Oren, Michael B., Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, Norton & Co., New York, 2007. 778pp.
History, at its most useful, steadies the nerves and provides perspective on the events splashed daily across TV screens and PC monitors. It should also give us a feel for the problems amenable to solution and those that are permanent (or, at the very least, enduring).
By these criteria, Michael Oren’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy is a history book that should be on the shelf of most American homes … and available at every public library.
The author has made an explicit attempt to write a history of America’s relations with the Middle East that serves the general reader rather than just an academic audience. Practically speaking, this means drawing more extensively on biography and the popular culture of each period of American history to illustrate relations with the Middle East. To better organize the book’s contents, he employs the three themes listed in the title. Power references American trading initiatives, commercial interests, and security concerns. Faith refers to the Christian and Jewish religious interests in the Middle East (as home to Holy Places, putative location for Christ’s reappearance, potential source of converts, and national homeland for the Jews). Fantasy describes the American representations of the Middle East, first triggered by the anonymous 1706 English translation of the Arabian Nights, and elaborated in subsequent years in many books, exhibitions, social fashions, and movies.
Oren weaves the impact of these three themes through the different eras of American history … from the turbulent post-Revolution, pre-Constitution time up to our own. Post-WW2 American involvement in the Middle East is already very thoroughly documented in English, so Oren provides a quick summary of the most recent period in his book. It’s a worthwhile coda but primarily serves those not already familiar with the details. The bulk of Power, Faith, and Fantasy focuses on the period 1776 to 1950.
Risking gross over-simplification of a very large and careful summary, I’d like to highlight the historical phases in America’s relations with the region, as presented by the author.
As can be seen by the Table of Contents listed below, the first phase of America’s involvement with the Middle East was triggered by the loss of British protection from the piratical activities of the Barbary Coast (North Africa). The moment American trading vessels stopped flying the British flag, they were subject to increasing predation. North Africans supplemented their galleys (which were rowed) with modern European ocean-going vessels. The threat to shipping was severe within the Mediterranean, and increasingly widespread in the Atlantic. America’s eastern shoreline was the plausible next target. Captured Americans vessels and cargoes were sold in the Middle East. Sailors were held hostage and/or enslaved. Their treatment, barbaric far beyond even the rough standards of Europe, became the subject of increasing popular anger and commentary in the new American states.
Relentless demands for tribute from a series of North African city-states were to plague successive American administrations until a consensus formed about the need for an overseas US defense. Structuring this unified response to piracy awaited a reformation of the relations between the States … and the development of a formal Constitution in 1789. Having successfully, painfully, created a Constitution, the lines of national authority and responsibility became clearer. The debate about whether gold or gunpowder was the best solution to the Barbary pirates went on for many years. Here we see the first of many echoes of American foreign policy in our time.
At its worst, annual expenditures for buying hostages or buying peace in North Africa approached 20% of the US national budget. A permanent American navy was finally approved by legislation and subsequent appropriation. American attitudes became more actively vindictive toward the North African states as that navy became more effective at the turn of the 19th century. Punitive raids, rather than painful supplication, became the norm and a permanent American fleet patrolling the Mediterranean was born.
Oren notes that for the first forty years of its existence, European nations did little to assist America and its merchants in the Mediterranean. It was only with the growing American ability to project permanent force into the Mediterranean that the US was treated with respect by European naval powers. The War of 1812 disrupted efforts to protect American shipping in the region but at its conclusion, a newly sophisticated and muscular American fleet emerged which was able to reassert itself. From that point forward, the Americans presented themselves as an independent and confident trading alternative to the Europeans (primarily the French and British). The various provinces of the Ottoman Empire responded accordingly. They dropped their demands for payment and shifted instead to leveraging American commercial interests against the Great Power squabbles of the European continent. In an echo of later eras, America was “far away” and therefore preferred as a source of Western trade goods without the associated imperialist baggage.
