Romancing Araby

The meeting in London was doomed from the outset. The Arab strongman’s envoy held all the cards – three
craft had already been hijacked, their passengers and crew held hostage in an inhospitable and almost
unreachable land. The American ambassador knew the ransom demand would be high, but even he could not
have imagined just how exorbitant it would be. To meet it would require one-tenth of America’s annual budget.

Lest the adventurous Yanks dare to contemplate a military attack to rescue their captured comrades, Abd
al-Rahman al-Ajar provided a most unpleasant revelation: the Koran declares that any nation that does not bow to the authority of the Muslims is sinful, and it is the right and duty of Muslims to make war upon it and take prisoner any of its people they may find. Further, any Muslim slain in battle against such an enemy would be promised a place in Paradise.

‘We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever,’ the furious but helpless
ambassador relayed to his government. Congress would authorize no such fight, however, and voted instead to pay the ransom.

And that is how America first capitulated to Arab terrorism, some 220 years ago.

America’s humbling experience in the Barbary Wars, as retold in historian Michael Oren’s new book Power,
Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, is the beginning of a tale as cautionary as any ever told. As the tale unfurls, spreading from Tripoli to Turkey and Teheran, it highlights a series of recurring follies and frustrations that reverberate through the Middle East until today.

Half a dozen books have been written on the Barbary Wars since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,
almost all of them bringing attention to America’s first encounter with Middle East terrorism. What Oren does is to frame the American involvement in the Middle East from then until now in three distinct themes, or motives. The first is power, the pursuit of America’s interests through a variety of means – military, diplomatic, financial. And what America discovers in North Africa is that it has no power to protect these interests.

TO FACE the pirate threat of the mid-1780s, ambassador to France (and eventual president) Thomas Jefferson suggests constructing a formidable navy at the expense of $2 million, and establishing a NATO-like force of US and European ships to patrol the Mediterranean. European governments reject the mutual defense pact, however, and Congress balks at the cost of building a navy. It chooses instead to pay $70,000 to bribe the brigands of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco and Algiers.

Seizing on America’s weakness, the pirates raise their demands for ‘tribute’ to nearly $1 million. By the late 1790s, with the North African city-states first attacking American ships and then negotiating bribes (protection money, if you will), as much as 20 percent of America’s annual revenues are being sent to the
unscrupulous deys and pashas.

‘My country! How art thou prostrate!’ exclaims William Eaton, the consul to Tunis. ‘There is but one language
which can be held to these people, and this is terror.’ Americans soon sour to the humiliating arrangement, rallying to adopt a Constitution that establishes a federal system, and outfitting a navy in 1794.

As Virginia politician (and also eventual president) James Madison reasons during negotiations over the
Constitution, ‘Weakness will invite insults. The best way to avoid danger is to be in capacity to withstand it.’

‘Our security against the Barbary powers must depend on force and not upon treaties, upon ships of war instead of presents and subsidies,’ adds ambassador to Britain Rufus King.

Rather quickly, American ships bring the North Africans to heel, cementing the United States’ role as a power broker in the Middle East. Before he revised it in the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key’s ‘Star-Bangled Banner’ – which would become the American national anthem – described ‘turbaned heads bowed’ to the ‘brow of the brave.’ No longer weak, then, America invites no more insults. Strengthened, in fact, it begins to deliver a few of its own.

Benevolent arrogance

It is here that the second theme of Oren’s book, faith, takes over. As the Middle East opens up to American commerce, it also becomes the destination of choice for Christian pilgrims enthralled with the opportunity to convert the Muslims – that is, to spread a mix of religion and independent spirit that is uniquely American, and that is founded on a conception of America as not only a ‘New Canaan’ but as a light unto the nations as well.

As the French pioneer of sociology Alexis de Tocqueville observed, ‘The Americans combine notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to conceive the one without the other.’ The two often combine into what Oren characterizes as ‘benevolent arrogance.’ American missionaries, he relates in his book, ‘continued to disparage Islam as a fraudulent, retrograde faith and dismissed all forms of Eastern Christianity as decadent and outmoded.’

