Michael B. Oren’s new book, Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, has such a high quotient of entertainment value that the reader may forget that its 600-page text is buttressed by 133 pages of footnotes and bibliography. However, the purpose of the book is not to entertain, but “to reveal the richness and substance of that history and to expose the foundations of America’s involvement in the region today.” The principal value of the book is in its exploration of that involvement in the 150-year period between the Revolutionary War and the end of World War II. It is revelatory in that respect.
Perhaps the history of this period is little known because it is unimportant. Let me rephrase that. The history is not unimportant, as Oren demonstrates, but the Middle East was unimportant to the United States for much of that century and a half for very good reason. It had no vital strategic interests there. The feeling was apparently mutual as no Middle Eastern country opened an embassy in Washington until the Ottomans in 1873. It was not until 1909, Oren reports, that the US State Department created its Near Eastern Affairs division. In 1913, Assistant Secretary of State Francis Huntington Wilson announced, “it’s no place for us to waste ammunition.” Obviously, that has changed.
So what can be so engaging about this little-known period? Oren tries to weave a skein of themes to give it significance: the power, faith, and fantasy of his title. I am not entirely convinced. The power part is somewhat tautological: one projects power where one’s national interests lie. So power is where you project it. What does that illuminate? Faith centres on the relevance of the Holy Land to Americans of the Christian and Jewish faiths. Fantasy is, well, irrelevance, something that one can indulge in when one’s vital interests are not engaged. The latter may be amusing in the Arabian Nights and The Wind and the Lion variety, but is it important? Only, I think, if one acts out one’s fantasies. In any case, in the first part of the book, Oren goes over the same history three times to illustrate the three respective themes. There is a certain tedium to this back and forth motion. I was pleased when he abandoned it and simply interweaved the themes of a given period simultaneously.
Two things stand out. One is the consistency with which even colonial Americans looked to Israel in a millenarian way. The restoration of the Jews would presage the Second Coming. Therefore, good Christians should favour “restorationism.” In 1844, President George W. Bush’s ancestor, George Bush, called for the recreation of a Jewish Palestine in The Valley of Vision; or, The Dry Bones of Israel Revived. (Anyone who thinks US support of Israel is a neo-conservative plot needs to read this book.) The other is the general level of disillusionment in the reports of the people who actually went to the Middle East and discovered an Ottoman backwater of poverty, slavery and general misery. Oren’s fascinating citations from the reports of early travellers have recently been supplemented by a brilliantly well-written article on the The Claremont Institute web site, titled Encountering Islam, by Algis Valiunas, that supplies even more such impressions from the same period.
Despite these discouraging words, various American adventures and religious enthusiasts set out. Oren’s stories of these eccentric characters, many of whom seem to have stepped out of a Flannery O’Connor novel, are the most entertaining in the book. Their projects to bring faith or enlightenment to the Middle East were often so misconceived as to be hilarious, though sometimes with consequences that were tragic. When years of experience demonstrated the impenetrability of Islam’s adherents to Christian evangelization, the America missionaries simply secularised salvation to forms of education, health care and the inculcation of the civic virtues necessary for democracy, the spread of which would achieve the earthly redemption of the Middle East. (Does that notion ring a bell?) This transmutation is the source of the famous American universities in the Middle East, and also the foundation for much of the good will toward America that obtained until the US had to step in for Great Britain when it abdicated its role in the region.
That brings us to the real “power” part. Great Britain and other European powers did the heavy lifting in the Middle East until, exhausted after World War II, they withdrew or were driven out, usually with the encouragement of US anti-colonial policy. (In one priceless scene, Oren has President Franklin Roosevelt telling King Ibn Saud of how American know-how and technology could make Arabia’s deserts bloom. Ibn Saud reminded Roosevelt that he, Saud, was a warrior and had no intention of altering his ancestors’ ways.) However, the US soon learned that the problems of the Middle East were not all of colonial origin and that it now had to shoulder the responsibilities of keeping order and, needless to say, an open supply of the increasing important oil. Thus, the United States inherited the intractable problems resulting from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. While some of these problems seemed to have been subsumed during the US-Soviet rivalry, they are back today with a vengeance in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere.
How has the US gone about thinking and dealing with these issues? Herein lies the value of Oren’s book. It shows the often hidden sources that colour, if even unconsciously at times, our thinking today. One does what one knows, even when what one knows is based upon the slim experience of those few Americans who ventured forth to these strange and foreign lands well before any of their countrymen could imagine that these places were to become vital national security interests for which Americans would have to be willing to die. This is their story, and their legacy. It is a terrific read.
Robert R. Reilly was the 25th director of the Voice of America, and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.