An Interview with Historian Michael Oren on the Tangled Web of US Involvement from the age of Jefferson to Today by Michael J. Totten "You cannot withdraw from Iraq and be confident that the enemy is not going to follow you. Because the enemy is going to follow you. America can't detach from the Middle East because the Middle East is not going to detach from America. And America's going to have to learn to fight this fight to win in a much more prudent and effective way. And there are ways America can fight it more effectively." -- Michael Oren
PORTLAND, OREGON – Renowned American-Israeli historian and best-selling author Michael Oren is touring the United States promoting his new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy, a sweeping history of America’s involvement in the Middle East from 1776 to the present. It’s the first and only book on the subject ever written, and it’s current inching toward the top of the New York Times best-seller list for non-fiction.
I first met Michael Oren under Katyusha rocket fire when he worked as a Spokesman for the IDF Northern Command in Israel during last summer’s war against Hezbollah, and I met him again when he came to my home town of Portland, Oregon, last week on his book tour.
MJT: So tell us, Michael, why does America’s involvement in the Middle East 200 years ago matter today? What does it have to do with September 11 and Iraq?
Oren: Well it matters, Michael, because many of the same issues that Americans are facing today in the Middle East were confronted by America’s founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington. For example, they had to confront the issue of state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East. They had to face a threat to the United States, and decide whether to generate military power and then project that power thousands of miles from the United States. They had to decide whether to involve the United States in an open-ended and rather expensive bloody war in the Middle East. This was, of course, the Barbary War, America’s first overseas military engagement and America’s longest overseas military engagement. It lasted from 1783 to 1815. During the course of this engagement, as my book shows, the United States was confronting a jihadist state-sponsored terrorist network that was taking Americans hostage in the Middle East. It’s very similar to what is going on today.
MJT: They were more than hostages, they were slaves, weren’t they?
Oren: They were slaves. But beyond the military component – the book is not a military history, it’s also a diplomatic, cultural, artistic, and economic history – I wanted to show Americans today that our experience in the Middle East has very deep roots. Overall it’s a story of magnificent things that America did for the Middle East. It wasn’t always about confrontation, it was also about schools and hospitals and building for development and artistic inspiration and cooperation.
MJT: You write that the American government was paying these North African states, bribing them basically, to stop taking our ships and enslaving our civilians; paying at the rate 20 percent of the federal budget at one point?
Oren: The Adams Administration in 1790s was paying about 20 percent of its federal revenues in bribery to the Middle Eastern pirates. Thomas Jefferson was from the opposing school. He said that the more you paid off the pirates the more bribery they would demand. Jefferson said that any treaty signed with any individual pirate ruler – whether they be from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, or Libya – that treaty would only be good as long as the ruler’s life.
We can see how American leaders later on in American history didn’t heed Jefferson’s advice. Take Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. He sold Iran arms in an attempt to induce the Iranians to kidnap fewer Americans in Lebanon. He basically violated Thomas Jefferson’s first rule in the Barbary Wars.
MJT: Do you think there’s a similarity with the United States paying the Egyptian government 2 billion dollars a year? Some say this is a way of preserving Egypt’s cold peace with Israel.
Oren: It’s more to keep the Egyptian government, Hosni Mubarak, in power. There’s a very large Muslim extremist Brotherhood in Egypt that is a contender for power. It hates the government, it hates America, it certainly hates Israel. They hope that by giving Egypt this money – and Egypt is a Third World country, this money is needed literally to buy bread – they can keep Mubarak in power. One of the benefits of keeping Mubarak in power is the maintenance of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but that’s not the only benefit.
MJT: One thing that stood out for me, especially at the beginning of the book, is how much Arab North Africa is different now than it was. I don’t think anybody can imagine Morocco or Tunisia enslaving civilians from the United States or from any other country.
Oren: They were part of what was then known to Americans, indeed to Westerners, as the Orient. It is not a geographical designation because much of the Orient, like Tunisia and Morocco, lies to the West of much of Western Europe. Westerners knew, though, that when they crossed the Mediterranean they were entering Islamic Civilization.
