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Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present
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189 of 207 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2007
Michael Oren's book is both scholarly and very entertaining. That's usually a difficult combination to achieve, but one made easier for him by the dearth of previous books comprehensively covering U.S. relations with the Middle East since 1776. So there are plenty of "wow's", "really's" and "heh, I never imagined that's" in this book. They make it a lot of fun. But, though they are entertaining, this is also a very serious book. The "gee-whiz" aspect merely reveals how little most of us knew about an American engagement with the Middle East which began well before the epoch when American oil drillers struck it rich in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s.

Those previous 150 years of history are well worth knowing. And they inform today, to include the fact that the current evangelical Christian romance with Israel dates not from the last 20 years or so, but has been a waxing and waning phenomenon for 150 years depending on the strength of religious revivalism in America. That insight alone, which takes up a considerable part of the book, makes it well worth reading.

The last fifth of the book is disappointing, but Mr. Oren is an honest man and in his preface practically tells you that it will be and that he really did not want to write it: it is the history of the Middle East from about 1950 on. He doesn't feel he has adequate (declassified government document) sources. It has a sort of breathless, once-over- lightly perfunctory approach suggesting he just wanted to get through it as quickly as possible. It also unhappily gives vent to two failures of objectivity on his part as an Israeli author who otherwise plays the history of Israeli/Arab conflicts remarkably straight: 1) his unqualified claim that the Israeli air attack on the U.S. naval ship "Liberty" during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was an accident (this remains controversial and there is considerable evidence to the contrary); and 2) his breezy and illogical attempt to dismiss the espionage activities perpetrated against the United States by the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

These are truly irritating lapses, but in the larger scale of things they are minor flaws which leave the author's objectivity still pretty much intact. Mr. Oren, as he announced in an NPR interview recently, is a proud Israeli special forces reservist of 30 years' standing. That makes all the more extraordinary his generally even-handed account of Arab/Israeli history, including, for example, how certain key Jewish leaders in the early 20th century advocated a bi-national Arab/Jewish state rather than a Zionist one because they foresaw the conflict the latter would bring.

So, this is about as honest and non-polemical a book as one can expect about a very emotional subject these days; it is fascinating in the historical perspective it provides on U.S. engagement with and major influence on the development of the modern Middle East; and, except for the post-1948 hundred or so pages, it is a very entertaining read. I highly recommend it.
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114 of 125 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 16, 2007
Few fields have been as well plowed as that of Middle East studies. Indeed, the ever expanding shelf in the bookstore on the topic groans under the weight of a torrent of new works, many which might be charitably described as derivative of already existing work. What a thrill then when a new book appears covering otherwise undisturbed ground!

Michael Oren's excellent "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present" is such a book. Instead of covering familiar subjects, Mr. Oren offers an insightful study of an area few consider, America's relationship to the Middle East in the 19th Century. Many will surely wonder at how any author can squeeze more than 600 pages - not including footnotes and bibliography -- over a topic that you might suspect could be covered in scant pages. Such is the wonderful surprise that Oren offers. In gripping prose that will be familiar with those who have already read his definitive history of the Six Day War, Oren traces America's involvement in the Middle East and North Africa all the way back to the Revolutionary War period.

Philosophically and temperamentally committed to avoiding "old world entanglements" Thomas Jefferson, first as Washington's Secretary of State and then as President, confronts the question of what to do about American shipping seized by the petty north African Berber and Arab kingdoms. The Middle East a lucrative market, European states pay tribute to these states in exchange for "protection" a notion offensive to many early American statesman. Thus, having first resisted the creation of a standing navy, Jefferson reverses course in order to protect American shipping interests. Thus begins US involvement in the region.

The study of this period provides much data of interest. To take one example, Oren cites an early treaty with a north African Muslim state, signed when many of the Framers still lived, stating categorically that the United States was "not a Christian nation." Likewise interesting, the American legation in Tangiers stands as the countries oldest.

Oren follows the story through the 19th Century and the US involvement with the Ottoman Empire. Through it all, he likewise discusses the concept of "Restorationism," that a Jewish State should be created in the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, an idea with deep roots in American Protestantism. Indeed, readers who think themselves knowledgeable about diplomatic history, Zionism, and the Middle East, will likely find great surprise in learning about American missionary stations built for the very purpose of teaching Jews agricultural skills, well before Theodore Herzl's efforts. Marshalling considerable evidence, Oren argues that the US commitment to the notion of a Jewish state indeed far proceeds Israel's birth in 1948. Time and again one hears that America's relationship with Israel arises out of some nefarious political cabal warping national interest, in contrast Oren shows how such the heart of the relationship lies deep in America culture and character. Further to his credit, Oren flies through the modern period, ground well covered in other books.

