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Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Presentby Michael Oren
Synopses & Reviews
The history of America's political, military, and intellectual involvement in the Middle East from George Washington to George W. Bush.
From the first cannonballs fired by American warships at North African pirates to the conquest of Falluja by the Marines — from the early American explorers who probed the sources of the Nile to the diplomats who strove for Arab-Israeli peace — the United States has been dramatically involved in the Middle East. For well over two centuries, American statesmen, merchants, and missionaries, both men and women, have had a profound impact on the shaping of this crucial region. Yet their story has never been told until now. Drawing on thousands of government documents and personal letters, featuring original maps and over sixty photographs, this book reconstructs the diverse and remarkable ways in which Americans have interacted with this alluring yet often hostile land stretching from Morocco to Iran, from the Persian Gulf to the Bosporus.
Covering over 230 years of history, Power, Faith, and Fantasy is an indispensable work for anyone interested in understanding the roots of America's Middle East involvement today.
"In this engaging if unbalanced survey, the author of the acclaimed Six Days of War finds continuity in U.S. relations with the Middle East from the early 19th-century war against the Barbary pirates to today's Iraq war. As America's power grew, he contends, strategic considerations became complicatedby the region's religious significance, especially to the Protestant missionaries whose interests drove U.S. policyin the 19th century and who championed a Jewish state in Palestine long before the Zionist movement took up that cause. Meanwhile, Oren notes, Americans' romantic fantasies about the Muslim world (as expressed in Mideast-themed movies) have repeatedly run aground on stubborn, squalid realities, most recently in the Iraq fiasco. Oren dwells on the pre-WWII era, when U.S.-Mideast relations were of little significance. The postwar period, when these relations were central to world affairs, gets shoehorned into 127 hasty pages, and the emphasis on continuity gives short shrift to the new and crucial role of oil in U.S. policy making. Oren's treatment views this history almost entirely through American eyes; the U.S. comes off as usually well intentioned and idealistic, if often confused and confounded by regional complexities. Oren's is a fluent, comprehensive narrative of two centuries of entanglement, but it's analytically disappointing." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In this engaging if unbalanced survey, the author of the acclaimed Six Days of War finds continuity in U.S. relations with the Middle East from the early 19th-century war against the Barbary pirates to today's Iraq war. As America's power grew, he contends, strategic considerations became complicatedby the region's religious significance, especially to the Protestant missionaries whose interests drove U.S. policyin the 19th century and who championed a Jewish state in Palestine long before the Zionist movement took up that cause. Meanwhile, Oren notes, Americans' romantic fantasies about the Muslim world (as expressed in Mideast-themed movies) have repeatedly run aground on stubborn, squalid realities, most recently in the Iraq fiasco. Oren dwells on the pre-WWII era, when U.S.-Mideast relations were of little significance. The postwar period, when these relations were central to world affairs, gets shoehorned into 127 hasty pages, and the emphasis on continuity gives short shrift to the new and crucial role of oil in U.S. policy making. Oren's treatment views this history almost entirely through American eyes; the U.S. comes off as usually well intentioned and idealistic, if often confused and confounded by regional complexities. Oren's is a fluent, comprehensive narrative of two centuries of entanglement, but it's analytically disappointing. Photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"We often hear that Americans know little about other nations; a bigger problem is that we know too little about ourselves, our history and our national character. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, in particular, we were all born yesterday, unaware of how present policies and attitudes fit into persistent historical patterns. So when a brilliant, lucid historian such as Michael B. Oren does bring... