In 1878, former President Ulysses S. Grant visited the Middle East with his wife, Julia. "I have seen more to interest me in Egypt than in any of my travels," Grant exclaimed enthusiastically. Julia was less impressed: "Egypt, the birthplace, the cradle of civilization - Egypt, the builder of temples, tombs and great pyramids - has nothing," she declared. Traveling to Palestine, she found Jaffa to be "a poor place and very dirty."
These two competing impressions keep cropping up throughout the book - and, more important, throughout history. Americans are fascinated by the Middle East but also alienated from it; they're lured by its mystique and strangeness but also repulsed by its habits. They desire relationships and commerce with its inhabitants but also want to educate and save them - from their bad manners, from their poverty, but most of all from their religion.
The two paragraphs above, were written as part of a piece I wrote for Slate about Michael Oren's book, Power, Faith and Fantasy, which deals with America's involvement with the Middle East from 1776 to the present (read my Slate column in full here, more paragraphs to follow).
Oren was also my dialog guest this week, making some interesting comments about America and the region today:
"For the United States, Israel remains the ultimate strategic bargain. For the cost of a "mere" $3.2 billion a year, less than the cost of one major warship."
"It is difficult to perceive any opportunity for improved Iranian-U.S.relations today... Though the recently published Iraq Study Group Report has called on the Bush Administration to initiate a dialogue with Ahmadinejad, it is difficult to imagine how such a dialogue could be conducted."
"Today, there are rising allegations of disproportionate Jewish influence on the making of America's Middle East policies, most of it leveled by Israel detractors such as Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and Jimmy Carter... the fact remains that America's chief policy-makers are not Jewish and neither are their primary constituents."
"Americans should not be deluded into believing that peace in Israel/Palestine will bring tranquility to Lebanon or Iraq or to the many intractable conflicts of the Middle East."
Robert Kagan, writing about the book in today's Washington Post, points to Oren's prediction that "the United States will continue 'to pursue the traditional patterns of its Middle East involvement." Policymakers "will press on with their civic mission as mediators and liberators in the area and strive for a pax Americana." American "churches and evangelist groups will still seek to save the region spiritually." And Americans will regard the region as both "mysterious" and "menacing," as they have for centuries, and will seek to transform it in their own image. Many today may want to disagree, but they will have to wrestle first with the long history of American behavior that Oren has so luminously portrayed.
And back to my article on the book: Clearly, the clash of civilizations didn't start in the last couple of decades but, rather, in the early days of the American enterprise. It was already at play in the telling meeting of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams with Tripoli's envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. "Every Mussulman who should be slain in battle [against the nations who do not follow the laws of Quran] was sure to go to Paradise," the envoy told the two future presidents.
It was also at play throughout the next decade, as generation upon generation of missionaries, pilgrims, and men of the cloth tried - and failed - to spread Christianity among the Arabs, or, for similar reasons and with similar results, to help the Jews re-inhabit Palestine. Last week, an Israeli official visiting Washington read this letter to his American counterpart; it was written in 1819 by Adams: "I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation." This is an American former president speaking more than half a century before Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat, his groundbreaking book envisioning the founding of a future independent Jewish state.
The details that are the strength of Oren's book are in the stories of Americans who traveled, fought, lived, and died in the Middle East. It is a transition from the evangelism of Christianity in the 19th century to the evangelism of Americanism in the 20th century and beyond. In both cases, Americans wanted to give more than the Arabs wanted to receive. In both cases, there was more failure than success.
But is it really up to America to save the Middle East - or is it just another region with which to keep commerce flowing and strategic interests defended? This was the question troubling Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson when they contemplated whether America should support the Greek (Christian) rebels against Ottoman (Muslim) rule in the early 19th century - a dilemma that still looms large over American policy in the region. Is it really necessary for America to insist on democracy in Iraq, or can it make do with a friendly autocrat? Should it stand with the independent but rather shaky government of Lebanon or let the Syrians influence - and practically take over - the country, as long as it provides for stability?
The book [Oren] has produced is not going to educate Americans about the Middle East. It is about America and its motivations - both public and hidden - and the repetitive nature of missteps driven both by ignorance and good intentions. So, it is a book that can only provide the very first step - maybe the most essential of steps - as America struggles to reshape its policy in the Middle East. Before being educated about the region and the forces that shape it, Americans must re-examine the forces that motivate America.
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