American Orientalism
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American Orientalism

The United States and the Middle East since 1945

Douglas Little

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eBook - ePub

American Orientalism

The United States and the Middle East since 1945

Douglas Little

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About This Book

Douglas Little explores the stormy American relationship with the Middle East from World War II through the war in Iraq, focusing particularly on the complex and often inconsistent attitudes and interests that helped put the United States on a collision course with radical Islam early in the new millennium. After documenting the persistence of "orientalist" stereotypes in American popular culture, Little examines oil, Israel, and other aspects of U.S. policy. He concludes that a peculiar blend of arrogance and ignorance has led American officials to overestimate their ability to shape events in the Middle East from 1945 through the present day, and that it has been a driving force behind the Iraq war. For this updated third edition, Little covers events through 2007, including a new chapter on the Bush Doctrine, demonstrating that in many important ways, George W. Bush's Middle Eastern policies mark a sharp break with the past.

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1 Orientalism, American Style

The Middle East in the Mind of America
To see a camel train laden with the spices of Arabia and the rare fabrics of Persia come marching through the narrow alleys of the bazaar . . . is a genuine revelation of the Orient. The picture lacks nothing. It casts you back at once into your forgotten boyhood, and again you dream over the wonders of the Arabian Nights; again your companions are princes, your lord is the Caliph Haroun Al Raschid, and your servants are terrific giants and genii that come with smoke and lightning and thunder, and go as a storm goes when they depart! —Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)
Most Americans now know better than to use nasty generalizations about ethnic or religious groups. Disparaging stereotypes—the avaricious Jew, the sneaky Chinese, the dumb Irishman, the lazy black person—are now so unacceptable that it’s a shock to hear them mentioned.
Thanks to current international politics, however, one form of ethnic bigotry retains an aura of respectability in the United States: prejudice against Arabs. Anyone who doubts this has only to listen to the lyrics in a song [titled “Arabian Nights”] from the animated Disney extravaganza “Aladdin.” —New York Times editorial, 14 July 1993
Few parts of the world have become as deeply embedded in the U.S. popular imagination as the Middle East. The Puritans who founded “God’s American Israel” on Massachusetts Bay nearly four centuries ago brought with them a passionate fascination with the Holy Land and a profound ambivalence about the “infidels”—mostly Muslims but some Jews—who lived there. Raised on Bible stories and religious parables laced liberally with a fervently Christian sense of mission and a fiercely American Spirit of ‘76, the citizens of one of the New World’s newest nations have long embraced a romanticized and stereotypic vision of some of the Old World’s oldest civilizations. The missionaries, tourists, and merchants who sailed from America into the Eastern Mediterranean during the nineteenth century were amazed by the Christian relics and biblical landscapes but appalled by the despotic governments and decadent societies that they encountered from Constantinople to Cairo. The diplomats, oil men, and soldiers who promoted and protected U.S. interests in the Middle East during the twentieth century converted these earlier cultural assumptions and racial stereotypes into an irresistible intellectual shorthand for handling the “backward” Muslims and the “headstrong” Jews whose objectives frequently clashed with America’s.
