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September 2, 2008

Power, Faith, and Fantasy

America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present
Michael B. Oren – ISBN - 9780393330304

This title is derived from America’s attitudes informed by faith with its Abrahamic religions: fantasy of early adventurers and the narratives of Scheherazade: and power, which we have been caused to use following the departure of the European colonialists after WW II, which left us as the sole Western nation represented there. Before 1948 and the Balfour Declaration, encouraging European Jews to immigrate to Palestine, America’s interest in the Middle East was extremely limited.

It is an adroit accounting, and while lengthy it is well worth the read. Oren explores history in detail with an absence of tedium, and his coverage of the continuing Mid-East dilemma from Truman thru Bush is as instructive as it is comprehensive. He carefully avoids misleading conclusions, reminding of Gide’s old admonition to “believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.” He offers neither conclusions nor remedies,

The Barbary Wars are explained in sufficient detail to bring the unexposed “up to speed,” and he emphasizes that even then the public wasn’t, initially, much enamored of intervention. Jefferson had difficulty explaining to cohorts his study of the Koran and its implications. Then, as now, the United States was the only serious challenger to Muslim powers. Geo. Washington had emphasized his refusal to become “tributary to such banditti.” Pursuant the threat, Congress declared war, for which purpose our navy was built.* The deciding factor was neither economic nor political, but psychological and moral; the U.S. would not bear the disgrace of kowtowing to Pirates. The events “played a concrete role in creating a truly United States,” capable of defending the homeland and our economic interests abroad. Our victory earned our acceptance by Europeans; of equal import, it fostered national confidence. “Few events . . . had a more transformative impact on America than its war in the Middle East.” (*A great new book, Six Frigates, is now available and will be reviewed when I get around to it.)

Following this period, America sent numerous missionaries to “the Orient,” whose undertaking was conversion--which proved almost impossible--along with medical care and education. Schools and hospitals profoundly affected the milieu, and earned much gratitude from the natives, who saw that America was not there to conquer, but to assist. Inasmuch as the area had not been of interest to Europe, the evangelical mission excited the U.S. as no other place. The Ottoman Empire was considered an enemy by Europe, thus America—which had no dog in the fight—prevailed quite easily. She had come not for colonies or wealth, but for assistance, and many of the schools and hospitals are still in existence a century or more after their founding.

It was during these early times, with the exposure to travels or the reading of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and the like, that America became enamored of the Orient. This was followed by visits of illuminati such as Twain, who, in his own inimitable way, previsited “the Ugly American” with his unabashed savaging of the culture, reviewing his travels and travails. “Twain rarely [lauded] any ethnic or religions group, yet his disdain from Muslims was unrivaled.”

In reviewing WW I, which largely destroyed the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Dynasties, Oren walks the reader thru the Armenian holocaust, with the Turkish annihilation of upwards of 1.5 million Armenians, which even 100 years later, is still an important regional issue. Afterwards, still more schools and hospitals were sponsored by Americans.

With the discovery of oil, already becoming a world necessity, he reviews the dominance of Europeans. In this discussion he elaborates upon what a mess Europe made with artificial nations defined by a few natural boundaries and a lot of conveniently straight lines (see any map), which is responsible for many of the present day problems in the area. There were not, really, any nation states, per se, and the agglomeration of various tribes left, amongst other problems, the Kurds, distributed between three “nations.” They picked their favorite tribes for special consideration, and ostracized others, which lead to the dominance of the Sunni minority of Iraq, ultimately led by Saddam.

As well, he emphasizes the naiveté of President Wilson and others. Moving along he also exposes “Lawrence of Arabia” for the fraud he really was, as he demonstrates that the Jews were always outcasts, though many of the lineage of many predated the Arabs by a millennium or more.

There are sufficiently thorough discussions to explain WW II thru eyes of the West, the Arabs, and others of the indigenous tribes; not pretty, but productive of understanding for the careful reader, as he identifies the difficulties of Democracy, “a matter of faith—a faith in the soul of man, faith in human rights,” and the dilemma of reconciling its premises with people who have no such faith. It is totally foreign to their cultural milieu. He also reminds of a different America than that in which we now live, thanks to “enlightened(?)” attitudes and our own 5th column of “progressives” . . . and, of course, the altered attitudes of the West in general and middle east in particular, with the advent of its wealth, its nationalism, and the rise of militant Islam.

The last third of the book delves into the post WW II era. He explains it all with clarity I have never experienced, and imparts an understanding I have never had. He explores in historic order, which the list below is not:
• the foundation of Israel
• decolonization of the region, with appointments of European favored “leaders”
• the evolution of many militaristic, socialist, dictatorships (Egypt, Iraq, Syria and its suzerainty over Lebanon), and to a lesser extent Jordan . . . and of course the unrealized disaster of “Arab Palestine”
• the rise of Nasser and his hopes for resurrection of Arab glory (viewing himself as Saladin), which authored the Suez Crisis
• the threat of post-war communist influence of the USSR
• the “philosophic” expulsion of the USSR by Sadat, later resulting in accommodation between Egypt and Israel, authored by the two in secret conclave and hosted by Jimmy Carter . . . ultimately resulting in the assassination of Sadat
• the rise of the disingenuous “Orientalism” of Edward Said
• the continuing Palestinian conundrum and the Arab-Israeli wars, and the (later) overthrow of the Shah if Iran with its capture of the American Embassy with the Hostage Crisis of Carter
• the rise of militant Islam thru the expenditure of Saudi funds, and indirectly promulgated by the acquiescence of serial American administrations. The Saudis were important to the effort to keep the USSR out, and the main source of middle-east oil within our zone of influence. “Our S.O.B.”
• the necessarily increasing fusion of Israel and the U.S., with its predictable antagonism of the Arabs
• relatively total “dominion” of the area by the U.S., along with its responsibilities, real and implied, with the yawningly implicit and actual disasters at every turn . . . with little assistance (and common outright opposition) from Europe and many other of the world’s countries, which have has to, and augmented, the growing deterioration of the region
• the ultimate failures of every American administration from Eisenhower thru Clinton, and now Bush, despite monumental interventions, not all of them well—if honestly—conceived.
• a chronicle of the first Gulf War and its aftermath; the disaster of not “taking out” Saddam’s army, and his reprisals against rebelling Kurds and Shia, encouraged by Bush 1
• and much more. In essence, the Pax Americana wasn’t very successful (but, then, you knew that!)

No administration is exempt from its failures. Only the approaches to it were different. Democrats tended to favor carrots, Republicans sticks. Actually, the inconsistencies of foreign policy are as much at fault, since “the deciders” tend to change every 4-8 years, and attitudes change even within administrations. Hence there is no consistent policy.

Nonetheless, after completion of a serious read, you will come away with a much enhanced understanding of the situation . . . if not at all clear on solutions. Regretfully, there may not really be any, but it is well to acknowledge that the Middle Eastern mind understands only power and force; viewing everything else as weakness and opportunity.

Posted by respeto at September 2, 2008 3:42 PM