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the past back to life for us, revealing both what has changed and what has stayed the same, it is a shaft of light in a dark sky. Today, the conventional view is that George W. Bush took the United States on a radical departure when he declared a policy to transform the Middle East and that, as soon as he leaves office, U.S. policy will return to an alleged tradition of realism, rooted in the hardheaded pursuit of tangible national interests. This is both bad history and bad prophecy, as Oren shows in 'Power, Faith, and Fantasy,' a series of fascinating and beautifully written stories about individual Americans over the past four centuries and their contact with Middle Eastern cultures. As a historian, Oren is more storyteller than grand theorist, so as a study of the complex and contradictory motives of American behavior, his book is a bit thin. Nevertheless, three powerful themes emerge from his tales: that from the Founders onward, Americans have repeatedly tried to transform Arab and Muslim peoples — politically, spiritually and economically — to conform to liberal and Christian principles; that since the days of the Puritans, many Americans have been obsessed with the idea of 'restoring' Palestine to the Jews; and that from the colonial era to the present, many (and perhaps most) Americans have regarded Islam as a barbaric, violent and despotic religion. Whether these purposes and perceptions have been intelligent or misguided, based on reality or fantasy, Oren shows that they have been the dominant features of our foreign policy tradition in the Middle East. Oren demonstrates that suspicion and hostility toward Islam are almost as old as the nation. John Quincy Adams called it a 'fanatic and fraudulent' religion, founded on 'the natural hatred of Mussulmen towards the infidel.' This was partly religious prejudice, of course, but that prejudice was reinforced by unfortunate experience. In the perilous early years of the republic, the Muslim Barbary powers preyed on American shipping and captured, tortured and enslaved hundreds of innocent men and women. When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson implored the pasha of Tripoli to stop, Oren recounts, the pasha's emissary insisted that the Koran made it the 'right and duty' of Muslims 'to make war upon' whichever infidels 'they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners.' George Washington raged, 'Would to Heaven we had a navy to reform those enemies to mankind, or crush them into non-existence.' And Congress did create a navy in the 1790s primarily to crush the Barbary powers and protect American traders and missionaries. President Jefferson — so often mislabeled as an idealist, pacifist and isolationist — eagerly launched the war and ordered the permanent stationing of U.S. naval forces thousands of miles from the nation's shores. As Oren relates, the modest number of 19th-century Americans who lived in the Middle East largely considered Islam — in the words of a former Confederate officer hired to improve the Egyptian army — a religion 'born of the sword,' one that was 'opposed to enlightenment' and crushed 'all independence of thought and action.' They found the oppression of Muslim women appalling. Being Americans, they thought the best antidote was a thorough transformation of culture and society. Protestant missionaries utterly failed to convert Muslims to Christianity, but they did work to spread the 'gospel of Americanism': liberalism, technology and democracy. Over the next century, American politicians and policymakers repeatedly imagined they could liberalize a people who seemed to them bursting with 'democratic aspirations,' as one New Dealer put it in 1943. This may have been hubris, but if so, it was an enduring hubris. Oren quotes a mid-19th-century Arab guide warning a missionary: 'You Americans think that you can do everything ... that money can buy or that strength can accomplish. But you cannot conquer Almighty God.' Yet a century later, Harry S. Truman insisted, 'God has created us and brought us to our present position of power ... for some great purpose. ... It is given to us to defend the spiritual values ... against the vast forces of evil that seek to destroy them.' No act of international social engineering was more audacious than American support for the establishment of a Jewish state in the middle of an implacably hostile Arab world. But this idea, too, had deep roots. The earliest members of the 'Israel lobby' were the Puritan settlers, who even before they reached America had petitioned the Dutch government to 'transport Izraell's sons and daughters ... to the Land promised their forefathers ... for an everlasting Inheritance.' Their prominent heirs included John Adams, who imagined 'a hundred thousand Israelites' conquering Palestine; Lincoln's secretary of state, William Henry Seward; and, a century later, Woodrow Wilson, who delighted in the thought that he might 'be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people.' Thus, President Truman felt a deep sense of historical and religious destiny when he recognized the newly created state of Israel in May 1948, comparing himself to the ancient Persian king who also had repatriated the Jewish exiles and helped rebuild a Judean state. 'I am Cyrus,' Truman crowed. 