An idea that goes way back

Michael Oren's book shows US involvement in the Middle East long preceded the 'Israel lobby.'

oren book 88 298 (photo credit: )
oren book 88 298
(photo credit: )
In 1844, a biblical scholar and professor of Hebrew at New York University published a pamphlet urging the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. The name of this early Zionist who argued for the recreation of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel: George Bush. But the astonishing thing about this manifesto is not just that the author was a forebear of the two US presidents of the same name. It was that his advocacy of a theological/political position known as "restorationism" - support for the restoration of the Jewish people to their historic homeland - was common in 19th-century America. This little-known fact is just one among many that can be discovered about attitudes toward the Middle East in what may well be one of the most important books on the subject to be published in this or any other year. Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present by Israeli historian Michael Oren fills a void that has long existed in the historiography of the Middle East. Until the release of this beautifully written and meticulously researched volume this month, there simply was no comprehensive history of American involvement in the region. Oren, who is based at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, has written a book overflowing with colorful tales of American travelers, pilgrims, businessmen, missionaries, diplomats, soldiers and sailors who weren't merely observers of this pivotal area (the term Middle East was actually coined by the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan). Americans, from the very beginning of our own history as a nation, have played a crucial role in shaping the Middle East. And as Oren illustrates, we, in turn, have been influenced by this interaction. Indeed, the formation of the United States of America as a constitutional republic in 1789 is, in part, a result of our first encounter with the Arab and Muslim world: the long struggle with the semi-independent city states of North Africa known to us as the Barbary Pirates. It was the inability of the independent 13 American states - who had no federal government or navy - to protect shipping and sailors from the depredations of those early terrorists that motivated many to push for the enactment of the Constitution. If that nearly forgotten war bears a strange resemblance to the contemporary conflict with Islamist terrorists, it is no coincidence. Oren recounts the shock of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who, while serving as American ambassadors in Europe during the 1780s, met with Abd al-Rahman, a representative of the pasha of Tripoli, a major source of anti-American terror on the high seas. In making exorbitant demands for American tribute, Rahman told Adams and Jefferson that his country was fighting under the authority of the Koran, which authorized it to make war on all non-believers and to enslave all Western prisoners, in terms that al-Qaida would have appreciated. "Every Mussulman who should be slain in battle" with America, he said, "was sure to go to Paradise." Oren's book is filled with a host of such encounters that may be new even to those who have been reading about the subject their entire lives. For example, how many know that the first American arms sale to the Middle East was not to Israel or an Arab state but goes back to Andrew Jackson's treaty with Ottoman Turkey? Another little known episode that Oren recounts deals with American veterans of the Civil War, both Union and Confederate, who helped found and train the Egyptian army. Such tales are a delight for history lovers. But aside from pleasure for the general as well as the specialized reader, there is a far broader moral to be learned from this volume that speaks directly to contemporary political debate. Although the content of Power, Faith and Fantasy is far too comprehensive to be neatly summarized in even a lengthy review, there is a concise conclusion that can be drawn from the book. It is that the ideas promulgated by men such as former president Jimmy Carter or scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of the infamous "Israel Lobby" article in the London Review of Books, ignore two centuries of history, as well as smear Jews and other friends of Israel. Oren illustrates throughout his book just how deep the roots of American support for Zionism run. The George Bush anecdote is but one of numerous incidents in which mainstream American Christians spoke out for the Jewish rights to Zion long before Theodor Herzl did. Going forward to the 20th century, Oren illustrates that the crucial roles of presidents Woodrow Wilson in backing the Balfour Declaration and Harry S. Truman in giving the new-born State of Israel recognition were not the result of political calculation but decisions that were based on their deeply held beliefs. The idea of Israel is something that has always been part of the sensibilities of American religious thinking. No lobby could possibly create the broad support for Israel that has run, and still runs, across the spectrum of mainstream America, powered by both faith and secular democratic values. Oren shows that the contrary thesis that rejects Zionism also has deep roots in the tradition of Protestant missionaries. Those Americans came to the Middle East seeking converts, but wound up founding institutions, such as the American Universities in Cairo and Beirut, that inculcated the spirit of American democracy and nationalism in generations of Arab intellectuals. Ironically, it was thus Americans who founded Arab nationalism. That means the notion of spreading democracy to the region wasn't invented by George W. Bush or the "neocons" but rather by the intellectual (and in some cases actual) ancestors of the 20th century Arabists in the State Department. The late Edward Said's thesis that saw all Western views of the region as inherently racist "Orientalism" dominates the academy these days and helps spread the idea that American power is a force for evil abroad. But Oren's research stands as a conclusive reproof to this fallacy. Though oil and profit have played their parts in forming the story of America's encounter with the region, more altruistic motives have always tended to dominate our policies. Despite the negative view that emanates from many of our intellectuals, Oren is right when he concludes by writing that "on balance, Americans historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East and caused significantly less harm than good." While it will be no surprise if many in the current Middle East studies establishment attack this book, Oren's achievement is must-reading for policymakers and the general public alike. In an era in which global terror based in the Middle East is the primary challenge to the survival of democracy, Power, Faith, and Fantasy ought to be read and understood by as many Americans as possible. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.