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The fantasies of power

Interview | The United States has a complex history in the Middle East, says author Michael Oren, and it goes back to the beginning of the republic

Issue: "Is Romney rolling?," May 19, 2007

Michael Oren's Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (Norton, 2007) tells in 778 pages the fascinating story of a 230-year-long U.S. encounter with Muslims and Israel. For example, Woodrow Wilson's key advisor, Col. Edward House, examined the seeds of Arab/Jewish conflict and called the small land "a breeding place for future wars."

Oren has his own colorful history. Born in New Jersey in 1955, he graduated from Princeton and Columbia universities but then moved to Israel in 1979 and became a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces, reaching the rank of major. He now lives with his wife and three children in Jerusalem, where he is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research and educational institute.

WORLD: Why was John Adams complaining during the 1780s that "Christendom has made cowards of all their sailors before the standard of Mahomet"?

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OREN: Adams was referring to the centuries-old European custom of paying off the Barbary pirates. The so-called Barbary States of North Africa-today's Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria-were sending pirates to attack Western merchant ships in the Mediterranean, plundering their cargoes and enslaving their crews. After declaring independence from Britain, and consequently forfeiting the protection of the Royal Navy, the United States became a prime target for these brigands. By 1785, 127 American sailors had been captured, presenting the nascent United States with its first hostage crisis.

The pirates, more menacingly, posed an existential threat to the United States' fragile economy, which heavily depended on the Mediterranean trade. And even if it wanted to fight back, the United States lacked a navy or even a central government capable of creating naval power. Indeed, the mortal danger from the Middle East played a central role in convincing Americans to unite under a Constitution in 1789 and, five years later, to construct a navy specifically for combat in the Middle East.

WORLD: So when the ships were ready, the United States fought?

OREN: No, Americans hesitated to go to war in the distant region, and during his presidency, John Adams was spending as much as one-fifth of his federal revenues on Middle Eastern bribes. Thomas Jefferson, by contrast, believed that this was a waste of money-that bribing the pirates would only induce them to further piracy and that Americans, unlike Europeans, had a "temper" that would not abide blackmail. Having tried and failed to rally the European countries into a coalition against Barbary, Jefferson, assuming the presidency in 1801, immediately went to war in the Middle East.

WORLD: Instant victory?

OREN: Many setbacks occurred before the Marines marched "to the shores of Tripoli" in 1805, and before Stephen Decatur-for whom some 27 cities are named in the United States-forced the pirates to surrender at cannon-point in 1815. The United States had fought its first and longest foreign war in the Middle East, and proved that Americans would not be "cowards before the standard of Mahomet."

WORLD: Did Arab slave-trading get Americans to think about their own actions? You write that Abraham Lincoln listed James Riley's Sufferings in Africa, along with the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress, as one of the books that most shaped his life and thinking.

OREN: Riley, a 38-year-old Connecticut sea captain and veteran of the war of 1812, was shipwrecked off the Spanish Saharan coast in 1815 and captured by Arabs who starved and tortured him. He nevertheless escaped and returned to write his memoirs, the final chapter of which contains an impassioned plea to outlaw the enslavement of Africans in America.

Riley could not countenance the thought that his own countrymen would mistreat human beings the way the Arabs had abused him. His book became a national sensation and was especially popular among slavery's Abolitionist opponents.

WORLD: You note that American missionaries throughout the 19th century established many churches within the Ottoman Empire. What were the results?

OREN: The first American missionaries, Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons, left Boston for the Middle East in 1819. Their objectives were to help recreate the Jewish state in Palestine and to convert the region's Muslim and Eastern Christian peoples. They soon discovered, however, that Jews did not want to ingather under their auspices, and proselytizing Muslims was a capital offense.

Hundreds of missionaries followed but fared no better. One American, writing in the 1860s, lamented, "Christian Missions make no more impression upon Islam than the winds of the desert upon the cliffs of Mount Sinai."

WORLD: So they failed?

OREN: They failed to convert large numbers of Middle Easterners, but American missionaries had a major impact on the region through the building of modern schools-at first primary and secondary schools, and then Western-style universities. Through institutions such as the American University in Beirut, the missionaries began to teach the "Gospel of Americanism"-patriotism, civic virtues, and democracy.

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