'I am Cyrus!' Few acts in the history of U.S. foreign policy have been less in accord with 'realist' principles. Oren, an Israeli historian whose previous book was the best-selling 'Six Days of War,' shows that U.S. backing for the establishment of Israel was rooted in religious convictions going back more than four centuries. Americans' response to the enormity of the Holocaust helped transform old Puritan dreams into reality. But even so, the essential element here was the rise of the United States to global predominance; it is doubtful that any other country — including Great Britain, which ruled Palestine after World War I — would have placed religious conviction and moral sentiment above selfish and practical interests. Critics from World War I onward warned that American support for a Jewish state would produce unending war, severely damage America's otherwise amicable relations with the Muslim world and, after the discovery of massive deposits of Middle Eastern oil in the 1930s, endanger access to this vital commodity. Saudi Arabia's pro-American first king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, flatly warned Franklin D. Roosevelt that the 'Jews have no right to Palestine' and that Arabs would die fighting to resist a Jewish state. When the typically American president spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust, the typically Arab king questioned the fairness of making 'the innocent bystander,' Palestine's Arabs, pay for the crimes of others. If 3 million Jews had been murdered in Poland, ibn Saud reasoned, then there was now room there for 3 million more. Many Muslims' sentiments have not changed over the past six decades. And neither have those of many Americans. Despite all the crises of the past years, including the present war in Iraq, Oren predicts that the United States will continue 'to pursue the traditional patterns of its Middle East involvement.' Policymakers 'will press on with their civic mission as mediators and liberators in the area and strive for a pax Americana.' American 'churches and evangelist groups will still seek to save the region spiritually.' And Americans will regard the region as both 'mysterious' and 'menacing,' as they have for centuries, and will seek to transform it in their own image. Many today may want to disagree, but they will have to wrestle first with the long history of American behavior that Oren has so luminously portrayed. Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Washington Post. He is the author of 'Dangerous Nation' and 'Of Paradise and Power.'" Reviewed by Robert Kagan, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Michael Oren offers a sweeping chronicle of America's Middle Eastern policies and perceptions, arguing that the lands of the Ottoman Empire...have long loomed large to Washington and to the wider American populace, helping to define America's sense of itself and its role in the world." Wall Street Journal
"Oren knows how to tell a story, turn a phrase and tweak a delightful detail....Perhaps inevitably, the most memorable moments in Power, Faith and Fantasy catch Americans behaving badly." Balitomore Sun
"Oren is at his best when describing American involvement in the twentieth century as the U.S. replaced Britain as the dominant 'imperial' power in the area. Appealing to both scholars and general readers." Booklist
Book News Annotation:
Beset by privateers and bereft of protection by the British navy, the newly founded USA had a pressing interest in diplomacy with Algeria and other havens for pirates. Slightly later the new nation, its self-confidence greatly grown, provided a steady stream of Orientalists and missionaries seeking documents, relics, and souls to save. Oren (history, Shalem Center) points out that American involvement in the Middle East started at the moment there was an America. He details the various people who sought to explore the Middle East, exploit it, explain it to the folks back home, make it into America's image, and save it from itself. He explains the rampant fantasies about the Holy Land, the piety mixed freely with imperialism, the movements founded in America that helped to shape the destiny of Israel, and the fact that oil is a relatively new element. Annotation ©2007 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
"Will shape our thinking about America and the Middle East for years."--Christopher Dickey, Newsweek
This best-selling history is the first fully comprehensive history of America's involvement in the Middle East from George Washington to George W. Bush. As Niall Ferguson writes, "If you think America's entanglement in the Middle East began with Roosevelt and Truman, Michael Oren's deeply researched and brilliantly written history will be a revelation to you, as it was to me. With its cast of fascinating characters--earnest missionaries, maverick converts, wide-eyed tourists, and even a nineteenth-century George Bush--Power, Faith, and Fantasy is not only a terrific read, it is also proof that you don't really understand an issue until you know its history."
About the Author
Michael B. Oren is a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center. A visiting professor at Harvard and Yale Universities, Oren is the author of the best-selling Six Days of War. He lives in Jerusalem.
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