Fated to Meddle

So like every other red-blooded, terrorist-hating American I know, I spent some of this weekend watching the premiere of the new season of “24.”

It’s a four-hour thrill ride — three hours and change with TiVo — and whenever the hero, Jack Bauer, appears, my eyes make like Velcro to the screen, and a geopolitical satori blossoms within me. I allow myself to feel, for those precious moments, something I so rarely feel these days: No matter what, we are going to kick their butts.

Then I read Michael Oren’s new book.

At 604 pages, “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present” (Norton, 2007) will take you a bit more than four hours. But it is worth it — in fact, it’s a critical read for anyone who wants to understand how America can face the challenges arising from that region of the world.

The book is the first comprehensive history of American involvement in the Middle East. Its title gives the central thesis away: Our involvement has largely revolved around the quest for financial, military and diplomatic power, the impact of religion and the pull of fiction and fantasy (did I mention “24”?).

In other words, if your take on our role in the Middle East is limited to just oil, or just freedom and democracy, or just imperialism — Oren’s meticulously researched and grippingly narrated book will school you.

Take the first major foreign crisis our founders faced. “Prior to the revolution,” writes Oren, “the only major threat to America’s vital Mediterranean trade came from the Middle East. Styling themselves as mujahadeen warriors in an Islamic holy war, Arabic speaking pirates preyed on Western vessels, impounding their cargoes and enslaving their crews.”

After the revolution, the inevitable confrontation with these North African Barbary pirates led directly to the raising of the U.S. Navy, to the creation of the Constitution — a document that could secure the national unity necessary to fund and fight a foreign war — and thus to America’s first war on foreign soil — that soil being in the Mideast.

The alternative to war was to pay a $1 million tribute to the pasha of Tripoli, whose representative warned Thomas Jefferson in London, “It was … written in the Koran that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their [the Muslims’] authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find … and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

Oren uncovers the kinds of patterns that historians live to expose and the rest of us live to repeat. But he also provides examples where America acted benevolently, out of expanded self-interest. Following the Civil War, American expertise and largesse helped build the foundations of a modern army and a civil society in Egypt.

To read Arab propaganda today, you’d think America’s only Mideast offspring was the State of Israel. But Oren provides a fascinating account of how, following World War II, President Harry S. Truman provided crucial support for the independence of Libya, Syria and Iran.

Granted, the latter measures were designed in part to thwart Soviet power and ensure American oil supplies, but as Oren points out, “….The United States emerged from World War II as … an advocate for [Middle East] development and a defender of its freedom.”

These political developments interacted over the years with America’s deep religiosity, which held the Middle East as sacred soil. Americans were Zionists before Zionists existed.

In 1819, Protestant missionaries sailed from Boston determined to restore Palestine to the Jews. In the 1840s, one of their leaders was a Hebrew scholar at New York University named George Bush, forebear to two presidents. Later waves of American missionaries created institutions, including modern universities, that reshaped the Middle East.

And through it all, Oren argues, fiction and fantasy, from “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights” to “State of Siege” have shaped our perceptions (He neglects to mention “24,” a correction due for the next edition). Nineteenth- century travelers to the region took only one book as their literal guidebook: the Bible. In search of Abraham and King David, they were inevitably disappointed.

After Sept. 11, CNN analysts turned to spy novelist Tom Clancy for insights into Arab terrorism, an indication, to Oren, of “the degree to which fantasy and fact remained blurred in America’s Middle East perceptions.” The disappointment persists.

Oren, a Yale-trained historian who lives in Jerusalem, ends his book with Operation Iraqi Freedom — another George Bush, another confluence of power, faith and fantasy.

“The debate over the essential nature of the Middle East and its relations with the United States,” he writes, “shows no signs of waning.”

True. And that’s what makes this particular book such a crucial textbook for the next generation of policymakers. I called Oren at his home and asked him what the lesson for these people would be.”Nuance,” Oren said. “I keep coming back to that word. I hope they come to see that American involvement is far more nuanced than they may believe or have been led to believe.”

“On balance,” he said, “the good America has done in the Middle East has outweighed the damage it might have caused. The picture is far more multidimensional.”

An American-born Israeli, Oren is not a man without opinions, but his book lays out “the background and context” by which Americans can make their fateful decisions. “I was very careful not to be prescriptive,” he said.

Still, in reading the book, the lessons leap out. One is that America’s fate is strangely tied to the fate of the Middle East. Like it or not, that has been our lot since the founding. Another is that most of what Oren points to as our successes in the Middle East have to do with economic and political building and development, not war and confrontation (Oh, now he tells us).

Oren points out that the Civil War general, George B. McClellan, who made a post-bellum semiofficial trip up the Nile, wrote that education and widening exposure to the West could gradually transform the region.