Alan Caruba / Feb 01, 2007

Iraq is hardly the first time the United States of America found itself tangling with Muslims who have bad intentions. Indeed, we owe our Constitution to a group of Barbary pirates demanding tribute from America before we even had a navy of our own.


It was the need for a navy that forced the States, then loosely operating under the Articles of Confederation, to scrap them and come up with our Constitution in order to raise the money for a navy and some Marines to retaliate. So, in an odd way, it was the long-established culture of thievery and slavery practiced by Arabs to which we owe, in part, our current system of government.


The Constitution that was adopted on March 4, 1789, empowered Congress to declare war and “to provide and maintain a navy.”  At last, the former colonies would be able to defend its coastal borders and vital overseas interests. For some fifteen years since having declared its independence, United States merchant ships had been at the mercy of Barbary pirates operating out of Morocco, Algiers and Tunisia. In 1794, President Washington signed a law authorizing the building of six frigates.


You can learn more about this in a brilliant book by Michael E. Oren, an historian, who has written “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East - 1776 to the Present” ($35.00, W.W. Norton & Company). While most readers will draw its greatest value from his chapters on the period from World War I to the present, many will find it surprising to discover that, in one way or another, the U.S. had been compelled for centuries to deal primarily with the Ottoman Empire that held sway over the Middle East and much of northern Africa until WWI put an end to it.


From its earliest days, Americans held Islam in low regard and it is only in more recent, politically correct times that it has been accorded some virtues. For most of our own and European history, it has been regarded with cause as primitive, sordid, and cruel.


After Thomas Jefferson’s vigorous response to the pirates opened safe access to the Mediterranean, the U.S. generally regarded European imperialism as a good thing that would bring a measure of civilization to the Middle East. In the meantime, Americans funded many missionary efforts that, in turn, founded schools, universities, and hospitals that would educate and heal enough Muslims to lay the groundwork for what would become modern Arab nationalism.


The region had long been regarded as exotic by generations of Americans who read the popular novels of the time and later absorbed this message from movies. As Americans became more prosperous, a vigorous tourism industry grew after the Civil War when many began to visit Egypt and the Holy Land. What they discovered was a generally dirty, rancid smelling place filled with people for whom personal hygiene was unknown.


The term, the “Middle East”, was coined by an American, Alfred Thayer Mahan, who would pen the most seminal book, “Sea Power and America”, published in 1897, giving rise to ever greater world-power status for America and the recognition of how essential it was to control the world’s major sea lanes to protect trade. Before Mahan, the Middle East and Africa had been referred to as the “Orient.”


By the late 1880’s, America had built “the Great White Fleet” of sixteen battleships that would become our first global fighting force. The nation’s growing need for oil was playing an increasing role in our relations with Middle Eastern powers and has ever since.


Oren’s book takes on particular importance in light of our current conflict there. He provides an excellent history of how, following WWI, the British and French carved up the Middle East as part of their imperialist view of the world. In the process, they unleashed new anti-Western forces in the region.


He reminds us, too, that it was Africa’s northern tier that the U.S. invaded as its first campaign in World War II, deterring the German effort to seize oil fields and the Suez Canal. In the wake of WWII, the question of what to do with millions of Holocaust survivors who did not want to remain in Europe led to the creation of Israel after years of effort to establish a nation for the victims of anti-Semitism.


Israel and the return of Jews to their former homeland had long been seen for generations of Americans as necessary to bring about the return of Christ. The chapters devoted to the period leading up to and since nationhood in 1948 are worth the price of the entire book. A vigorous “restoration” movement preceded and followed the Civil War.


The enmity of Muslims toward all infidels was sharply focused on the Jews whom they increasingly found in their midst, thanks to European anti-Semitism and Russian pogroms. For Arabs, the Jews came to be seen as an invasion from the West. However, it was the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust that over-rode all Arab hostility to the establishment of Israel, an early project of the newly created United Nations. Despite being offered a separate Arab nation of Palestine that hostility remains to this day.


In combination, too, the rise of Arab nationalism, the Cold War, and the growing dependence on Middle East oil that would put the region into continual turmoil, drawing American military intervention from time to time, almost always with casualties and consequences Americans wanted to avoid.


The problem for recent generations of Americans is that, from the days of the Barbary pirates, forces in the Middle East have repeatedly reached out to harm our fellow citizens and national interests.


With the rise of Islamo-fascism, American military, diplomats, and ordinary citizens would be killed until this war finally came to our shores on September 11, 2001.


From our earliest years, America has been locked in combat and conflict with the Middle East and, as it is frequently said, those who do not learn from the past are bound to repeat its errors.


Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, “Warning Signs”, posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center, His book, “Right Answers: Separating Fact from Fantasy”, is published by Merril Press.


© Alan Caruba, February 2007


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