For ante-bellum America, having reached sufficient naval strength to limit North African piracy, commercial sights shifted further east … to Istanbul and to the newly accessible Egypt and Levant. American traders had little compunction in competing to open trade with an autocratic Ottoman Empire since they’d received so little support or acknowledgement from the Europeans in earlier years. Trade expanded quickly.
At the same time, America was experiencing another wave of religious fervour (the so-called Second Great Awakening). Millennial beliefs in America for the first time began referencing events in the Holy Land … involving conventional conversion of the peoples there to American variants of Christianity, or the “restorationist” beliefs which increasingly saw the return of the Jews to Jerusalem as the final step in the End Times.
Both streams of religious belief (proselytization and colonization-before-Second-Coming) were to send a growing numbers of American Christians into the Levant, and into an Ottoman Empire that had long maintained control over religious groups through carefully prescribed rights (the millet system for managing dhimmi).
Needless to say, almost everyone in the region (ruler and ruled) was antagonistic or, at best, indifferent to the arrival of religiously fervent Americans … Americans determined to upset the status quo of “heathens, infidels, and apostates.” Americans were subject to banditry and assaults and vindictiveness from the full range of other religious communities that were living on sufferance in the Ottoman Empire.
Those seeking to live in the Middle East to be on hand for Christ’s Second Coming were largely unsuccessful in establishing the agricultural stations that would support them. Disease, violence, and local ecological and economic collapse had kept regional populations very low … shockingly so by modern standards. In this impoverished environment, idealistic Americans with North American expectations were at a distinct disadvantage.
For those Christian missionaries seeking to convert the populace, the political environment was just as tenuous. Ottoman rule was relatively decentralized so local rulers could quickly shift their attitudes toward American Christian activity as local circumstances and popular attitudes demanded. Despite a great deal of investment and effort by the American Board of Commissioners, American missionary conversions were almost non-existent.
In the course of establishing these missions, however, two American obsessions were to have momentous impact on Middle Eastern history: modern medicine and education. Indeed, the roots of American influence in the region can largely be traced to the even-handed provision of health care and modern education to the local peoples of the Middle East by the missionaries of this era. The origins of the Middle East’s current educational and medical infrastructure have been largely obscured for political reasons but America’s role was significant in most parts of the Ottoman Empire. Missionaries were never really safe in the Middle East, however, and Oren provides accounts of their difficult lives, and often traumatic deaths, throughout much of his book. For better or worse, these folk did set standards and expectations for the educated classes which remain to this day. Their efforts, far into what is now eastern Turkey and Iran, positively influenced almost all the various Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sects of the region.
Finally, under the category of “fantasy,” new ship technology meant that restless Americans could explore or play the tourist in the Middle East to an extent never before possible. A new bowdlerized translation of the Arabian Nights triggered yet another wave of fantasizing amongst the literati of America. The French occupation of Egypt had exposed the world to the very ancient culture there. In initiating the field of Egyptology, they’d also started a European interest in the aesthetic elements of Egyptian art and architecture. Educated Americans were not immune to the widespread “wishful thinking” about the Middle East that took place as Europe was increasingly able to force its will on the different far-flung portions of the Ottoman Empire.
By the 1830s, the romanticism about the area had evolved to the point where Algerian dress became fashionable for elite European soldiers (the so-called Zouave style), and, a decade or two later, American civil war units were to die by the hundreds in North African pantaloons and loose jackets.
As America drifted toward civil war, its involvement in the Middle East was reinforced by technological events (the development of the steamship and the rapid growth of American industrialization). Andrew Jackson had created formal relations with the Ottoman Empire, showing only limited concern for the constant antagonism in the region towards the religious Americans, now settling there in greater numbers.
The Ottoman Empire sought to counterbalance European power by congenial relations with the one industrialized country without apparent ambitions to dismember it. Through much of the 19th century, America was variously seen as the champion of both minority interests and of Ottoman independence. While the friction between American religious aspirations and its commercial and geopolitical interests persisted, American influence in the area was generally seen as benign.
