Arabian Nights and American Centuries

By Steven G. Kellman

If you want to understand a nation's interests, follow the money. And on the back of every dollar bill, find an Egyptian pyramid. American involvement with the Middle East is older than the United States of America. To pious English colonists more knowledgeable about Jerusalem and Jericho than Paris and Rome, the Bible offered a metaphorical map of their new Zion. Place names such as Salem, Goshen, Hebron, Babylon, Lebanon, and Bethel confound the Northeast with the Middle East. And a threat from the Maghreb unified the fledgling United States. No sooner did the colonies conclude their War of Independence than they faced another conflict, along the Barbary Coast. Pirates were plundering merchant ships and abducting their crews, obliging the newly sovereign states to combine forces and create a federal navy.

Those who do not study the history of American involvement in the Middle East are doomed to repeat the mistakes of American involvement in the Middle East. "I understand that the unrest in the Middle East creates unrest throughout the region," declared George W. Bush on March 13, 2002. The president's understanding of that restless region would be greatly enhanced by reading Power, Faith, and Fantasy, a fascinating history of American links to the Middle East. Among much else, he would encounter an ancestor also named George Bush who, in 1844, as professor of Hebrew at New York University, called for the restoration of a Jewish state in Palestine. "You know, sometimes when you study history, you get stuck in the past," the current Bush told Vladimir Putin in 2001. In 2007, it seems preferable to be stuck in the past than in Baghhad.

It was not until 1902 that the term "Middle East," coined by Alfred Mahan, an American admiral, began to be used. Michael B. Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, employs a generous definition, examining American interactions with the vast area from Morocco to Afghanistan. As the title of his book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy, suggests, relations with that largely Islamic region have been driven by a mixture of motives - political, military, economic, theological, and romantic. Soldiers, adventurers, diplomats, merchants, missionaries, and tourists are principal characters in the rich historical drama that Oren's book constructs.

The bombing of Libya that Ronald Reagan, retaliating for a terrorist attack in a Berlin nightclub, ordered in 1986 came 185 years after an earlier regime in Tripoli declared war on the United States. Jimmy Carter agonized over the seizure of 52 American hostages in Tehran 176 years after Thomas Jefferson was informed that 305 American sailors were abducted off the coast of North Africa and 75 years after Theodore Roosevelt sent troops to Tangier to free a captured businessman. Freelancing Civil War veterans helped create the modern Egyptian army, almost a century before the CIA helped a colonel in that army, Gamal Abdul Nasser, seize control of Cairo. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not the first intervention in the Middle East by the American military, and it might have developed differently or not at all had those who planned the current war considered its antecedents.

However, the history of American involvement in the Middle East is not merely martial. It includes flamboyant figures such as John Ledyard, the intrepid explorer who died in 1788 while trying to make his way up the Nile. It includes George Perkins Marsh, who became an environmentalist after observing ecological devastation in the Middle East and who, infatuated with Levantine ships of the desert, persuaded Congress to create a camel corps in the American Southwest. It includes Mark Twain, who, traveling through the neighborhood, pronounced Damascus "the very sink of pollution and uncomeliness" and Palestine a "hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land." And it also includes Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Turkey who struggled desperately, futilely to save Armenians from genocide.

Unlike the European empires, the United States, which sometimes even supported independence movements, never set out to colonize the Middle East. But zealous Americans repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to establish religious colonies in the Holy Land. Despite their utter failure to convert Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox Christians to their faith, evangelicals succeeded in founding schools, colleges, and hospitals that continue to benefit the region. Other Americans used the Arabian Nights, rather than the Bible, as dragoman to the exotic Orient, and the results were often ludicrous when not fatal. Those who came for oil cherished blacker fantasies.

American leaders at least since Woodrow Wilson have watched their hopes for a regional pax Americana morph into a pox on all our houses. Oren, who negotiates the complexities of his subject without any sectarian agenda, concludes: "On balance, Americans historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East and caused significantly less harm than good." Yet, as his magisterial account makes clear, within that historical balance lies a heavy weight of avarice and harm. l

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