Call of the Middle East; America's Centuries-Old Engagement

Article excerpt


Early on in "Lawrence of Arabia," Alec Guinness' Feisal tells Lawrence that "the English have a great hunger for desolate places. I fear they hunger for Arabia." The roster of notable Englishmen who were so drawn includes not only T.E. Lawrence, of course, but countless others.

In Michael B. Oren's wonderful new "Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present," it becomes clear that just as many Americans through the years, both the notable and the nameless, have been drawn not only to Arabia but to the broader region today known as the Middle East. And like its people, so too has the American government been inexorably drawn.

That the United States has long been involved in one way or another with the Middle East might come as a surprise to some, but even those who have heard of the conflict with Barbary State pirates back in the 1780s and '90s, or know of the long list of American missionaries who as early as the 1800s risked life and limb to travel to what became known as the Holy Land to set up schools and hospitals, will find much here that is new. It is an illuminating and admirable book that clarifies the present by looking closely at the past.

Mr. Oren makes the case for his book upfront. "In spite of the paramount importance of the Middle East," he says, "Americans remain largely unaware of their country's rich and multidimensional history in the area." This ignorance comes, he adds, "at least partially, from the absence of a comprehensive book on the subject."

Mr. Oren goes on to list almost a dozen titles, some very highly regarded, on America and the Middle East that have fallen short of providing "the full sweep of America's centuries-old engagement with the Middle East in all of its military, economic, and cultural aspects." This is exactly what he provides, and much of the pleasure of working through the book is realizing how well he does it.

The title outlines his central themes. First of all, this is an engagement characterized by power, by which we are to understand the long-term "pursuit of America's interests in the Middle East through a variety of means o military, diplomatic, and financial."

Then there is faith, particularly "the impact of religion in the shaping of American attitudes and policies toward the Middle East."

Last, but perhaps most important, there is fantasy. The romantic "idea of the Middle East has always enchanted Americans, enthralling them with an ethereal montage of minarets and pyramids, oases, camels, and dunes." (In writing that last sentence I initially typed "mirage" instead of "montage," but as I went back to correct it, I realized that an illusory vision, too, is part of his point.)

An abundance of little stories and vignettes, persons and personalities, touching on all these themes make up Mr. Oren's narrative.

To say this book is timely is only to say that all well written history is timely. However, there will no doubt be those who pick it up with the assumption that what the subtitle promises will only be enlisted to offer some background, either exculpatory or condemnatory, to the current U.S. role in Iraq, or perhaps in the Israeli-Palestinian question. One hopes the person who does so will not put it down once he finds out his assumption was wrong.

In a sense, one of Mr. Oren's main targets is the American tendency toward "presentism" when wrestling with contemporary questions.

Yes, George W. Bush is prominent here, primarily toward the end, but not before the reader has worked his way through another GeorgeoWashingtonofollowed by James Madison (who, we find out, was the president who ordered the indefinite deployment of a naval squadron to the Mediterranean, "America's permanent overseas force"), on to Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Rooseveltoin short, just about every U. …