Power, Faith and Fantasy

Michael Oren is the distinguished Princeton-educated Israeli historian and author of Six Days of War. His most recent book is the just-published Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. We asked Oren for a brief description of the book for Power Line readers, and he sent us the following from the jacket of a foreign edition:

The United State today faces fateful decisions in the Middle East, yet few Americans know of their rich and monumental history in the area. Power, Faith and Fantasy is the first book to tell this story in its entirety, from George Washington’s battle with Jihadist pirates to George Bush’s struggle to remake Iraq; from Herman Melville’s odyssey to the pyramids to Hollywood’s obsession with Arabian romance; from Abraham Lincoln’s showdown with the Egyptian army to the Civil War officers who fought in Sudan; from the American origins of the term “Middle East” to the Middle Eastern roots of the Star Spangled Banner and the Statue of Liberty. Culled from thousands of declassified documents, rare books, and the memoirs of statesmen and adventurers, the riveting story of America’s 230-year experience in the Middle East is a must-read for decision-makers and students as well as anyone interested in this crucial region.

Oren writes “that I can only add that this is really the only comprehensive history of America in the Middle East (incredibly).” Over the weekend, Washington Post Book World published Robert Kagan’s interesting review of the book. Here are the opening paragraphs of Kagan’s review:

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 hard-headed 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.

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