And that to them was Oriental. The distinction between North Africa and the Middle East didn’t exist back then. It was all part of the Orient. The Arabs had a notion of a distinction between the western Islamic world and the eastern Arab world. But that distinction didn’t exist in the Western world at all. It’s a very contemporary designation.
MJT: When speaking of the Barbary War you used the word “jihad.” I don’t think you used that word in your book, though, did you?
Oren: No, I didn’t really have to. There was the case in 1785 where Thomas Jefferson is sent to negotiate with the envoy of the Pasha of Tripoli. Jefferson says to him that America only wants peace with the Barbary states. And he says to Jefferson “No, we want war with you. We have a holy book called the Koran which says that we have to conquer and enslave all infidel states. And the United States is an infidel state. And moreover our holy book the Koran tells us that if we are killed in the course of carrying out this war that we’ll go directly to Paradise.” So I didn’t think I even had to put the label jihadist on there. I figured that remarkable report of Jefferson’s at the Continental Congress would suffice to alert contemporary readers what Jefferson was dealing with in the Middle East.
MJT: You wrote about how Americans 200 years ago were thinking of the United States as their own Zion and comparing themselves to the Israelites. This long predates the founding of the state of Israel. This idea is much older than [founder of the Zionist movement] Theodore Herzl.
Oren: Much older. This goes back to the time of the Puritans, to the 17th Century. The Puritans had appropriated the biblical narrative. They saw themselves as the new Israel. They had escaped bondage in England, in Egypt, you know? They crossed the Atlantic Ocean, which was their Sinai. They inherited a promised land, which was the New World. They gave one thousand biblical names to their cities and towns. They gave biblical names to their sons and daughters. They made Hebrew a required language at their universities. James Madison was a Hebrew major.
As a result Americans felt a particular kinship with the old Jews, as though they were sort of cousins. They felt a very strong attachment to the old promised land of Palestine. And they concluded that as good Christians and good Americans it was incumbent on them to help God fulfill his biblical promises to the Jews to rescue them from exile and to restore them to the promised land. This was the notion of Restorationism. It was very common in colonial America well into the 19th Century and even into the 20th Century. And it’s the origin of today’s Evangelical support for Israel.
MJT: Fascinating. I had no idea about any of this. Most Americans probably don’t.
Oren: I had no idea about it before I wrote about it.
MJT: I can’t help but think this is part of why Americans support Israel more than Europeans do. It’s not just for political reasons. The two countries do have a lot in common. Native Europeans never went far from where they were from to found another state. A lot of Israelis were born in Israel, of course, but huge numbers weren’t. Their experience is a bit like America’s writ small.
Oren: Also that Israel is a democracy resonates very strongly among Americans. Americans take their democracy more seriously than most Europeans. But more to the point, America is also the most faithful country in the Western world. There’s a strong sense of faith-based attachment to Israel. And not only among Evangelicals. The most recent poll by Gallup shows that 70 percent of Americans support Israel. Evangelicals in this country only make up about a fifth of the population. That means there’s another 50 percent of the population that supports Israel for reasons other than Jesus’ Second Coming.
MJT: In your book you show how the Middle East was connected to our Civil War in some ways at the time. Yet it seems there should be no connection at all. Tell us about that.
Oren: Oh, there are many connections. During the Civil War about 500 Egyptian soldiers served with the French Army invading Mexico. It was the only time Arabic-speaking Muslims have fought on North American soil. One of the people involved in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination plot managed to escape to and was arrested in Egypt. There were Civil War officers – Union and Confederate officers – who went to Egypt right after the war to help modernize the Egyptian army. They ended up building a school system for Egypt, as well as exploring and mapping the Sudan.
The biggest impact of the Civil War was on the Middle East rather than the Middle East on the Civil War. The biggest impact was cotton. When the North blockaded Southern cotton the textile mills of Europe went dry. So they turned to the only other place in the world that had cotton of a similar quality and that was in Egypt. The price of Egyptian cotton went up about 800 times. Egypt made a lot of money. And with that money they built wonderful buildings and palaces, they built the opera house where Verdi used to perform, and they also built the Suez Canal which completely changed the face of the Middle East.