Just as the War of 1812 was to disrupt American involvement in the Middle East, the outbreak of the American Civil War disturbed relations with Europe. Perhaps the most immediately disruptive effect was the self-imposed embargo of Confederate cotton and an associated Union blockade. Egypt had been expanding its cotton industry since the 1820s but still lagged the southern United States in productivity because of its primitive farming methods. With Southern cotton off the world’s markets, Egypt reaped an immense but temporary financial boom for its ruler, the Albanian Muhammad Ali. Ali’s efforts to modernize Egypt, and the post-Civil War crash in Egypt’s cotton industry were set the stage for that nation’s relations with Europe and America for several generations.
The Ottoman Empire, returning the Jacksonian favour of earlier years, supported the North … reflecting its own preference for stability and the integrity of its Empire. Dithering European powers attempted to maintain as much neutrality as possible. Only the British had the naval wherewithal to maintain a real independence from Union attempts to control Confederate shipping (cf. the Trent affair).
As the Civil War concluded, America stood out as the pre-eminent military power of the Americas, on a rapid pace to match or exceed the technological and military expertise of Europeans. A huge number of experienced soldiers and generals were released from service and they became a natural resource for the Ottomans … offering European-style military expertise without the imperial dangers of hiring actual Europeans. American shipbuilders and armorers were to find welcome markets in the Middle East, especially in the temporarily flush Egyptian autocracy.
Oren offers a fascinating chapter on the role of Yankee and Confederate generals in Egypt’s short-lived 19th century attempt at independent modernization. Generals of the stature of Sherman and Grant made triumphant tours through the region. Accounts of the luxurious accommodations of the Pasha …and the dire poverty, filth, and disease of the ordinary Egyptians were repeated theme in memoirs.
In support of such recollections were books like Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, which did much to make his reputation, and was a largely satirical description of his travels through the Holy Land in the company of religious pilgrims just after the Civil War. The recurring pattern of American beguilement with the exotic, followed by disillusionment with the corrupt, cruel, and impoverished is found in much American literature of the time. American romanticism about the Middle East during this period was also to find expression in the creation of the Shriners … best known in America for their parade go-karts and a North American network of free hospitals for children. Surely the “Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine” must stand as one of the great modern anachronisms of American culture.
On a playful tangent, Oren recounts how Frederick Bartholdi’s initial attempt to create a giant female statue for the Egyptian Khedive in 1871 (Egypt (or Progress) Bringing Light to Asia) for the entrance of the new Suez Canal was morphed 15 years later into Lady Liberty on Bedloe’s Island off New York City.
The Canal’s completion in 1869 was to place a new geopolitical importance on Egypt, and a new burden on Egyptian leadership to maintain fiscal and political stability around the canal. By 1882, European responded to the insolvency of the Egyptian autocracy with invasion. This not only placed local Americans at great immediate risk from Egyptian reprisal on all Westerners but inevitably concluded significant American involvement in the military modernization of the Egyptian military. The generation of Civil War vets who’d made the Middle East home traveled back to America in anonymity.
The tail-end of the 19th century was a time of American prosperity and burgeoning power. It was the high-water mark for Protestant faith (and associated self-confidence) in the nation, and included American ambivalence about the propriety of imperialism. The destitution of much of Asia and Africa was highlighted by reports from American trading enterprises and missionaries across the planet. Americans were the sole industrialized nation who’d yet to participate in the European imperialism sweepstakes of the era. But what religious and moral and social obligations did the nation have, blessed as it was by God and Nature?
The dramatic growth of the US Navy, the Spanish-American War, and subsequent American aggressiveness in the Caribbean and Philippines were to spell new opportunities and obligations for American power, faith, and fantasy. Most ironically, it was US naval strategist Alfred Mahan who coined the term “Middle East” in a 1902 paper meant to distinguish the East generally, from the geopolitical significance of the Arabia, Persia, and the Gulf.
