JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I’m Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I’d like to welcome you all here today.
This morning it is a great pleasure to welcome the widely acclaimed and remarkably gifted historian Michael Oren to our breakfast program. He will be discussing his most recent book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.
This is a work that not only fills a void that has long existed in the literature on the Middle East, but is chock-full of unusual information and surprising discoveries. Although publishers have issued a great number of books about this region, before the release of this particular one there had never been such a comprehensive history, nor understanding, of America’s longtime involvement there.
Now, if I were to ask anyone sitting in this room today when did America’s interest in the Middle East begin, some of you might respond by citing our preoccupation with the Saudi oilfields; others may recount the CIA’s involvement in bringing Nasser to power in Egypt; or the overthrow of Mossadeq in Iran; still others may refer to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, any one of these replies would be incomplete, simply because America’s interest in the Middle East is far older and more complex than most of us ever imagined it to be. In fact, you may be surprised to know that our connection to this region can be traced back to Colonial times, even before the founding of this country.
In Power, Faith, and Fantasy our speaker gives an extraordinary look at history as he confronts America’s preoccupation with this region and makes clear just how involved we have been for the past 230 years.
Although the study of history can be approached in different ways, Professor Oren has chosen to draw parallels between our past actions and our present behavior. As a historian, he firmly believes that if we are to make an informed judgment about the future it is vital that we understand the "here and now," which he illuminates so poignantly by exploring the profound historical relevance of the "there and then."
As the title indicates, our guest has used the themes of power, faith, and fantasy to establish a framework that shows how America’s involvement in the Middle East tended to follow distinct patterns. These themes provide the context through which it is hoped that Americans can gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of our current relationship in this part of the world.
Accordingly, power is seen as the pursuit of America’s interests, not only militarily but diplomatically and economically.
The second major theme, faith, refers to the irrepressible impact of religion in the shaping of American attitudes and policies towards the Middle East, as missionaries of all denominations helped to fuel America’s involvement and introduce new ideas about health care, human rights, education, and social equality.
The third critical idea is the transcendent effect of fantasy and how our imagination, based on the exploits of real live heroes and fictional characters, came to influence not only our perception of the area but impacted on government policy as well.
Given our present involvement in this part of the world, Power, Faith and Fantasy will not only enrich your understanding of the Middle East but also substantiate just how dangerous it has been to shoot first and ask questions later.
Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our very special guest, Michael Oren, and we are delighted to have you join us.
MICHAEL OREN: Good morning, everyone. Thank you, Joanne. It’s such a great pleasure to be here with an urbane and august audience at the Carnegie, having narrowly escaped a fatal ribbing on "The Daily Show" the other night with Jon Stewart.
I made the mistake of mentioning to him that in 1776 one-fifth of America’s trade ran through the Middle East and that the trade involved, in essence, large barrels of rum, Boston in particular, which were sent out of New England to the Ottoman Empire. There it was dumped and the barrels were filled up with opium. From there, the ships went to China and they dumped the opium in China and filled it up with tea and came back to New England.
Whereupon Jon Stewart said: "Let me get this straight. The Americans were giving them booze and drugs and we’re getting tea?"
I said, "It’s even worse. We dumped the stuff in Boston Harbor."
How’d you like to be on that show? I had to work very quickly.
We are going to start with an imaginary situation this morning. Imagine that you are a high-ranking American diplomat in the Middle East and you are about to meet with an emissary of a prominent Middle Eastern leader to discuss the possibility of establishing peace between this Middle Eastern kingdom and the United States.
You open your discussion by telling this Middle Eastern leader that the people of the United States desire nothing more than peace between your nation and his; have no animosity whatsoever toward the Middle East, to anybody in the Middle East; all Americans desire to do is to conduct their trade freely and bother no one.
And suppose, rather than responding and embracing these enlightening offers, the Arab representative says no, his country wants to go to war. Suppose he tells you that God has empowered his people to rule over all infidel states, including yours, and that if one of the believers should fall in this battle against infidels, then he shall alight immediately to paradise.
How, then, would you as an American diplomat respond? Well, probably you would respond by saying, "America will have no choice but to fight this threat. America has no option but to go to war." This was precisely the conclusion reached by the American ambassador, in this case the American ambassador to France, who first heard this emissary’s response.
His name was Thomas Jefferson. His interlocutor was one Abdul Rahman Adja, who was the envoy of the pasha of Tripoli, which is today in Libya. The date was March 1785. Pirates from Tripoli, from Algiers (what is today Algeria), Tunis, (which is today Tunisia), and Morocco—the so-called Barbary States—had seized dozens of American ships in the Mediterranean and kidnapped more than 100 American sailors.
America was facing its first hostage crisis in the Middle East. And, since so much of America’s trade went through this area, it actually posed a mortal threat, an existential threat, to the fledgling and fragile economy of the newly independent United States. Now, Jefferson wanted to fight the pirates. He first turned to the Europeans and asked them to form a coalition against the pirates. They turned him down. Jefferson had no option but to turn to his own United States.
