Feb/Mar 2007

Oil and Water

Michael Oren traces the roots of the American presence in the Mideast

Gal Beckerman


It's still too early to tell what part of America died in Iraq. Our grandchildren, it's safe to assume, will still be debating this point. But one loss seems already quite obvious: Can one imagine an American leader using the rhetoric of American values—the pursuit of freedom and democracy—to rally the country to a war of choice, to a battle that is not existential? We're much less likely to buy it. Not after the lesson in utter humility that is Baghdad. If the "transformational power of democracy" was the lesson the administration hoped to teach us in Iraq, we have learned instead that democracy cannot be granted, cannot be given like a gift or dropped like a bomb, and that our ideals, for all their purity, are more beautiful in the mouths of our leaders than in the bloodied streets of countries that do not want us telling them how to live.

The American public has simply lost the will to impose American ideals. Listen to the laughter that greets President Bush these days when he talks about victory in this war coming only with "a free and democratic Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself, and is an ally in this war on terror." And it is this dismissive laughter that might alter the entire way in which the United States interacts with the Middle East. Because to hear Michael Oren describe it, the pursuit of these ideals, the spreading of freedom and the sparking of independence, has made up one half of how we have interacted with the region over the 231 years of American existence. In his comprehensive and lively new history of the US role in the Middle East, Power, Faith, and Fantasy, Oren, author of a stunningly authoritative account of the Six-Day War, surveys the entire breadth of this relationship, particularly concentrating on the period from the Barbary Wars of the early nineteenth century to the birth of Israel in 1948—a topic that has not enjoyed much attention.

His main focus (he spends only ninety pages of a seven-hundred-page book on the years from 1948 to the present) is one in which America's entanglements in the Middle East were less fraught. It's only in these past six decades, with the increased dependency on oil, the codifying of the US alliance with Israel, and the rise of Islamic terrorism, that the relationship has come to resemble a sad and tired mariage de convenance between partners who can't stand each other but can't live apart. The period most under Oren's scrutiny is one that, though it included two major military interventions—against the pirates of Tripoli and Rommel's Afrika Korps during World War II—was more about particular individuals who ventured to the region and interacted with the land and its people in a manner better described (to stick with the metaphor) as dating, sometimes deeply infatuated with and other times repulsed and confused by the other. It is the story of Christian missionaries who suffered the desert looking for converts, of explorers who rode upriver into Africa on the Nile, of tourists who stared up at the pyramids of Giza and down their noses at the beggars of Cairo, of ambassadors and diplomats who used whatever power they had to influence kings and sheikhs.

But, Oren contends, America's contacts with the Middle East, even during this earlier period, can be boiled down to an essential dichotomy—as he puts it, a struggle between the furtherance of America's "commercial and strategic interests in the Middle East and the pursuit of their ethical and spiritual ideals." He brings this paradox up again and again in his narrative, elsewhere asking, "Should the United States give precedence to its economic interests in the Middle East or should it forget financial considerations and uphold its democratic ideals?" Even more simply, he describes it as a battle of "ethics versus interests." Sometimes there is a convergence of these two drives, where we serve our national interest by acting according to our highest values. But this is hardly ever the case, and the stories Oren tells here—and to his credit, every page is covered with vivid characters and anecdotes that make the history jump—usually fall into one category or the other. Either the particular actor or the United States as a whole is in pursuit of a higher principle, bringing medicine and education or, as at the Paris Peace Conference, defending the right of the Middle East's peoples to self-determination; or naked self-interest is at play, fighting to defend American trade in the Mediterranean, for example, or forming an alliance with the dictatorial House of Saud in order to gain access to its black gold.

Oren goes even further than simply characterizing the history in this Manichaean way. He also makes a judgment about how America looks once the bill arrives. And although it's in the final pages of the book, it is this perspective that most colors the story he tells:

The history of U.S.–Middle East relations, I reminded myself, was not one
of unqualified kindness and altruism. American oil companies pumped
billions of barrels of Arabian oil not for the betterment of the indigenous
population but for their own enrichment. Successive administrations had
backed the oppressive regimes that advanced America's interests and
conspired to overthrow popular leaders. Yet for all its demerits, the record of
American interaction with the Middle East is rife with acts of decency and
graced with good intentions. The United States was unrivaled in introducing
modern education and health care to the area, in extending emergency relief
and building infrastructure, in obtaining the freedom of colonized nations,
and in attempting to achieve security and peace. On balance, Americans
historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East
and caused significantly less harm than good.