From its earliest days, America had engaged Jewish citizens as emissaries and diplomats in the region. It should be recalled that Hebrew studies at America’s institutions of higher learning were considered central for Protestant clergy of the established denominations. By the mid-19th century, American Jews such as Edwin de Leon and Uriah Levy (the first Jew to reach commodore rank in the US Navy) were actively engaged in protecting American interests (commercial and religious) in the Middle East.
The changing demography of the America during the end of the 19th century was also to signal a shift in the role American Jews would play in the Middle East. The “restorationist” enthusiasms of many Protestant sects lent indirect support for a new social movement, Zionism. The anti-Semitism of Europe led many commentators (including Mark Twain) to focus for the first time on the utility of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
As the twentieth century dawned, American Christian activities in the Middle East continued to focus on education and medicine (conversion had continued to be very unsuccessful). Americans were to be initial bystanders at the two great events of the era – the butchery of Greeks and Armenians that is associated (controversially) with the Young Turks, and the Great Power struggle of the First World War which dictated the structural demise of the Ottoman Empire. America’s initial neutrality was to partially protect its citizens from harm but these experiences … deep humanitarian concern for minorities in Europe and the Middle East, and widespread domestic loathing of European imperialism, … were to frame the American political paradox ever after.
Self-determination on the other side of the Atlantic always seemed to come at the existential peril of religious and ethnic minorities. And there would be American diplomats, businesspeople and missionaries on hand at every turn to document the horrors in detail.
America’s late participation in the Great War meant that its public focus remained on genocidal events in Anatolia through 1914 and 1915. Americans donated generously to the relief work and US Navy ships were to deliver aid for a widespread famine in the region at the time. Nonetheless, in passages reminiscent of later commentary on the holocaust of WW2, individual Americans despaired at their inability to ameliorate (let alone halt) the savagery. They took their own lives, died of broken health or after torture in Turkish prisons. The commitment of these individuals to the welfare of local peoples (who’d completely rejected American religious beliefs over the course of a century) is something worth remembering.
One of the most challenging issues for President Wilson before America entered the war was the British intention to create an international mandate over the Holy Land, and to engage the support of American Jews by supporting a Jewish national home. Even before America had joined WW1, Wilson had responded to the plan negatively. How did one oppose colonialism while simultaneously supporting a Jewish national home? Indeed, how were Americans generally (both Christian and Jew) able to reconcile their religious beliefs about the centrality of Jerusalem and their secular commitment to self-determination.
For a number of prominent American diplomats and regional experts, the quandary could not be resolved. They were determined to convince the President that any statement in support of Zionism was dangerous and should never be made. British intentions were made clearer, and US presidential ambiguity was swept aside, with the Balfour Declaration, and American Jews departed for Canadian boot camps, unimpeded, to serve in WW1.
America’s late entry to the trenches of WW1 ensured its role in “making the peace” in Europe but since its troops had never fought in the Middle East, America was a bystander to the British/French negotiations which attempted to slice the Ottoman Empire into functional fiefdoms. All the compromises, hypocrisies, and inadequacies of the process were immediately evident, however, to the many people in the region who’d been educated in the network of American educational institutions. The wave of nationalist belief in the Middle East, reinforced by the success of the Japanese in setting their own course earlier in the century, was the stepchild of American values of modernity taught by Christian missionaries.
Allied with these efforts was a new era of American fantasy manufactured by the post-war reminiscences of American reporter, Lowell Thomas. Reputedly spending all of two days in the desert, Thomas recast T.E. Lawrence as an American-style champion of Arab independence. Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published widely after his death in 1935, is well-regarded to this day. Orientalism of the Lawrence of Arabia variety continued well into the Sixties. One contemporary of Lawrence was heard to say that the only accurate thing about the David Lean movie was “the sand and the camels.”
Post-war settlements in the Middle East satisfied no one, and brought only constant discord amongst its peoples. They did, however, spell the beginning of a new era in the Middle East … as American domestic consumption of petroleum products outstripped supply and a new American consortium of oil companies (the Iraq Petroleum Company, formed in 1921, muscled into the European monopoly. Americans got their oil (23.75% of all petroleum extracted from the Middle East) without the headaches of mandates and administration.
