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Book Traces America's Deep Roots in Middle East

  • Julie Stahl Jerusalem Bureau Chief
  • 2007 27 Jan
Book Traces America's Deep Roots in Middle East
Jerusalem ( - The United States is being asked to make "fateful decisions" regarding the Middle East, but to do so effectively, Americans need to understand their nation's legacy in the region, says a new book.

"Power, Faith, and Fantasy" looks at 230 years of American involvement in the Middle East. It is the first "comprehensive history" of America in the Middle East, author Michael Oren said.

Americans are being asked to decide whether to remain in Iraq, how to conduct the war against terror, how to relate to Islam and how to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Oren told Cybercast News Service in an interview in Jerusalem.

"These are decisions that are going to affect the lives of every American and affect the lives of many people in the world. I think it's very dangerous that Americans are making these decisions without having a historical context or a legacy to refer back to," said Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an academic research institute in Jerusalem.

In his book, Oren examines the deep roots of the American experience in the Middle East from the country's Judeo-Christian underpinnings, to Hollywood's treatment of the Middle East, to the perception of the Holy Land in American literature and to America's first encounter with jihadist terror more than 200 years ago.


In 1785 Thomas Jefferson and John Adams encountered the jihad terrorist ideology when they were sent to negotiate a treaty with a representative of Tripoli, in modern day Libya, Oren says in his book.

American merchant ships in the Mediterranean at the time were under constant threat of attack from Arabic-speaking pirates from Morocco, Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, who captured the merchants' goods and enslaved the crews.

Jefferson and Adams met with the Tripoli representative Abd al-Rahman al-Ajar and told him that America was "eager to avert bloodshed" and was therefore willing "to offer a treaty of lasting friendship with Tripoli."

But according to Jefferson's communication to the Continental Congress, al-Ajar responded, "It is written in the Koran that all nations who should not have acknowledged their [Muslims'] authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every [Muslim] who should be slain in battle would surely go to paradise."

Now in 2006 Americans identify such a philosophy with al Qaeda, said Oren. But Jefferson was shocked.

There is a parallel between what happened then and what is happening today, and Americans should know this information before they make decisions on dealing with terror now, he said.

Jefferson concluded that if America paid off or placated terror-sponsoring regimes, it would merely give those regimes an incentive to carry out more terror attacks, said Oren.

Some years after that first encounter, America fought the Barbary wars to ensure safe passage for the American shipping in the region.

Two centuries later, President Ronald Reagan failed to "internalize" the main lesson of the Barbary wars -- that "you don't negotiate with State terrorists if you want to defend yourself," said Oren.

Instead, Reagan tried to give incentives to Iran to stop kidnapping Americans by sending missiles to Tehran in 1985. It only gave them the incentive to kidnap more Americans, he said.

Biblical Zionism

According to Oren, one of the most striking discoveries in his research was the prevalence of "Zionist thinking," known in early America as "Restorationism."

Such thinking, he said, was portrayed by the Puritans giving a thousand Biblical place names to towns in the 13 original colonies; John Adams saying that his "greatest wish" was that the Jews would re-establish their kingdom in Judea (today the southern West Bank, where the Palestinians want to establish their state); John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan signing petitions calling on the U.S. to spearhead an international effort to re-create the Jewish state; and Harry Truman recognizing the State of Israel against the advice of every member of the foreign policy establishment.

Oren attributed the "faith component" in American history to the fact that many Americans knew and read the Bible, which influenced the way Americans interacted with the Middle East.

Oren said the debate surrounding the Middle East is "very polarized" today.

There are those who say America is basically imperialist, bloodthirsty, avaricious and oil-hungry, while another school of thought says America is acting on its principles, bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East, said Oren.

(America was instrumental, for instance, in securing the freedom and independence from Europe of some of its worst enemies today, such as Syria and Iran, he noted.)

"The discourse is broken down, and I want to show them that yes, America did support some nasty dictators...but America also created the Middle East's first modern school systems, the first universities, the first hospitals, [and] that America introduced ideas of freedom and democracy in the Middle East," he said.

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