Oren goes out of his way to see the goodness. Just glance at his menagerie of "trader-evangelists, missionary-sailors, and statesmen-explorers" (some with names as gracefully Pynchonesque as Erastus Sparrow Purdy and Januarius Aloysius MacGahan) who came to the Middle East and left a mark or at least came back with many stories. Prominent among these, in Oren's estimation, were the missionaries who spread so thoroughly throughout the region during the nineteenth century that, by 1870, American Protestant denominations had to divvy up the countries so that their work wouldn't overlap. They came to save souls. But when it became clear that they were cultivating on fairly unfertile ground, they switched tactics and began building schools and hospitals, which became their true legacy. Between 1885 and 1895 alone, Oren tells us, "the budget for missionary institutions in the Middle East expanded sevenfold." Twenty thousand students were enrolled in over four hundred schools and nine colleges. Nine missionary-run hospitals treated forty thousand patients a year. Most enduring, though, were the values taught at these universities. Giving up on trying to impart Christianity, the missionaries turned to "instilling secular notions of patriotism, republicanism, and the preservation of individual liberties." These centers of learning, like the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut and Robert College on the Bosporus, played no small part in triggering a revolution in Arab nationalism that would come to play a central role in the region's history during the twentieth century, resulting in the rise of national and pan-Arabist leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Oren also tells us of quirkier connections, like the strange story of the forty-eight Civil War officers, Confederate and Union, who went to Egypt after the war and helped to build the first modern Egyptian military, then joined it in battle, conquering large swaths of Africa. Or the forgotten origins of the Statue of Liberty, which, apparently, was created by the Alsatian sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi with the intention of placing it at the entrance to the Suez Canal, to be called Egypt (or Progress) Bringing Light to Asia. Only when a bankrupt Egypt was incapable of paying for the monument did Bartholdi set his sights on New York's harbor.

Even once America's power grows, Oren keeps the focus on the country's benevolence toward the Middle East's people. Woodrow Wilson comes in for praise for his decision not to declare war on Turkey during World War I. He has made what Oren judges to be the decision of "an intensely principled man" by not antagonizing the Turks and thereby keeping the vast network of Middle Eastern missionary institutions secure and running throughout the war. When the oil companies arrive in earnest in the 1930s, Oren describes the "symbiotic relations" that develop between missionaries and the industry, with many switching to work for the oil firms, the implication being that something of the missionary spirit has passed into this venture as well.

The stories, especially of the nineteenth century, provide a critical historical context that is often lost in the sound bites we take for analysis these days. Especially surprising here is the history of the religious restorationist movement in America, which advocated giving Jews statehood in Palestine as a way of prodding on the Second Coming. Nowback in vogue among some evangelical sects, the idea was so mainstream in the nineteenth century that even Lincoln proclaimed in 1863 that "restoring the Jews to their national home in Palestine . . . is a noble dream and one shared by many Americans." That America was so Zionist before there was a Zionism helps explain how the country's alliance with Israel might be more genetically coded than we often assume—and not, that is, purely a function of a pro-Israel lobby.

Ultimately, though, Oren's insistence that idealism has trumped cold calculation in our dealings with the Middle East rings a little naive. From the Barbary Wars until today, the region has inspired our deepest involvement only when the impetus is something beyond the spreading of democracy and freedom. It's the explanation for why the Middle East has stimulated such engagement. Assuming, as Oren seems to at times, that the attraction is the result of a spell cast by the hundreds of versions of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights that American culture has produced doesn't cut it. Neoconservatives, our current crop of idealists, are never to be heard advocating the military overthrow of Robert Mugabe's dictatorship in Zimbabwe or Sudan's genocidal regimes. Why the Middle East, if not for the economic and strategic position it holds? Even idealism, in the final analysis, is a kind of enlightened self-interest. We want the Middle East to look more like us so that it will be stable enough to help us achieve our own goals. The missionaries themselves, though they gave selflessly, were looking to save the world so they could achieve their own salvation.

How, most of all, to understand idealism as a guiding principle in the wake of American engagement in Iraq? It's this conflict that casts a shadow over the entire history of our involvement in the Middle East. Oren wants to see our problems in Iraq as just the latest battle in the war of "ethics versus interests," but it exemplifies something much more definitive. What do "good intentions" mean when they result in so much death? It's a question this book, for all its extraordinary documentary value, wants to stay away from. But it is, especially now, the most essential question, and one that every new suicide bombing forces on us. What are we doing when we try to instill American values in the Middle East, and when is the price for forcing those values simply too high?

Gal Beckerman is a Brooklyn-based writer. His history of Soviet Jewry is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin.

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