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Expert: U.S.-Mideast Link's Long and Strong

November 22, 2007 By:
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Michael B. Oren
French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi once had an idea for a large sculpture to grace the entrance to the Suez Canal. His intent was to have a statue of an Egyptian peasant woman, her face covered with a veil, holding up a lit torch, with broken chains resting at her feet. It was to be called "Egypt Bringing Light to Asia."

However, the final version of the work doesn't have the Muslim features Bartholdi once envisioned; instead, it looks like a Western woman and became a symbol of freedom to the masses who would view her in the years to come. She rests in the harbor off the coast of Manhattan, and is known by a different name -- "Liberty Enlightening the World" -- or, as most people know her, the Statue of Liberty.

In his latest book, Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, bestselling author Michael B. Oren recounts situations and events, as well as odd little tidbits, in American history from the days of the Founding Fathers to contemporary times.

The work's overriding theme is that, contrary to what many people believe, interest in the Middle East is not a recent phenomenon. Rather, for more than two centuries, Americans have had a vested interest in the region, even before oil was discovered beneath its endless sands.

Oren, who lives in Israel with his family, is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a think tank in Jerusalem, and is an expert on the diplomatic and military history of the Middle East. His previous book, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, explored Israel's involvement with the West Bank and Gaza Strip following its victory in the lightning-quick Six-Day War.

Oren presented a talk last week before a large audience at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley based on the three major strands in his latest book -- power, faith and fantasy -- exploring many instances of how these forces have affected U.S. policy toward the Middle East. His lecture was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Israel and Overseas.

Power is the pursuit of America's interests -- economic, political, military -- Oren explained, and this country often "projects that power thousands of miles from America's shores."

For example, the conflict with the Barbary pirates who were hijacking American ships in the Mediterranean Sea led to heated discussions during the constitutional debates over defending commerce at sea. This very real threat from the Middle East led to the Constitution's ratification and George Washington's formation of the first Navy to defend the new United States from being enslaved by pirates, said Oren.

But faith can sometimes triumph over power. When President Harry S. Truman became the first world leader to recognize the new State of Israel, he did so despite the fact that his most senior White House advisers -- among them, World War II General and Secretary of State George Marshall -- stood against it. Marshall even told Truman that it would be a global catastrophe if he were to support Israel, and that he would not vote for Truman in the next election if he went ahead with his plans.

The lines, of course, have zigzagged at times "during the defense of America's vital interests in the Middle East," Oren continued; this is obvious in the various conflicts that plague the region. As the Iraq war continues and a nuclear Iran seems more of a possibility, the limits to U.S. power are being learned -- that some virtues, such as democracy, are not Middle Eastern ideals, noted the scholar.

Oren said that post-Sept. 11, America is faced with real questions regarding the Mideast, including the most crucial one of all: Should it try to negotiate with terrorists or crush them?

After presenting several scenarios, the author wouldn't posit a direct answer, leaving the query for his audience to ponder.

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