Romancing Araby

A new book dissects America's 220-year propensity to civilize the natives in the Middle East.

romancing araby 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
romancing araby 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
The meeting in London was doomed from the outset. The Arab strongman's envoy held all the cards - three craft had already been hijacked, their passengers and crew held hostage in an inhospitable and almost unreachable land. The American ambassador knew the ransom demand would be high, but even he could not have imagined just how exorbitant it would be. To meet it would require one-tenth of America's annual budget. Lest the adventurous Yanks dare to contemplate a military attack to rescue their captured comrades, Abd al-Rahman al-Ajar provided a most unpleasant revelation: the Koran declares that any nation that does not bow to the authority of the Muslims is sinful, and it is the right and duty of Muslims to make war upon it and take prisoner any of its people they may find. Further, any Muslim slain in battle against such an enemy would be promised a place in Paradise. "We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever," the furious but helpless ambassador relayed to his government. Congress would authorize no such fight, however, and voted instead to pay the ransom. And that is how America first capitulated to Arab terrorism, some 220 years ago. America's humbling experience in the Barbary Wars, as retold in historian Michael Oren's new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, is the beginning of a tale as cautionary as any ever told. As the tale unfurls, spreading from Tripoli to Turkey and Teheran, it highlights a series of recurring follies and frustrations that reverberate through the Middle East until today. Half a dozen books have been written on the Barbary Wars since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, almost all of them bringing attention to America's first encounter with Middle East terrorism. What Oren does is to frame the American involvement in the Middle East from then until now in three distinct themes, or motives. The first is power, the pursuit of America's interests through a variety of means - military, diplomatic, financial. And what America discovers in North Africa is that it has no power to protect these interests. TO FACE the pirate threat of the mid-1780s, ambassador to France (and eventual president) Thomas Jefferson suggests constructing a formidable navy at the expense of $2 million, and establishing a NATO-like force of US and European ships to patrol the Mediterranean. European governments reject the mutual defense pact, however, and Congress balks at the cost of building a navy. It chooses instead to pay $70,000 to bribe the brigands of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco and Algiers. Seizing on America's weakness, the pirates raise their demands for "tribute" to nearly $1 million. By the late 1790s, with the North African city-states first attacking American ships and then negotiating bribes (protection money, if you will), as much as 20 percent of America's annual revenues are being sent to the unscrupulous deys and pashas. "My country! How art thou prostrate!" exclaims William Eaton, the consul to Tunis. "There is but one language which can be held to these people, and this is terror." Americans soon sour to the humiliating arrangement, rallying to adopt a Constitution that establishes a federal system, and outfitting a navy in 1794. As Virginia politician (and also eventual president) James Madison reasons during negotiations over the Constitution, "Weakness will invite insults. The best way to avoid danger is to be in capacity to withstand it." "Our security against the Barbary powers must depend on force and not upon treaties, upon ships of war instead of presents and subsidies," adds ambassador to Britain Rufus King. Rather quickly, American ships bring the North Africans to heel, cementing the United States' role as a power broker in the Middle East. Before he revised it in the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key's "Star-Bangled Banner" - which would become the American national anthem - described "turbaned heads bowed" to the "brow of the brave." No longer weak, then, America invites no more insults. Strengthened, in fact, it begins to deliver a few of its own. Benevolent arrogance It is here that the second theme of Oren's book, faith, takes over. As the Middle East opens up to American commerce, it also becomes the destination of choice for Christian pilgrims enthralled with the opportunity to convert the Muslims - that is, to spread a mix of religion and independent spirit that is uniquely American, and that is founded on a conception of America as not only a "New Canaan" but as a light unto the nations as well. As the French pioneer of sociology Alexis de Tocqueville observed, "The Americans combine notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to conceive the one without the other." The two often combine into what Oren characterizes as "benevolent arrogance." American missionaries, he relates in his book, "continued to disparage Islam as a fraudulent, retrograde faith and dismissed all forms of Eastern Christianity as decadent and outmoded." At the height of this benevolent arrogance, missionary William Gooddell tells a crowd of unreceptive Lebanese, "We have come to raise your population from that state of ignorance, degradation and death [to] which you are fallen, to do all the good in our power." Not surprisingly, the missionizing flops. "Might as well attempt to convert bricks into bride-cake as the Orientals into Christians," author Herman Melville snipes in his account of his Middle East travels. Meanwhile, as na ve preachers are failing to