But America had a problem. America did not have a navy in 1785. America had managed to survive its war of independence without one warship intact. They had all been captured, sunk, or sold off. Nor did the United States in 1785 have the means for creating a navy. The states were still loosely federated under the Articles of Confederation. There was no federal government. There was no government that was capable of raising taxes to make a navy. Moreover, many Americans were afraid of having a navy. They had recently had a bad experience with a navy, the British navy, and were afraid that if America created a navy, it could turn its guns on America’s inchoate democratic institutions; it was liable to get America embroiled in all sorts of nasty European entanglements.
And, while Jefferson wanted to fight, a great many Americans said: No. It is better to negotiate with the pirates, better perhaps to pay them off, which was the age-old European practice. We should really do everything we can, they said, to avoid getting bogged down in an open-ended war in the distant Middle East.
Now, more than 220 years later, Americans are still confronting similar threats from the Middle East, and grappling with similar choices: whether to fight or to negotiate; whether to palliate their enemies in the region or to destroy them. Today, Americans are being asked to make fateful decisions in the Middle East, decisions that will not only impact their future but the future of people throughout the world.
And yet, few Americans are aware of the situation I just described to you this morning, aware that their own Founding Fathers faced these similar situations, situations not at all unlike their own today. Few Americans know of their very rich, centuries-long legacy in the Middle East. It’s a multifaceted heritage of war and statecraft, altruism and beneficence, wild artistic imaginings, and swashbuckling adventure—especially swashbuckling adventure.
Rather, a great many Americans seem to believe, as Joanne alluded to earlier, that America’s involvement in the Middle East began sometime in the aftermath of World War II, with the rise of Arab oil, the advent of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the outbreak of the Cold War.
Many Americans would be shocked to hear that not only Jefferson, but also Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln had Middle East policies; that Egyptian soldiers fought on the North American continent during the Civil War; that one of Lincoln’s assassins managed to escape to Egypt; that the original Statue of Liberty showed a veiled Arab woman holding a torch, and that the original "Star Spangled Banner," the national anthem of the United States, spoke of turbaned Middle Easterners bowing in humility to the star-spangled flag of the United States. How would you like to sing that before a ball game?
I, too, would have been surprised. As a graduate student twenty years ago, I was shocked when my professor of modern Arab history mentioned an episode that occurred in the late 1860s in Egypt. A group of Civil War veterans, Confederate and Union officers, were sent by General Sherman, the Chief of the U.S. Army, to Egypt to help modernize the Egyptian army. While there, these officers proceeded to build a school system to teach democracy and literacy to Egyptian kids. Now, I found this just fascinating.
I ran off to the library. I wanted to find out more about it. Almost nothing had been written about this episode. But, more glaring was the absence of any single text that would take this experience of Civil War officers in Egypt and place it in some type of meaningful historical context of American involvement in the Middle East. The fact is there were many books about Britain’s involvement in the Middle East, there were a couple of books about France’s involvement in the Middle East. There was no one comprehensive history of America’s engagement in this very crucial area.
Flash forward twenty years to the aftermath of 9/11, and suddenly American's need for a historic point of reference for plotting their course in the Middle East had become acute, so much so that when my editor, the editor of this book and a good friend of mine, Bob Weil, and I were having dinner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2002, and he asked me, "Okay, what is the one book about the Middle East that has yet to be written but which must be written?" I didn’t hesitate a nanosecond: America in the Middle East.
The great challenge was: how can you begin to approach this very long, very complex history and present it to readers in a meaningful and accessible way? The only way was to identify the themes which somehow bound this narrative. I identified three of these themes.
The first, the most obvious, is power. Power is the pursuit of America’s interest in the Middle East through the use of military, economic, and diplomatic means. Power described that first dilemma, faced by Jefferson and other early Americans, over whether to bribe the Barbary pirates or to somehow fight them back. That dilemma loomed particularly large in May of 1787, as the delegates from the states convened in Philadelphia to discuss whether to transform these Articles of Confederation into a more binding constitution. They met under the shadow of this hostage crisis. By May 1787, there were 127 American captives in Algeria alone.
Indeed, the debates over the ratification of the Constitution are rife with references to the existential dangers posed by these Middle Eastern kingdoms, and statements to the effect that "if we do not create a federal government, create a navy, we will be destroyed as a nation" come not just from the delegates from maritime New England; they come from Georgia, they come from South Carolina. According to one delegate from Kentucky, "If we do not fight back against Barbary, we will have Algerines"—as they were called back then—"landing on our shores in North America and imprisoning our sons and daughters."
America did unite under a constitution, and six years later Congress voted to build six warships. According to the bill of Congress, these warships were being created specifically to fight in the Middle East.
A long and often painful war followed. The first American servicemen killed overseas after American independence were killed in the Middle East. But it was not before the Marines marched on Tripoli in 1805—hence, the lyrics in "The Marines' Hymn"—and not before Commodore Stephen Decatur, for whom twenty-seven cities are named in this country, bombed the shores of North Africa in 1850—only then were the pirates finally subdued.
