Like it or not, the United States is embroiled in the Middle East.
But according to conventional wisdom, American involvement in the region began shortly after World War II, and American foreign policy coalesced with the onset of the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Fueling these developments was the decline of French and English influence in the area, as well as the Western world's growing dependence on oil.
Historian, novelist and educator Michael B. Oren begs to differ with such notions. The dual Israeli and American citizen, and author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, recently told a local audience that America's involvement in the Middle East spans the length and breadth of U.S. history.
Speaking before a packed auditorium at a Feb. 6 talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia in Logan Square, Oren argued that America's relationship with the Middle East has been nuanced. Often, it has consisted of misunderstanding and conflict: For example, take the wars with the Barbary pirates, who used the teachings of the Koran to justify capturing American ships and selling the sailors into slavery, said the scholar.
"America was a seafaring nation, and the Barbary pirates literally posed an existential threat to the United States," said Oren — a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based, academic research institute the Shalem Center –whose opinion columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New Republic.
Still, cooperation did exist. Americans in the 19th century helped build schools, universities and hospitals in the region.
Oren also argued that 19th-century American support for a Jewish return to Zion was widespread, predating the writings of Zionists like Theodor Herzl.
And though Oren didn't explicitly say so in his speech, that last point will no doubt serve as a counterweight to the current critique that America's friendship with Israel is due to the influence of a Jewish lobby.
He explained that his latest historical work– which follows his Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East — represents an attempt to place America's current dilemmas in the Mideast, including, of course, the war in Iraq, in a wider context.
"Few Americans know of the centuries-long legacy in the Middle East. It's a rich and multifaceted history of war, of statecraft — of wild artistic imagining and swashbuckling [adventure]," said Oren, 51, who served in last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah.
His impetus for writing the book, he said, was that, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, "suddenly, it seemed that America's need for a historic point of reference for plotting its future course in the Middle East became especially acute."
During the question-and-answer session, Oren was prodded about how his worldview as an Israeli affects his scholarship. The New Jersey native made aliyah after graduating from Columbia University in 1979, changed his name, and even served in the Israel Defense Force in Lebanon.
"I take my political opinions and struggle to put them aside. I ask, 'Am I being as objective as possible?' " he said. "It is our duty as historians to strive to reach truth. It doesn't help anybody in the end to write history filled with political opinions."
But he did share his thoughts about Iraq.
He said he opposed it from the beginning, noting that Iraq could only be kept intact as a nation through the use of brute force — something he felt that neither the U.S. military nor the American people would support.
"We will eventually withdraw, [but] that doesn't mean we can detach ourselves from the Middle East," added Oren, arguing that the study of Middle Eastern languages and cultures should be far more widespread at every level of the American education system. "We have to learn more about it — all of us."