Commentary Magazine

Power, Faith, and Fantasy by Michael B. Oren

To the Shores of Tripoli
Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present
by Michael B. Oren
Norton. 672 pp. $35.00

Although the writing of history comes in infinite hues, these are mixed from two primary colors, since the historian, in getting us to understand what happened long ago, can ultimately do it in only one of two ways: by appealing either to the past’s resemblance to the present or else to its contrast with it.

Michael Oren, the author of the best-selling Six Days of War, a chronicle of the 1967 Israeli-Arab hostilities, has now written a history of American involvement in the Middle East that is emphatically about resemblance. From the earliest days of American independence, Oren’s new book tells us, the United States had to formulate a Middle East policy—and its considerations in doing so, making allowances for the passage of over two centuries since then, were not very different from those that are at work in our own age.

The first two-thirds of Oren’s book examine an extended period—from the Revolutionary War to America’s entry into World War I—in which the Middle East is not generally thought of as having been much of an American concern. True, every American child learns (or at least did when I went to school) about the Barbary pirates, and who doesn’t know the anthem of the Marine Corps that begins, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”? But just as even most well-educated Americans would be hard-pressed to explain where the halls of Montezuma were or what the Marines were doing in them, so they would be stumped if asked why American forces were fighting in Libya in the days of Thomas Jefferson, or what was so barbarous about the Barbary Coast. (The answer is: plenty, but that’s not where the name came from; it derived from its inhabitants, the North African Berbers.) Such things seem far removed today from the main currents of American history, let alone from the war in Iraq or the battle against al Qaeda.

Oren seeks to show that they are not. Indeed, he maintains, the question of how America should deal with naval marauders operating in the service of various North African chieftains in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was not only a major issue at the time. It was also paradigmatic of the ways in which the United States was to react to later encounters with the Arab world and to the threats posed by it to American interests and security.

North African piracy, which ranged far from the shores of Africa and seriously jeopardized Mediterranean trade routes, became an American no less than a European problem because, by the time the American Revolution broke out, an estimated 20 percent of America’s exports were, Oren writes, “destined for Mediterranean docks, borne in the holds of some 100 American ships.” American merchants traded timber, tobacco, sugar, and, above all, rum for Turkish opium, capers, raisins, figs, and “other Oriental delicacies.”

As long as the American colonies were part of the British empire, these ships were protected by the British fleet, whose deterrent power was augmented by “tribute” money paid by the British to the sheikhs and pashas by whom the pirates were employed. With the advent of independence, however, the U.S. merchant fleet was on its own, with the result that attacks on it multiplied greatly. Valuable cargoes were lost; ships were impounded and turned into enemy fighting vessels; and their crews were taken prisoner, treated humiliatingly, and frequently sold into slavery. The threat was not to American commerce alone, but also to American lives and American pride.

A military response to this threat, however, was slow in coming. In fact, it was not at first even feasible, since America had no warships capable of undertaking it. The need to muster such an expensive force was one of the things, Oren argues, that helped push the separate states toward unity and to the ratification of a Constitution that explicitly authorized Congress to “provide and maintain a navy.” Even then, it was not until 1799 that the first American frigates were ready for battle, and only in 1801 that a pioneer squadron was dispatched to blockade the port of Tripoli. From then until 1815, when an American fleet sank the 46-gun flagship of the bey of Algiers, putting an effective end to the pirates’ activities, American naval vessels were repeatedly sent to fight in the Mediterranean.

And yet, as Oren shows, the war against the Barbary pirates was fought inconsistently, had its share of setbacks, and suffered from domestic criticism. Throughout most of it America continued to ransom captured sailors, to pay protection money to Muslim warlords, and sometimes even to build gunboats for them that were later used against American ships, just as did many European countries whose pusillanimity Americans scorned. Moreover, there were prominent politicians, including Albert Gallatin, Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, who recommended calling off the military campaign and reaching an accommodation with the pirates. Such a course, Gallatin reasoned, would save both money and lives, and many Americans agreed with him, especially when the occasional disaster, like the loss of the frigate Philadelphia in 1803, made things appear to be going badly. Jefferson himself wavered at crucial moments and once, deciding at the last minute to negotiate, ordered the recall of a military force that was already fighting its way overland in order to depose the imperious Tripolitanian ruler, Yusuf Qaramlani.