civilize the Oriental heathens, Americans back home are succumbing to a powerful fantasy of the Middle East and its inhabitants. As if convinced that A Thousand and One Nights were a historical record rather than a fairy tale, enchanted Americans become hopelessly enthralled by notions of a Middle East composed of an ethereal montage of minarets and pyramids, oases, camels and shifting dunes. American travelers begin flocking to the region in droves, driven on by breathless tales of magnificent bazaars and seduced by dreams of the feverishly erotic "belly dance." The intensity of the fantasy is matched only by the shock of reality. In the fabled ports of Cairo and Istanbul, blithe and well-mannered Americans are greeted by masses of illiterate beggars, by the maimed and the ignorant. A former slave touring the Middle East who is first impressed to discover that Islam accepts blacks as equals, soon comes to deplore Muslims as bigots and "head-choppers of Christians." Another American adventurer notes the gap between the promise of the Middle East and its true condition: "Sweet are the songs of Egypt," he writes, "on paper." Of all the accounts of American bewilderment in the Middle East, none is more famous (nor more poignant) than that of Mark Twain in his travelogue The Innocents Abroad. From afar, he wrote, Damascus looks like "an island of pearls and opals gleaming out of a sea of emeralds." Up close, he said, it is "the very sink of pollution and uncomeliness." Syrian men are "a wretched nest of human vermin," Twain continued, with "rags, dirt, sunken cheeks, pallor of sickness, sores and projecting bones." "To glance at the genuine son of the desert," he concluded, "is to take the romance out of him forever." Alas, that romance survived another century at least. It was kept breathing by a steady stream of fictions - from the Middle East pavilion at the 1893 fair in Chicago, replete with camels and with characters produced entirely in the imagination of their Jewish creator, to the romanticized escapades of T.E. Lawrence in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans and through numerous sex-injected tales of Arab mystique and mystery woven by Hollywood until the Second World War. While Emir Feisal was professing brotherhood and sympathy for the Zionists in a meeting with Chaim Weizmann at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, US secretary of state Robert Lansing swooned over the "Muslim paladin" whose voice "seemed to breathe the perfume of frankincense and to suggest the presence of richly colored divans, green turbans and the glitter of gold and jewels." Modern implications Oren's book loses momentum rapidly from there; after a review of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it winds down with the failure of successive administrations to impose a pax Americana on the Middle East. While the themes of faith and fantasy are by now much less in evidence, it is clear that America's use of power is uncannily misguided. Rather than show the wisdom gained from two centuries of engagement in the region, the United States finds its attempts to exert its influence repeatedly backfiring. In Egypt, for example, Nasser's impetuous rejection of the Western powers is a direct product of the strident nationalism first encouraged by the schools established there by American military advisers in the mid-19th century. A CIA-orchestrated coup against the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh in Teheran in 1953 later fuels the rabidly anti-American Iranian revolution. The Reagan Administration supports Saddam Hussein during Iraq's war with Iran in the mid-1980s, only for the first president Bush to have to go to war with the Butcher of Baghdad in 1991. American support for the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan paves the way for the Taliban's rise to power. Increasingly, too, the military might that America built to extinguish the threat of Middle Eastern terrorism becomes the target of those terrorists - as in Hizbullah's bombing of US barracks in Lebanon in 1983, or al-Qaida's bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. The enemies, and the threats, just keep multiplying. "We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever," John Adams said of the Muslim pirates in the 1780s. Now, as Middle Eastern conflicts look increasingly like Samuel Huntington's 1993 prophecy of a clash of civilizations with Islam itself, it seems that fewer Americans are "determined to fight them forever." Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Iraq - where US forces have been unable in more than three years to stop a deadly insurgency from spreading, where sectarian slaughter has claimed thousands of lives, and where "the coalition of the willing" amounts to a mere 10 percent of American troop strength in the country. The report of the Iraq Study Group suggests relying less on American power and sufficing instead with treaties like those America first signed with the rulers of the Barbary states. "I was against the Iraq war on several levels," Oren confided in conversation. "I didn't agree with the people who felt the Iraqi people were deeply yearning for democracy, and that they were just waiting for America to come and bestow it on them. "But I also didn't think America could pull it off, because America is a country of faith. And to make Iraq Iraq, America would have to do what Saddam did, which was to hold it together with a preponderance of cruel power... arrest thousands of people, torture people, kill people. I didn't think the American people were that savage." But as the United States struggles to regain its legitimacy in the Middle East, it finds itself dependent on its ability to create and sustain an alliance with savage and