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Monday, February 26, 2007

Power, faith and fantasy in the Middle East

This is my 3000th post on this blog.

Pajamas Media has a fascinating interview by Michael Totten with Michael Oren about Oren's new book, Power, faith and fantasy in the Middle East. The book is a fascinating recap of the history of United States policy in the Middle East going back to the founding fathers, and the interview, which discusses the book (which Oren is now in the US promoting) is full of fascinating tidbits that I never knew and I'm sure most of you never knew either. Here's a sample:
MJT: So tell us, Michael, why does America’s involvement in the Middle East 200 years ago matter today? What does it have to do with September 11 and Iraq?

Oren: Well it matters, Michael, because many of the same issues that Americans are facing today in the Middle East were confronted by America’s founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington. For example, they had to confront the issue of state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East. They had to face a threat to the United States, and decide whether to generate military power and then project that power thousands of miles from the United States. They had to decide whether to involve the United States in an open-ended and rather expensive bloody war in the Middle East. This was, of course, the Barbary War, America’s first overseas military engagement and America’s longest overseas military engagement. It lasted from 1783 to 1815. During the course of this engagement, as my book shows, the United States was confronting a jihadist state-sponsored terrorist network that was taking Americans hostage in the Middle East. It’s very similar to what is going on today.


MJT: You write that the American government was paying these North African states, bribing them basically, to stop taking our ships and enslaving our civilians; paying at the rate 20 percent of the federal budget at one point?

Oren: The Adams Administration in 1790s was paying about 20 percent of its federal revenues in bribery to the Middle Eastern pirates. Thomas Jefferson was from the opposing school. He said that the more you paid off the pirates the more bribery they would demand. Jefferson said that any treaty signed with any individual pirate ruler – whether they be from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, or Libya – that treaty would only be good as long as the ruler’s life.

We can see how American leaders later on in American history didn’t heed Jefferson’s advice. Take Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. He sold Iran arms in an attempt to induce the Iranians to kidnap fewer Americans in Lebanon. He basically violated Thomas Jefferson’s first rule in the Barbary Wars.

MJT: Do you think there’s a similarity with the United States paying the Egyptian government 2 billion dollars a year? Some say this is a way of preserving Egypt’s cold peace with Israel.

Oren: It’s more to keep the Egyptian government, Hosni Mubarak, in power. There’s a very large Muslim extremist Brotherhood in Egypt that is a contender for power. It hates the government, it hates America, it certainly hates Israel. They hope that by giving Egypt this money – and Egypt is a Third World country, this money is needed literally to buy bread – they can keep Mubarak in power. One of the benefits of keeping Mubarak in power is the maintenance of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but that’s not the only benefit.


MJT: You wrote about how Americans 200 years ago were thinking of the United States as their own Zion and comparing themselves to the Israelites. This long predates the founding of the state of Israel. This idea is much older than [founder of the Zionist movement] Theodore Herzl.

Oren: Much older. This goes back to the time of the Puritans, to the 17th Century. The Puritans had appropriated the biblical narrative. They saw themselves as the new Israel. They had escaped bondage in England, in Egypt, you know? They crossed the Atlantic Ocean, which was their Sinai. They inherited a promised land, which was the New World. They gave one thousand biblical names to their cities and towns. They gave biblical names to their sons and daughters. They made Hebrew a required language at their universities. James Madison was a Hebrew major.

As a result Americans felt a particular kinship with the old Jews, as though they were sort of cousins. They felt a very strong attachment to the old promised land of Palestine. And they concluded that as good Christians and good Americans it was incumbent on them to help God fulfill his biblical promises to the Jews to rescue them from exile and to restore them to the promised land. This was the notion of Restorationism. It was very common in colonial America well into the 19th Century and even into the 20th Century. And it’s the origin of today’s Evangelical support for Israel.
Read the whole thing.


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