Book Review of “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present,” by Michael B. Oren

This is a tremendously entertaining and well-written history of America’s relations with the Middle East from the beginning of our country to the present day. Oren organizes his study around three motifs: power (the pursuit of American interests); faith (the impact of religions on attitudes and policies); and fantasy (romantic notions of the Orient that affected government policy).

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The history of religious zeal informing our policies toward the Middle East is especially intriguing. It has always been assumed that Zionism was the main driving force. Oren contends that, on the contrary, a much stronger role has been played by the concept of Restorationism, the belief held by evangelical Protestants that “by expediting the fulfillment of God’s promises to repatriate the Jews to their homeland, Christians could re-create the conditions of Jewish sovereignty that existed in Jesus’ time and so set the stage for his reappearance.” Oren tells stories about the lives of American missionaries in the Middle East and points to “the emergence of missionary dynasties capable of exerting far-reaching influence over America’s foreign relations” since leading wealthy missionary families occupied the same social circles as the country’s political elite:

Through their personal connections with decision makers, the missionaries and their backers could place evangelism and its advocates at the head of America’s overseas priorities, particularly in the Middle East.”

The joy over this empowerment, Oren wryly notes, was not shared by the region’s rulers.

In a rather amusing subplot to the story, Oren recounts how missionary after missionary tried to get Jews to become farmers in Palestine, so as to better approximate the conditions of the land when Jesus was there. The Jews, however, could not be less interested. It was not until the increase in pogroms in Russia in the late 1800’s that the Jews began en masse to see appeal in a safe haven, and then, even farming looked good.

Some other memorable anecdotes: Sol Bloom, impresario of the Algerian Village at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, sitting by a piano and making up (but not copyrighting) “a minor-key ditty…later replayed by countless cartoon snake charmers” to accompany the gyrations of Little Egypt; Mark Twain touring Europe, surprised to find himself the victim of antisemitism when the Viennese press dubbed him “Der Jude Mark Twain” (after observing that he had a large nose); and FDR meeting Ibn Saud in the Suez Canal aboard The Quincy – Roosevelt, paralyzed, dying, ashen and weak, and Ibn Saud “scarcely less ill” having to be winched onto the Quincy because he couldn’t make it up the gangplank.

Evaluation: I don’t think anyone can come away from this rather long (six-hundred pages) but rewarding history without having learned a great number of fascinating details about our history in the Middle East. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2007

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