

The title outlines his central themes. First of all, this is an engagement characterized by power, by which we are to understand the long-term “pursuit of America’s interests in the Middle East through a variety of means — military, diplomatic, and financial.”

Then there is faith, particularly “the impact of religion in the shaping of American attitudes and policies toward the Middle East.”

Last, but perhaps most important, there is fantasy. The romantic “idea of the Middle East has always enchanted Americans, enthralling them with an ethereal montage of minarets and pyramids, oases, camels, and dunes.” (In writing that last sentence I initially typed “mirage” instead of “montage,” but as I went back to correct it, I realized that an illusory vision, too, is part of his point.)

An abundance of little stories and vignettes, persons and personalities, touching on all these themes make up Mr. Oren’s narrative.

To say this book is timely is only to say that all well written history is timely. However, there will no doubt be those who pick it up with the assumption that what the subtitle promises will only be enlisted to offer some background, either exculpatory or condemnatory, to the current U.S. role in Iraq, or perhaps in the Israeli-Palestinian question. One hopes the person who does so will not put it down once he finds out his assumption was wrong.

In a sense, one of Mr. Oren’s main targets is the American tendency toward “presentism” when wrestling with contemporary questions.

Yes, George W. Bush is prominent here, primarily toward the end, but not before the reader has worked his way through another George—Washington—followed by James Madison (who, we find out, was the president who ordered the indefinite deployment of a naval squadron to the Mediterranean, “America’s permanent overseas force”), on to Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt—in short, just about every U.S. president.

But what of the current situation? Mr. Oren’s judgment takes in the whole picture. “On balance, Americans historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East and caused significantly less harm than good.”

Yes, even given the current situation in Iraq. “By protecting themselves from Middle Eastern threats while simultaneously trying to assist native peoples, U.S. forces in Iraq were, in effect, revisiting the earliest American involvement in the region.”

As captivating as many of these stories are, the real worth of the book comes only when the reader takes it as a whole. A subtle and refreshing assumption about the importance of history and its relationship to the present underlies every page. It is not that history offers formulaic answers, and certainly not that it simplifies contemporary questions. But it does make the present intelligible.

If you want to understand the complexity of America’s relationship with the modern Middle East, you cannot drop in at the outset of the current conflict in Iraq, or at the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Not even at the creation of the modern Middle East at the end of World War I.

America was already fascinated, repelled and thoroughly involved with the region long before President Wilson set out for Paris to help write the epilogue to the Ottoman Empire.

And neither was Wilson the first president to come face-to-face with the religious convictions that still contribute to friction between the Islamic World and the West.

In a 1785 London meeting with the representative of the Pasha of Tripoli, future presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were aghast when it was explained to them that the Barbary pirates had a right and duty to make war upon whomever refused to recognize the authority of Islam, that captives should be enslaved and that every Muslim who dies in battle goes to paradise.

While certainly no recipe for resolving the latest crisis, it does help to know that the relationship between America and the Middle East has been colored by intractable pronouncements such as this from the very start. If George W. Bush is frustrated, all of his predecessors have been as well. The region has a tremendous potential for vexing and puzzling Americans. It has always been a land simultaneously the “subject of fascination for Americans, and a focus of disgust.”

The book is not flawless, but its drawbacks are minor. Mr. Oren makes a case for the role of the Middle East in the formation of the Constitution, but one is left suspecting that if this case could be made, almost any other could as well. John Adams’ Secretary of State was Timothy Pickering, not Thomas Pickering as Mr. Oren names him.

And sometimes there’s rhetorical overreach: “Having failed to rescue European Jewry from Nazism, the United States was saddled with the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors who insisted on resettlement in Palestine.” Saddled?

But on the whole, one feels like a nitpicker compiling a list like this. Mr. Oren has made a significant and readable contribution to the understanding of the historic relationship of America with the Middle East. It is a book worth seeking out.

David A. Smith teaches history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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