The British Empire Library

Power, Faith, and Fantasy America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present

by Michael B. Oren

A book on the American experience in the Middle East may at first seem out of place on a website dedicated to imperial British history. However, as you read through this book you quickly understand why it is valuable to compare relative Western nation experiences and especially as the United States would mutate from being an almost insignificant player in the region to ultimately usurping Britain's role in large swathes of the region and replacing it in geo-strategic terms. However, the road was long, rocky and often contradictory for Americans as they grappled with the various threats and opportunities from the Middle East. It is fascinating to see where the British and Americans cooperated and where and why they diverged from one another and of course it is always useful to see the British imperial experience through the prism of another regional actor.

This book makes it clear that American policy towards the Middle East has been far from consistent since the tail end of the Eighteenth Century when the nascent nation first came into contact with the Middle East up until the modern day. America's first real experience as a sovereign nation with the Middle East was as a victim of sustained piracy. This was largely as a result of the Royal Navy no longer providing protection to American mariners plying the sealanes as they had done for the previous century and a half before Independence. Barbary Pirates from North Africa generally did not discriminate in its targets excepting that they understood that attacking flags of some nations was likely to lead to more repercussions than flags of other nations (interestingly many US ships decided to continue to fly the Union Jack to enhance their chances of being spared attack). Additionally, various European powers occasionally bought off Barbary pirates in advance with payments so that they would not hinder the craft of their nation and possibly encouraged to attack others instead. The United States was going to have to learn the hard way the realities of being an independent state which wished to trade on an international scale. The author explains in great detail how many American ships were captured, cargoes seized and crew and passengers held as hostages or even sold into slavery. It did not help matters that the Barbary Pirates were a multi-headed hydra and doing deals with one group of pirates would not necessarily translate into other pirates honouring those deals. The early American Presidents veered from paying tribute to launching attacks on the pirate bases. Indeed, it could rightly be claimed that the creation of a United States Navy was to deal with this very problem. Hitherto, the original 13 states jealously guarded their own rights and were reluctant to send money to the Central Federal Government for other States to benefit from. Piracy in the Mediterranean and Mid-Atlantic was one of the few examples where the largely coastal states (not too much expansion into the interior at this point) could agree that they would all benefit from creating a squadron of ships that could be used to defend their merchant marine and even be based in the Mediterranean and to attack the Barbary pirate bases directly if necessary. European powers were otherwise engaged in their ongoing French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and were often happy when pirates attacked the ships of their enemies and so did little to stamp out the epidemic. The Americans were going to have to grasp this nettle for themselves and in so doing crossed the line from being mere spectators to events in the Middle East to actors. Ever since, American policy has been caught between the dilemmas of pragmatism and idealism; of being active or passive.

One other interesting difference between the European powers and America with regards to the region were their respective views on Palestine. Being an overwhelmingly Protestant nation, many Americans had very strong feelings towards the places mentioned in the Middle East and especially those in and around Palestine. Generations of Protestant American missionaries would flow back and forth across the Atlantic setting up missions, schools and hospitals. These would very much form a basis for American soft power in years to come; educating and caring for the elites of various Arab and Turkish societies. Against the power of Islam, they tended not to win many converts to their cause but their influence could be real nonetheless. This sympathetic identification to the Holy Lands would eventually play a leading role in America giving vital support to the creation of the State of Israel many years later. But it was interesting to read just how deep these religious affinities and connections were between the US and the Holy Lands and certainly helps to explain why so many Middle Eastern place names appeared in new towns and settlements across the American continent as the Union steadily expanded Westwards.

The beginning of the 19th Century once more tested American ideals versus realpolitik over the Greek war of Independence against the Ottoman Turks. Educated Americans instinctively sided with the plucky under dog of a Greece they imagined still held many of the classical ideals that they had grown up studying and admiring. Besides, didn't Americans have to fight for their own liberty? In reality, the poor Greeks had little to trade with America compared to the huge, sprawling Ottoman Empire. American leaders like John Quincy Adams were sympathetic to the Greek cause but could not bring themselves to return to meddle in European affairs nor to offend their valuable customer and supplier of the Ottoman Empire. In the end, British, French and Russian military intervention at the Battle of Navarino saved the Greek cause from failure but the American presence was notable for its absence. However, this was possibly a blessing in disguise as it allowed disgruntled Ottomans to take out their chagrin on the European interventionists and award yet more contracts and opportunities to American merchants. Non-intervention paid off in financial if not humanitarian terms. President Jackson later confirmed this lurch to pragmatism during his Presidential term by making it clear that he put 'trade with the Ottomans above all other concerns!' One can almost here a modern day Trump making an identical speech! The Ottoman Turks duly thanked Jackson for his remarks by passing their 1830 Navigation Acts giving American shipping and merchants privilged access to the Ottoman Empire.