At the height of this benevolent arrogance, missionary William Gooddell tells a crowd of unreceptive Lebanese, ‘We have come to raise your population from that state of ignorance, degradation and death [to]
which you are fallen, to do all the good in our power.’ Not surprisingly, the missionizing flops.

‘Might as well attempt to convert bricks into bride-
cake as the Orientals into Christians,’ author Herman
Melville snipes in his account of his Middle East

Meanwhile, as na•ve preachers are failing to civilize
the Oriental heathens, Americans back home are
succumbing to a powerful fantasy of the Middle East
and its inhabitants.

As if convinced that A Thousand and One Nights were a
historical record rather than a fairy tale, enchanted
Americans become hopelessly enthralled by notions of a
Middle East composed of an ethereal montage of
minarets and pyramids, oases, camels and shifting
dunes. American travelers begin flocking to the region
in droves, driven on by breathless tales of
magnificent bazaars and seduced by dreams of the
feverishly erotic ‘belly dance.’ The intensity of the
fantasy is matched only by the shock of reality. In
the fabled ports of Cairo and Istanbul, blithe and
well-mannered Americans are greeted by masses of
illiterate beggars, by the maimed and the ignorant.

A former slave touring the Middle East who is first
impressed to discover that Islam accepts blacks as
equals, soon comes to deplore Muslims as bigots and
‘head-choppers of Christians.’ Another American
adventurer notes the gap between the promise of the
Middle East and its true condition: ‘Sweet are the
songs of Egypt,’ he writes, ‘on paper.’ Of all the
accounts of American bewilderment in the Middle East,
none is more famous (nor more poignant) than that of
Mark Twain in his travelogue The Innocents Abroad.

From afar, he wrote, Damascus looks like ‘an island of
pearls and opals gleaming out of a sea of emeralds.’
Up close, he said, it is ‘the very sink of pollution
and uncomeliness.’ Syrian men are ‘a wretched nest of
human vermin,’ Twain continued, with ‘rags, dirt,
sunken cheeks, pallor of sickness, sores and
projecting bones.’

‘To glance at the genuine son of the desert,’ he
concluded, ‘is to take the romance out of him

Alas, that romance survived another century at least.
It was kept breathing by a steady stream of fictions –
from the Middle East pavilion at the 1893 fair in
Chicago, replete with camels and with characters
produced entirely in the imagination of their Jewish
creator, to the romanticized escapades of T.E.
Lawrence in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans and
through numerous sex-injected tales of Arab mystique
and mystery woven by Hollywood until the Second World

While Emir Feisal was professing brotherhood and
sympathy for the Zionists in a meeting with Chaim
Weizmann at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, US
secretary of state Robert Lansing swooned over the
‘Muslim paladin’ whose voice ‘seemed to breathe the
perfume of frankincense and to suggest the presence of
richly colored divans, green turbans and the glitter
of gold and jewels.’

Modern implications

Oren’s book loses momentum rapidly from there; after a
review of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it winds down
with the failure of successive administrations to
impose a pax Americana on the Middle East. While the
themes of faith and fantasy are by now much less in
evidence, it is clear that America’s use of power is
uncannily misguided. Rather than show the wisdom
gained from two centuries of engagement in the region,
the United States finds its attempts to exert its
influence repeatedly backfiring.

In Egypt, for example, Nasser’s impetuous rejection of
the Western powers is a direct product of the strident
nationalism first encouraged by the schools
established there by American military advisers in the
mid-19th century. A CIA-orchestrated coup against the
democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh in Teheran
in 1953 later fuels the rabidly anti-American Iranian
revolution. The Reagan Administration supports Saddam
Hussein during Iraq’s war with Iran in the mid-1980s,
only for the first president Bush to have to go to war
with the Butcher of Baghdad in 1991. American support
for the anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan paves the
way for the Taliban’s rise to power.

Increasingly, too, the military might that America
built to extinguish the threat of Middle Eastern
terrorism becomes the target of those terrorists – as
in Hizbullah’s bombing of US barracks in Lebanon in
1983, or al-Qaida’s bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen
in 2000. The enemies, and the threats, just keep

‘We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine
to fight them forever,’ John Adams said of the Muslim
pirates in the 1780s. Now, as Middle Eastern conflicts
look increasingly like Samuel Huntington’s 1993
prophecy of a clash of civilizations with Islam
itself, it seems that fewer Americans are ‘determined
to fight them forever.’