Many of the issues covered will have a familiar ring to 21st century ears, such as presidents torn between cleaving to stabilizing power or siding with American ideals. Indeed, one often finds themselves wishing that Oren wrote prior to the invasion of Iraq, thus giving decision makers some much needed perspective. Nonetheless, readers will find themselves thrilled at all they can learn in this important work.
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75 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2007
Michael Oren's book presents essential information for anybody who wants to understand the background for America's current policies and involvement in the Middle East. It is presented from a particular point of view, naturally. Oren is an American-born historian who lives in Israel and, of course, identifies with the Jewish State. He is a military reserve officer there (as is most of the non-Orthodox adult male population) who has seen combat, and that has to color ones views, although given the historic disputatiousness of Israeli society, that doesn't necessarily dictate what those views will be. (We have to remember that Israel is a democracy in which there is lots of active dissent from the policies pursued by the government.) It is also an interesting datum that Oren opposed the U.S.'s current war in Iraq during the period prior to the invasion....

At any event, I found this book endlessly fascinating. Oren knows how to tell a good story, and there are plenty of good stories packed in here. I was fascinated by the account of how American oil companies first got a foothold in the Middle East, at a time when the U.S. State Department was, according to Oren, pretty much oblivious to the potential significance of such engagement. And Oren's accounts of the travails of American Protestant missionaries working in the 19th century Middle Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire are entertaining and instructive.

To me, the last chapter of the book, recounting the history from after the foundation of the state of Israel to the present, is a big let-down. Oren prefaces this chapter by pointing out that this period of the history is, unlike what came before, much written about, heavily documented from the public record and, conversely, hard to write something new about because so much of the important information is contained in inaccessible documentation, much of it classified for security purposes. And thus, in effect he punted on this and provide a rather breathless, broad brush view of the past 60 years that lacks the depth of his approach to the period from the 1780s forward to 1948. The last section also shows signs of haste in writing and editing, including a proliferation of proofreading flaws that are not so evident in the earlier parts of the book. I suspect that he was writing against a deadline and had to rush the last part to meet it.

Indeed, I think this book would have made more sense as an account running from the foundation of the U.S.A. in the 1780s to the foundation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, essentially the first 500 pages, capped off with an epilog integrating what had gone before. But I'm told by somebody in the business that such a book would be much less marketable, because people are, at least superficially, less interested in the older history and thus less likely to buy a book that is not promoted as bringing the story up to the present.

So I downgrade this by one star due to the disappointments of the last section, but for the first 500 pages this is a 5-star book in my estimation.

Full disclosure: I am a friend of Mr. Oren's editor at WW Norton, and received an advanced copy of the book, although I didn't really get to reading it until after it had gone on public sale, but the views expressed are my own based on my own reading of the book.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon February 18, 2007
This book, so it claims, is the only history of America and the Middle East between 1776 and the present(2006). However this is really a detailed history of people and events that shaped Americas understanding and role in the middle east between 1776 and 1945. It is not a comprehensive history of American policy nor is it a dull rendition of all the acts of every American consul in the Middle East. Instead the book explores the themes of power, faith and fantasy and how they helped craft both the Middle East, American perceptions of the region and American influence there. Therefore it concentrates on missionary efforts, economic and political as well as military involvement, the role of explorers and travelers and perceptions of the 'east' in America through such things as the Chicago expo or Mark Twain's writings and translations of '1001 and Arabian nights'.

However this means the book suffers to two drawbacks. It doesn't cover the period from 1945-2006 in anything but a cursory matter. This should have been a strength since too many books on U.S relations with the middle east telescope the 'conflict' to the present, making the last 10 years more important than the last 100. However it is also a weakness because the U.S has become increasingly involved in the region in the last 50 years.

The great strength of the book is that it shows that the U.S didn't arrive in the middle east due to oil or Israel but rather from a much earlier date. Readers will be surprised to learn that the U.S trained Egypt's first modern army, that America built the Ottoman empires first modern warships and that America established literally hundreds of schools and universities in the region that helped train a middle class elite that led to nationalism.

A brilliant account, not encyclopedic but nevertheless very useful and readable, a true accomplishment. The book, in contrast to what has been claimed, has very little to do with 'Zionism' and the author was not a military general in the Lebanon war, but rather a media affairs officer. It may surprise many to learn that it was also America who opposed European colonialism in the region.

