By Richard Robbins,

In the midst of the Civil War, a religious leader by the name of Henry Wentworth Monk stopped at the White House for a chat with Abraham Lincoln. The messianic Monk pointed out to the president that whereas black American slaves had their champions, there was one class of persons, the Jewish diaspora, that had none.

“There can be no permanent peace in the world until the civilized nations … atone … for their two thousand years of persecution (of the Jews) by restoring them to their national home in Palestine,” Monk informed Lincoln.

“(This) is a noble dream and one shared by many Americans,” the president answered, assuring Monk that after the war was won and the Union restored, Americans once again would “see visions and dream dreams.” The United States, the president seemed to be saying, might yet turn its gaze eastward.

This anecdote appears in a revealing book. “Power, Faith and Fantasy” chronicles the surprising extent to which Americans and the United States have been involved in the Middle East. For a nation whose foreign policy was unofficially isolationist for most of its history, we certainly took an early (and continuing) interest in the Holy Land and in the territories governed in the 18th and 19th century by the Ottoman Empire; later by a mishmash of European colonial powers; and, finally, by an assortment of strongmen, CIA-installed henchmen, dynastic sheiks, kings and, in the rare case of Israel, democratically elected leaders.

As author, Michael Oren points out, the Barbary pirates (or “Algerian corsairs,” as George Washington called them) prompted the creation of the U.S. Navy. The Navy eventually cleared the Mediterranean of the roving brigands, which opened the way for an influx of Protestant missionaries, adventurers, government agents and tourists. Both Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant dropped in for visits. Herman Melville, struck that so many millions of Middle Easterners had rejected “much of our morality and all of our religion,” commented, “The whole (Middle East) is half melancholy, half farcical, like all the rest of the world.”
In fact, according to Oren, the Middle East simultaneously intrigued and repelled Americans. The fact that the Middle East was the birthplace of Christianity served as a kind of magnet for religious Americans. To walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the disciples absolutely mesmerized generations of travelers.

The early missionary men and women suffered greatly for their piety, however. Scores of them died, many from disease or just plain exhaustion. Despite the hardships, they continued to go — building schools and hospitals and preaching the word of the Lord, where and when they could. The evangelizing largely fell on deaf ears. Islam’s hold on the great mass of Middle Easterners was just too strong.

As for Middle Eastern politics, 19th century Americans were astounded by its brutality. In Cairo, a group of American visitors discovered “a man lying stretched before us, the head severed from the body and placed between the legs.” The dead man’s offense had been to dabble in politics, the Americans later learned.

“Islamism,” another American concluded, was “the grave of inspired truth and liberty.”

None of this, according to Oren, exonerates the Western statesmen who fashioned the peace accords that ended World War I. According to Oren, “Many of the wars and revolutions that have convulsed the contemporary Middle East, as well as the dreams and disappointments of its inhabitants, can be traced to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and to its most inspired, and ultimately deluded, participant” — Woodrow Wilson.

Oren explores the divergent paths of the Zionist and pan-Arab movements, the rise of Islamic fanaticism and American attitudes toward all three, as well as the notion of American intervention in the Middle East. When World War II GIs stormed the shores of Muslim North Africa in 1943, they were reminded by a War Department pamphlet that they were following in the footsteps of the Americans who had subdued the Barbary pirates more than a century earlier. And the message dropped from the bellies of U.S. aircraft to the Muslims on the ground was that “the American Holy Warriors had arrived … to fight the great Jihad of freedom.”

If all of this sounds prescient, it’s not meant to be. Oren avoids the temptation to preach or to identify lessons for readers looking for a guide to contemporary events. The last several chapters are devoted to the acceleration of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, starting with the Truman administration’s tortured diplomatic recognition of Israel in 1948 and punctuated by a series of events: 1967’s Six Day War, the Iran hostage crisis, the first Gulf War and 9/11.

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