American involvement in Middle Eastern affairs is hardly new—and, writes historian Oren (Six Days of War, 2001, etc.), mostly “graced with good intentions.”
The Middle East—a term, Oren notes, coined by an American admiral a century ago—was a subject of intense interest across the waters in the early days of the Republic, thanks in good measure to the work of Mediterranean privateers who pressed American sailors into slavery. Add to that the natural strangeness of the Arab world, and, writes Oren, for Thomas Jefferson the region was “a bastion of infidel-hating pirates as well as a realm of exotic wonders.” Thus it would remain, at least until the piracy problem was attended to. The slavery problem was another matter, and Oren takes up a rewarding theme by examining the uses to which it was put in American abolitionist circles. In decades to come, fast ships would carry Americans across the sea in great numbers. Some made the heart of the Middle East part of the Grand Tour, some made the Holy Land an object of pilgrimage and its inhabitants one of proselytism; and some saw in the region a source of commerce and wealth, even before the discovery of oil. Interestingly, as Oren explores in detail, many travelers of all stripes tended to be anti-imperialist, regarding British designs on the region as a problem, even if Harper’s magazine did opine that “Civilization gains whenever any misgoverned country passes under the control of a European race.” That proto-neoconservative declaration is one of many parallels that the reader can reasonably draw between then and now. Oren suggests that much American activity in the Middle East, from Red Cross founder Clara Barton’s intercession on behalf of besieged Armenians to the work of hydrologists and agronomists in making Palestine fertile ground, was benign. When it was not, it had unpleasant consequences, as with the machinations of one anti-Semitic ambassador and the present messy stage of what Oren calls the “thirty years war” following the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran.
Of considerable interest in that difficult time: well argued, and full of telling moments.