Meanwhile, Christian missionaries (against great odds) had continued to provide modern medical care to the populace of what is now Kuwait. Amongst their patients, by 1914, were the men of Abd al’Aziz ibn Saud. Over time, their role in caring for Gulf Arabians created much goodwill. Some twenty years later, when it was ibn Saud’s desire to circumvent the exclusive club created by Anglo-French companies to control Middle East oil, he turned to American businessmen and oil explorers.
On June 1st 1932, engineers from the Standard Oil Company of California (SOCOL) struck oil on the barren island of Bahrain. On that basis, intensive negotiations over exploration rights began that were ultimately won by SOCOL and sealed with gold bullion loaned from a British bank. SOCOL became CASOC (California Arabian Standard Oil Company) now Chevron which became Aramco and then Saudi Aramco. With the discovery of Dhamman Number 7 in 1938, the era of Saudi Arabia dominance of the oil industry began.
It was to be the children of Middle Eastern missionaries who dominated the American diplomatic and oil business cadres of the region for many years. The merging of religious and economic interests in the southern Gulf was to recast the region, yet again, as an American story – of exploration, perseverance, and missionary fervour.
At the beginning of World War II, America was firmly ensconced in Saudi Arabia, Germany was making belated offers of gold to ibn Saud, and American obligations to keep the Saudis happy (with money and broader geopolitical influence) were to enter a new phase.
Events in Palestine had gotten increasingly tense but America was, by and large, able to escape responsibility for any of them. By the time that the three Allied leaders met in February of 1945 at the Yalta Conference, it was clear that the US would have a central role in how the post-war Middle East would be managed despite the fact that the topic was largely ignored there.
In one of the most unsettling portions of Oren’s book, an ill, almost giddy, Roosevelt equivocates with ibn Saud about America’s support for Zionism during a face-to-face meeting on the USS Quincy in February of 1945. Promising “ibn Saud never to assist the Jews at the Arab’s expense” and proffering “assurances for Saudi Arabia’s defense, to do everything ‘short of war,’ to strengthen Syrian and Lebanese independence,” Roosevelt had attempted to square the circle in light of the imminent need to resettle thousands of displaced Jews from Europe.
Roosevelt’s comments on the meeting left the impression that it had been colourful but insignificant. Contemporary observers weren’t so sanguine. As we now know, the President could not have been more wrong. Access to oil and support for Zionism could not be easily reconciled.
Post-World War II efforts by America to assist the people of North Africa and the Middle East to gain independence from European powers were successful but they created their own set of expectations and first among them was that America would solve the region’s problems, soonest.
With the fusing of Palestine and Arabia on the deck of the USS Quincy, we enter territory more familiar to modern readers. Oren’s discussion of the creation of Israel and Harry Truman’s religious values is worth careful review, as is the resistance of much of the State Department. Robert Kaplan’s book The Arabists outlined the role that the descendants of American missionaries in the Middle East played in determining US diplomatic attitudes through the 20th century.
In any event, Power, Faith, and Fantasy continues to inform for another 120 pages but the tale is entirely familiar, if only in its litany of deaths by violence and misadventure. A grim tale, though well told.
Oren has largely succeeded in creating a comprehensive history of America’s relations with the Middle East over the last 225 years. Verging on the encyclopedic, it makes its case that the themes of Power, Faith, and Fantasy are effective in organizing the story. Of the three, Fantasy is the most nebulous and therefore the least compelling. The American appetite for the adventurous and exotic has certainly seen expression in the Middle East. Whether it warrants promotion to the same league as commercial and religious interests is debatable.
Reading about Americans taking their faith really seriously is also a rather disconcerting. Our own era is filled with folk who hold their views deeply unless they might conflict with someone else’s. The self-confidence (if not the self-sacrifice) of American missionaries, explorers, and merchants certainly seems like ancient history.
