Ignorance Abroad

Michael Oren’s new history of America in the Middle East.

Power, Faith, and Fantasy by Michael Oren

When the State Department created its division for Middle Eastern affairs back in 1909, none of the original staff “could speak a Middle Eastern language or produce a contemporary map of the area.” This anecdote, like many of the hundreds included in Power, Faith, and Fantasy, Michael Oren’s history of America in the Middle East, is all too familiar. A hundred years have passed, and America is still looking for Arabic speakers to serve as diplomats, analysts, and spies.

Last month, the Iraq Study Group reported that only 33 of 1,000 workers in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad speak Arabic, just six fluently. These workers and the other thousands who plan and implement America’s policy in the region will find Oren’s book painfully educational. The repeated mistakes, the misconceptions, the illusions, and the naiveté of the last 230 years are all here.

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.

Clearly, the clash of civilizations didn’t start in the last couple of decades but, rather, way back 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 (an encounter that Christopher Hitchens referenced here last week). “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 Hertzl 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.

In the late 1860s, a group of Civil War veterans who had gone to Egypt to help modernize the army ended up building a school system, intended to teach literacy and American ideals to the local youth. But Egypt today is still 40 percent illiterate, according to the U.S. State Department. Americans wanted to bring about change, but they hardly succeeded. “It will be years, perhaps generations,” Oren quotes former President Teddy Roosevelt, visiting Cairo in 1910, “before Egypt is ready to govern itself” in a proper, modern way. The hundreds of nationalists protesting outside Roosevelt’s hotel conducted “the first anti-American demonstration in the Middle East.”

Were Britain, then ruler of the country, to leave Egypt prematurely, Roosevelt predicted, “Women would be denied the most basic rights.” A century has passed, and “[a]lthough women in Egypt can now legally initiate a divorce without cause,” says Human Rights Watch, “they must agree not only to renounce all rights to the couple’s finances, but must also repay their dowries. Essentially, they have to buy their freedom.” Egypt today governs itself well enough, but it is not a democracy, and it still suffers from many of the flaws Roosevelt detected, America’s help notwithstanding.

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 back 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?

Adams hesitated, because public opinion overwhelmingly favored Greece in its struggle for national and religious independence. Jackson, however, ruled that the national interest demanded that Washington favor the Ottomans, and he presented a treaty to Congress “to foster the intercourse between the countries.” These dichotomies—idealism vs. realism, evangelism vs. commerce, fascination vs. repulsion—are the story of two and a half centuries of American policy in the region. “The debate over the essential nature of the Middle East and its relations with the United States,” concludes Oren, “shows no signs of waning.”

The book he 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.