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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Review of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East

I am finally (almost) finished with Michael Oren's Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present.

It is an important book, and one that would be difficult for me to do justice to. Oren uncovers a rich and complicated relationship between the United States and the Middle East that is older than the US itself. From the Barbary Wars through the first adventurers and missionaries who visited the area in the 19th century, on through American involvement in Egypt's early bids for independence and on to the American influence on Zionism, it is truly an encyclopedic work.

Meticulously researched, almost any random sentence could become an entire blog entry here. This is both a strength and a weakness as the sheer volume of facts is close to overwhelming. As a reference book it is stellar; as an enjoyable read it is somewhat less appealing, but for students of American history it is invaluable.

Oren shows how the Constitution itself was influenced by events in the Middle East, as our founding fathers realized that a strong central government rather than a loose confederation was the only way to build a centralized army and navy to fight the Muslim pirates of the Mediterranean, even as early American policy zigzagged between paying the North African states "tribute" and threatening them.

It was personally gratifying to see that my recent interest in what I termed Christian proto-Zionism was a large part of this book. Early Americans always looked upon themselves as Jews in the promised land, and the faith that Americans had over the past two centuries influenced US Mideast policy tremendously.

One of the important themes of the book was the influence of American missionaries on the Middle East - and vice versa. Their original intentions of converting Muslims and Jews to Christianity were spectacular failures even as more and more congregations raised money to send more missionaries to try. But when the missionaries changed their tactics and started creating schools that were more oriented to teaching basic skills and American ideology, the reverberations are still being felt today.

Arabs who were taught in these schools ended up becoming the leaders of the Arab nationalist movements - heavily influenced by American ideals of anti-colonialism. Conversely, many of the children of these missionaries who spent so much time in Arab countries gravitated to work in the State Department, whose pro-Arab tilt continues to this day.

Oren goes on to describe America's rising global power after World War I and its part in British policy in Palestine, on through the growing Zionist lobby, America in North Africa against Germany as well as against British and French colonialism and continuing on with FDR's ambivalence towards the idea of a Jewish state.

Oren's last chapter about US policy after Israel was born is much less detailed because, as the author admits, he has little new to add to the huge literature that already exists. Even so, it is a very good hundred page summary with plenty of facts I was not aware of or had forgotten about. (Everyone knows about Israel's accidental firing on the USS Liberty in 1967; how many know about Iraq's accidental firing on the USS Stark in 1987, killing 37 sailors?) He also effectively analyzes every US President's thinking and psyche on Middle East matters.

This book fills in a huge gap in our knowledge of American history and is a very worthwhile read.

(Also check out Pajamas Media's Michael Totten interview with Michael Oren for much more detail.)