The mid-19th Century saw American influence steadily increase in the Ottoman Empire and the US Mediterranean squadron seemed to justify its existence and helped police this expansion of its commercial activity. However, these advances were largely undone by a combination of the American Civil War and growing British and French presence in the region - and especially their growing attachment back to the Ottoman Turks as they both grew suspicious of Russian expansionism in the region. The Civil War saw American focus retreat back to the US but it also saw a surge in cotton and other commodity prices that saw countries like Egypt fill the vacuum with long term consequences for the American, and particularly Southern, economy. The United States also fell out with Egypt when she intervened in the Maximillian venture into Mexico. Indeed, Egypt technically broke the Monroe Doctrine by despatching troops to fight in Mexico (the only time that Muslim formations have fought in the Americas.) Of course, an America mired in Civil War and its after effects could do little but complain bitterly. The intervention fizzled out anyway and Egypt would not much longer be an independent actor as her finances weakened markedly largely due to the end of the Civil War and the collapse in those same cotton prices! There was also one interesting flow of personnel as defeated Southern soldiers (and some bored victorious Northern soldiers) often found employment in Egypt training the Khedive's Army as he attempted to Westernise and Modernise it. There was one last gasp of friendship between an independent Egypt and the US when the Khedive agreed to send Cleopatra's needle to New York in recognition for American's diplomatic neutrality whilst Britain and France were vying for influence and control over Egyptian finances. Notwithstanding this gift, few Americans were perturbed by British intervention into Egypt in 1882 and many actively sided with British ambitions in the area especially when the Christian Gordon of Khartoum was avenged and the Khalifa was defeated in the Sudan. British rule appeared much more stable and allowed for trade to be conducted once more. Americans were also not immune to the surge in interest in Egyptology and Orientalism in general. Americans were as likely to want to buy up Egyptian artefacts and art as anyone in Europe, perhaps more so given their often religious based education.

1879 saw a landmark event that was little appreciated for its significance at the time. The USS Ticonderoga entered the Persian Gulf. This was the first time that an American ship had entered what was essentially a Royal Navy sea. The area was yet to have the strategic importance that oil would later confer on the region but it illustrated a growing US confidence and ambition for the region. An immediate result of this journey was the establishment of a US legation in Persia for the first time, opening in 1883. Just over two decades later, the British would discover oil and America's foot was already in the door if not yet able to force it open.

The Twentieth Century saw probably the most imperial President yet come to power in the form of Theodore Roosevelt. His gunboat diplomacy in Morocco brought immediate parallels with the British Don Pacifico affair in using the travails of a tangental citizen to the benefit of the State. When Ion Perdicaris was kidnapped in Morocco, Roosevelt used it as a casus belli to despatch battleships and US Marines to demand his return. Only when it was pointed out that the Greek had had his US citizenship revoked many years earlier did the Americans scale back their ambitions for the project. A ransom was duly paid by the Emir of Morocco to the Raisuli holding the captive who was duly released and settled in Britain. The result was less than what Roosevelt had intended and actually achieved little but elevate French influence in this particular part of North Africa demonstrating that interventionism could have unforeseen circumstances. Interestingly, Roosevelt would trave; to the Middle East post-President and he made openly admiring remarks about British rule in Egypt which he perceived as being fundamentally civilising and to the benefit of the local population. This candidness would actually provoke the first ever ant-American demonstration outhside his hotel in 1910. Unfortunately, this would be the first of many demonstrations in the coming century as later American choices would have consequences of their own.

The First World War was a missed opportunity of influence for America as the idealists once more held sway over the pragmatists even in time of World War. Wilson reluctantly agreed to US intervention in the First World War in 1917 but conspicuously failed to declare war on the Ottoman Empire. Unlike a century before where non-intervention in Ottoman affairs was a blessing in disguise in the post World War One era it allowed the British and French to maximise their own influence in the region and carve out League of Nation Mandates for themselves and nothing for the US. Given the increasing discoveries of oil in the region this could have had profound effects for American power in the long term. However a door was left open for influence with the hitherto obscure Ibn Saud who would seize his own kingdom in the Hejaz and carve out an independent path for himself and his new country. Ironically it was a British adviser, Harry st John Philby (father of spy Kim Philby), who advised Ibn Saud to deal with the Americans rather than the British. It would be many years before the hoped for oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia and which would finally justify the American patient investment in Ibn Saud but this would repay itself many times over in the years to come. Having said that the author makes it clear that Ibn Saud was no pushover and would always charge top dollar for this US access to Saudi oil reserves!

