Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present
By Michael B. Oren
Norton, $35.00, 778pp.
Among the more successful—and illogical—propaganda efforts of the Democrat Party is the widely accepted notion that conservative Christianity is a natural hotbed of anti-Semitism and Political Enemy Number One for American Jews. As someone who grew up in churches that were to the right of Jerry Falwell, I always found this notion to be mysterious at best. The fact is that the more literally an evangelical Christian takes the Bible, the more of a “Zionist” he is likely to be. Theology aside, it’s only natural-- nearly all of best stories he grows up with in Sunday School feature Jewish heroes fighting for their homeland.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard a preacher refer to the modern state of Israel—or its wartime successes—as a “miracle” and a result of divine intervention, I’d be posting this from a lot bigger house in a lot warmer climate. My experience is corroborated by historian Michael Oren’s fascinating new book, Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, which shows that there is a direct correlation between the political relevance of Evangelical Christians in the United States and strong support by the American government for a State of Israel.
Astonishingly, Oren is the first historian to attempt a single volume history of America’s involvement in the Middle East. As his extensive bibliography suggests, a lot has been written on various parts of this history; but Oren says that his research did not turn up one overview of the subject. He fills that gap.
When Americans think about our involvement in the Middle East, they generally assume it to be a fairly modern phenomenon, centered around the State of Israel or the need for gasoline-- both big issues in the Post-WWII era. Politicians on both extremes feed this misperception. Democrats daily proclaim that if we just had more windmills or wind-up rubber band powered cars, we could ignore the region because all we get out of it is oil. The Buchanan Brigades promote the idea that anything we do to promote civilization in the region is probably at the behest of Israel—or at least AIPAC.
Support for Israel is also a key element of the media’s new all-purpose pejorative, “neoconservative.” But unless you think “neo” should be used to describe a movement that became prominent in the 1820s, that’s a misnomer. In fact, support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine predates any paleoconservative” isolationist movement in the United States by at least a hundred years.
Critics might argue that wild-eyed Evangelicals of the 19th Century who followed the religious revival known as the Second Awakening wanted to restore Israel to Palestine to hasten the Kingdom of God; but it is only recently that a policy of bringing freedom to the Muslim world and a pro-Jewish policy in the Middle East had any political punch. Wrong again. As Oren illustrates, the Middle East has been important to Americans since before the Founding. Even Pilgrim governor William Bradford and Puritan preacher Cotton Mather expressed hope for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In fact, he asserts, the reality of Muslim aggression against Mediterranean trade was a major impetus in both the forming of the United States Navy, and a Constitution with a strong enough central government to build it into a major force.
Most history texts, if they even deal with the subject, treat the Barbary corsairs as mainly a piracy issue. But the Founders, Oren writes, were shocked to confront the ideology of jihad. It led them to believe that diplomacy with—and ransom payments to-- the “Musselmen” would not be a long-term solution. Even George Washington, no fan of needless “foreign entanglements,” proposed that “such banditti for half the sum that is paid them be exterminated from the earth.”
Once the Barbary Pirates were dealt with, most history books record that Mediterranean trade opened up for Americans, and leave it at that. But as Oren records, Americans became a dominant commercial presence in the region—and a not insignificant military and cultural presence as well.
The most fascinating section of Power, Faith and Fantasy is Oren’s account of the vast collection of Americans-- missionaries, adventurers, pilgrims and military people-- who flocked to the Middle East throughout the 1800s. This is a largely untold story in modern history texts—though many famous Americans made the trip, and wrote enormously popular accounts of their journeys.
Perhaps that’s because the most influential Americans in the Middle East of the 19th Century were missionaries, a verbotten subject in modern American education. But in the 1800s, they had the ear of Presidents and Secretaries of State, the attention and support of the public, and the protection of American gunboats.
The “Restoration Movement” officially began with a sermon in Boston’s famed Old South Church by Levi Parsons to kick off what would be a century of missionary efforts in Palestine.
Interestingly, the movement’s most famous treatise was The Valley of Vision, or the Dry Bones of Israel Revisited by George Bush—yes, the forebear of two presidents.
Samuel Clemens’ first book as Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, was a debunking of American fantasies about the exotic Middle East and a huge bestseller that made his career. Herman Melville took the tour, hoping to relieve his writer’s block by getting on the Mideast travel book bandwagon, but was soured by the squalor of a place he’d had exotic fantasies about. U.S. Grant and Secretary of State William Seward also made pilgrimages, and one of Abraham Lincoln’s last words was to suggest to his wife that they should tour the Middle East after the war was over.
Some of the most fascinating chapters are those dealing with America and Egypt. Egypt became important during the Civil War as competition for Confederate cotton, and took a huge economic hit when it became the American interest to once again promote the crop in the South. Among the more ill-fated expeditions recounted in the book—and there are many—was that of prominent Civil War veterans helping to establish a professional army in Egypt. They began their stay as honored guests, but those who survived were treated as scapegoats for Egyptian shortcomings on the battlefield. Their story encompasses each of Oren’s themes: Power, faith and fantasy.
