Michael Oren: The Middle East and the Making of the United States, 1776 to 1815

Roundup: Talking About History

Just over twenty years ago, when I was a graduate student in Middle East Studies, I heard a lecture on a group of Civil War veterans, Northerners and Confederates, who had served as advisors to the Egyptian army in the late 1860s and 1870s. Not only did they modernize Egypt's defenses, the professor said, but they also built schoolhouses to teach literacy to Egyptian soldiers and their children. I was stunned. Like most Americans, I assumed that our country's involvement in the Middle East began shortly after World War II, with the advent of the Cold War, the expansion of Gulf oil production, and the emergence of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It never occurred to me that the United States was interacting substantively with the Middle East in the middle of the nineteenth century, and perhaps earlier.

I went on to devote my academic career to the history of the State of Israel and the diplomacy of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, throughout, I maintained this closeted fascination with the history of America in the Middle East. I was fascinated by the diplomatic and military dimensions of that history -- did you know, for example, that U.S. Marines landed no less than four times in the Middle East in the nineteenth century alone? -- as well as by cultural history, by the impact of the Middle East on the writings of Washington Irving and Herman Melville, on Emerson and Mark Twain.

I found that America's involvement in the Middle East followed distinct patterns, three themes that I later labeled Power, Faith and Fantasy. Power referred to the search for economic and strategic advantages in the Middle East. Faith related to the role of religion, in particular Protestantism, in America's Middle East interaction. And fantasy pertained to the contribution of popular myths about the Middle East in the formation of American perceptions of, and policies toward, the region.

I was still studying these themes of Power, Faith and Fantasy on 9/11, when, suddenly America's relations with the Middle East were transformed from a focus of academic curiosity into a matter of national survival. Suddenly, issues arising from that relationship -- Homeland Security, Iranian nuclear plans -- dominated the headlines. Yet, it seemed to me, that in confronting these monumental challenges in the Middle East, Americans had very little sense of their legacy in the region. Thus, one night shortly after 9/11, when my good friend and editor Bob Weil asked me, as an historian, what was the one book that had yet to be written but must, I didn't hesitate a second.

The only question was: where to begin? I considered opening my study with the journey of John Ledyard, the first American to explore the Middle East in the late 1780s. Or with the first American missionaries to the Middle East, who left Boston in 1819. Only when I started researching in depth did I realize that the roots of the relationship went deeper still -- to the bedrock of American independence and identity -- and that the Middle East played a formative role in the making of the United States....

[Oren goes on to recount the history of the US war against the Barbary pirates, which was prosecuted by Thomas Jefferson.]

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