anti-democratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran. That's not the way Americans envisioned things working out when they first ventured into the deceptively calm waters of the Mediterranean. "There's always a trade-off you find in foreign policy," says Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in US security and foreign policy. "But in the Middle East it's somewhat simpler: There is a need to secure access to oil." "In an ideal world," he allowed, "the US would bring reconciliation to Iraq so that Iraq could turn away from a civil war. In an ideal world, the US would strengthen the government in Lebanon so that country wouldn't turn to civil war and instead become a Western democracy rather than remain dominated by Syria. "In an ideal world, the US would accomplish so much good. But after the disaster in Iraq, America has less leverage to do all these things." Now, says Beinart, "America has only bad options to choose from." Illusions American presidents have made use of a long line of Jewish emissaries (and often scapegoated them). Inspired by the curious notion that Jews would serve as a natural bridge between Christian Americans and Middle East Muslims, they sent Mordecai Manuel Noah, Edwin de Leon, Oscar Strauss, Solomon Hirsch, Henry Morgenthau and more on vital diplomatic missions to the Middle East. Some of these men even seemed convinced of the fable. In 1881, Simon Wolf, the US consul in Cairo, regaled Egypt's ruler, Ahmed Urabi, with the following grandiose declaration: "As an Israelite, a brother of the Arab branch of the human family, I fully appreciate all [the Egyptians] long for. I feel grateful to the Mahammadens for their shelter and protection and freedom my brethren had enjoyed for years in Moslem countries." Such fanciful sentiment could not have been more in contrast to the testimony of an American traveler in Morocco in 1842, whose published tale of the journey includes descriptions of her shock to see how Jews there were greatly oppressed, even beaten in the streets like dogs. Even more startling is the degree to which Jews - especially, and ironically, Jews in Palestine - admired and emulated the Arab as a noble character. As much as American gentiles were smitten by the image of the sheikhs and shepherds of Arabia, early Zionists in some ways exceeded them. It was David Ben-Gurion who, in 1937, unfolded before a British government panel a speech that would today be considered laughable at best, scandalous at worst, but thoroughly fantastical in either case. "Our Arab neighbors in Palestine," he promised the officials, "will see that not only is there not a conflict of interests between the Jewish people as a whole and the Arab people as a whole but that their interests are completely complementary." "We need each other," Ben-Gurion said. "We can benefit each other. I have no doubt that at least our neighbors around us in Syria, Iraq and Egypt will be the first to recognize that fact, and from them this consciousness will also spread in Palestine amongst our Arab neighbors here, because there is no essential conflict. On the contrary... "The stronger we get, the greater our community becomes in Palestine, the greater our colonization work, the more developed our scientific institutions becomes, the more we will be recognized by our neighbors abroad and here the blessing of our work and the mutual interest which exists historically between the Jewish people which is returning to its country - returning with the tradition of European culture, with the blessing of European culture - and the Arab peoples around us, who also want to achieve not only formal independence but are also interested in achieving an economic, intellectual, spiritual and cultural renaissance..." After half a dozen wars and two intifadas, it is hard to believe that Jewish Israeli teenagers could have ever thought it hip to wear a keffiyeh and smoke a nargila - but they did. And before there was an IDF that could develop its own mystique, the romanticized image of the Beduin captivated more than a few pioneering Jews in Palestine. Historian Yosef Meyuhas, writing in Chapters in the History of the Jewish Yishuv, notes: "There were those who sought to know the Arabs' life for practical purposes, including the members of Hashomer - the first self-defense organization established in Eretz Yisrael. "Yisrael Shohat [one of the founders of Hashomer] wrote the following: 'Hashomer ascribed special attention to peaceful relations with the Arab environment. We knew that the Arabs would be our neighbors and that we would have to be with them, and to a certain extent adapt our lives to them. Hashomer members learned Arabic and wanted to learn whatever they could among the Arabs. The Shomrim tried not to make do only with visits to the effendis and sheikhs, but rather preferred the madafiya (the village's hospitality room), in order to meet with the Arab peasant farmer, tenant or worker. The Shomrim learned the Arab way of life, and the life of the Arab village.' "Hashomer members also dreamt of conquering the pasture: shepherds wander with their flocks to far-off regions and know the homeland well. Three members of Hashomer went out to live among Beduin tribes, in order to learn the profession. One of them, Yosef Harit, related: 'Three members undertook to acquire the doctrine of shepherding first-hand from the Beduin, and to that end Hashomer made contact with the Turkmen, a semi-wild tribe that live in the mountains with their flocks. In the winter of 1913, three of our members dressed in Beduin clothes and went to be shepherds with the tribe's youth.'" In 1920, Hashomer would take part in the defense of Tel Hai and Jerusalem from riotous mobs of Arabs - whose economic, intellectual, spiritual and cultural renaissance, clearly, had not yet begun.