Who’s best served by this book? An intelligent high school student or undergraduate, most certainly. A general reader needing a reference work (and a reference to other references) can’t go wrong. Power, Faith, and Fantasy is hardly a leisure read but I did find it compelling enough to make it through from beginning to end (paying some overdue library fines in the process).
Nor can I claim enough background to critique the content in detail. I’m sure experts in each country, and each time period, would have nits to pick. Oren manages to be pretty even-handed by taking people at their word, but avoiding any attempt to gloss over events as being the “fault” of one side or the other. Choosing his themes, he can work with the realist, idealist, and populist branches of history to good effect.
In fact, reading Michael Oren’s book has whetted my appetite to re-read WR Mead’s Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed The World. Little wonder that Mead himself provides a glowing back cover blurb. Oren mines the same rich vein of common sense by relating key American appetites (usually contradictory) to the vagaries of history.
Oren fares less well when he’s required to provide bridging text between the periods of history he describes. His attempts to cast the reader’s mind to earlier periods by drawing parallels are painful to read. His history is great. His poetry and metaphor can perhaps be left to one side.
As for the author’s ability to form a conclusion about his subject, it certainly felt at times that he knew the Middle East better than America. The American link to British values established during the Glorious Revolution is skipped because of his self-imposed outline. But if you think that American values in 1776 sprung out of the head of Zeus, you miss much of the frame of mind that Americans evidenced till well into the 20th century. Iceland and Cornwall had plenty of experience with Barbary corsairs before Americans were being enslaved in the late 18th century. It seems a fact worth noting. American Protestantism is not exclusively an American story. Reconciling the values of liberty and security have been the Anglosphere struggle for many centuries. Americans have lived out their best hopes, and worst fears, through their vulnerabilities of commerce and the passions of their spirituality, much as their British ancestors. The British role in the Middle East from 1800 onward can certainly be cast as nefarious, but do we see any parallels between British faith and American faith at the time? It’s not a question answered in this book.
The role of America as victim, partner, teacher, doctor, father, and fixer in the Middle East extends far back beyond our personal recollections. It should give us pause when judging current efforts. Americans were trying to convince 19th Egyptians that impaling their rebellious peasants on fence-posts was counter-productive. They’ve been well-meaning, relentless, self-absorbed, and ultimately more and more powerful throughout the centuries. American power, faith, and fantasy are still at play in the Middle East and the history of those themes, and their depth, is important to consider when reading the papers or a news website.
Oren quotes Philip Roth: “History is where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.” We may not be able to anticipate the unexpected but Oren’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy gives us some hope we can predict some inevitable factors in play for America in that troubled land.
Table of Contents
Prologue: A Passage to Glory 
Introduction: Recovering a Pivotal Past 
Part One: Early America Encounters the Middle East
1. A Mortal and Mortifying Threat 
2. The Hostile and Ethereal Orient 
3. A Crucible of American Identity 
4. Illuminating and Emancipating the World 
Part Two: The Middle East and Antebellum America
5. Confluence and Conflict 
6. Manifest Middle Eastern Destiny 
7. Under American Eyes 
Part Three: The Civil War and Reconstruction
8. Fission 
9. Rebs and Yanks on the Nile 
10. The Trumpet That Never Calls Retreat 
11. American Onslaught 
12. Resurgence 
Part Four: The Age of Imperialism
13. Empire at Dawn 
14. Imperial Piety 
15. Imperial Myths 
16. A Region Renamed and Reordered 
Part Five: America, The Middle East, and the Great War
17. Spectators of Catastrophe 
18. Action or Nonaction? 
19. An American Movement is Born 
20. Arise, O Arabs, and Awake! 
21. The First MIddle East Peace Process 
22. Fantasies Revived 
Part Six: Oil, War, and Ascendancy
23. From Bibles to Drill Bits 
24. An Insoluble Conflict Evolves 
25. A Torch for the Middle East 
26. The Middle East and the Man from Missouri 
Part Seven: In Search of Pax Americana
27. Harmony and Hegemony 
28. The Thirty Years’ War 
Epilogue: A Profound and Visceral Gratitude