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Iraq – where
US forces have been unable in more than three years to
stop a deadly insurgency from spreading, where
sectarian slaughter has claimed thousands of lives,
and where ‘the coalition of the willing’ amounts to a
mere 10 percent of American troop strength in the

The report of the Iraq Study Group suggests relying
less on American power and sufficing instead with
treaties like those America first signed with the
rulers of the Barbary states.

‘I was against the Iraq war on several levels,’ Oren
confided in conversation. ‘I didn’t agree with the
people who felt the Iraqi people were deeply yearning
for democracy, and that they were just waiting for
America to come and bestow it on them.

‘But I also didn’t think America could pull it off,
because America is a country of faith. And to make
Iraq Iraq, America would have to do what Saddam did,
which was to hold it together with a preponderance of
cruel power… arrest thousands of people, torture
people, kill people. I didn’t think the American
people were that savage.’

But as the United States struggles to regain its
legitimacy in the Middle East, it finds itself
dependent on its ability to create and sustain an
alliance with savage and anti-democratic regimes in
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran. That’s not the
way Americans envisioned things working out when they
first ventured into the deceptively calm waters of the

‘There’s always a trade-off you find in foreign
policy,’ says Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in US
security and foreign policy. ‘But in the Middle East
it’s somewhat simpler: There is a need to secure
access to oil.’

‘In an ideal world,’ he allowed, ‘the US would bring
reconciliation to Iraq so that Iraq could turn away
from a civil war. In an ideal world, the US would
strengthen the government in Lebanon so that country
wouldn’t turn to civil war and instead become a
Western democracy rather than remain dominated by

‘In an ideal world, the US would accomplish so much
good. But after the disaster in Iraq, America has less
leverage to do all these things.’

Now, says Beinart, ‘America has only bad options to
choose from.’

(BOX #1) Illusions

American presidents have made use of a long line of
Jewish emissaries (and often scapegoated them).
Inspired by the curious notion that Jews would serve
as a natural bridge between Christian Americans and
Middle East Muslims, they sent Mordecai Manuel Noah,
Edwin de Leon, Oscar Strauss, Solomon Hirsch, Henry
Morgenthau and more on vital diplomatic missions to
the Middle East. Some of these men even seemed
convinced of the fable.

In 1881, Simon Wolf, the US consul in Cairo, regaled
Egypt’s ruler, Ahmed Urabi, with the following
grandiose declaration: ‘As an Israelite, a brother of
the Arab branch of the human family, I fully
appreciate all [the Egyptians] long for. I feel
grateful to the Mahammadens for their shelter and
protection and freedom my brethren had enjoyed for
years in Moslem countries.’

Such fanciful sentiment could not have been more in
contrast to the testimony of an American traveler in
Morocco in 1842, whose published tale of the journey
includes descriptions of her shock to see how Jews
there were greatly oppressed, even beaten in the
streets like dogs.

Even more startling is the degree to which Jews –
especially, and ironically, Jews in Palestine –
admired and emulated the Arab as a noble character. As
much as American gentiles were smitten by the image of
the sheikhs and shepherds of Arabia, early Zionists in
some ways exceeded them.

It was David Ben-Gurion who, in 1937, unfolded before
a British government panel a speech that would today
be considered laughable at best, scandalous at worst,
but thoroughly fantastical in either case.

‘Our Arab neighbors in Palestine,’ he promised the
officials, ‘will see that not only is there not a
conflict of interests between the Jewish people as a
whole and the Arab people as a whole but that their
interests are completely complementary.’