That intellectual shorthand, reflected in everything from feature films and best-selling novels to political cartoons and popular magazines, has had a profound impact on Main Street and in the nation’s capital. Over the years the public and policymakers in the United States have frequently employed what historian Michael Hunt has termed a “hierarchy of race” in dealing with what used to be called the Third World. As early as 1900, Hunt argues, Anglo-Saxon racism and Social Darwinism had fused in the collective mind of America to generate a powerful mental map in which, predictably, the “civilized” powers—the United States and Western Europe—controlled a descending array of underdeveloped, even “primitive” Asians, Latinos, American Indians, and Africans. Although Hunt discusses the Middle East only in passing, his brief references suggest that U.S. policymakers tended to place Arabs and Jews nearer the bottom than the top of the hierarchy of race.1
More than a decade ago Columbia University’s Edward Said suggested why this should have been so. Borrowing from intellectual history, literary criticism, and classical philology, Said showed how eighteenth-century British officials embraced “orientalism,” a self-serving view of Asians, Africans, and Arabs as decadent, alien, and inferior, a view that Whitehall later used to rationalize its own imperial ambitions from the Indian subcontinent to the banks of the Nile. For British orientalists, Ottoman despotism, Islamic obscurantism, and Arab racial inferiority had combined to produce a backward culture that was badly in need of Anglo-Saxon tutelage. With the waning of Britain’s power and the waxing of America’s after 1945, something very like Said’s orientalism seems subconsciously to have shaped U.S. popular attitudes and foreign policies toward the Middle East.2
More recently anthropologists Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins have suggested how orientalism made its way into U.S. popular culture. Utilizing insights from postmodern social theory, photojournalism, and cultural anthropology, Lutz and Collins trace the process through which orientalist images of the Middle East and other parts of the Third World were generated and disseminated by one of the most widely circulated magazines in the United States, National Geographic. The subliminal messages encoded in the magazine’s eyecatching photos and intriguing human interest stories seem clear. The Arabs, Africans, and Asians who grace the pages of National Geographic are backward, exotic, and occasionally dangerous folk who have needed and will continue to need U.S. help and guidance if they are successfully to undergo political and cultural modernization.3
Once the orientalist mindset of imperial Britain insinuated its way into the White House, the Pentagon, and Foggy Bottom during the late 1940s, and once the orientalist worldview epitomized by National Geographic found its way onto America’s coffee tables and movie screens during the early 1950s, U.S. policies and attitudes toward the Middle East were shaped in predictable ways. Influenced by potent racial and cultural stereotypes, some imported and some homegrown, that depicted the Muslim world as decadent and inferior, U.S. policymakers from Harry Truman through George Bush tended to dismiss Arab aspirations for self-determination as politically primitive, economically suspect, and ideologically absurd. Meanwhile, Zionist pioneers were ineluctably transforming the dream of a Jewish state into Middle Eastern reality through blood, sweat, and tears. Both the dream and the reality soon prompted most Americans to shed their residual anti-Semitism and to regard the children of Isaac, now safely more Western than oriental, as a strategic asset in America’s increasingly nasty confrontation with the children of Ishmael.
As the twentieth century drew to a close, Hollywood confirmed that orientalism American style had sunk deep roots into U.S. popular culture. In 1992 Disney Studios released Aladdin, the latest in a long line of animated classics, which opens with a Saddam Hussein look-alike crooning “Arabian Nights.” The lyrics evoke long-standing sinister images of the Muslim world punctuated by an orientalist punch line: “It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home.” Two hundred years earlier, Americans familiar with the Middle East would not have disagreed.

