Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Michael B. Oren, a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research and educational institute. He is the author of the best-selling Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford, 2002), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award; a history of the 1956 Sinai Campaign (Cass, 1993); as well as dozens of scholarly and popular articles on history and the politics of the Middle East. His writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Commentary, and The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of the new book Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776-Present. It is the
first book to tell the history of America in the Middle East from the Founding Fathers to the present day in one volume.
FP: Michael Oren, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Oren: It’s a great pleasure and an honor to be here.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Oren: The idea first occurred to me when I was a graduate student in Middle East history at Princeton about twenty years ago. I was listening to a lecture on the emergence of modern Egypt and my professor happened to mention that, in the late 1860s, a group of Civil War veterans—former Union and Confederate officers—went to Egypt to help modernize its army. But when they got to Cairo, the officers discovered that most of the Egyptian army was illiterate, so they began to build a system of literacy schools. The Egyptian soldiers, though, showed up to class with their children, and so these veterans of Vicksburg and Gettysburg got into the business of teaching Egyptian children to read and write. And while they were at it, they also taught American values: patriotism, civic duties, and democracy.
I was fascinated by this story—like many Americans, I believe my country’s involvement in the Middle East began just after World War II—and I rushed to the library to read more about it. Yet, to my disappointment, I found that while there were many books on the history of British and French involvement in the Middle East, there was not one volume on America’s experience in the region. There was certainly no comprehensive history that would place these officers’ extraordinary story in any kind of meaningful, historical, context.
Flash forward some years to the aftermath of 9/11. Suddenly, it seemed to me, Americans were being asked to make some profound decisions in the Middle East—decisions that would impact not only their security but that of much of the world—but they lacked an historical framework for making them. And so, when my editor asked me “what’s the one book about the Middle East that must be written but that hasn’t?” I did not hesitate a moment. I told him: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.
FP: What are the origins of America’s support for Israel?
Oren: The roots of American support for Israel go back hundreds of years—indeed to the day that the first buckled shoe alighted on a rock along the Massachusetts shore. The owner of that shoe, William Bradford, proclaimed “Come let us declare in Zion the word of God.” Bradford was a leader of the Puritans, a dissenting Protestant movement that suffered greatly at the hands of the Church of England, and which sought strength in the books of the Old Testament. There the Puritans found a God who spoke directly to His people, in their language, and who promised them to rescue them from exile and restore them to their Holy Land.
The Puritans appropriated this narrative—they became the New Israel and the New World became the new Zion. Consequently, the Puritans and their descendents developed a strong sense of kinship with the Old Israel—the Jews—and an attachment to the Old Promised Land, then known as Palestine, part of the Ottoman Empire. Many of them concluded that, in order to be good Christians and Americans, they were obliged to assist God in fulfilling his Biblical promises to restore the Jews to their ancestral homeland. So was born the notion of restorations, which became an immensely popular movement in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America. John Adams declared that his fondest wish was that "100,000 Jewish soldiers…would march into Palestine and reclaim it as a Judean kingdom," and Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that the dream of restoring the Jews was dear to a great many Americans and pledged to help realize that dream after the Civil War.
Perhaps the greatest expression of restorationism occurred in 1891, when real estate mogul William Blackstone submitted a petition to President Benjamin Harrison urging the United States to spearhead an international effort to take Palestine from the Turks and return it to the Jews. The Blackstone Memorial, as it was called, was signed by 400 prominent Americans, including John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan, and William McKinley. Restorationism proved instrumental in moving Woodrow Wilson to endorse the Balfour Declaration, recognizing the Jewish people’s right to a national home in Palestine, and in convincing Harry Truman, a strict Baptist who had nearly memorized the Bible, to be the first world leader to recognize Israel in 1948.
Of course, the fact that Israel is a democracy struggling for survival in a profoundly undemocratic environment plays a role in America’s support of the Jewish state. So, too, does the extensive cooperation between the United States and Israel on military development, intelligence sharing, and training. But the core of the U.S.-Israel alliance lies in the faith of the American people, which remains—in contrast to Europe—intense.