Americans had learned their first lessons of power in the Middle East. A mortal threat from this area had compelled the United States to become truly a united states, to become a singular rather than a plural noun. It had forced Americans to create power and for the first time to project that power thousands of miles from America’s shores. And by creating a navy not to rule the waves but to free them, America opened the seaways to the Middle East to the agents of American faith.
Faith, the second of these themes. By faith, I mean the impact of Christianity, largely Protestant Christianity, on America’s Middle Eastern involvement. We’re talking about an almost irrepressible missionary urge, not only to evangelize the Middle East, but also to imbue it with America’s civic faith of democracy and basic human freedoms.
I say that basically the faith in America has two sides of the same coin: there is the religious missionary urge to impart Christianity; but on the other side of the coin is the civic version of the idea, of bringing democracy and republican government to the world. They exist side by side.
Now, this is the faith of the Colonial Americans, who viewed themselves as the settlers of a new Promised Land. They proceeded to give no less than 1,000 Biblical place names to their towns and cities, particularly along the Eastern Seaboard—those of you know who live in New Canaan, Connecticut, or in Bethlehem, or in Jericho. They considered themselves to be the "new Jews," who were divinely enjoined to help restore the "old Jews" to the Promised Land, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire and known as Palestine.
Tellingly, the United States had a great contest to determine what would be its great seal. This was after 1783, after the peace with Britain. There was one candidate for the great seal that showed an American bald eagle clutching thirteen arrows in its talons. But a close runner-up was the seal that showed Moses leading the children of Israel out of bondage across the desert and into the Promised Land. That almost became the great seal of the United States. You almost had Moses on your lecterns at the White House. That seal was designed by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Three years after the end of the Barbary Wars, in 1818, the first American missionaries, Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons, left Boston for the Middle East. Their stated goal was to help restore the Jews to the Holy Land, to help recreate a Jewish state there. But they also wanted to convert the Jews in the process, and they wanted to convert the rest of the peoples of the Middle East. To their chagrin, however, Fisk and Parsons discovered that the Jews in the Middle East did not want to become Congregationalist Protestants. They also learned that if they tried to convert Arabs, particularly Muslim Arabs, they risked losing their heads.
So a frustrated Fisk and Parsons gave up on proselytizing and they turned to institution building. They built the Middle East’s first modern elementary schools, later the first modern secondary schools, and ultimately their descendants built the Middle East’s first modern universities, what later became the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, and Roberts College in Turkey [now known as Bogazici University].
Through these institutions, the missionaries no longer preached Christianity, but rather they imparted American ideals of tolerance, of republican government, and especially of patriotism. American educators became the primary catalysts for the emergence of an entirely new identity in the Middle East, the identity of Arab nationalism, an identity that embraced Muslims and Christians and Jews and Druze under this common rubric, which did not exist before.
Many of those descendants of the missionaries went on, because they spoke Arabic and they grew up in the Middle East, to serve in the State Department. These became the so-called Arabists. And later they served in the oil companies, which in the 1930s began to exert a substantive influence on America’s Middle East policies.
Back home, meanwhile, the support for the recreation of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine, the so-called Restorationist Movement, remained prominent. John Adams, the second president of the United States, said openly that he wished for "someday 100,000 Jewish soldiers as well-disciplined as the French army"—talking about the French army back then—and that the French army would march back into Palestine and reclaim it as a Judean kingdom.
Asked what he thought of the idea in 1863, Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that the dream of restoring the Jews to their statehood in Palestine was one that was shared by a great many Americans and expressed the hope that the United States could help realize that dream once it emerged from its terrible Civil War.
Perhaps the greatest single expression of the Restorationist idea in 19th century America appeared in a book published in 1844, called The Valley of Vision. It specifically called on the U.S. government to spearhead an international effort to detach Palestine from Ottoman control and to convey it to the Jews so they could make their state.
That book became an antebellum best-seller. It sold about a million copies, an extraordinary number. That would be a lot by today’s standards. It was certainly a lot by early-19th-century standards. The Valley of Vision was authored by the head of the Scripture and Hebrew Department of New York University. His name was Professor George Bush. Two days in the genealogy room at the Library of Congress enabled me to determine without a doubt that Professor George Bush is the direct forbear of two American presidents of the same name.
For other Americans, however, merely envisioning this return of Jews to Zion was insufficient. Starting in the 1830s, groups of American Christians left the United States to create colonies in Palestine. A great number of American women were involved in this, by the way—Harriet Livermore from New Hampshire, Clarinda Minor from Washington.
All of these colonies had the same goal: it was to teach the Jews how to farm. They were good Jeffersonians, and they believed that the basis of any viable modern state was an agrarian economy. Jews, over the course of 2000 years of exile, had forgotten how to farm, and so, as good Christian Americans, they felt that it was their duty to teach the Jews how to farm.
In 1855, for example, Mr. Dickson, his wife, and twin daughters, left Groton, Massachusetts, and set up a farmstead outside of Jaffa, called Mount Hope. Their daughters married two German preachers, also brothers, Johann and Friedrich Grosssteinbeck, and they set out to try to teach the Jews how to farm. The Jews did not want to learn how to farm, alas, and the colony barely survived. It faced starvation, disease, and ultimately attacks.
