Published by W. W. Norton & Company,
New York and London, 2007
604 pages. ISBN -13: 978-0 393-05826-0
Reviewed by Capt. Fredrick H. Hallett. USNR(Ret.)
CAPT Hallett is a 1951 Northwestern NROTC graduate, served aboard USS ROCHESTER (CA 124) during the Korean War. attended Submarine School and won his dolphins aboard USS TJRU (SS416) before going to Electric Boat. He was Guarantee Engineer aboard USS PATRICK HENRY (SSBN599) and USS THOMAS EDISON (SSBN 610) during shakedown and initial missile firings and served as Commanding Officer, Submarine Reserve Division 3-11, New London, CT. He now lives in Arnold, Maryland.
What experience and history teaches is this- that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it –George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
I have always tried to convince my progeny that the study of history adds a third dimension to an understanding of current events, much as flying can add greatly to an understanding of geography. That being so, we are indebted to Michael B. Oren for this soaring overview of America’s peculiar relationship with the Middle East over more than two centuries. For the author’s purposes, that overview stretches from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Straits of Hormuz, and from Georges Washington to Bush. Present day critics of the U.S. war in Iraq who believe “it’s all about oil” will be surprised to find that we were overthrowing Middle Eastern tyrants and trying to reform and democratize Muslim societies long before the invention of internal combustion engines.
A talented writer with an eye for fascinating details, Dr. Oren, the Columbia and Princeton-educated American son of a U.S. Army officer, combines a scholar’s intensity with the straightforward get on-with-it approach of an Israeli paratrooper, which he was. He has condensed 230 years of American experience into a first-of its-kind volume which should be required reading wherever understanding the area is important.
From the days of Jefferson and Franklin, the U.S. has often trod a different Middle Eastern policy path than the rest of the world not unlike the thorny one on which we find ourselves today. In a few instances, American innovations have led the way to a better outcome. More often than not, these initiatives have stumbled and been trampled by oncoming realities. Oren’s careful retelling offers new perspectives on whatever policy successes or failures emerge from the Iraq War. Chances are we’ve been there before.
It is in the recounting that patterns of stubborn facts emerge- not least the endless circle of Christian-Muslim confrontation. But I think few American readers will be familiar with the persistent themes and occasional goofiness which have marked America’s efforts in that part of the world. Oren explores both, sometimes producing surprises.
One of those surprises is the origins of the drive to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine, sparked and supported by American Protestants in 1819, Jong before Zionism emerged elsewhere. Another is our history of aggressively confronting dictators, along with efforts, sometimes by invitation, to set up modern democratic governments supported by reform of a nation’s military trained by U.S. senior officers (Egypt, 1869-73 ). A third is massive American efforts to intervene to end oppression of minorities, which became an issue in McKinley’s presidential campaign (Armenia, 1896) and again in Wilson’s critical decision not to declare war on Turkey in 1917. This decision, strongly opposed by Theodore Roosevelt, excluded the U.S. from the peace conference which dismembered the Ottoman Empire and gave rise to many of the border problems of today.
It should be some comfort to the current administration to realize that the only American presidents who haven’t suffered frustration and failure in the Middle East are the ones who never tried to do anything there. Giants like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy all confronted intractable problems and were unhappy with the results. One of the reasons was the inherent contradiction between our anti-colonialism and our chronic urge to replace dictatorial regimes with democratic institutions, not to mention our longstanding support of a Jewish homeland and our desire to maintain friendships with Iran and the Arabs, almost all of whom owe their independence to American post-WWII policies. It appears that in the Middle East there are no right answers, so America must find the least wrong one.
Navy readers may not be surprised to discover that the term Middle East was coined by Alfred Thayer Mahan and that he was very conscious of the strategic significance of the area even in the days when America was its chief supplier of petroleum products. The U.S. Navy can trace its birth to conflict with Barbary pirates and has often been the visible manifestation of U.S. Middle Eastern policy from the days of Steven Decatur until today. Such exploits as USS TENNESSEE’s evacuation from Palestine of 6,000 Russian Jews imperiled by the Turks in 1915 are among obscure bits of U.S. naval history retold here.
Dr. Oren also tells of the antics of Mark Twain, sardonic debunker of exotic Oriental travel brochures and of his strange personal relationship to Zionists among the Jews of Vienna. Oddball American missionary efforts in the Ottoman Empire are described along with the serious initial penetration and exploration of the Saudi empire by a guy from Michigan who sold T. E. Lawrence his first books on Arabia.
The meatiest part of the book deals with the incredible hodgepodge of U.S. policies in the Wilson administration springing from American pro- and anti- Zionists, pan-Arabists, isolationists, missionaries and League of Nations boosters contending with British and French interests determined to grab as much control as possible of Turkish and Arab lands in the post-World War I settlement negotiations. One of Wilson’s strangest decisions was to seek policy recommendations from commissioners who knew absolutely nothing about the area and would therefore favor none of the factions. Just a few years later (after our State Department had declared the area to be of little commercial importance), rich oil fields in Mesopotamia and the Arabian peninsula were discovered, spawning a new set of problems still unsolved today.
Those in the current administration who have suffered from Middle East intelligence failures may be wryly amused by Oren’s accounts of Teddy Roosevelt’s dispatching the U.S. Navy to the area a) to avenge the killing of an American who turned up alive and b) to rescue from captivity an American citizen who wasn’t one. As it turns out, we’ve been sending our Navy to impress or intimidate potentates in the area almost as long as we’ve had one… and as I write this another carrier task force has just arrived off Iran.
Anyone hoping to comprehend events in the Middle East today needs to read this book. It may not supply needed answers but it will certainly augment one’s ability to ask intelligent questions grounded on humbling experience. – a sort of antidote to George Santayana’s famous observation about “those who cannot remember the past…”