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Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present

By Michael B. Oren, Norton, 2007

Although the Middle East today looms large in the consciousness of almost all Americans, relatively few fully understand just how long or to what extent the region has interacted with the United States. The current focus on global terrorism and its Middle Eastern roots all seem connected with two factors. One is the Arab-Israeli struggle, which started just after World War II with the establishment of the state of Israel. The other is America’s dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum, which goes back to just before World War II when American oil companies started operations in the Arabian Peninsula. The two threads converged in 1973 when the Arabs imposed an oil boycott in response to America’s military support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War of that year.

But, as historian Michael Oren demonstrates in Power, Faith, and Fantasy, American involvement in the region dates back to the earliest days of the republic, with the Middle East both influencing and being influenced by the United States in ways that are still playing out. As the book’s title implies, Oren traces the three interweaving themes of power, faith and fantasy as the filters through which American political leaders, soldiers, religious leaders and common citizens have seen the Middle East, shaping their decisions and defining U.S. policy.

The most dominant of those themes has been power. Oren notes that one of the main spurs to the adoption of the Constitution and the establishment of the U.S. Navy was America’s inability under the Articles of Confederation to deal effectively with the threats to international commerce posed by the Barbary pirates of North Africa. America’s ever-growing dependence on Mideast oil in the years following World War II is essentially a continuation and expansion of the region’s long interconnection with the U.S. economy.

Americans’ deep-rooted concepts of faith have often affected their pursuits of the nation’s interests. Long before Zionism became one of the shaping forces of the 20th century, many American mainstream Protestant churches were ardent believers in fulfilling the biblical prophecies of restoring the Jews to the Holy Land. The modern manifestation of that doctrine is the current staunch support for Israel by many Christian evangelical movements. The faith theme has a strong civic as well as a religious component. Since the late 18th century, Americans have felt driven to bring American-style democracy and open society to the region. Educational institutions, such as the American Universities of Beirut and Cairo, are among the more successful results, while the current debacle in Iraq is an example of the opposite extreme.

A long American tradition of fantasies about the mystical Middle East often influenced and confounded the power and faith themes. Romantic visions of pyramids, oases, sand dunes and harem dancers were at first fueled by biblical stories and popular books such as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. As the 20th century progressed, Hollywood became the primary source of Americans’ Middle Eastern myths, often building on the earlier literary sources. Throughout the 19th century, these fantasies exerted a strong pull on Americans, drawing many of them to the region. Not all were mere travelers. They included businessmen, missionaries, educators and soldiers, all of whom influenced the region in various ways.

Oren points out that each of these themes has also been present at times in European dealings with the region. Their intertwining pattern over the course of the last 200 years is unique to the United States, however, and each thread is still clearly at work today.

Oren’s narrative is smooth and clear. The book is easy to read, even though it grapples with some very complicated ideas. Perhaps the most illuminating section is the one dealing with America, the Middle East and World War I, which explains the very roots of the situation in the Middle East today—how we got here from there. When America declared war on Germany in 1917, it specifically did not declare war on Germany’s ally, Turkey. Despite widespread reaction in America to the Armenian genocide, President Woodrow Wilson felt strongly that the United States had no business intervening militarily in the Middle East. It was a costly decision that effectively shut America out of any say in determining the shape of the postwar Middle East. The result was the League of Nations mandate system, which in American eyes perpetuated European colonialism and thwarted the principle of self-determination. When the mandate system collapsed as a result of World War II, America was left to fill the power vacuum in the almost intractable chaos that had been created by the European powers—primarily France, Britain and Italy.

Oren’s book does contain a number of irritating omissions and minor errors. Despite his efforts to highlight almost every conceivable American who was ever involved in the Middle East, he curiously omits David Marcus, the American colonel who became the first general in the Israeli army and who is the only soldier buried at West Point who died fighting under a foreign flag. In an irrelevant aside, Oren notes that one American officer who served in the Egyptian army had graduated second in his class at West Point, “just behind George Armstrong Custer.” Custer, of course, was dead last in his class, not first. Oren also refers to a post–World War I investigating mission “headed by U.S. Army Chief of Staff James G. Harbord.” Having never held a rank higher than major general, Harbord was not the army’s chief of staff.

Despite its occasional minor errors, this is a good book that makes effectively its very important point. America’s influence on the Middle East and vice versa goes back at least 200 years, and the patterns that emerged at the beginning of the relationship are still with us today. Despite America’s many errors in dealing with the Middle East, Oren concludes, “On balance, Americans historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East and caused significantly less harm than good.” That’s a thought we need to keep in mind these days.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here