In 1869 the cotton market in the South came back and the Egyptian cotton market went bankrupt. Egypt went bankrupt and that led to the British occupation of Egypt that lasted for 70 years. There was actually a direct line between the Civil War and the Suez crisis of 1956 during which the Egyptians tried to nationalize the Suez Canal. Britain and France invaded. And so, really, the reverberations from the American Civil War in certain ways continue to course across the Middle East.
MJT: Americans have been trying to modernize and liberalize the Middle East for two centuries. George W. Bush isn’t the first person to think of this idea and do something about it. The religious missionaries have been at it for a long time, and not just to convert people to Christianity. They built schools and promoted liberal secular American values.
Are we na√Øve? Arrogant? Should we give this up or do we have the right idea here?
Oren: We have the right idea, but we have to realize there is a limit to how much our ideas are appropriate to or can be adapted by the peoples of the Middle East.
I’ll give you an example. We think of democracy as putting a ballot in the box every four years. People in the Middle East look at democracy and they see a package. Yes, it’s putting a ballot in a box. But it’s also giving rights to women, rights for children to marry whom they want when they want. The right to be secular. The right to have free speech. None of these ideas are going to take root in the Middle East very fast. Believe me. They look at democracy and they see a civilization that has lost many of its family values, given to drugs and alcohol, is full of sexual promiscuity. They don’t want that.
MJT: You’re saying that when we say “democracy” they hear liberalism.
Oren: When we say “democracy” they see Western modernity. And they don’t want it.
MJT: Some of them do, but…
Oren: They don’t want to pay the price for it. And the price is that their kids are going to marry whomever they want, their kids are going to marry people of different religions, of different colors, their wives are going to drive cars and go to work and maybe their wives will go out with other men before they get married. They don’t want that.
MJT: It’s interesting how they associate all these things that they view as decadent with democracy. They do go hand in hand, but that isn’t necessarily required.
Oren: Democracy means freedom, and freedom is a package. You can’t pick and shop. You can’t say we want free speech but we don’t want freedom for women. You can’t say we want balloting but we don’t want freedom of assembly.
MJT: You wrote about the Reagan Administration’s incoherent foreign policy, how they traded anti-tank missiles for hostages in Iran – they bribed the Iranians, basically, like the U.S. did with the Barbary Pirates. The Reagan Administration flip-flopped on the PLO, bumbled into and out of Lebanon. You used the word “bewilderment” in your description of Reagan and his staff.
Lebanese-American professor Fouad Ajami used the same word in his recent book The Foreigner’s Gift, which is about the Americans in Iraq. He wrote a whole chapter called “The Liberator’s Bewilderment.” This is something we keep running into. Is this our fault? Or is the Middle East just inherently incomprehensible to Americans because of the cultural gap?
Oren: I tend to think of Americans in the Middle East the way Mark Twain thought of them, more or less as Innocents Abroad. We stumble into the Middle East with the best of intentions and we manage to find ourselves in all sorts of predicaments. Reagan was engaged in combat operations against the Syrians and the Libyans at various times, and then against the Iranians. Nobody remembers that American played a pivotal role in securing the independence of Libya, Syria, and Iran. America came to these countries in the post-war world with, really, the best of intentions.
America didn’t want to pick a fight with the Libyans. America didn’t want to pick a fight with the Syrians. But America ends up fighting the Syrians in 1982 and 1983 because the Syrians wanted to overthrow the democratically elected government in Lebanon.
MJT: In our 200 plus years of involvement what do you think are our greatest successes and our greatest failures in the Middle East?
Oren: Our greatest successes have been building the modern school systems in the Middle East, introducing the idea of secular nationalism. The United States built the infrastructure of Arab oil. That the producers of Arab oil chose to squander the greatest resource in human history and not devote it to development and science is not the fault of the United States. We certainly created the wherewithal for them to make the choice. And America has liberated a great many people in the Middle East from Ottoman oppression and European occupation.
