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Book Review 259: Power, Faith and Fantasy

December 15, 2012 - Harry Eagar
POWER, FAITH AND FANTASY: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, by Michael B. Oren. 778 pages. Norton, $35

Michael Oren contends that the development of the United States has always been much more closely connected to the Middle East than anyone would think at first. While I think he overstates the case, it is true in both significant and insignificant ways that the two places have interacted more often than standard histories would suggest.

A significant way was the early American crisis with the Barbary pirates. Oren contends that it was the inability of the associated government under the Articles of Confederation to deal with the pirates that largely motivated the change to the Constitution. Even after signing the Constitution, the US was so weak that, despite the misgivings of Washington, the country spent 10 percent of its national budget on tribute.

While the irritation of the pirates was significant and meaningful, there were plenty of other reasons to dispose of the Confederation, from Indian relations to state debts.

An insignificant, but amusing, example was the origin of the Statue of Liberty. The original proposal, linked to the Suez Canal, was for a statue of a somewhat zaftig feminine Egypt "bringing light to Asia." Only the bankruptcy of the khedive repurposed the sculptor's vision to the more svelte Lady Liberty facing Europe.

In Oren's view, the relationship of America and what he does not call the Koran Belt was always more fraught than we think, composed of three usually antagonistic elements: government power (not originally in favor of America), religious outreach (always one way) and fantasy (an image derived mostly from the "Thousand and One Nights" which isn't even Arab or Turkish, although most of America's interactions were with Arabs or Turks).

The religious component is the most typically American, bizarre and muttonheaded. At the same time that missionaries were landing in Hawaii, where they remade a traditional society, other American missionaries were landing in Syria, where they were complete failures as far as faith goes.

Given the one-way attitude of Muslims toward missionizing, this was predictable. Stubbornly refusing to give up, the Americans turned from gathering souls to opening schools and hospitals. Oren attributes to them the infection of modernism in the Koran Belt.

True, many of the opponents of the Ottomans were exposed to western ideas in missionary schools, but the Ottomans themselves sent their promising young men to France, and well before the Americans arrived. Oren overstates this aspect in two ways. First, he makes the infection seem exclusively American, which it was not; and, second, he makes it seem important, which it never became.

As we see now ("Power, Faith and Fantasy" was published in 2007) with the reversion of the misnamed Arab Spring to atavistic social and political norms, the infection of modernism never caused more than a temporary rash in the Koran Belt.

The book is fun to read, with caution. Oren tends to underplay the immiseration of Muslim society and overplay its openness to change. The influx of Americans to the region in the 19th century was tiny, even if it included names we know, like Mark Twain; and not happy for the Americans.

It seems that the usual fate of these sojourners was to die of disease, or if not that, to be murdered; or if they ever got out, to end their days in poverty and obscurity.

But enough did get back alive to infect America with a continuing hankering to do good or do well in the region. Most of this infection was centered on Princeton University. Oren does not tell (though it is no secret) that he, too, holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies from Princeton.

He is an Israeli of American origin (since publication of this book, his country's ambassador to Washington), and the names of his collaborators as given in the acknowledgements are almost entirely Jewish.

Despite his militant Zionism as a political actor, he is scrupulously even-handed as a historian in his books (also his history of "The Six-day War"). You would hardly guess, from the texts, that he has been an active player in the latest uproars in the Middle East.

This fairmindedness, which ought to be a virtue, is in the end a flaw. By treating all players -- Americans, Turks, Muslim Arabs, Jews, Arab Christians, Persians etc. -- as equally free actors in history he leaves a misleading impression.

His short history of US government policy since 1945 is scathing, but does not acknowledge the big fact that led to failure: In an interaction between one side that is (however imperfectly) motivated by democratic principles; and another that is (perfectly) constitutionally impervious to democratic principles, the first side can never hope to prevail.

It sometimes seems as if Oren has read everything. (He hasn't really; a platoon of graduate students in New Haven, Cambridge, Washington, Princeton and Jerusalem ransacked the libraries for him.) Among the authors he cites is the Syrian political scientist Bassam Tibi. He misses Tibi's masterful insight.

Tibi wrote that Arabs are not interested in democracy. This is obviously the case. Any book, no matter how judiciously intended, that assumes a different possibility is going to be fundamentally misleading, and in that sense, "Power, Faith and Fantasy" is misleading.

It is, nevertheless, required reading. Oren says, I think correctly, that no one had tried to write the story of America in the Middle East (a term invented by an American, Alfred Mahan) before.

 
 

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