And yet, still these colonists came. Some of you have been to Jerusalem. You know the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem is the vestige of the last of these efforts, from 1884.
But in 1867 a more interesting initiative was mounted by George Adams of Indian River, Maine, who left with 156 artisans, craftsmen, and farmers. They picked up, left Maine with seventeen clapboard houses, prefabs—two of them you can still see standing in downtown Jaffa—and set up another colony. Again they suffered terribly in their effort to try to help recreate this Jewish state in Palestine.
The Christian advocates of Jewish statehood and their no-less-devout detractors in this country would continue to disagree—and they are disagreeing still, as you can tell by one glance at Jimmy Carter’s recent book—and yet the fact remains they spring from the same tradition, and that is the tradition of the impact of faith on American attitudes toward the Middle East.
And finally, we come to the most elusive and mystical theme. That is the theme of fantasy. This is the image of the Middle East as the realm of unbridled romance and eroticism, or dark-clad nomads who, spurring their steeds, sweep innocent Western damsels off into the desert. You all laugh because you’ve seen the movies.
The roots of America’s Middle East fantasy go very far back. Back in the 18th century, the second-most-popular book on the Colonial American bookshelf, after the Bible, was The Arabian Nights. Everybody read it over and over again. It’s actually not Arabian nights. These are medieval Persian tales that contain the stories of Sinbad and Ali Baba, these images of minaret-orbiting carpets and veiled but available harem girls. Read it. The Arabian Nights is, even by 21st century standards, rather pornographic.
In the 19th century, people actually believed that this is what the Middle East looked like. They had no other point of reference. By the 19th century, these lurid myths had brought thousands of American tourists to the Middle East. By the 1860s, Americans accounted for the single largest group of tourists in the Middle East. Everyone was complaining how the Americans bought up all the hotel rooms in Damascus.
One of those who came to the Middle East was a writer whose previous book, Moby Dick, had sold a mere 3,000 copies, and he was depressed and desperate for some type of new inspiration for a travel novel. So in 1855 Herman Melville packed two shirts and a toothbrush and he left for the Middle East. He kept a vivid diary of his travels. I strongly recommend you read it. It’s beautiful writing.
Twelve years later, another aspiring American writer, a humorist from Missouri, named Samuel Clemens, embarked on a steamship out of Philadelphia, THE QUAKER CITY, that took him to the Middle East. Later he would publish his collected dispatches from the trip as a book called Innocents Abroad, which became the largest-selling book of the second half of the 19th century in the United States. He published it under his new pen name, Mark Twain.
Melville and Twain and others soon learned that the Middle East bore absolutely no resemblance to what they had read in The Arabian Nights, and yet still the fantasies persisted. By the early-20th century, they were embraced by the entertainment industry, by movies such as The Sheik, which propelled Rudolf Valentino to stardom; and by the hit song of that same year, 1921: "I Am the Sheik of Araby, My heart belongs to thee. At night when you’re asleep, into your tent I creep." Make no mistake about it, there’s the fantasy.
There followed an almost unbroken series of Arabian Nights knockoffs. You know how many "Ali Babas" and "Sinbads" Hollywood has made—Indiana Jones fantasies, Saharas, and Hidalgos.
Mystified by these myths, many Americans might have wondered why picturesque men on camels would leave their palmy oases one day, come to the United States, hijack airliners, and crash them into American skyscrapers.
Power, faith, and fantasy. Sometimes they exist in independent themes in American history, but more often they intertwine, threadlike, throughout this narrative.
For example, fantasy met up with faith in 1855, when Herman Melville during his journey through the Middle East happened to visit the Dickson colony outside of Jaffa and had lunch with Dickson, his wife, and his two daughters, and with the Grosssteinbeck boys, Friedrich and Johann.
One month later, in January 1856, the Dickson colony was attacked by Arab bandits. Dickson himself was knocked mortally on the head. His wife and two daughters were brutally and repeatedly raped. We have a terrible deposition given to the American Consul General that describes this rape in vivid detail. Friedrich Grosssteinbeck was shot in the groin and died a painful, long death. The only survivor of the Dickson colony was Johann Grosssteinbeck, who at that point left Palestine for California, and there he Americanized his name.
Melville alluded to this attack in his 18,000-line poem "Clarel," but so too did Johann Grosssteinbeck’s grandson, John Steinbeck, in such tragic and biblical epics as East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath.
Faith blended with fantasy again 1867, when The QUAKER CITY, still carrying the soon-to-be-famous Mark Twain, evacuated the last starving survivors of the George Adams colony from Jaffa. Power then mixed with faith in 1903, when Teddy Roosevelt sent battleships into Beirut Harbor to protect American missionaries who he believed were threatened there by the Ottoman authorities.
