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Two Centuries of U.S. Power Politics in the Middle East

A popular view of current U.S. policy in the Middle East is that the Bush Administration, in using force to bring democracy to Iraq, has drastically changed the course of America's relations with the Arab and Muslim world. But a new book contends U.S. involvement in the Middle East has a surprisingly long and turbulent history.

In his new book, Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, Israeli-American historian Michael Oren examines two centuries' worth of archival documents and the personal letters of prominent Americans dating back to the founding fathers. What he finds is that the United States' preoccupation with the Middle East is no modern phenomenon, but one rooted in the earliest days of the republic.

"I think it's impossible to understand American involvement in Iraq today without going back into American history," Oren says. "I mean way back, to the 18th century, to the 1700s, to understand that America has been using power in the Middle East since the day of its inception. America began its involvement in the Middle East on a military leg," Oren points out. "In the 1770's, about 20 percent of American foreign trade went through the Middle East and that trade was falling prey to pirates, who were operating out of four North African states, which are today Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya."

Indeed, as Michael Oren notes, the first American soldiers to die in a battle overseas were killed by those Arabic-speaking pirates during their running battles from 1783 to 1815. So, too, the first marine operation in an American foreign war was against Arabs in Tripoli, North Africa, in 1805.

Oren says that while the U.S. played a prominent role in the Middle East during World War I, it was not a military role.

He points out that American missionaries were operating in the Middle East for about a century before World War I. "They were building schools, building hospitals," he explains. "Some Americans built the Middle East's most modern universities. The American University of Beirut and the American University of Cairo were built by these missionaries."

Historian Michael Oren, a visiting professor at Harvard and Yale universities, says America's decision not to go to war against the Ottoman Empire during World War I was largely faith-based.

"When the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917," Oren explains, "President Woodrow Wilson had to decide whether to declare war against all of the Central Powers: Germany, Austria and Hungary, and the third ally in that alliance was the Ottoman Empire. Both houses of Congress strongly urged Wilson to go to war against the Ottoman Empire, but Wilson was the grandson, the son and the nephew of Presbyterian Christian ministers. U.S. missionary groups sent representatives to the White House to tell President Wilson: if you go to war in the Middle East against the Turks, they will do to our missionaries what they have been doing to the Armenians."

Michael Oren adds that Wilson did not want the American missionaries to be massacred, and decided not to go to war in the Middle East. His decision ultimately gave Britain and France a much freer hand to redraw the map of the region after the war.

Early U.S. support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine is another American policy that has influenced the dynamics of the Middle East for centuries. Oren says the Puritan settlers from England were among the first members of the Israeli lobby. They urged John Adams, the second American President, to envision 100,000 Israelites conquering Palestine. Later, Oren writes, Woodrow Wilson would aspire to restore the Holy Land to the Jews. When President Truman recognized the United Nations-mandated state of Israel in 1948, he did so, Oren recalls, with a sense of sense of historical and religious destiny.

Michael Oren points out that Saudi Arabia's first king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, had bluntly warned President Franklin Roosevelt before Israel's birth that Arabs would die fighting to resist a Jewish state, and, Oren says, he was right. Since 1948, a succession of wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors has forced the United States to undertake perennial peacemaking efforts.

"America has led the search for Arab-Israeli peace going back to the Truman administration in 1940s," Oren says, adding few administrations have succeeded. "We have learned from Jimmy Carter's experience in the 1970s -- which was one of the few cases in which America -- that the prerequisite for a successful diplomatic process are an Arab and an Israeli who are very strong in their own countries and who are committed to the process."

Oren notes that it was America's missionary contacts with Arab countries that laid the groundwork for U.S. oil interests in the region. He says the American relationship with Saudi Arabia started with American missionaries traveling in the 1890s to the Arabian Peninsula, where they built hospitals and provided health care to Bedouins, including Saud, the head of that tribe. When the search for oil began in 1928, Orens says, Saud gave the American companies the contracts to prospect for oil.

"It is oil that leads America to adopt many of its policies," the author says, "even the many controversial policies, such as supporting autocratic Arab regimes as a part of the American search for stability in the Middle East that will allow a continuous flow of oil."

Michael Oren believes Americans have always been enthralled by the Middle East, as much by the exotic fantasies of magical genies and flying carpets as by its ancient history and authentic cultural attractions. The region, he says, has impressed some of America's greatest writers.

Samuel Clemens, for one, came to the Middle East and afterward published his collected dispatches from the region under the title "Innocents Abroad," using his new pen name, Mark Twain. That book became the number one best selling book in the second half of the 19th century.

In Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, historian Michael Oren describes a long but unfinished history. Oren predicts that with its continued dependence on oil, its resolve to crush radical Islamic terrorism, and its enduring missionary zeal to promote more open societies, America's engagement with the peoples of the Middle East is likely to continue for many years to come.

[Michael Oren was interviewed on VOA's Talk to America program.]