Book Reveals United States' Long History in Middle East

Article excerpt

In the midst of the Civil War, a religious leader by the name of Henry Wentworth Monk stopped at the White House for a chat with Abraham Lincoln. The messianic Monk pointed out to the president that whereas black American slaves had their champions, there was one class of persons, the Jewish diaspora, that had none.

"There can be no permanent peace in the world until the civilized nations ... atone ... for their two thousand years of persecution (of the Jews) by restoring them to their national home in Palestine," Monk informed Lincoln.

"(This) is a noble dream and one shared by many Americans," the president answered, assuring Monk that after the war was won and the Union restored, Americans once again would "see visions and dream dreams." The United States, the president seemed to be saying, might yet turn its gaze eastward.

This anecdote appears in a revealing book. "Power, Faith and Fantasy" chronicles the surprising extent to which Americans and the United States have been involved in the Middle East. For a nation whose foreign policy was unofficially isolationist for most of its history, we certainly took an early (and continuing) interest in the Holy Land and in the territories governed in the 18th and 19th century by the Ottoman Empire; later by a mishmash of European colonial powers; and, finally, by an assortment of strongmen, CIA- installed henchmen, dynastic sheiks, kings and, in the rare case of Israel, democratically elected leaders.

As author,Michael Oren points out, the Barbary pirates (or "Algerian corsairs," as George Washington called them) prompted the creation of the U.S. Navy. The Navy eventually cleared the Mediterranean of the roving brigands, which opened the way for an influx of Protestant missionaries, adventurers, government agents and tourists. Both Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant dropped in for visits. Herman Melville, struck that so many millions of Middle Easterners had rejected "much of our morality and all of our religion," commented, "The whole (Middle East) is half melancholy, half farcical, like all the rest of the world."

In fact, according to Oren, the Middle East simultaneously intrigued and repelled Americans. The fact that the Middle East was the birthplace of Christianity served as a kind of magnet for religious Americans. To walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the disciples absolutely mesmerized generations of travelers. …