By America's first conflict in the Middle East, which occurred more than two hundred years ago, had nothing to do with oil or Israel. Rather, American commercial interests in the region, which were substantial even before the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, fell under attack by Muslim North African pirates, pursuing jihad at sea. Oren's hefty yet absorbing volume begins by dwelling on the significance of this episode in American history, permitting him to argue that U.S. interests in the Middle East have roots far deeper than Arab oil or the U.S.-Israel alliance. Having begun even before the U.S. Constitution was written, the history of America's involvement in the Middle East offers important insights into present issues.
Oren's analysis points to three distinct yet intertwined themes that help explain the goals and perceptions that inform America's career in the Middle East. These themes are those of his title: power, faith and fantasy.
America's primary regional involvement, Oren posits, has nearly always been tied to the pursuit of national interests through the use of power, whether it be diplomatic, economic, or military. Further, Americans suppose themselves morally superior to the Arabs, Turks, and Persians and their brutal, backward, and barbaric lands—a prejudice, Oren writes, that "landed with the Pilgrims at Plymouth." Yet, Americans remain seized of certain romantic, exotic notions of "the mysterious, menacing Orient," characterized by "the desert's immutable beauty and the romance of its perambulant tribes." Abutting this tension is a strong proto-Zionist passion that, since America's colonial period, has excited many Americans with notions of restoring the Jewish people to their biblical homeland. The American spirit of liberty, democracy, and justice led to American independence and also led Americans to engage in missionary efforts, religious and otherwise, to transform the Middle East in their own distinctly American, liberal, Christian image.
Oren's study is more of a persuasively told story than a comprehensive analysis. Yet his narrative is brisk, offers choice anecdotes, interesting trivia, perceptive observations, and at times, real insights that demand greater attention and focus. His idea, for example, that continued American failure at understanding the Middle East stems not from Orientalist conceptions of a demeaning otherness but rather from deeply rooted naïve notions of sameness warrants further consideration. Likewise his readings of President Woodrow Wilson's decision not to declare war against Turkey in 1917-18, and of Dwight Eisenhower's support for Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1956 Suez Crisis offer insights into enduring patterns.