MJT: What about the biggest failures?
Oren: The Mossadeq overthrow in 1953 [in Iran] was completely unnecessary and gratuitous. Saving [Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel] Nasser in 1956 was probably the single worst mistake made by any American administration.
If Eisenhower hadn’t saved Nasser there would have been no Six Day War, no 1973 war, no occupation [of the West Bank and Gaza], no intifadas, no settlements.
MJT: The CIA helped put Nasser in power, too.
Oren: They did. And if Woodrow Wilson had declared war against the Ottoman Empire during World War I the Middle East today would look much different. That also was a big mistake.
MJT: What surprised you most when researching your book?
Oren: The faith component. I knew it was there, but I didn’t know how big it really was. I actually had to tone it down in the book. Otherwise it could have been called American Faith in the Middle East. I wanted to get Power and Fantasy in their somewhere.
The fact is America has acted on one hand as a Christian country and on the other hand as a democratic country. In both cases it has this irrepressible urge to export its religion and its civic faith to the Middle East. And we find that these are the major leitmotifs in America’s engagement in the course of over 200 years. It’s amazing.
MJT: We’ve talked about the Power and Faith components here. Tell us something about Fantasy.
Oren: The fantasy has very deep roots. It goes back to the 18th Century, back to the second most popular book on the American colonial book shelf which was One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. It was the second most popular book after the Bible. Everyone in America at the time read it. Everyone believed it. Everyone believed all these fantastic tales about the Middle East, that that’s what the Middle East really looked like.
Starting in the 19th Century Americans started flocking there in great numbers. Thousands of them were going. Great American writers like Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Frederick Douglas came to the Middle East. Also statesman. Ulysses S. Grant, General Sherman, George McClellan, they were all lured by this fantasy.
By the 20th Century these fantasies were being appropriated by Hollywood. Some of Hollywood’s earliest blockbusters were Middle Eastern romances. And they’re still making Middle Eastern fantasy movies. They don’t go away. It’s amazing.
MJT: What’s the most recent one?
Oren: I guess Babel in a certain way. I haven’t seen it, though, so I want to withhold judgment.
MJT: I saw it, it’s not bad. And it’s reasonably realistic.
Oren: I’ll have to see it. There was a movie a couple of years ago called Hidalgo about a horse race across Arabia. Total Middle East fantasy.
MJT: You have taken the long view of American involvement in the Middle East perhaps more than anyone else in the world. Having done that, are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
Oren: As a historian I’m optimistic. Listen, I view the war in Iraq not as a war, but as a battle in a much more protracted war. Iraq is America’s Bull Run in the war in the Middle East. It’s our first losing battle.
It is not Vietnam. You cannot withdraw from Iraq and be confident that the enemy is not going to follow you. Because the enemy is going to follow you. America can’t detach from the Middle East because the Middle East is not going to detach from America. And America’s going to have to learn to fight this fight to win in a much more prudent and effective way. And there are ways America can fight it more effectively.
MJT: What do you suggest?
Oren: I suggest America invest very heavily in intelligence and training an entire generation of service women and men to speak the languages, be conversant in the languages and the cultures of the Middle East. America has to invest much more heavily in intelligence gathering. America has to invest much more heavily in rapid response forces in the Middle East and retain them there.
America has to get involved in theology. We’ve been fighting a theology with an ideology. It doesn’t work. We have to get in the business of promoting a reformist Islam. It’s important. It’s controversial, but important.
MJT: How do we do that? Do you mean by promoting the moderates who already exist?
Oren: Well there are some moderates who exist. They don’t have any places where they can go out and speak and speak free of harm. We can help disseminate their ideas. Right now the extreme Wahhabi interpretation of Islam predominates in schools across Europe. The West has basically given up the field to these people.
Michael Oren is the of the best-selling books Six Days of War and Power, Faith, and Fantasy. He is a graduate of Princeton and Yale Universities and works as a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
Michael J. Totten’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, Reason, LA Weekly, TCS Daily, and Beirut’s Daily Star. Visit his blog at michaeltotten.com.