Book Review: Power, Faith, and Fantasy (Michael Oren)
by Stephen Coulthart
Syracuse, New York - Michael Oren’s latest political/historical work could possibly top his previous widely acclaimed bestseller, “The Six Days War”. His new book “Power, Faith, and Fantasy” provides a historical background of America’s involvement in the Middle East, beginning at the dawn of a new American democracy. As indicated by the title of the book, Oren weaves together what he perceives as the three main themes of US-Middle East relations: religion, the quest for political influence and America’s fascination with Middle Eastern culture. In this important read, Oren steps back from current events for a very timely re-visioning of the Middle East and its interactions with the US.
At first glance the book appears to be a traditional work of scholarship – historical facts related chronologically – but Oren is such a compelling storyteller that these come alive. The book begins with accounts of the modest travels of John Ledyard, the first citizen of the newly independent United States to travel to North Africa and the Middle East, bringing home Oren’s main point that the US and the Middle East have a far longer and more complex relationship than is commonly understood.
Oren notes how America has long had a fantastical and somewhat limited vision of the Middle East, basing its understanding of the area and its peoples on the Bible and excerpts from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Oren relates how the first American travellers to the Middle East – mainly missionaries - were shocked when their visions of the Orient were shattered by the gritty reality of the 19th century Middle East.
Still, Oren is sympathetic to the idealistic young America that was eager to send missionaries, establish schools and hospitals and perform other humanitarian work, and contrasts it to a distant and uninterested American government, for whom the Middle East was of no interest until well after WWI. Their humanitarian work, he notes, paved the way for US influence in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, particularly with regard to the oil concessions Saudi Arabia made to US companies.
Along the way, Oren’s fastidious research brings to life many forgotten footnotes; many students of history might not remember that Morocco was the first nation to recognise the United States’ independence, or that the newly independent US was using twenty percent of its national budget to pay the Barbary pirate states not to attack its shipping fleets and enslave its crew members.
Another fascinating episode is the tale of how ex-Confederate officers were partially responsible for developing Egyptian nationalism. After the American Civil War, these out-of-work soldiers found both work and adventure in Egypt while molding that nation’s army into a professional military. They acted as a conduit of American political culture and mores to the young Egyptian officer corps they trained, perhaps providing the initial spark that later manifested as Arab nationalism.
Matters of faith, Oren shows, have also been as important and not, as most people assume, purely because of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Oren relates how fundamentalist Christians supported and fostered the Zionist movement, making much of the little known fact that the first Western settlers in Palestine were in fact American Protestants, not Jews, who wanted to see the Jewish homeland re-established for religious reasons. Zionism, he argues, was nurtured in the United States, and even in the midst of pre-WWII American isolationism many Americans were strongly supportive of the movement. Still, the US government itself was largely ambivalent until Israel was actually established, and President Truman himself stated that he only supported Israel because of the demands of his constituents.
Towards the end of the book, Oren gradually introduces the theme of power in Middle East-US relations. No longer interested in simply spreading American civic ideas or building schools, in the mid-twentieth century the American government began actively engaging in Middle Eastern politics to secure oil and alliances with the newly independent states of the area. Oren falters somewhat here, perhaps, and seems less eager to provide the reader with arguments or new perspectives, other than to further develop the themes he has already seen as being in play.
Still, in a work that is the first serious attempt at chronicling the entire history of US engagement in the Middle East, providing less than stellar coverage of the tumultuous past half-century can be forgiven.
By and large, Oren does an admirable job of exploring the origins of grassroots American idealism and self-interested policies of economic and political dominance that have been at the core of the US’s relationship with the Middle East. But to call Oren’s latest offering a mere scholarly history is to misjudge what is one of the most vital books in recent memory on US-Middle East relations. Oren does not just give the reader straight facts but provides the historical insights that equip readers with the tools to understand the nuts and bolts of modern policy between the Middle East and the US. Oren’s in-depth analysis explains how past political, economic and religious events continue to shape US policy and perspectives today.
Given the timely knowledge of this book and the compelling nature of his writing, Oren has masterfully crafted a work that fills a necessary void in American history.
* Stephen Coulthart is a graduate student studying diplomacy and international affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall in New Jersey. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at ww.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 29 May 2007)
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.