Faith then triumphed over power in World War I, when President Wilson had to determine whether the United States in entering the war would also declare war not just against Germany, Austria, and Hungary, but also against the Ottoman Empire, the other member of the central powers. Both houses of Congress were demanding that he declare war against the Ottoman Empire. Teddy Roosevelt, the ex-president, was demanding that he declare war against the Ottoman powers. Wilson said no. He said no because he was the son, the grandson, the nephew of Presbyterian preachers and he feared that if he waged war in the Middle East that the Turks would do to American missionaries in the Middle East precisely what they had done to the Armenians.
Faith finally triumphed over power again in 1948, when a unique situation occurred, when the entire foreign policy establishment of the United States—the State Department, the Defense Department, Secretary of State George Marshall—warned that American support for Zionism would lead to a Communist takeover of the entire Middle East, the fall of Western Europe, and a global energy crisis.
Harry Truman, a strict Baptist who had read the Bible repeatedly and knew it by heart by age fourteen, decided no. He ignored this mountain of advice, and on May 14, 1948 made the United States the first nation on earth to recognize the newly declared state of Israel.
Since 1948 and its ascendancy as the primary power in the Middle East, with its growing dependency on Middle Eastern oil sources, America has struggled mightily to reconcile these competing impulses of power, faith, and fantasy. The result has been an almost dizzying zigzag in U.S. policy toward the region.
Pursuing power, America orchestrated the overthrow of the nationalist Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953. But, impelled by a faith-based anti-colonialism, the United States, three years later, saved another Middle East nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, from almost certain defeat at the hands of Britain, France, and Israel. American forces fought against Libya, against Syria, and against Iran, and yet those very states largely owed their independence to American intervention. American presidents backed the state of Israel, but at crucial junctures they also withheld arms from Israel and pressured Israel to relinquish territories as part of the search for peace.
During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had beefed up Saddam Hussein as a foil to the Iranians, and then he turned around and sold arms to the Iranians in an attempt to induce them not to kidnap Americans in Lebanon. Remember this? In doing so, Reagan violated Jefferson’s first law in the Barbary Pirates wars, that the more you try to bribe hostile elements in the Middle East, the more they are going to kidnap you.
American leaders strove to establish a Pax Americana in the Middle East. And yet, American forces have engaged almost uninterruptedly over the course of the last thirty years. The last chapter of my book is called "The Thirty Years War in the Middle East." During that period, we have seen how the uniforms that American service men and women wear have transformed from a Vietnam green in the late-1970s to a tawny Arabian brown today.
Then, in 2003, America invaded Iraq, and for one gleaming moment the bearers of American power were patrolling the streets of the fabled capital of The Arabian Nights, Baghdad, and they were bestowing democracy on a people who appeared desperate to embrace it. But that moment, alas, has proved fleeting.
Today, America must once again strive to balance pursuit of its vital interests in this region with the pursuit and upholding of its ideals, all the while distinguishing between the real and the mythical in the Middle East. The task is gargantuan.
My book does not prescribe a path for achieving this. As an historian, I always say I have enough problems predicting the past. But yes, I do want to share my fascination with my readers. I want to tell them why the original Statute of Liberty was an Arab woman holding a torch. I want to tell them why "The Star-Spangled Banner" initially spoke of humbled Muslim warriors bowing down to the American flag, and to hear those stories in any detail you’re just going to have to read this book.
Far more importantly, I would like to instill in my readers an appreciation of America’s extraordinary legacy—a legacy of militancy at times—indeed of greed, yes—but also one of generosity, of tolerance, and of courage. My aim here is to provide a context, a context of the past in which Americans now profoundly, and even existentially, engaged in the Middle East can begin to chart their future.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Would you contrast the American experience in the Middle East with that of the British and the French? They've had a very different role there, and America has gone in parallel and sometime against it.
MICHAEL OREN: It is a constant theme in the book. America begins in the Middle East with this question: "Are we going to be like the Europeans or are we going to be different?" The Europeans for 300 years had been paying off the Barbary pirates. It worked very well. Thomas Jefferson believed that bribery not only was counter-productive, but it went against the grain of what he called "the American temper." He believed that Americans should strive to achieve an erect and independent attitude in the Middle East, which was very much distinguished fr om Europe. However, it was very expensive. Building ships was expensive and maintaining a permanent naval force was very expensive. Ultimately, that argument worked out that we were going to be different than the Europeans.
Then there were the missionaries. They came next. There were many European missionaries in the Middle East. Going through the missionary correspondence—a rather arduous task, thousands and thousands of pages of handwritten notes from the 19th century—you see American missionaries complaining about the competition they face from the Europeans. There’s no room to missionize everybody. There’s two Protestant Christians in this village, and the British are here and the Dutch are here.
What the Americans did that very much distinguished them from the missionaries from other countries was to build the schools and to build the hospitals. The French built some schools, but nothing of the magnitude of, say, the American University of Beirut, and they certainly did not have the impact of these institutions.
More fundamentally, European missionaries often acted as surrogates, as ambassadors for European imperial ambitions. The American missionaries never did. America did not have any imperial ambitions in the Middle East. There is actually an interesting note from the French Consul in Beirut from 1868, where he is reporting back to the Quai d’Orsay. He says: "Listen. I’ve conducted a serious investigation and I’m miffed. I cannot find any imperial impetus behind these American missionaries. Incredibly, they seem to be operating purely on altruistic means." He couldn’t quite figure that out.