‘We need each other,’ Ben-Gurion said. ‘We can benefit
each other. I have no doubt that at least our
neighbors around us in Syria, Iraq and Egypt will be
the first to recognize that fact, and from them this
consciousness will also spread in Palestine amongst
our Arab neighbors here, because there is no essential
conflict. On the contrary…

‘The stronger we get, the greater our community
becomes in Palestine, the greater our colonization
work, the more developed our scientific institutions
becomes, the more we will be recognized by our
neighbors abroad and here the blessing of our work and
the mutual interest which exists historically between
the Jewish people which is returning to its country –
returning with the tradition of European culture, with
the blessing of European culture – and the Arab
peoples around us, who also want to achieve not only
formal independence but are also interested in
achieving an economic, intellectual, spiritual and
cultural renaissance…’

After half a dozen wars and two intifadas, it is hard
to believe that Jewish Israeli teenagers could have
ever thought it hip to wear a keffiyeh and smoke a
nargila – but they did. And before there was an IDF
that could develop its own mystique, the romanticized
image of the Beduin captivated more than a few
pioneering Jews in Palestine.

Historian Yosef Meyuhas, writing in Chapters in the
History of the Jewish Yishuv, notes: ‘There were those
who sought to know the Arabs’ life for practical
purposes, including the members of Hashomer – the
first self-defense organization established in Eretz

‘Yisrael Shohat [one of the founders of Hashomer]
wrote the following: ‘Hashomer ascribed special
attention to peaceful relations with the Arab
environment. We knew that the Arabs would be our
neighbors and that we would have to be with them, and
to a certain extent adapt our lives to them. Hashomer
members learned Arabic and wanted to learn whatever
they could among the Arabs. The Shomrim tried not to
make do only with visits to the effendis and sheikhs,
but rather preferred the madafiya (the village’s
hospitality room), in order to meet with the Arab
peasant farmer, tenant or worker. The Shomrim learned
the Arab way of life, and the life of the Arab

‘Hashomer members also dreamt of conquering the
pasture: shepherds wander with their flocks to far-off
regions and know the homeland well. Three members of
Hashomer went out to live among Beduin tribes, in
order to learn the profession. One of them, Yosef
Harit, related: ‘Three members undertook to acquire
the doctrine of shepherding first-hand from the
Beduin, and to that end Hashomer made contact with the
Turkmen, a semi-wild tribe that live in the mountains
with their flocks. In the winter of 1913, three of our
members dressed in Beduin clothes and went to be
shepherds with the tribe’s youth.”

In 1920, Hashomer would take part in the defense of
Tel Hai and Jerusalem from riotous mobs of Arabs –
whose economic, intellectual, spiritual and cultural
renaissance, clearly, had not yet begun.

(BOX #2) An interview with Michael Oren

Michael Oren is guilty, and he admits it. He’s guilty,
he says from his Jerusalem office, of having been
taken in by the same Middle East fantasies that
beguiled the American diplomats, missionaries and
movie-going masses who feature in Power, Faith, and

‘I’m of a generation of Americans – and American Jews
especially – who decided to study Middle East history
because we saw the film Lawrence of Arabia. I can’t
tell you how many people in my class had done the same
thing. We saw this Middle East fantasy movie and said,
‘That’s for us!’ When I was 15, the first thing I did
when I got here [to Israel] was buy a keffiyeh and run
around with it.’

The American-born and -educated historian, who made
aliya in 1979, wrote his latest book in large part, he
says, to dispel the myths about the Middle East that
came crashing down on September 11, 2001.

‘The notion that these very romantic people on camels,
with their robes flowing behind them and their curved
swords dangling from their belts, were the same people
who would hijack airliners and smash them into
skyscrapers, killing 3,000 Americans in a matter of
minutes, came as a huge surprise to Americans in

Partly to blame for that surprise, Oren believes, is
the profound effect that Edward Said and his scathing
critique of Western attitudes toward the East,
Orientalism, had on Middle East studies. ‘Said, too,
was a fantasy,’ Oren says. ‘After 9/11, students who
grew up on Orientalism were thinking, ‘Where did this
come from?’ because they had been raised on the idea
that the Middle East had everything to fear from the
United States, and that the United States had nothing
to fear from the Middle East. There was nothing that
was being taught that could have even prepared them
for 9/11.’

After some 25 years of researching America’s
involvement in the Middle East, Oren concludes: ‘When
Americans look at the Middle East, they don’t see the
Middle East, they see themselves. They think that
people are just like Americans. ‘If we can just tweak
it the right way, then we can create New Jersey here
in Iraq.’ I think it’s essential that Americans look
at the Middle East as a distinct culture, with its own

Principally, he says, that means taking a different
tack on the push for freedom in the Middle East.

