This engaging look at the role the United States has played in the Middle East since the earliest days of the republic is both important and frustrating. Important because it fills in the “back story” of our relationships with the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and ninteenth century. Frustrating because the analysis of American activities in the area in the period after World War II is both skimpy and disappointing. The best parts of this book are the accounts of the frustrations of the first three American Presidents in dealing with the corsairs of the Barbary Coast of North Africa, and the heroic but unsuccessful sacrifices of the American Missionary Societies to convert the populations of the Ottoman Empire to Christianity.
Oren transforms the struggle with the Barbary Corsairs from a line in the Marine Hymn to a series of ship takeovers, and failed negotiations which forced the nascent republic to write the 1787 Constitution in order to have a central government capable of dealing with the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. The efforts of the missionaries in building schools and clinics won few converts to Christianity. One pastor spent several decades in the Persian Gulf States, buried most of his family and came back to the US to found the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University which trained generations of State Department personnel. Others built the American Universities of Beirut and Cairo which originated the notion of “civil society” in the various parts of the Empire and trained generations of doctors, business men and civil servants for the states born after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
Unfortunately, the book is written solely from the American perspective so it lacks any depth of information regarding the view of the Ottoman Court toward the new republic, or the missionaries who ignored the native Christian populations while attempting to convert the Islamic majority to American Protestantism. Because of the monofocus of the book, there is no real analysis possible of the American role in this vital portion of the world. The author does give an interesting account of American attitudes toward Arabs and Islam, touching on topics as diverse as the meaning of “civil society” in an empire spread across three continents, and the impact of Rudolph Valentino’s films “The Sheik” and “The Son of the Sheik” on mass opinion, in the US, of the Arab world just after the creation of modern Turkey and the other states of the modern Middle East in the early 1920s. This book is fascinating for what it gives us, and frustrating for what it lacks.