Politically, diplomatically, the United States viewed much of the Middle East going into the 20th century as a European bailiwick, as their exclusive sphere. There were tremendous debates over whether the United States should get involved in the Arabian Peninsula. It belonged to the British. There was nothing there anyway; it was just sand. Palestine, right up until World War II—that’s the British mess; let’s stay out of that.
Even though many American leaders had this restorationist notion when Britain passed the White Paper in May 1939 that closed off Jewish immigration into Palestine, Roosevelt did nothing. That actually ended the Balfour Declaration.
The great changing of the guard in the Middle East occurred post World War II, particularly in the 1950s, when the United States, again operating mainly on a faith-guided policy—we were the victims of colonialism too; we know what it feels like to languish under imperial rule—supported the liberation movements in Tunisia, in Morocco, in Egypt, in Syria, and in Lebanon, and basically kicked their own European allies out of the region, or were instrumental in kicking them out. And guess what? They turn around and find out that many people in the Middle East are viewing the Americans as the new imperialists.
Since that time, much of the invective, much of the animosity that was once directed at Britain and France now gets rechanneled against the United States. The United States is finds itself confronting some of the same dilemmas.
That is really the origin of the zigzag I talk about. I was fascinated by that switch between Mossadeq and Nasser, because here the United States is operating with Britain in 1953 to oust Mossadeq because they think he’s pro-Soviet. The next year the United States works with Nasser to oust Britain from Egypt. In 1956, the United States joins with the Soviet Union—let me get this straight—at the same time that Soviet tanks are crushing Hungarians, to save Nasser from the British and the French. If you read Dulles’s correspondence on this, it is all about anti-colonialism.
QUESTION: Michael, thank you for an almost perfect book talk, which mixed together major themes, tantalizing details, and a lot of wit.
MICHAEL OREN: Thank you.
QUESTIONER: I have a question on a little piquant detail. You mentioned the seal that wasn’t, but you didn’t mention one American seal which does include an important Middle Eastern symbol, and that’s the back of the U.S. dollar, which includes a pyramid and an eye. The eye, I think, is a Masonic symbol, but what’s the pyramid doing there?
MICHAEL OREN: It’s related to Egypt. In the book there’s a discussion of the pyramid and how it gets there, and other Middle Eastern symbols that find their way here. It was also influenced from Masonry, but mostly they wanted to show a sense of stability and timelessness, and here was an image.
They also import the obelisk. The obelisk is a very important early American symbol. Obelisks proliferated. There was an obelisk craze, starting in 1820. It’s interesting that much of the marble used in the Washington Monument is imported from Turkey. It was actually a gift of the Ottoman sultan you’ll note.
Those of you who jog around Central Park, behind the Metropolitan Museum there’s an obelisk there too, Cleopatra’s Needle. This actually goes back to your question. I have a chapter on it because it fascinated me. Starting in the 1870s, New Yorkers decided that they were a major capital, just like London, Paris, and Rome, all of which had obelisks, and that they really couldn’t look at themselves in the mirror anymore unless they had an obelisk. That’s actually a quote.
They turned to President Grant. President Grant turned to his ambassador to Egypt. The ambassador went to the president of Egypt Khedive Ismail and said, "We want an obelisk." He said, "Take your pick." He gave him the choice of three obelisks. They chose Cleopatra’s Needle.
But guess what? The British, the French, and the Italians raised objections. First, Egypt owed them a lot of money, and they basically were holding all of Egypt in escrow. They were saying, "This really belongs to us." So it really became a fight. This was the first time America got involved in an imperial fight in the Middle East over who owns what.
What the Americans did was they actually just ignored the British, the French, and the Italians. They sent an engineer to Egypt. They sent a huge boat. They gouged a hole in the hull of this boat. It took years. Finally, in 1880 they managed to take this needle off of its pedestal. It weighs tens of thousands of pounds. They put it into the boat, inserted it, and brought it up to New York Harbor, where it was unloaded on 54th Street. A team of sixteen horses dragged it up to the corner of Central Park at 82nd Street, onto that knoll behind it. Twenty thousand Americans were there, cheering as it was raised, looming over the east—you notice it’s on the East Side.
So there you have the story of an American symbol that is imported from the Middle East. Next time you are at the Met, know that that monument also stands as a monument to America’s rising ascendancy in the Middle East.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering if you could help us measure the degree of fantasy that we are functioning on today, if at all.
MICHAEL OREN: Fantasy is tough territory. It’s extraordinary. I thought that 9/11 was the day the fantasy died. But no. Hollywood keeps on turning it out. Those of you who have seen the movie Hidalgo, or unfortunate enough—I hope the producer isn’t here—or fortunate enough to see a movie like Kingdom of Heaven, Middle East fantasies persist. Sexy. A made-for-television movie, Arabian Nights, won the Emmy Award in 2000. So it’s still out there. But you’re really asking about policy, aren’t you?
