On Power, Faith and Fantasy

One of the reasons I have put off reviewing Michael Oren’s 800-page Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (W. W. Norton, 2008 ) is that I was unable to take it seriously somewhere in the four or five hundreds, where he referred to Algeria as a “former pirate state” while discussing that country’s role in negotiating the release of American hostages from Iran in the early 1980’s. That passage alone reflected one of the book’s most serious defects: It’s tendency to attribute the behavior of modern states to previous phenomena, some times more than a hundred years prior, without factoring in what had occurred in the interval in between.

For some reason, Oren’s view of North Africa is  tied to the corsairs, the Barbary Wars and other 19th century, pre-colonial encounters. Trends in the post-colonial relationship between the North African states and the US are for the most part unexplored. Also absent from Oren’s account is that Algeria framed its diplomacy in half-way pro-Soviet half-way Non-Allied context, but wholly “radical,” and its neighbors (save Libya) allied themselves squarely with the NATO powers earning the strong skepticism of the US. That because of the Sahara War Algeria made a very concerted effort to court American favor during the early 1980’s, as a means of fortifying the Polisario’s position relative to Morocco. Thus, he is surprised — as he expects his would be — when Algeria for some reason appears out of the blue, negotiating with Iran on America’s behalf. Most of the “peripheral” regions or countries Oren discusses (all of North Africa, Sudan, the southern Arabian Peninsula) are given an extremely superficial treatment, if any at all. Thus, the motives driving the behavior of most North African countries would appear to elude Oren, compelling him to either cultivate some language of historical “linkage” back to the Barbary Wars or some obscure moment in history that has nothing at all to do with the events at hand.

His account of Carter and Clinton is weak, undermined by the use of popular myths regarding the negotiations or misunderstandings (or what seem like deliberate misrepresentations, made to make the events fit into his trisected schematic analysis — power, faith and fantasy) of the motives of American leaders and policy. William Qudant’s review of the book (“Uses and Abuses of History,” in Middle East Journal, Vol. 62, No. 4, Autumn 2008 ) handles the finer points in detail, especially surrounding more recent events between Israel and Egypt. The book has redeeming qualities, especially in its early details, the fluidity of its prose and so on. However, its structure leads to confused conclusions and misleading discussions.

3 thoughts on “On Power, Faith and Fantasy

  1. Dear Friend!
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  2. I’d say Oren’s book is pretty mediocre. In fact I would not recomend it for alot of the reasons you said. The guy wants to prove an ideological point and paint the history of the region according to his little theory. Speaking of ideology, where is Oren right now? Working with the IDF in Gaza. Itll be hard for me to take him as a serious scholar of the Middle East ever again.

  3. Well, you should know he did the same work before (in 2006 and earlier). His work is undoubtedly influenced by his own political beliefs, and there isn’t a clear indication in Power, Faith and Fantasy that he wants to shirk or hide them. That said, it’s a book with a point to prove, and I don’t think it does it especially well.

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