Seth J. Frantzman
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Michael Oren's POWER, FAITH and FANTASY is an immensely researched (80 pages of notes and a 50 page bibliography) and cohesively written accound of American impact in the middle east from the beginnings of America until the present. The background research and anecdotes provide a firm footing for any interested party who wants to know how the United States and the Middle East arrived to the situations they are in today.

Most notably, Oren describes the personalities of the people involved, and reminds us through evidence and quotes, that the policies of countries (whether democracy, autocracy or other) are shaped by the sentiments, education and background of their leaders. Mr. Oren runs through not only the leaders of the Middle Eastern countries in each phase, but goes in depth on the up-bringing and cultural leanings of each U.S. President (i.e., most of them) who had influence to bear on the events in the Middle East.

The book is crafted into seven sections, roughly paralleling developments in US History: independence, before the Civil War, during the Civil War, as America becomes a power, WWI, oil and WWII, and a brief skim over the years since WWII. In each section are weaved the three themes of Faith (religeous influences, including Zionist, pro-Arab, anti-Semite, etc.), Power (US ideas of democracy vs. European Imperialism, Soviet Communism, Arab self-rule) and Fantasy (films, impressions).

I enjoyed this book because Mr. Oren presented facts, not judgements, difficult to do in history as you can make the facts say what you want. But he convincingly presents as many perspecitves to each issue as he can.

His last section on the years from WWII to present was brief, but he acknowleded that it would be a fly-by because of so much material and interest that had already been written on the subject.

A long read at 600+ pages, but well worth it. I learned many new things and was reminded of some I had forgotten. Highly recommended.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2007
This book is not `Seminal' in the sense that is original in its portrayal of America in relating to the Middle East. It is a cogent and fundamental `distillate' of literally hundreds of works that are cited in over 150 pages of Index, Notes and Bibliography AFTER over 600 pages of history spanning the United States from 1776 to the present.
It makes clear that prior to WWII the nascent America established hundreds of schools and missions long after the efforts of converting `musselmen' (Muslims) to Christianity was recognized as being futile by the American sponsors.

America was almost universally respected for extending knowledge and support sans motive that colored the colonial efforts of England and France. Generosity (aka Charity as the Islam Pillar denotes) was our goal and it was achieved and recognized.

When force was used by America in the spirit that: Peace is better than War but War is better than Tribute, we gained respect. The line in the Marine Hymn `Shores of Tripoli' , being exaggerated as the early Marines never had to march that far.

When President Roosevelt met with King Saud to discus the `Jewish' question, just before the conclusion of the European War, and the need to address the Holocaust that was known but not yet named the King replied: `They should have the choicest homes in Germany'. When he was advised there were few homes left in Germany and that 3 million had been killed in Poland alone the Kings immediate and reasoned reply was: `Well that means there are room for 3 million in Poland, does it not?'

When an American asked King Saud, why he trusted Americans instead of British or French concerns to search for oil in his newly formed Kingdom his reply is simple and direct: `You are far away'.

This is a MUST read and should be taught at the High School level at best and College study at the least. For the third time in history our soldiers are being given `Why we Fight' pamphlets to familiarize themselves with the culture. Respect and Courtesy are as much in the fore then as now.
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69 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2007
Michael Oren has surpassed his previous historical masterpiece "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" in his new work "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present." The selection of works covering America's historical involvement in the Middle East is virtually nonexistent and Oren's new book fills that void. Sadly, most books covering America's Middle East involvement only cover recent history. While many books as comprehensive as his can be tiresome to read, Dr. Oren narrates America's journey in such a vivid manner that the reader is excited by every adventure portrayed.

This book also brings to light some of America's past failed policies in the Middle East which will cause the reader to draw parallels of their own to failed policies and proposals today. With such statesmen as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln having Middle East policies of their own, one can also predict how similar policies today will fail or succeed. Our conflicts in the region did not begin with Israel and will not end with peace between Israelis and Palestinians--as reports such as the Iraq Study Group would lend one to believe. The first American conflict in the region began during the Revolution and was the impetus for the creation of the American Navy. By using Oren's book as a historical guide, we can better educate ourselves to make informed opinions about our future Middle East involvement.
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56 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on January 14, 2007
Not only is Michael Oren a careful and precise historian but he is also a wonderful writer--his book is a page-turner, difficult to set aside because it is so relevant and the characters he introduces are so intriguing. Most important of all, however, is the history itself. Who on earth was thinking about jihad during the American Revolutionary War? Well, our Founding Fathers were, and for good reason. The parallels between then and now are stunning, and the reality that there's nothing new under the sun--at least not in the Middle East--is inescapable. Oren has not only written a fascinating book, but he has also done a great service to diplomats, policy makers, international business men and women, opinion shapers and, of course, the rest of us who make up our democracy: private citizens who need to better understand our world.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2007
Michael Oren is the author of two other books, and it so happens I read one of them. I liked parts of Six Days of War, but thought that his account of the military portion of the war was rather weak. I felt that Power, Faith, and Fantasy would probably be a good book, because there wouldn't need to be accounts of battles and campaigns much here, and I was correct.

Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, is a big, involved account of American attitudes, personalities, and actions in the Middle East, starting obviously with our nation's founding and running through the current Iraq War. The author makes it clear in the forward to the book that he's going to concentrate on the early portions of the nation's relationship with what was then called "the Orient", because he feels that part of history has been much neglected in modern writing. As a result, we get a history of missionary movements and the occasional diplomatic offensive, along with a very rare and minor military adventure (notably the Barbary Pirate Wars).

Oren, however, isn't really interested in the machinations of governments and their relationships. Instead, he's fascinated by the various characters that people the area and the region, and so the book is a parade of interesting characters, starting with John Ledyard, who journeyed to the region from New England, and ending with Nathaniel Fick, who followed in his footsteps more than two centuries later. Along the way, the author introduces us to various characters who either wrote about, visited, or lived in the Middle East, from those we know (Mark Twain, Clara Barton, Stephen Decatur, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt) to those whose names are less familiar, like Charles Stone, a disgraced Civil War officer who served as Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army for almost two decades, and went on to construct the base of the Statue of Liberty. The author handles the narrative of these people's interactions with the region very well, and he's a master of the thumbnail portrait of an individual, something that's essential if you're going to write a book like this that has hundreds of characters in it.

The book's three themes are in the title. The author believes that America's involvement in the region has in all cases embraced one of these three themes. We've either projected power into the region (whether the U.S. Navy during the Barbary Pirate wars, or the invasion and occupation of Iraq going on currently), we've been inspired by Faith to go there (as tourists to visit Holy Sites in Israel, or as missionaries to educate and convert the locals), or we've been inspired by Fantasies of what the region and its people are really like. This last leads the author to what at times is the most interesting part of the book, as he discusses how the region has been portrayed in pop culture, primarily movies and music, and how those images have influenced American opinions of the region ever since.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. It's long, and involved, but the prose is well-constructed, and the author makes some good points. He discusses American misconceptions with regards to the region, but he doesn't fall into the usual trap of imagining that while Americans misunderstand everything, they are in turn completely understood by those in other parts of the world. It was interesting to read about the various individuals who were influential in our understanding of the Middle East, given how important it is to our modern society. One of the more amusing portions of the book concerns early 19th Century clergymen in the U.S. who were in favor of the Jews returning to the Holy Land. One of them was named George Bush, and is a direct ancestor of both of the presidents of the same name, though he was an evangelical, unlike the elder President Bush, who is Episcopalian.

As I said, I enjoyed this book a great deal, and would recommend it.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 24, 2007
I'm confident that "Power, Faith and Fantasy" is not rubbish and appreciate the efforts by Michael B. Oren to connect the earliest developments in U.S. policy and history to conditions and events in the Middle East.
Historical scholars will undoubtedly take issue with Oren's nearly uninterrupted parallelism between American and Middle Eastern history, but these parallels are often revealed with caveats that leave the author's hypothesis open to the reader's own suppositions.
I do take issue with some of the critiques that disparage the book for how it covers the most recent events in the region. Criticizing a 600+ page book for its final 100 pages seems a bit disingenuous, if irresponsible. The books final section is adequate, but not exhaustive and Oren never suggests that it is. Most readers can draw on their own experiences as the audience of the last decade or so of American-Mid East relations to formulate conclusions beyond the author's limited synopsis of events.
This book is a fascinating resource of brilliant American perspectives on the Middle East from our earliest experiences with Islam and Arabs to our frequently torrid relationship with the region's inhabitants. Many of these early insights are no less relevant today than they were 30, 200 and 230 years ago.
Perhaps Gen. George McClellan figured much of it out in 1874 when he observed that, "Most Muslims have little but life to lose in this world, and much to gain in the other by entering it from a conflict with the unbeliever."
REVIEW EVERY BOOK YOU READ, READERS, WRITERS AND PUBLISHERS DESERVE YOUR OPINIONS TOO.
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