I’d rather draw on faith. There is a certain interface between faith and fantasy. There is the faith of going into a country and believing that America can take a country which has never known democracy, where the ideas of American democracy are quite alien, and saying that with a certain amount of effort and an investment of money and manpower we can transform this region.
It is so thoroughly American. The Russians would never do that. The French certainly wouldn’t do that. Americans feel not only that they can do it, but that they have to do it. It is so deeply engrained in the American world view. Certainly it is faith-guided. There is a certain point where that faithfulness edges into the fantasy that the peoples of the Middle East will rise up to embrace this democracy, that they are freedom-loving nomads.
One of the earliest tropes we have of American fantasy in the Middle East goes back to the first American explorer in the Middle East. John Ledyard, in 1788, writes about how fascinated he is by the idea of a man on a horse in the desert who is unfettered and loves liberty, and won’t let anybody rule over him. It is very much connected, by the way, to the American fantasy of the cowboy and the frontiersman. That fantasy pervades also in Hollywood. Somehow that percolates into this notion that somehow these people are natural lovers of liberty and all we have to do is remove the fetters.
But I see fantasy even in the detractors of that policy. The Hamilton-Baker Report, the Iraq Study Group, had as its centerpiece the notion that somehow the Syrians and the Iranians share our interest in a stable Iraq. I have a difficult time with that one, empirically. I think that is very faith-based.
All of these approaches stem from one of the few critiques that I level in the book. As an historian, I don’t view my role as being the hangman of history. It’s very prevalent in the historical field today. I’m an observer and an analyst. But I do note critically that Americans for well over 200 years have regarded the Middle East as you might a mirror. They look at the region and they don’t see the face of the Middle East; they see their own faces. The effort then becomes to remake this Middle East in such a way that they will resemble us, the United States in the Middle East. This used to drive the Europeans crazy. They noticed it all the time. And Americans sometimes notice it too.
George McClellan, the less-than-successful Civil War general who became a very successful Middle Eastern traveler in the 1870s and wrote a series of articles on Middle East travel for Scribner’s Magazine, made what I think is one of the most insightful remarks about Americans in the Middle East. He said that "Americans, as long as they persist in viewing this area as an extension of the United States and do not recognize that it is a separate, distinct culture and civilization, will be doomed to misunderstand this region." Wise words from George McClellan.
QUESTION: I’ve been reading a few things lately about the German involvement in the Armenian genocide, and that the Germans were basically responsible for it by encouraging the young Turks because they wanted to get the Ottoman Empire on their side against the Russians. Is that something you deal with, and is it true?
MICHAEL OREN: I know the Germans were aware of it. There is a large section in the book on the Armenian massacres and the role of Henry Morgenthau in it. I’m meeting with his grandson right after this meeting, as a matter of fact, to talk about it. And I have a lengthy article coming out in The New York Review of Books about the Armenian genocide.
It was one of the most difficult things I had to research in the book. I actually had to go through the documentation, reports by American missionaries, American consuls, in the field about what was happening, and it was just harrowing and haunting. There is no question in my mind that this was an adumbration of the Holocaust, that this was a genocide in the fullest extent. I think the Turks managed to enjoy it far more than the Nazis did. They actually seemed to get glee out of torturing these people.
The Germans, though they denied it assiduously, there is significant documentation that they knew about it. I was not convinced by anything I saw that they encouraged it. They just engaged in genocide denial.
I recommend you get a book by Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian who is actually living abroad because there is a law in Turkey now against genocide assertion, and you can get ten years in a Turkish prison for saying that. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Laureate, has also been accused.
QUESTION: Prior to the current Bush Administration, I think one could say that many American administrations have focused on stability as a goal of American policy in the Middle East, keeping these regimes going. Do you think that is as chimerical as the goal of pursuing democracy?
MICHAEL OREN: On the contrary, I think stability is the way to go—the problem is stability. You come up against American ideals, because stability means maintaining some nasty dictators in office. Stability led the Reagan Administration to support Saddam Hussein. It led successive American administrations to uphold the Saudi regime and others.
The problem is when you come up against, for example, the pursuit of ideals. How do you square that with a nation that conceives of itself as conveyors or purveyors of democracy to the world? This is the way this country was conceived—from its Founding Fathers. That is difficult.
There is also the notion—I’m going to be very specific; let me take off my gloves, if you will. I live in Jerusalem and I’m engaged in politics there. I’m not just an historian. I try to keep the two separate, but here they are going to blend a bit.
Empirically, we can look back to the 1920s and there have been successive attempts to impose a Palestinian state-making structure. The British tried it, with the Mufti; the UN tried it in the Partition Resolution. If you look at my Six-Day War book, you see that the Israelis tried it after the Six-Day War. Certainly, since the Oslo process there have been repeated attempts to impose a state structure and state leadership on the Palestinians. It has always imploded.
It has imploded because the Palestinians, I think, cannot meet the criteria necessary for creating a state in the Middle East—that you have one family with an army. That is what went wrong in Iraq, by the way—we took away the family with the army.
