In This Review

Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present
Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present
By Michael B. Oren
Norton, 2007, 672 pp.

In this elegant and engaging overview of U.S. involvement in the Middle East from the Barbary Wars through the current quagmire in Iraq, Oren, an Israeli historian, explores the peculiar blend of "power, faith, and fantasy" that has guided U.S. policy. From the beginning, there was faith that "God's American Israel" would redeem the Holy Land from Muslim infidels and that the modern world's first republic would inspire the peoples of the Middle East to throw off the yoke of Oriental despotism. There was also fantasy embedded in a popular culture shaped by Thousand and One Nights, nineteenth-century travelogues, and Hollywood feature films, all of which presented the region as "a theater of myth." And finally, there was power, which arrived gradually during the twentieth century as the United States emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Oren makes a compelling case that Woodrow Wilson's ambivalent response to Arab and Zionist calls for self-determination after World War I, Harry Truman's swift recognition of Israel three decades later, and every American response to crisis in the Middle East, from Suez in 1956 through the 1967 Six-Day War to the Islamic upheaval in Iran in 1979, were filtered through these lenses.

He concludes with a brisk account of the ongoing "Thirty Years' War" with radical Islam. For Ronald Reagan and his successors, faith in the goodness of the United States' intentions has collided repeatedly with fantasies about a region cursed by exotic peoples and evil leaders. The end of the Cold War raised the specter of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West, in which the United States seemed to possess such a preponderance of power that the contradictions between faith and fantasy could be easily resolved by military force. After Osama bin Laden brought down the World Trade Center on 9/11, Washington attempted just such a resolution. Had George W. Bush been able to read this magnificent new book before he launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, however, he might well have realized just how dangerous it has been to shoot first and ask questions later in the Middle East over the past 200 years.