Up until World War Two, America could always claim never to have landed an army in the region and to be an honest broker. That changed with Operation Torch as the Americans played their part in helping the British and French evict the Axis armies from the Middle East. In some ways, Operation Torch was a key training opportunity for the American forces to go into ground combat for the first time in the war. It also meant that Arabs were seeing American forces allied with their colonial rulers and actively helping them return or take control of lands. Furthermore, America's attitude to the Jewish demand for a homeland in Palestine would help turn her, in many Arab eyes, from an anti-imperialist idealist into an active player backing a quasi-colonialist outsiders (i.e. Jews from Europe and beyond). The American role in undermining the British Mandate rulers (or at least perceived to be) from 1945 to 1948 would also rankle with Britain. The growing superpower of the US would show that it had ambitions in the region that would conflict with the old imperial powers of Britain and France. This was most evidently revealed in her critical response to the Suez Canal crisis. Of course America would find that it was difficult to undermine her allies in one part of the World, the Middle East, and expect them to help her in other parts of the world; to fight Communism for instance. Once again, American idealism would crash with realism. Which was more important to the US - anti-Communism? the flow of oil? backing Israel? promoting democracy? access to markets? They were often mutually exclusive to a certain extent. Pleasing the Jews over Israel angered Arabs in surrounding countries often pushing them into the arms of the Soviet Bloc or pushing up the price of oil. Likewise chasing out the imperial powers created new vulnerable states who might be tempted by the siren calls of Communism or to the influence of religious fanatics. American attempts to prop up the Shah of Iran backfired with terrible consequences for US geo-political interests. The Islamic World was peculiarly insulated against the inroads of Western Consumerism and Capitalism. Scantily clad women advertising alcholic drinks may have appealed to well connected elites but often alienated the poorer masses who took more solace from the spiritual world than the material one. American attempts to tiptoe through this minefield between promoting idealistic self-determination and the realism of backing some unsavoury regimes in order to keep the oil taps flowing and business operating only became more complicated in the post-imperial and post-communist eras.

This is definitely an American book written by an American author for an American audience. It is probably a little on the understanding side of American motivations although it does throw up many of the inherent contradictions of US policy over the past two and a half centuries. Charitably, you could say that America became a reluctant imperialist in the second half of the Twentieth Century as its power grew beyond what any nation had hitherto known - way beyond anything the British achieved even in their hey-day of influence. Its various Presidents have veered between intervention and non-intervention between being activist to having to react to deadly events. America's absolute military power has been challenged by unconventional methods as terrorism, IEDs and civil disobedience towards client leaders has overthrown elites who had grown too close to the seductions of the West. The book takes events right up to the Second Iraq war which was yet to be resolved when this book first went into publication. It is hard to say that the conclusions would be very much different a decade on and with American power still being disputed by Iranians, Russian backed Syrians, Turks and many Arabs still unhappy about American backing of Israel. From an imperial history perspective, you wonder if America was too confident in its own abilities and trusted too much in its democratic ideals when it sidelined and undermined British and French colonial rulers in the late 1940s and 1950s. Could they have managed a more gentle transition in cooperation with the old colonial powers?

All in all though, despite its lack of criticism in places, this is a valuable book on the Middle East. It gives a coherent overview of what is a much longer history of interaction between the United States and the Middle East than most people possibly realise. Americans travelled, in small numbers admittedly, to and from the Middle East from almost the inception of their own country. Those early traders and missionaries often provided the experience and personnel for subsequent generations to deepen ties further and although US policy lurched unpredictably, the human contact was always there and steadily grew over time. Certainly their missions and schools created contacts which would prove invaluable many times over. The author does a good job of explaining that those who visited the Middle East often had very different perceptions of what it was like from those who remained at home and only imagined what it was like through the prism of The Bible, The Arabian Nights or romantic representations of the Middle East by Western artists and authors. This is where the 'fantasy' of the title comes into play. It has not helped that Hollywood often took up the misrepresentation of the Middle East just as historians and authors were themselves being more honest about the realities of life in the Middle East. This has been an affliction that has gone beyond American perceptions and one that influenced many if not most Westerners views of the Middle East through the centuries. So although this book is principally about American interactions with the Middle East, it is an invaluable part of the jigsaw of wider Western interactions with region. And for that reason alone is worth reading.

British Empire Book
Michael B. Oren
W. W. Norton & Company


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