FP: Human rights and social equality appear to be alien notions and un-existent realities in the Islamic Middle East. How come?
Oren: Concepts of human rights and social equality do exist in the Middle East but they are interpreted much differently then they are in the West. Under Islam, men are accorded rights that are denied women—in divorce proceedings, for example—and those strictures are stringently applied in many Arab societies, such as in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, there are no provisions for children’s rights virtually anywhere in the Middle East, no affirmative action, no bill of rights. Homosexuality is considered a capital offense by many Middle Eastern governments, including Iran and the Palestinian Authority. And yet, in response to charges of sexual repression and systematic rights denial, Middle Eastern Muslims often point out the exploitation of women in the West, the breakdown of family values, and widespread use of alcohol and drugs. Where we see progress and modernity, they see decadence and the trampling of age-old traditions. This is the fundamental source of friction between the West and the Middle East. It is a clash not merely of civilizations but of entire worldviews, of incompatible universes.
FP: What were the most fateful decisions made by U.S. Presidents vis-à-vis the Middle East?
Oren: Many historians would probably list Harry Truman's recognition of Israel in May 1948 as one of America's most fateful decisions in the Middle East. While Truman undoubtedly provided a major boost to the morale of Israeli forces fighting for their lives against invading Arab armies, in fact he provided no concrete assistance to the nascent Jewish state, and even imposed an arms embargo on it. The United States would have eventually recognized Israel, as did virtually all Western states, over the course of the following year. The Arab-Israel conflict, meanwhile, became a reality.
A far more influential event was, to my mind, Woodrow Wilson’s decision not to declare war against Turkey in 1917-1918. Remember that the United States entered World War I in April 1917, opening hostilities against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the two major members of the Central Powers. Wilson then had to decide whether to go to war against Ottoman Turkey, the third member of the coalition. Both houses of Congress staunchly supported the move, as did Teddy Roosevelt, the popular ex-president, who claimed that the slogan “making the world safe for democracy” would become nonsense if America ignored the tyrranical Turks.
But Wilson was also lobbied by Protestant missionaries and their supporters. If the United States went to war in the Middle East, they argued, the Turks would destroy nearly a century of American good works, hospitals, and schools. Moreover, they would massacre the missionaries much as they had the Armenians.
Wilson ultimately supported the missionaries. The grandson, son, and nephew of Presbyterian ministers, the president was closely associated with the missionary movements and greatly admired its success. And so the United States never went to war against Turkey and the ramifications of that decision were immense.
By the time of the armistice, in November 1918, Great Britain had nearly a million troops deployed between Cairo and Istanbul. French forces also occupied strategic positions in the area. The United States, by contrast, had not a single soldier stationed anywhere in the Middle East. The results of that vacuum soon became apparent at Paris, where the Allies gathered to draw the map of the new Middle East. Though his ideas for the region's future differed substantively from that of Britain and France, lacking military leverage, Wilson was powerless to prevent the British and the French from dividing the Middle East between them. Among their creations were Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestine Mandate - later to morph into Israel.
Another decision of massive ramifications was Dwight D. Eisenhower's support for Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1956 Suez Crisis. Though Nasser had plotted against Arab moderates and had violated international agreements by nationalizing the Suez Canal, Eisenhower sided with the Soviet Union - this while Soviet tanks were crushing freedom-fighters in Hungary – to rescue Nasser from certain defeat at the hands of Britain, France, and Israel. A vastly strengthened Nasser proceeded to turn his Soviet-supplied arms against Arab moderates and ultimately aimed them at Israel. But imagine if Eisenhower had just stepped back and let Nasser fall. The Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 might have been averted. There would be no occupied territories, no intifadas or Hamas. Minus Nasser, the Middle East might look radically different today.
