If the name Israel means "wrestles with God," then America must be Hebrew for "wrestles with the Middle East." American-Israeli historian Michael B. Oren's new book, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (W.W. Norton, 778 pages, $35), traces the United States' tumultuous relationship with the region from the first George W. (Washington) to the last (George W. Bush). In his highly readable, one-volume history, Oren argues that the United States has always agonized over how to reconcile its strategic interests ("power") in the Middle East with its highest political ideals ("faith") without being blinded by the mythic qualities ("fantasy") of this land of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Along the way, Oren reminds us that the U.S. fought its first foreign wars in the greater Middle East (the Barbary Wars), still operates its longest-standing consulate there (in Tangier, dedicated during Washington's presidency) and remains inextricably linked to the region for its central role in the establishment of Israel (two-thirds of whose top Jewish leaders were American citizens). So important is the last, many Americans mistakenly believe their nation's struggles in the Middle East began with the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. On the contrary, Oren writes, American enthusiasm for—and against—a Jewish state in Palestine began not with end of World War II in 1945 or even the Balfour Declaration of 1917, but dates back at least as far as the work of American missionaries in the 1820s. Their story follows a bleak, recurring theme—they came, they saw, they died—but the schools and hospitals they left behind would blossom in the desert even if the harvest of souls for Christ never really ripened. Oren recounts the harrowing experiences of so many explorers and missionaries, diplomats and soldiers most readers will have trouble telling them apart. Despite this narrative overload, it's fascinating how many of these sojourners, spiritual or otherwise, were the fathers or grandfathers of later influential Americans, ranging from novelist John Steinbeck to Gen. "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf. One treatise advocating the restoration of Israel was written in 1844 by a biblical scholar and professor of Hebrew named George Bush, a forebear of the two presidents with the same name. Oren offers only thumbnail sketches of a number of Middle Eastern conflicts—the Armenian genocide, the betrayal of Arab peoples at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the birth of Israel—that have been treated better and more thoroughly elsewhere. At the same time, Oren presents a rich portrait of how American popular culture has always conjured a distinctly American image of the Middle East—a cross between "Hollywood and the Bible," as Gen. George Patton once described Casablanca—that has sometimes hindered, sometimes revived relations with the region.
Michael B. Oren appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, Feb. 16. Free.