Americans, then, not looking at this empirical evidence, keep sending, say, Condoleezza Rice to the region every Tuesday. They keep pumping money into the Palestinian Authority in the hope that somehow Mahmoud Abbas will be strong enough to make these fateful decisions and sign on the dotted line. But basically, he won't be able to. He won’t be able to because he doesn’t have the force to do it. He doesn’t have the basics that he needs.
And yet, every administration—and I guarantee you, the Democratic administration, whatever administration comes in next—will proceed to do it again and again. Why? Why has the search for Arab-Israeli peace been the litmus of the diplomatic prowess of every administration going back to Truman?
It’s not just about stability. There is something in the American—and you want to use one of these politically incorrect terms—there is something in the American world view, its Weltanschauung, that says "we are enjoined to help bring tranquility to the Holy Land." It’s very important to us.
So you have someone like Bill Clinton investing thirteen presidential days at Camp David. That’s an immense amount of time for a president. It didn’t even work, but it’s an immense amount of time. Why? Jimmy Carterspending all that time—at least there it worked. Somebody should do a study about that, tally up the total number of presidential days that have been spent on trying to achieve Arab-Israeli peace.
It’s not just about stability. It’s about ideas; it’s about ideals. The two are difficult to square sometimes, and I think that’s the major theme of the book. It’s about this tension of trying to get these two squared up.
Just a last note. In 1944, Saudi Arabia applied for Lend Lease aid. They were turned down by the Roosevelt Administration because the State Department determined that the Saudis were too anti-democratic.
QUESTION: There are so many marvelous themes that you have introduced, but I want to go back to power and the balance of power, which has always been important in American foreign policy, in addition to faith and fantasy. You mentioned that Reagan wanted a balance of power between Iran and Iraq. Recently, we have devastated Iraq and now we are worried about Iran. So how does this fit in?
MICHAEL OREN: It doesn’t.
QUESTION: And furthermore, how have Americans played the Shiite/Sunni differences in the past? Have we tried to use this as a way of keeping control in the region?
MICHAEL OREN: You’d have to be a major power broker, a person who is very, very focused on power to the exclusion of all other ideas, in order to do that. There was one person who was very adept at doing that, and that was Henry Kissinger.
Kissinger, in my reading of Kissinger, was just devoid of the faith component. He actually has a famous quote about that, talking about the Kurdish situation in 1975, when the United States had actually encouraged the Kurds to revolt in Iraq, then turned around and ignored them. Kissinger was assailed for this. Kissinger said, "Well, we’re not missionaries in the Middle East."
You have to be very, very focused to be able to play one side off another, and also very well informed about the nature of Middle Eastern politics. Those are extremely rare characteristics for American policymakers in the Middle East, at least among the top American policymakers in the Middle East.
America, alas—again, I’m going to put my bona fides on the table politically. I was asked to testify in front of a congressional committee in 2003 about the approaching Iraq war. I strongly objected to it. I objected to it on two grounds. This was as an historian that they asked me, not as a political commentator. I said the grounds were both my understanding of Iraq and Arab politics, and also my understanding of America.
Again, going back to what I was saying to one of the previous questioners, I believe that all Arab states—with the exception of the national states of Egypt, Iran, and Turkey—the central Arab states are all held together by this preponderance of often-savage central power, which is often in the hands of one family or group, and that if you took away the family and the group, then you would have to hold it all together.
I doubted whether the American people were capable of exerting that type of savagery. I knew what the British had to do to create Iraq and hold Iraq together in the 1920s and the 1930s. They killed thousands and thousands of people. I didn’t believe that America would be able to do that, would be willing to do that as a country, as a society.
I think that when the revelations of Abu Ghraib came out, that basically reinforced my case. Look how we reacted to that instance of torture, which is by no means rare in the Middle East.
As a result of having gone into Iraq anyway, America finds itself in a situation where American soldiers are being shot at by Sunnis, though their presence there is the only thing keeping the Sunnis from being shot at by the Shiites. They have come there to help impose a Shiite-ruled coalition, because the Shiites are the majority and it’s going to be democratic.
The Shiites are shooting at them too, and we have managed to remove the Iranians’ great bête noir in the area, Saddam Hussein, and the Iranians now are also trying to undermine America’s efforts there. You would have to be a pretty uniquely skilled navigator to get us into such an imbroglio, and I think it would require no less skill to get us out of it.
I’m really depressing you this morning. I suggested back in 2003 if America felt that it had to do away with Saddam Hussein, be my guest. It would send an incontrovertible message to the Middle East not to mess with the United States. If America felt that it wanted to maintain a base, for example, in the western Iraqi desert and stick 60,000 troops there as a rapid reaction force in the Middle East so that the next time there’s a crises it won’t take six months to get American forces there, it will take six hours, that was fine.
But do not, I said, get involved in the state-making enterprise in the Middle East because you don’t have what it takes. Thank God you don’t. I think it’s a wonderful thing that America doesn’t have what it takes.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank God you have what it takes this extraordinary morning. I thank you very much.