From the outset, then, U.S. policy toward the Middle East shuttled between, on the one hand, an aggressive military posture fueled by American nationalism and the assertion of American power and, on the other hand, a reluctance to bear the financial and human costs of warfare when more peaceful if less dignified alternatives were available. Both approaches sought to justify themselves by appealing to American images of the Middle East, a still largely unknown region that was just beginning to attract a growing number of American travelers and adventurers, some of whom published memoirs and travel books upon their return. These too, as Oren demonstrates, swung between two poles, one of “romantic notions” of a fairytale Orient of courtly manners and sumptuous riches, the other of disillusioned descriptions of extreme tyranny, poverty, misogyny, and degradation that were equally foreign to the American experience.

As the 19th century progressed, still another way of regarding the Middle East became prevalent among Americans. This was the perspective of Christian idealism, as typified by the many Protestant missionaries who set out to bring not only Christianity but education, freedom, and civilization to a Muslim world they hoped to regenerate. “Anything but marginal,” in Oren’s words, the missionaries and their supporters numbered “farmers and merchants, doctors and artisans, the minimally educated and graduates of the country’s finest colleges, women and men,” and were “deeply imbued with American ideals of individualism, civic virtue and patriotism.” Wishing, as the American historian Oliver Elsbree put it, “to take the best America had to offer to the heathen world,” the missionaries were, Oren writes, “both guileless and patronizing, haughty and unaffected, yet thoroughly well-intentioned at the same time.”

American Protestant missionaries in the Middle East opened schools, ran clinics, and, with a conspicuous lack of success, preached the Gospel wherever they were allowed to. They too came in two types. The first, while aspiring to convert the Jews of the area as well as the Muslims, were sympathetic toward the former, antagonistic toward the latter, and often proto-Zionist; long before political Zionism developed as an ideology among 19th-century Jews, American Protestants dreamed of restoring Jewish independence in Palestine. A second, less common type of missionary admired Arabs and their ways, was hostile to Jews, and ridiculed the idea, to quote the anti-Semitic New England doctor of theology Selah Merrill, that “such a race of weaklings” could be turned into “soldiers, colonists, or enterprising citizens.”

And so gunboat diplomacy, bribe money, a philo-Semitic Protestantism, and a lofty humanitarianism based on often incorrect notions about the improvability of Islamic societies—the “power, faith, and fantasy” of Oren’s title—were, as he describes them, the pillars of American policy toward the Middle East from the time of George Washington until that of Woodrow Wilson, after which America’s expanded global role, the discovery of Middle Eastern oil, and ultimately, the cold war and the Arab-Israeli conflict greatly heightened U.S. involvement in the region. And yet since Wilson’s time, too, it is the same mixture, Oren implies throughout most of his book before making the argument explicit in its final chapters, that has characterized America’s dealings with the Middle East throughout the 20th century and continues to characterize them today. As he writes in introducing his book’s final section:

[Contemporary] American policy- makers, it will be shown, wrestled with many of the same challenges in the area faced by their . . . predecessors and similarly strove to reconcile their strategic and ideological interests. Mythic images of the Middle East, meanwhile, remained a mainstay of American popular culture. . . . The objective [of this final section] is to enable Americans to read about the fighting in Iraq and hear the echoes of the Barbary wars and Operation Torch [the code name for the American landing in North Africa in World War II] or to follow presidential efforts to mediate between Palestinians and Israelis and see the shadows of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Can substituting “Islamic terrorists” or “jihadist regimes” for “Barbary pirates”; F-16 fighter-bombers and Apache helicopters for sail-powered frigates; oil for Turkish opium; foreign economic and military aid for ransom and “tribute” money; the attitudes toward Jews and Muslims of latter-day Christian evangelicals for those of earlier generations of Protestant missionaries, and so on and so forth, really help to explain contemporary American policies in the Middle East?

The obvious answer, if we are not deterministically to regard the present as no more than the past replayed, is: only partly. But this part is an important one.

Certainly, there are many aspects of America’s contemporary involvement in the Middle East that do not need Oren’s account of earlier eras, as instructive as it is, to shed light on them. Powerful countries always have far-ranging commercial and political interests; they also always have military forces that they are sometimes ready to deploy in defense of those interests; and they rarely commit these forces to action without deliberating whether there are not better ways of achieving their goals.