Of Pirates, Prophets, and Innocents Abroad

In 1776 what little the average American knew about the Middle East and its peoples likely came from two sources: the King James Bible and Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Few Americans could have found Baghdad or Beirut on a map, and fewer still had climbed the great stone pyramids at Giza or waded the holy waters of the River Jordan. But most Americans remembered the Gospel according to St. Matthew and the tale of Ali Baba and his forty thieves, most recalled the crucifixion and the crusades, and most regretted that the Holy Land was peopled by infidels and unbelievers, Muslims and Jews beyond the pale of Christendom.4
Because it wedded the religious teachings of the Koran with the secular power of sultans and sheiks from Turkey to Morocco, the specter of Islam loomed larger in late-eighteenth-century U.S. popular culture than did Judaism. Alongside Arabian Nights on library shelves from Boston to Charleston were biographies of the Prophet Mohammed depicting the Islamic messenger of God as the founder of a wicked and barbarous creed that had spread from Arabia to North Africa by offering conquered peoples a choice between conversion and death. The revolutionary statesmen who invented America in the quarter-century after 1776 regarded the Muslim world, beset by oriental despotism, economic squalor, and intellectual stultification, as the antithesis of the republicanism to which they had pledged their sacred honor.5 Three decades of sporadic maritime warfare with the Barbary pirates helped spread these orientalist images to the public at large through captivity narratives such as Caleb Bingham’s Slaves in Barbary and plays like Susanna Rowson’s Slaves in Algiers.6
Greater American familiarity with the Muslim world during the nineteenth century seems merely to have bred greater contempt. When Greek patriots rebelled against Turkish domination of their homeland in 1821, the widely read North American Review labeled the ensuing struggle “a war of the crescent against the cross” and claimed that “wherever the arms of the Sultan prevail, the village churches are levelled with the dust or polluted with the abominations of mahometanism.”7 American missionaries such as Harrison Gray Otis Dwight, who hoped to spread the gospel throughout the Ottoman Empire during the late 1820s, certainly shared these sentiments.8 Indeed, when Dwight visited Washington and called on John Quincy Adams in early 1839, he painted “a melancholy picture” of the peoples of the Middle East for the aging statesman. “They consist of Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews,” Adams confided in his diary, of whom “the Jews [were] the worst” because, according to Dwight, “their hatred of all Christians is rancorous beyond conception.”9
Dwight’s anti-Semitism was not unusual among America’s nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon elite, most of whom regarded Jews as one part Judas and one part Shylock, a suspect people wedded to a set of cultural and economic values that seemed vaguely un-American. Although most of the 150,000 Jews who arrived in the United States before the Civil War had fled persecution in Germany and were eager to Americanize themselves by shedding many of their Old World customs, Jewish Americans were nevertheless the targets of ugly racial stereotypes depicting them as greedy, greasy, and grasping.10
Yet despite such anti-Semitic caricatures, many Christian citizens of God’s American Israel felt a peculiar sense of kinship with Jews. Evangelical Protestant revivalists interpreted the Book of Revelation to mean that the millennium would arrive once the Jews returned to the Holy Land, and hundreds of American pilgrims trekked east to worship at sacred sites in Jerusalem and Nazareth.11 “We know far more about the land of the Jews,” Harper’s Magazine announced smugly in January 1855, “than the degraded Arabs who hold it.”12
The orientalist assumptions explicit in Harper’s Magazine were implicit in much of nineteenth-century U.S. popular culture. Illustrated editions of The Arabian Nights and trusty McGuffey readers brought a frequently exotic and often evil Middle East to life for a new generation of schoolchildren. Popular authors like Washington Irving published books such as Mahomet and His Successors that presented stereotypic portraits of a Muslim world whose benighted inhabitants were far better suited for theocratic or autocratic rule than for American-style democracy.13 Landscape artists such as Minor Kellogg and Edward Troye painted Middle Eastern vistas littered with biblical ruins and peopled with Bedouins and other orientals who had clearly fallen from grace.14 Portrait painter Frederick Arthur Bridgman produced dozens of sexually charged canvases modeled on those of his mentor Jean-Léon Gérôme, a leading French orientalist famous for works like The Snake Charmer and The Slave. It is not surprising that one of the most popular attractions at the 1893 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago was the Ottoman Pavilion, complete with mosque, bazaar, harem, and belly dancers to titillate Victorian Americans.15
No one probably did more to shape nineteenth-century U.S. views of the Middle East, however, than Mark Twain, whose darkly humorous account of his calamitous tour of the Holy Land sold nearly 100,000 copies in the two years after it was published in 1869. A master of irony, Twain titled his saga of this eastward odyssey The Innocents Abroad and provided scathing sketches of his fellow travelers, most of whom he found guilty of tactlessness, excessive pride, and what twentieth-century critics would call cultural imperialism.16
What may well have stood out in the minds of Twain’s readers, however, were the venomous vignettes he offered of the local population. Terming Muslims “a people by nature and training filthy, brutish, ignorant, unprogressive, [and] superstitious” and calling the Ottoman Empire “a government whose Three Graces are Tyranny, Rapacity, [and] Blood,” Twain found little correlation between the “grand oriental picture which I had worshipped a thousand times” in Arabian Nights and the gritty reality he encountered during his Arabian days. The Arabs of Palestine were mired in dirt, rags, and vermin, he observed, and “do not mind barbarous ignorance and savagery.” Nor was Twain fond of Egyptians, whose constant cries of “bucksheesh” echoed down Cairo’s back alleys. “The Arabs are too high-priced in Egypt,” he remarked acidly at the end of his voyage. “They put on airs unbecoming to such savages.”17 To be sure, some readers of Twain’s account must have marveled at the author’s sarcastic wit, but many more probably put down Innocents Abroad with their orientalist images of a Middle East peopled by pirates, prophets, and paupers more sharply focused than ever.18

Americanizing the Middle East

The Middle East began to loom larger on America’s diplomatic and cultural horizon during what Mark Twain called “the Gilded Age,” not only because U.S. missionaries sought to save more souls but also because U.S. merchants sought to expand trade. By the 1870s American entrepreneurs were buying nearly one-half of Turkey’s opium crop for resale in China while providing the Ottoman Empire with everything from warships to kerosene. “Even the sacred lamps over the Prophet’s tomb at Mecca,” one U.S. diplomat gloated in 1879, “are fed with oil from Pennsylvania.”19
Meanwhile a new generation of American missionaries made their way to Armenia, Syria, and other corners of the Ottoman realm, spreading not only the g...

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