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Michael B. Oren’s new book, “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the
Middle East: 1776 to the Present” has enough analytic power to make
anyone who thinks they understand the Middle East reconsider their
The book, as its title suggests, tells the history of America’s relations with the Middle East from the nation’s birth to the War on Terror. Oren weaves the history together with three overlapping threads, which he argues are the factors that have most influenced America’s relations with the tumultuous region: power, particularly militaristic and political; faith, by which he means Christian evangelism, especially its relationship to Zionism; and fantasy, the depiction of the Middle East as a mystical, faraway land in popular culture from “Lawrence of Arabia” to Disney’s “Aladdin.”
Despite its daunting scope, Oren’s book is both an easy and an enjoyable read. He breaks his narrative down into seven distinct parts and provides maps of the region, a clear timeline of major events, and two sections of photographs.
The first two units of the book, “Early America Encounters the Middle East” and “The Middle East and Antebellum America,” are possibly the most astounding. American relations with the Middle East, we learn, have not really changed since John Ledyard, the first American to explore the region, traveled to Egypt in 1788.
The issue then was whether or not to fight or pay tribute to the aggressive “Barbary pirates,” who were plundering American vessels that could no longer rely on British naval protection. Americans of the time debated the wisdom of aggression as a response to such proto-terrorist tactics, an unresolved disagreement that continues to the present day.
Oren carefully connects America’s recent history to its early roots. President Bush’s pro-force policies can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1790 recommended that the United States go to war with the Barbary pirates, and Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, who dispatched Marines to protect Americans living in Beirut, which was war-torn even at the turn of the 20th century. Bush’s support of American businesses in the region even calls to mind the value Andrew Jackson placed on Middle Eastern trade.
But though the intellectual threads have remained consistent, the policies they result in have not, Oren argues.
“The same faith that deflected [Woodrow] Wilson from entering hostilities in the Middle East spurred Bush to decide in favor of the war,” Oren writes. While Wilson’s deep-felt Christianity caused him to adopt a pacifistic attitude, President Bush, partly inspired by the attacks on the World Trade Center, has followed what Oren sees as a “crusader” ideology.
Oren argues that America cannot find a solution to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East because the tripartite mindset of power, faith, and fantasy is often self-contradictory.
In the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, he argues that Christian-American faith works to support the Israelis, while economic concerns fall in favor of the Arabs. Rather than informing the American people about the Middle East, popular depictions by everyone from Mark Twain to Edith Wharton to Disney tend to propagate a fantastic image of the region.
In Oren’s narrative, America is a country lead by the uninformed, fighting both a secular and a non-secular war. Attempts at peaceful negotiations or tribute have only led to aggression, and aggression has proved futile.
Oren himself seems slightly torn as to whether or not his glass is half full in regards to American policy. Although his book shows that American policies and principles have been “cataclysmic,” he concludes that by “consistently upholding its principles, the United States might yet transform its vision of peaceful, fruitful relations with the Middle East from fantasy into reality.” Oren, however, gives no evidence to show that this transformation is any more realistic than Disney’s “Aladdin.”
Although Oren’s book cannot offer any magical potions to solve America’s conflict in the Middle East, it makes the necessary attempt to counter the nation’s ignorance and unblinkingly inform the American people of their long and complex history with a region whose future is so intimately tied up with theirs. And that knowledge may be the beginnings of a solution, in and of itself.
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