Most missionaries had a goal of establishing a homeland in Palestine for their “theological cousins,” the Jews, Oren writes. However, they were about as successful at that as they were in converting very many Muslims. Probably the most enduring legacy of those missionaries—many of whom died from disease or terrorists—was the establishing of modern hospitals and schools in the region.
It was missionaries who called world attention to the genocide of Armenians by the Turks and tried to provide relief, making this event a cause celebre in the United States. In a similar manner to modern relations with China, the United States juggled keeping good trade agreements going with the Ottoman Empire with condemnation of the plight of the Armenians.
While Oren explains the revivalist beginnings of the Restoration movement that spawned the missionary expansion in Palestine, he is a little more vague about the theological leanings of the missionaries at the later half of the century and early 20th Century who cooled on the Zionist movement. He does give a clue, however, by mentioning that many of them were Ivy League grads and from “mainstream” denominations. The fact that this cooling of enthusiasm happened around the time that Progressivism was infecting the prestigious American seminaries is probably a major factor.
Ironically, it was about the same time that secularism was dampening enthusiasm for Zionism in the missionary community that American Jews finally took up the cause in the post-WWI years. It was largely led by secular and socialist Jewish groups. For decades religious American Jews had shied away from Zionism and even spoken out against it, fearing it would make them look less American.
As Oren himself admits, much of what he covers about the 20th Century is well-known. But he sells himself a little short. It is not merely the fact that Oren puts the events in context by explaining the rarely discussed historical forces that makes Power, Faith and Fantasy valuable. He adds invaluable insight by continuing the discussion of those roots right up to the present day, making the story of America’s involvement in the region part of a seamless whole.
Among the highlights:
· Wilsonian Failure-- Oren puts another nail in the coffin for the Woodrow Wilson legacy built by Thomas Fleming and other recent historians. Wilson got involved in the war in Europe in order to further his postwar grand design, but a hundred thousand dead Americans later, he was shut out. In Europe, that helped set the stage for Hitler. However, in the Middle East, it was Wilson’s refusal to declare war against the Ottoman Empire that gave America no voice in the region. He advocated neutrality because he thought it would protect missionaries and the Albanian relief efforts; but the Albanian slaughter intensified and missionaries were persecuted and killed. Wilson’s slogan was a war to “Make the world safe for democracy,” but he deferred to colonial powers despite the pleading of many in various Arab lands for the United States to be the authority in their mandate.
· Truman’s Juggling Act: Much has been made of President Truman’s foot dragging when it came to recognizing the State of Israel. Oren does a terrific job of showing how Truman was effectively countering active Soviet attempts at expansion in the region, and makes a compelling case that Truman got it right—perhaps better than Ronald Reagan would do later, who was good with Soviet client states like Libya, but not against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
· Eisenhower’s Blunder: Oren provocatively makes the case that President Eisenhower’s support of Egypt’s Nasser during the Suez crisis not only stabilized a pro-Soviet government, it made the 1968 and 1972 wars possible.
· Carter’s Biased Arbitration: Oren is not kind to Jimmy Carter—or even his Camp David legacy. Oren writes that Sadat was the instigator of the talks, and that the U.S. was merely sought as an arbiter. Carter was blatant in his bias, and “unreservedly accepted the Egyptian position and assiduously rejected Israel’s.”
· Bush Policy in Context of American Tradition: It is common for current commentary to call George W. Bush’s vision for the Middle East and his willingness to commit American forces “Wilsonian.” However, gaining the context of the previous two centuries of American history and philosophy in the region, one would likely compare Bush more to Theodore Roosevelt’s Americanist zeal than to Wilson’s timid internationalism.
Robert Kagan’s recent great book, Dangerous Nation, put the lie to the notion of a traditionally isolationist American foreign policy. Americans have always had a missionary zeal when they travel abroad, whether it’s bringing Jesus, democracy or free trade. It is in our nature to try to improve the places we travel to, and brief bouts of isolationism are the exceptions to the rule of Americans spreading the “blessings of liberty.” In many ways, Power, Faith and Fantasy is an application of Kagan’s broader thesis to a particular part of the world.
There are two things repeated throughout the book beginning with American’s earliest encounters with Muslim societies. First, our supposedly Neanderthal pre-feminist forefathers of PC legend were constantly and openly shocked by the treatment of women in every Muslim country they visited.
The second theme from beginning to end is hostage taking. It wasn’t invented by the Iranians 25 years ago, and from the era of clippers to that of carriers, the United States has been sending gunboats of one kind or another in response to militant Islamic kidnappers.
The Civil War veterans who had been greeted with fanfare and luxury in Egypt later summed up their disillusionment with statements that Islam was “born of the sword” and “opposed to enlightenment” and “wedded to an obscuritanist past.” They came to “deplore the subjugation of women” and said the society was based on “lying backsheesh, blackmail, bribery… and murder.”
In perhaps the only concession to political correctness Oren makes in this massive book, he says, “The lack of understanding was mutual.” Actually, it sounds more like understanding—and it sounds a lot like the description I heard from a Marine friend returning from Fallujah. The more things change…
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