America and the Mideast: From the evangelism of Christianity to the
evangelism of Americanism
Michael Oren's history of America in the Middle East is the ultimate
teacher on the repetitive nature of missteps driven both by ignorance and
By Shmuel Rosner
Shvat 2, 5767
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.
paragraphs above, were written as part of a piece I wrote for Slate about
Michael Oren's book, Power, Faith and Fantasy, which deals with America's
involvement with the Middle East from 1776 to the present (read my Slate
column in full here, more paragraphs to
Oren was also my dialog guest this week,
making some interesting comments about America and the region today:
"For the United States, Israel remains the ultimate strategic
bargain. For the cost of a "mere" $3.2 billion a year, less than the cost
of one major warship."
"It is difficult to perceive any
opportunity for improved Iranian-U.S.relations today... Though the
recently published Iraq Study Group Report has called on the Bush
Administration to initiate a dialogue with Ahmadinejad, it is difficult to
imagine how such a dialogue could be conducted."
"Today, there are
rising allegations of disproportionate Jewish influence on the making of
America's Middle East policies, most of it leveled by Israel detractors
such as Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and Jimmy Carter... the fact
remains that America's chief policy-makers are not Jewish and neither are
their primary constituents."
"Americans should not be deluded into
believing that peace in Israel/Palestine will bring tranquility to Lebanon
or Iraq or to the many intractable conflicts of the Middle East."
Robert Kagan, writing about the book in
today's Washington Post, points to Oren's prediction that "the United
States will continue 'to pursue the traditional patterns of its Middle
East involvement." Policymakers "will press on with their civic mission as
mediators and liberators in the area and strive for a pax Americana."
American "churches and evangelist groups will still seek to save the
region spiritually." And Americans will regard the region as both
"mysterious" and "menacing," as they have for centuries, and will seek to
transform it in their own image. Many today may want to disagree, but they
will have to wrestle first with the long history of American behavior that
Oren has so luminously portrayed.
And back to my article on the book: Clearly, the clash of
civilizations didn't start in the last couple of decades but, rather, 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. "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 Herzl 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
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 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?
The book [Oren] 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