Any history of 18th- and 19th-century British rule in India, or of French governance in North Africa and Indochina, is replete with instances in which the alternatives of armed versus diplomatic intervention were painstakingly weighed just as they were by Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. There may be intriguing parallels between America’s bombing of Libyan targets in 1986 in reaction to Muammar Qaddafi’s sponsorship of terrorism and the Marines’ attack on Tripoli in 1804, but these are not necessarily more meaningful than those between President Eisenhower’s landing of troops in defense of the pro-Western government of Lebanon in 1958 and the British dispatch of General Kitchener to Sudan in 1896, or between America’s role in organizing an international force to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991 and the raising of a multi-national army to put down the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The international chess game is played everywhere with similar moves.

The role of idealism in American foreign policy is, however, something else. It is true that imperial powers like Britain and France also sought to justify their actions abroad, and especially their acquisition of empires, as undertaken idealistically in the name of a “white man’s burden” or a mission civilatrice. And there were Englishmen and Frenchmen who sincerely believed this. Yet it would be hard to point to a single French or English decision that was significantly influenced by such considerations, which were for the most part little more than transparent rationales for doing what seemed best for France or England.

America alone (or so it can be claimed), in addition to pursuing, sometimes ruthlessly, its national interests like any other country, has frequently acted with the best interests of others in mind. One can compile a long list of major American foreign-policy decisions, by no means all of them regarding the Middle East—entering World War I, the Marshall Plan, intervening in Bosnia and Kosovo, etc.—that arguably had, alongside their purely pragmatic calculations, a genuine element of idealism, without which it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to obtain support for them from the American public. More than the citizens of other democracies, Americans really do expect their governments to be a force for good in the world.

This is something that Europeans have always had difficulty understanding. Indeed, the effect of American idealism on the European mind is often to make America seem even more cynical than Europe, since when America announces its idealistic intentions—bringing democracy to Iraq, for example—Europe, construing America in its own image, sees only the hypocrisy of masking the wish to control Iraqi oil as a concern to better Iraqi lives. Since Europeans, on the whole, could not care less about Iraqi lives, they are not disposed to believe that anyone else could, either.

In the case of the Middle East, as Michael Oren quite rightly observes, this tendency in American life has traditionally been reinforced by Christian sentiments that are specific to a region in which all the major events of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles took place. Oren is also right to point out, though he does not perhaps dwell on it quite enough, that the sympathy for Judaism felt by many American Christians is historically unique and goes back to the philo-Semitism of the Puritans, who were themselves influenced by the low-church Protestantism of 17th-century England and its strong identification with the Israelites of the “Old Testament.” If one is looking for historical parallels, it is probably not too much to assert that the differences in attitudes toward the state of Israel that one finds in America today between socially upscale Christian churches like the Presbyterians or Unitarians and more religiously populist groups like Baptists and other evangelicals descend directly from the different ways in which Jews were thought about by the Anglican establishment and Protestant dissenters in Cromwell’s England.

Apart from Jews, evangelical Christians provide the strongest source of popular support that Israel has in America, or for that matter anywhere in the world. When Jews debate about how to relate to such support and express the fear that it is untrustworthy, they might reflect that a point of view with strong roots that are hundreds of years old is not likely to prove a straw in the wind.

It is no doubt only a coincidence, but one is struck by Oren’s mention of the fact that, among 19th-century American Protestants calling for the return of the Jews to Palestine, there was a “distinguished professor of Hebrew at New York University” who published, in 1844, a book entitled The Valley of Vision; or, The Dry Bones of Israel Revived. In it, Oren writes, after denouncing “the thralldom and oppression which has so long ground them to the dust,” [the author] called for “elevating” the Jews “to a rank of honorable repute among the nations of the earth” by re-creating their state in Palestine. Such restitution would benefit not only the Jews, but all of mankind, forming a “link of communication” between humanity and God. “It will blaze in notoriety,” [the author] foretold. “It will flash a splendid demonstration upon all kindreds and tongues of the truth.”

This author’s name, in case you are wondering, was George Bush, and he was a distant ancestor of the current President of the United States.

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