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Power, Faith, and Fantasy: A Review

This is a review of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present by Michael Oren. W.W. Norton, 2007

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It is believed that America only began to get involved in the affairs of the Middle East after the Suez Crisis in 1956, which caused the decline of the influence of the British in the region. For most people, America intensified its influence after the Yom Kippur war, when Richard Nixon agreed to export American weapons to help Israel defeat Egypt and Syria.

Michael Oren has some different ideas wherein America’s role in the region is concerned. Oren is a historian and author whose latest book aims to help readers understand the motives driving American politicians, Christian leaders, and members of the media, to get involved in Middle Eastern affairs. He also concerns himself with the eternal question of whether or not American involvement is positive or negative.

Modern scholars suggest that the first direct conflict between America and the Islamic world, barring the Hizbollah attack that killed 240 American troops in 1983, was the attack against Saddam Hussein in 1993. Oren challenges this notion. The first conflict between the two civilizations took place from 1776-1815, he asserts. Barbary pirates from Morocco, Libya, and Algeria attacked American business ships and held sailors captive. Oren believes that the decision of James Madison to send dispatches to attack ports in North Africa affirmed American status as a global power. Success in stopping the attacks also boosted American confidence in using force to protect overseas commerce, Oren claims.

The book also rebukes what Oren calls “the myth of the Israel lobby”, which has become a much-debated issue. Oren believes that the American support for Israel is not simply tied to Jewish lobbies, which have been accused of using millions of dollars to influence Washington D.C to establish a pro-Israel policy. Neither, he says, is America pro-Israel due to the work of John Hagee, Pat Roberston, and other right-wing Christians.

The influences of the above preachers and lobbyists are real and cannot be ignored. Yet Oren ultimately offers a different explanation for the seemingly unconditional American support to the Jewish state: which is what Oren describes as a grown-up, realist view of the right of Israel to exist, stemming from American desire to protect Jews from persecution following the pogroms and the Holocaust.

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Oren also suggests that the Arab attacks against Jews, militarily or rhetorical, further serve Israeli interests on the ground. Arab assaults, Oren says, are portrayed as a fundamentalist Islamic jihad against people of different faiths and civilizations, creating an image of Arabs as a people who do not desire peace.

Oren only devotes one section to the history of American attachment to the Middle East after the Second World War. He focuses on a general interpretation on the nature of the U.S – Middle East relations. He is right to predict that the United States will have much more challenges ahead, especially from Iran, as well as the al-Qaeda terrorist network. Overall, Oren finds years of American involvement positive in that modern education and health care are funded and/or encouraged in the region, and in the belief that America is a nation that strives for peace and security for the Middle East.

Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses ipod Praise for America’s good intentions is obviously Oren’s most controversial statement. America’s intentions may be as good as Oren claims, but so far, the results are rather mixed (as evidenced by poor political, economical, and educational conditions in many Muslim countries); Oren could have done a better job addressing the present situation.

The Mouse That Roared trailer This book drew upon a wealth of materials from various archives and literature. However, these materials were all written in English, which may have limited the author’s scope. In addition, the book suffers from a lack of source materials on more recent events. Oren claims that it would have been difficult to obtain diverse resources, but the book would provide a more multi-dimensional view of how people in the Middle East perceive American involvement if at least secondhand resources in French, Arabic, or Hebrew were consulted.

Despite such shortcomings, my ultimate pronouncement is that this book is terrific. It is a must-read manual for diplomats and peacemakers who have been puzzled by the “seemingly irrational actions” successive American governments have displayed when Israel-related issues appear at the UN Security Council. It provides a great deal of explanations for the continuous American vetoes on resolutions demanding Israeli withdrawal from West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

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Oren’s highlighting of the fact that American involvement in the Middle East can be traced back to 1776 is by itself an invaluable reminder of how short our memory can be wherein American foreign policy is concerned. People interested in a refresher course would do well to pick up Oren’s book.

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Jonathan Mok

Jonathan Mok lives in Hong Kong. He reviews music and literature. Some of his chief interests include American and Middle Eastern politics.

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