FP: Shed some light for our readers on why the word “Fantasy” is in the title of your book.
Oren: Fantasy relates to the highly romantic, and often erotic, image of the Middle East in the American imagination. The roots of that myth are quite deep, many of them stemming back to A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, that collection of ribald Persian tales which, after the Bible, was the second-most popular book on the American colonial bookshelf. The myriad Americans who read this book, and had no other reliable information on the Middle East, took it as truth: there really were flying carpets, genie-haunted lamps, and veiled but available harem girls. Such myths lured many Americans to see the Middle East for themselves.
Starting with John Ledyard, a close friend of Thomas Jefferson who became the first American explorer in Egypt in 1788, Americans flocked to the Middle East. By the mid-nineteenth century, Americans had surpassed the British as the largest group of tourists in the area. Among them were Elizabeth Cabot Kirkland, the wife of Harvard’s president, an African-American former slave named David Dorr, and the Civil War heroes William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. And while many of these travelers wrote devastating portraits of the Middle East, debunking the myths of A Thousand and One Nights, Americans remained enchanted. By the early twentieth century, Hollywood had seized on the Middle Eastern myth, producing such blockbusters as the Sheikh of Araby (1921), which rocketed Rudolph Valentino to stardom. There followed an almost endless series of Thousand and One Nights knock-off movies, followed by smash hits such as Indiana Jones and Sahara—all Middle Eastern fantasies.
Fantasy also had a profound impact on policy. Back in 1788, John Ledyard looked at the Bedouin of the desert and likened them to the pioneers of the American frontier. These were lovers of liberty who, unfortunately, were languishing under Ottoman tyranny. Remove that tyranny, Ledyard speculated, and the Arabs would rise up and naturally embrace democracy. Such myths played an influential role in America’s policy-making toward the Middle East—many Americans might have wondered why, on 9/11, these picturesque nomads would leave their oases to hijack civilian airliners—and in the decision to invade Iraq.
FP: Who were some of the more memorable characters and figures in America’s history in the region?
Oren: Among my favorite characters are George Bethune English, Harvard Class of 1807, who traveled to the Middle East as a Marine, jumped ship in Cairo, and converted to Islam. Later, as a general in the army of Egypt’s ruler, he led an expedition against Sudanese bandits in Darfur. He ended his career—and indeed his life—acting as President John Quincy Adam’s special agent in the Middle East, secretly mediating a treaty between the United States and the Ottoman Empire.
Another outstanding character was Philip Dickson, a crusty old Yankee from Groton, MA., who moved with his wife and twin daughters to Palestine in 1855. On a barren hilltop, optimistically christened Mount Hope, the Dicksons established a colony dedicated to teaching the Jews how to farm and so preparing them for eventual statehood. The Dickson daughters married two German Lutheran brothers, Frederick and Johann Grossteinbeck, and together the family struggled to overcome disease and hunger in order fulfill its mission.
In December 1856, the Dickson farm hosted an usual visitor—the author Herman Melville. He had come to the Middle East in search of an inspiration for his next novel; his last one, Moby-Dick, had sold a disappointing 3,000 copies. Melville lunched with the Dicksons and the Grossteinbecks, and later wrote rather disparagingly of them in his diary. The following month, the farm was attacked by Bedouins. Philip Dickson was struck mortally on the head while his wife and daughters were brutally raped. Frederick Grossteinbeck was shot in the groin and died an agonizing death. The only member of the colony to escape unscathed was Johann Grossteinbeck who, according to consular records, left Palestine and relocated to California.
Melville would allude to the attack on the Dickson colony in his 24,000-line epic poem, Clarel, but so, too, would Johann Grossteinbeck’s grandson, in his biblically-toned novel, East of Eden. John Steinbeck’s grandfather had met Herman Melville in the Middle East, in a colony created by Philip Dickson.