‘Americans perceive of their nation as a nation that
doesn’t exist for itself, but in order to bring
liberty to the world. The problem is that we’re
looking at freedom from the American definition of
freedom. For us, freedom is not just sticking a ballot
in a box every four years. Our freedom is our freedom
to marry whomever we want. Our freedom is for our
children to have an education, for them to make their
own decisions. It’s freedom to see whatever you want
to watch on TV, even if what you see conflicts with
what you believe politically or religiously.

‘Freedom is a package. And there are many aspects of
that package that are deeply threatening to this area
of the world – an area that is traditionally
patriarchal, where women don’t have rights (certainly
not the right to marry whom they choose).
Western-style freedom is so devastating to their
culture… but we miss that because we don’t see them,
and we don’t see ourselves the way they see us.’

That failure continues to this day, Oren says, and it
is evident in the approach of the Iraq Study Group,
whose suggestions for a change in strategy on Iraq and
the Middle East challenge the Bush administration’s
assumptions about what it will take to turn Iraq into
a functioning democracy.

‘What’s the underlying belief of the report? That we
can change a thousand-year-old civilization with just
a little bit more elbow grease. Man, when Lee Hamilton
and James Baker [the main authors of the report] say
that the Iranians and Syrians share our desire for
stability in Iraq and are ready to talk to us, that’s
on the frontier between faith and fantasy.’

(BOX #3) Israel and the American interest

‘Israel,’ US president Richard Nixon told senior
legislators 35 years ago, ‘is the current most
effective stopper to the Mideast power of the Soviet
Union. I am supporting Israel because it is in the
American interest to do so.’

Now, of course, the threat of Soviet expansion into
the Middle East is greatly diminished. Meanwhile, the
war on Islamic terrorism threatens the United States’
relations with countries throughout the Middle East.
So is it reasonable to assume that Americans will
always believe that it is in their best interests to
support Israel?

No, according to Bar-Ilan University political science
professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert in US-Israeli

‘Sure, the United States could eventually sacrifice
Israel in favor of the Middle East,’ he suggests.
‘Just look at how many books are out now claiming that
supporting Israel is against America’s interests. It’s
very worrying. Maybe someone will buy that, even
though it has no connection to reality. I’m very
concerned about that.’

In the long term, Gilboa says, America could withdraw
from the region to such an extent as to give Israel’s
enemies dangerous room to act against it.

‘This is for the future, I should stress, not right
now. But already, people are saying an Iranian nuke is
inevitable – and, worse, they are asking, ‘What’s the
big deal?’ If you’re Israeli, and you see this
happening amongst Americans, you have to ask yourself,
‘Can we depend on them?”

If past is prologue, as Shakespeare wrote, then Israel
has reason to worry.

On two occasions in Turkey, while it attempted to
balance its sense of virtue and concern for freedom
with its drive to gain power and influence in the
Middle East, the United States chose power and

In the 1820s, when Greeks rebelled against the
oppression of the Ottomans, America chose to maintain
its ties with the Turks. In one sense, at least, the
investment paid off: by 1877, Turkey was buying $4.5
million worth of oil and arms from the US.

In the early 1900s, overwhelming evidence of the
Armenian genocide again pitted American ideals against
American political and financial interests – and
again, those interests won out.

William Nesbitt Chambers, a missionary in Turkey then,
openly wished that ‘such a power as the United States
should become so strong on land and sea that… Turkey
would never dare to commit such a horrible crime,’ and
that America would come to the rescue with ‘a great
gun.. in one hand [and] the Gospel in the other.’

Also John H. Finley, then head of the Red Cross in
Palestine, fumed, ‘America! You must send not only the
Red Cross to this front. You must send that which
Christ said he came to bring – the sword… and make
common cause with the forces of justice against the
demons of cruelty.’

Despite the horrible atrocities documented almost
daily, however, president Woodrow Wilson did not ‘make
common cause with the forces of justice,’ refusing to
go to war with Turkey.

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