Intimate Strangers

The statue of liberty, in her curious way, helps tell the tale of America's long, complicated experiences and profoundly contradictory ambitions in the Middle East. The French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi wanted to build a colossus bestriding the entrance to the newly opened Suez Canal in the 1870s. She would be veiled, like a peasant woman of the Nile, and would hold aloft her torch as "Egypt (or Progress) Bringing Light to Asia." But the pasha whose largesse was supposed to fund the project went bankrupt, the British occupied his country to collect their debts and Egypt's light failed. Bartholdi rethought his plan, redrew the design, and the Orient's loss was America's gain: "Liberty Enlightening the World."

This anecdote about the statue stands near the middle of Michael Oren's vast new best seller, "Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present." It served as a metaphor for the mingled, often mirrored fates of two regions strangely bound by grandiose dreams and hardheaded commerce, conflicting beliefs in one God, mutual fears, great hopes and grim bloodshed. Because there is no other book with such a sweeping view of the subject, the vast cast of characters Oren presents and the exhaustively researched tales of the way they played on each other will shape our thinking about America and the Middle East for years. And because much of this largely unremembered past reads as prologue to the present day, the admonition of Ecclesiastes that "there is no new thing under the sun" seems to emerge constantly from between the lines.

Thus one of the first great tests for the newly formed United States of America was a decades-long confrontation with the Arab corsairs of North Africa. In the aftermath of independence, the American central government was weak, the Navy almost nonexistent, and debate raged at the highest levels--between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, among others. Should the United States pay ransoms to the pirates (which was cheaper) or build a military strong enough to prevent them from preying on merchantmen that flew the Stars and Stripes? The young American nation would learn "that in the Middle East power alone was respected and that, in order to gain peace, the United States had no alternative but to wield it," Oren writes--a theme he underscores at several opportunities. But his narrative is also honest enough to show us that the feckless leaders of North Africa became convenient scapegoats once the United States finally had its Navy. Thus after the British returned to American shores in 1812 and burned Washington, D.C., the American public turned its anger against ... the Arabs. In 1815, scant months after a stalemated peace was signed with Britain, Washington shifted its attention to the Barbary pirates, declared war, and defeated them with great fanfare.

But of course problems in the Middle East seem to endure like the Pyramids. Almost 90 years later, President Teddy Roosevelt would once again send gunboats to the North African coast, this time to win the freedom of an American businessman named Ion Pedicaris, who was held by a local Berber chieftain known as Raisuli. Roosevelt sent the bluntest possible warning to the sultan in Tangiers: we want Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead. The hostage was freed. American pride and power were preserved once again.

It wasn't just the projection of military might that characterized America's interaction with the Middle East, it was also the projection of missionary zeal--the faith that Oren talks about in the title of his book. From the time of the Puritans, American Christians had seen the New World as a New Zion or Promised Land, "a light unto the nations." But by the early 19th century, there was growing enthusiasm for expeditions to the original Zion. Indeed, Palestine in the 1840s was viewed by some Americans as part of their self-proclaimed "manifest destiny." And a large part of their zeal sprang from the notion that restoring the Jews to the Holy Land, and converting them to Christianity, would bring on the Second Coming. This "restorationism," or Christian Zionism, was a powerful force in 19th-century America--just as it is in the 21st-century United States.

As if the sense of déjà vu were not strong enough already, Oren informs us that in 1844 a Biblical scholar and professor of Hebrew at New York University by the name of George Bush wrote an influential tract called "The Valley of Vision; or, The Dry Bones of Israel Revived," which advocated "elevating" the Jews "to a rank of honorable repute among the nations of the earth" by re-creating the state of Palestine for them. (According to Oren, who spent two days in the genealogical room of the Library of Congress researching family trees, George Bush was a direct forebear of the two presidents with the same name, both of whom made a major impact on the Middle East.) For Oren, questions of Zionism, first as dreamed of by American Christians and then as conceived and implemented by 20th-century Jews, are absolutely central to the story of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Oren's account of President Truman's role in the creation of Israel is one of the most complex and compelling chapters of the book. Here was an American leader who fiercely resisted the lobbying of American Zionists. "The Jews, I find are very, very selfish," Truman ranted in his diary, "neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog." Yet when the final decision had to be made, Truman's government was the first in the world to recognize the Jewish state. His reasons were political (he noted that he had few Arab constituents) and moral (the Holocaust weighed more heavily on his mind than the fear of Arab retaliation in the oil market). And the president's Baptist background gave him an intimate sense of Biblical history. By the 1950s, Oren writes, Americans had "transformed themselves from largely passive observers of Middle Eastern affairs into the region's primary architects and arbiters."

Oren, who has four degrees in Arab history and the best-selling "Six Days of War" to his credit, is himself an ardent Zionist. Born in New Jersey 51 years ago, he immigrated to Israel as a young man and has served as a reserve officer in the Israeli military ever since, now with the rank of major. In 1982, he was on the front with Lebanon and took part in the invasion. Also in the 1980s, he worked underground in the Soviet Union making contact with dissident Jews. More recently, he served in last summer's war against Hizbullah. Oren often contributes passionate op-ed pieces to The Wall Street Journal and other publications defending Israel and its policies. He says writing "Power, Faith and Fantasy" was partly meant to bring together the two halves of his identity, American and Israeli, and he admits that balanced historical reporting doesn't come easy. "If you want to understand how we got from point A to point Z and point A is 1776 and Z is Iraq, indulging your prejudices is not very helpful," Oren told NEWSWEEK. "It's something I struggle with. I weigh every word." Indeed, for all his emphasis on showing strength in the Middle East, Oren publicly opposed the American invasion of Iraq, arguing the United States could never be, and probably should never be, ruthless enough to suppress rebellion there. And for all his emphasis on the spiritual virtues of the United States, he sees calls for U.S.-style democracy in the Arab world as naive. Its culture is not, he says, a tarnished mirror image of America waiting to be polished into a replica of America.

What is it, then? What did the Arabs themselves think through this long chronicle of disillusionments and disasters? Oren says "that book is yet to be written." For now "Power, Faith and Fantasy" is the best history we have of the history we've had, and an indispensable guide from point A to point Z.