A Moment With Michael Oren
Author of Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present
Since the days of the Barbary pirates, the Middle East has loomed large in America’s imagination and foreign policy. In Power, Faith and Fantasy, historian Michael Oren traces America’s involvement in the region. While 18th-century Americans feared the Arabic-speaking pirates, they were thrilled by the Middle East’s opulence (as portrayed in One Thousand and One Nights), and awed that it was the land of the Bible. American presidents like John Adams dreamed of a “hundred thousand Israelites” marching victoriously into Palestine, re-creating the Jewish state and bringing about the Second Coming. Writers Mark Twain and Herman Melville, along with other American adventurers, journeyed to the sand-swept region for inspiration.
A senior fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center, Oren speaks with Moment’s assistant editor, Nonna Gorilovskaya, about the surprising origins of the Statue of Liberty, America’s first hostage crisis (220 years ago) and what lessons our nation can learn from its tumultuous history in the Middle East.
When did America first pay attention to the Middle East?
It goes back to 1776. America had a fragile economy and heavily depended on its Mediterranean trade, which was being preyed upon by the so-called Barbary pirates operating from what are today Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. America had no ability to fight back against the pirates because it didn’t own a single warship.
A small group [of thinkers] under Thomas Jefferson believed that the American states should federate, and that America should fight, because the more you bribe pirates, the more piracy you will get. But a larger school under John Adams believed that the United States should follow the European practice of buying off the pirates. As a result, in the 1790s, America was paying about one-fifth of its national revenue to pirates.
Interestingly, it was the pirate threat in the Middle East that finally convinced Americans, beginning in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, that they had to federate. There were 127 American hostages in the Middle East that year.
Did we stand up to the pirates?
The U.S. Navy was created, in 1794, specifically to fight in the Middle East, but it was not until Jefferson became president, in 1801, that America finally went to war. It was America’s longest foreign military engagement. It gave America a tremendous amount of respect. A year after America won the Barbary Wars, in 1815, the Europeans also sent a fleet to the Barbary pirate coast and made [the pirates] sign a peace treaty. We basically shamed Europe into military action.
What did early Americans think about the Middle East?
While they saw it as a military threat and as an area of great hostility, they also viewed the Middle East as a place of great romance, exoticism and adventure. So they did not have a single impression of the Middle East. Even while America was militarily engaged in the Middle East, American adventurers and explorers still went there. Religious missionaries saw great opportunity for expanding Christianity there.
Did these missionaries accomplish their goal?
America comes into being with this tremendous missionary urge, with the notion that America does not exist for itself; it exists to enlighten the world. The missionaries who went to the Middle East to re-create the Jewish state and convert the Arabs, failed at both. Instead, they built elementary and secondary schools; later, they would build the first modern universities in the Middle East. And in these schools, they no longer preached the gospel of Christianity; they preached “a gospel of Americanism.” They called it that. They preached democracy and patriotism and their virtues. The missionaries had an immense impact on the political development of the Middle East, because they got involved in promoting Arab nationalism—a secular movement—which later would throw off the yoke of Ottoman and European rule.
Why is it that Jews were traditionally assigned to be the American diplomats in the region?
The tradition began in 1813 with the appointment of Mordechai Noah, a prominent Jewish journalist, to be the American consul-general in Tunis. The belief was that American Jews formed a natural bridge between Christian America and the Muslim Middle East. And during the 19th century, Jew after Jew was appointed to diplomatic posts there. There were four or five consecutive Jewish ambassadors to the Ottoman Empire. In 1912, when Henry Morgenthau was appointed ambassador to Istanbul by Woodrow Wilson, Morgenthau protested that the position had become a sort of Jewish sinecure. But by the 1920s, the descendants of the missionaries, who spoke Arabic and Farsi, replaced Jews as the natural bridge. They were anti-Zionist and did not like the Jews, and for about 50 years kept the State Department a sort of Presbyterian club. Jews came back starting in the 1970s and 1980s, certainly with Henry Kissinger, and to this day the State Department is very Jewish.
We learn in school that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France. Is it really true she came by way of the Middle East?
Egypt profited monumentally from the American Civil War because the North boycotted Southern cotton. The cotton mills of Europe needed high-quality cotton, and there was only one place in the world where they could get that cotton, and that was in Egypt. So Egypt made a lot of money, and [its people] built beautiful cities and parks. They built the Cairo opera house, where Verdi’s Aida was performed for the first time. The Suez Canal was also built. To grace the entrance of this canal, the Egyptians ordered a magnificent statue. Designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, it depicted an Arab woman in a veil holding a torch. But by the early 1870s, the Southern cotton market had come back, and Egypt went bankrupt. The Suez Canal was open, but Egypt couldn’t afford the statue anymore. Bartholdi got depressed and went on a world tour to cheer himself up. As he was coming into New York harbor, he saw Bedloe’s Island and thought, “Ah, this would be a good place for my statue.” Some French and American backers ended up buying in on the plan, on the condition that Bartholdi change the Arab woman to an American woman. So one day while in Long Island, he waited outside of church and found an American-looking woman [to sketch]—and that’s the Statue of Liberty.
What can we learn from our past experiences in the Middle East?
It is essential that America distinguish reality from myth in the Middle East. A tremendous amount of myth went into the making of the Iraqi situation; for example, the myth that somehow the people of Iraq were willing to rise up and embrace American self-democracy once we removed the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. That’s a myth that has very old roots in American imagination.