No favorite list of characters in American-Middle Eastern relations would be complete without mentioning Mark Twain. Still going by his real name, Samuel Clemens, Twain was a relatively unknown humorist in 1867 when two American papers commissioned him to report on his travels aboard the steamship Quaker City, bound for the Middle East. The steamship and its lackluster passengers visited Istanbul, Tangiers, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Twain’s observations of these lands and their inhabitants were ruthless. The Syrian women, he sneered, were so ugly that they “couldn’t smile after Saturday night without breaking the Sabbath.” Shocked by the cost of a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, he snorted, “no wonder Jesus walked.” Yet Twain was no less brutal in lambasting his countrymen, especially those who took sledgehammers to ancient monuments and knocked off fist-sized souvenirs. “American vandals,” he called them.
The Middle East made Mark Twain. Using his new penname, he published his collected dispatches as Innocents Abroad, which became the largest-selling book of late nineteenth-century America. “It sold more books than the Bible,” Twain characteristically quipped.
FP: So what role should the U.S. be playing in the Middle East today and in the near-future? What must it do in Iraq and how can it best fight the terror war in general?
Oren: Americans must understand that they cannot disengage from the Middle East. Iraq is not Vietnam. Americans withdrew from Vietnam in 1975 confident that the North Vietnamese would not pursue them to American cities. By contrast, the United States can evacuate it soldiers from Iraq--and it will, eventually--but the Middle East will pursue. Americans cannot detach themselves from the Middle East because the Middle East will remain for the foreseeable future attached to the United States. Elements in the region will continue to seek to harm American citizens and vital American interests. Leaders in Washington will still be called up to try to resolve Middle Eastern disputes. And the U.S. economy will remain intertwined with that of the oil-producing Gulf.
The question is, then: how can the United States interact with the Middle East in a more prudent and effective manner?
And the answer, I believe, can be found in America's centuries-old history in the region--the legacy of power, faith, and fantasy.
To defend themselves against persistent Middle Eastern threats, Americans will still have to employ power in the area. But at the same time, they must realize that power has its limits in the Middle East. Following Thomas Jefferson's example of first fighting and then concluding a peace treaty with the Barbary pirates, American leaders must learn when to strike back and when to negotiate. They must realize that military power, alone, cannot remake and sustain Middle Eastern states riven by tribal and ethnic hostilities. They must develop new forms of power to meet the rapid-changing dangers from the Middle East--familiarizing a generation of American servicemen and women in the languages and cultures of the region and strengthening economic strictures against the financiers of terror.
Americans must maintain their faith in the Middle East, especially their civic, secular faith in democracy, equality, and human rights. The United States should enhance its support--flagging of late--for Middle Eastern democratic movements and distance itself from the region's autocratic regimes. It must act according to its own principles and ethic codes and so avoid atrocities such as those committed at Abu Ghraib. At the same time, though, Americans must realize that their concepts of liberty may not be appropriate or transplantable to the Middle East, where ideas such as sexual freedom and unbridled free speech are alien if not abhorrent.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Americans must learn to distinguish fantasy from reality in the Middle East. They can offer to assist the region to democratize, but without the illusion that its inhabitants are desperate to rise up and embrace American-style freedoms. They can open channels of communication to the enemies, such as Iran, but without believing that those enemies share America's interests in stability and peace or that they care about their citizens' safety in the same way America does. They can invest heavily in efforts to resolve conflicts between Arabs and Israelis or Shiites and Sunnis but all the while understanding that the United States, alone, cannot effect rapprochement among the region's adversaries and that some of these disputes will continue to roil indefinitely. The United States should and must reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and seek to develop alternative forms of energy, yet it must realize that oil will remain the determinant commodity for many years to come, and that the Middle East will still rank among its principal suppliers.
In short, the United States will continue to be involved in the Middle East--extensively and perhaps also existentially--but will hopefully be so in a more resilient, flexible, and sober manner.
FP: Michael Oren, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
Oren: Thank you for this compelling and stimulating opportunity.
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