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In his last book, Six Days of War, American-Israeli historian Michael B. Oren wrote the definitive history of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In his latest book, Oren has broadened his scope considerably, producing a lively, balanced, and often fascinating history of America’s involvement in the Middle East from the country’s founding to the current Iraq War. That history, Oren demonstrates in Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, is longer and richer than most of us knew. For instance, Oren explains that the U.S. Navy began with Congress’ 1794 authorization of $689,000 to build six frigates to protect American commercial ships against the Barbary pirates of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. By ultimately deciding to break with the European practice of paying tribute to the Barbary states and by triumphing over them in 1815, Oren argues, America asserted its national character, earned respect from Europe, and made possible President James Monroe’s 1823 declaration against European interference in the New World. As the book’s title suggests, it is organized around the themes of power, faith, and fantasy. Of the three themes, faith may be the most interesting. America’s first missionaries to the Middle East set sale from Boston in 1819, fueled both by a desire to act as a “light unto nations” and the Restorationist goal of hastening the Second Coming by reviving Jewish sovereignty in Palestine. (Restorationism would play a significant role in shaping Americans’ views of Zionism. It was also, we learn, supported by a distinguished 19th century New York University professor of Hebrew named George Bush, ancestor of our current president.) Although the first missionaries and their successors would have almost no success in converting Muslims to Christianity, missionaries would have a great impact on America’s relations with the region. Schools they founded in Turkey and the Arab world spread Americans’ civic faith in national identity and anti-colonialism and, to a lesser extent, in democracy. With their language skills and cultural knowledge, the children of returned missionaries would later form the core of the U.S. State Department’s so-called Arabist diplomats. According to Oren, it was also missionary physicians who provided American business with an entr�e to Saudi Arabia and its undeveloped oil reserves. At times, Oren pushes his themes too hard. For example, Oren attributes Ronald Reagan’s support of Israel not so much to Cold War politics (which he acknowledges) as to a supposed religious attachment resulting from Reagan’s having been raised “in the restorationist-minded Disciples of Christ church and closely associated with pro-Zionist American evangelicals.” The author, however, provides no authority for Reagan’s supposed religious attachment to Israel or, even, religiosity. And while Reagan was politically allied with American evangelicals, that doesn’t mean he necessarily shared their religious beliefs or fervor. While the themes of power and faith are generally compelling, the book’s fantasy theme seems mostly forced. Fantasies of the Arab and Muslim worlds undoubtedly attracted some of America’s early adventurers to the region, but Oren’s argument that such fantasies played a significant role in U.S. government policy isn’t particularly persuasive. For instance, Jefferson Davis, then-secretary of war, may have imported dromedaries from Egypt in 1855 for a U.S. Camel Corps, but that bizarre experiment was (unsurprisingly) short-lived. Brought over to carry military supplies, the camels — discovered by Americans to be petulant and flatulent beasts — were soon rendered obsolete by the advent of the train. The last of the camels, Topsy, died at the Los Angeles Zoo in 1934. To take some of Oren’s examples from more recent times, it’s a bit of a stretch to cite films like “Back to the Future” and “Top Gun” as movies about the Middle East. (Does anyone even remember that Libyan characters play bit roles in both?) It’s even more of a stretch to suggest that such movies, or songs like Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” tell us anything about Americans’ views of the region. Despite these criticisms, the book has much to commend it. Oren paints vivid portraits of often outsized personalities, some famous, some not. He writes well and pithily. Most importantly, Oren has produced an extensively researched history of America’s involvement with a key part of the world. The epilogue — a brilliant 10-page recap of more than 200 years of history (and the preceding 590 pages) — alone makes this book worth buying. And for those interested in the back story to America’s current troubles in the region, Power, Faith, and Fantasy will prove valuable — and frequently surprising.
Martin Kimel is a Washington attorney. He has written for The Washington Post , the Los Angeles Times , and other major newspapers.

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