A Review of American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945

Updated on January 22, 2018

America has had a long and troubled relationship with the Middle East, that hazy land which stretches in a constantly expanding and shrinking circle somewhere between the lapping waters of the Black Sea, to the scorched sands of Libya, the vast wastes of Arabia, and the mountains of Persia. Driven by relationships to oil, Israel, and an interest in containing first Communism and then radicalism, the United States has attempted to craft a host of policies in the region to promote American interests. It is this story which is the principal one told in American Orientalism : The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, by Douglas Little.

There are criticisms, heavy ones I might say, which I direct towards this book, but as far as a tremendous amount of information about US policy, I believe there are probably few other ones of such scope and depth. It provides detailed information about the US relationship with Israel, Egypt, Iran, oil diplomacy, its efforts for modernization across the region, and its on and off affairs with the forces of Arab nationalism, such as Nasser and Saddam Hussein, providing both a spatial and a temporal history. Not only is this a listing of US policies, but in addition an extensive record of quotations from US officials (and a more limited one from their Israeli and Arab counterparts), written with a flowing hand by the author that makes it easy to read and digest. This policy history is prefaced with a history of the cultural relationship of the US with the Middle East, which has a superb history of the transformation of Israel into the "special relationship" ally of the US, the evolution of relations with the Arabs, and evolving American perceptions of the region - covered in the book to long before its 1945 start line, to as far back as the 18th century. This cultural and policy history would seemingly, based off of the points above, make for a solid and well done book.

Yes, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Afghanistan were both bloody affairs and produced lots of refugees, but what were the reasons for why the US saw them in the same light?
Yes, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Afghanistan were both bloody affairs and produced lots of refugees, but what were the reasons for why the US saw them in the same light?

However, American Orientalism fails to succeed because although it has these two strong points - its cultural history at the beginning, and its policy history - it fails to integrate them well. It is very much like a policy history book which happens to have a brief cultural history at the beginning. Now, this can have some benefits as a primer on the cultural relationships between the United States and the Middle East, but even this is questionable, since it is of little usage throughout the rest of the book. The cultural history section could be removed, with little impact upon the policy section. There is but one section where the book attempts to tie its two themes together, with a brief discussion in the Israeli policy section about National Geographic's portrayal of the Palestinians in the 1990s. While I must admit myself ignorant of the literature existing on US policy towards the Middle East as a whole, and about literature on the cultural relationships between the United States and the Middle East, I would expect that the former at least would already have a host of books dedicated to the subject, that don't exercise the pretension to attempt to simultaneously include a cultural history at the same time.

There are also certain shortcomings in the policy history. At times, the book fails to properly explain what it is discussing. For example, it talks about the US reaction to Syria's increasing friendship with the USSR in 1957, and how the USSR compared it to Munich and Nikita Kruschev, the Soviet leader at the time, to Hitler. But it fails to describe how this was perceived as a fitting analogy at the time : Syria after all, hadn't engaged in any offensive action since at least the 1948 war with Israel. Naturally, the connection doesn't have to be a real one, but why did the US perceive it as such a real one? Reading it, it leaves the reader grasping for what the link was. Afghanistan presents itself in the same light, where US politicians expressed their fear of an "Afghan Hungary" - something which the book fails to provide any explanation for. Similar assumptions are made about Soviet influence, although these are more than just reporting measures : the book refers to the Soviet being desirous of destabilizing the British Palestinian mandate, and gives no other reason than a Soviet desire to destabilize the world system in the 1940s - a hardly convincing explanation given that Soviet diplomacy both expanded and withdrew in regions and had its own nuances. More detail about Soviet reasoning and desires would be useful, Other problems include a lack of significant focus upon the Arab side of the relationship with the US, which is partially excused by the difficulties in accessing archives, both political and linguistic, but which make it hard to have a full picture of the evolving relationship. Perhaps more worrisome is that for a book theoretically devoted to the study of an American orientalism in the Middle East, the book can fall into this very orientalist assumption itself : Iran is castigated as "medieval" and "backwards", categories long reserved for non-Western nations in the third world.

What can be the ultimate verdict on American Orientalism? Ultimately, I have to give it but a mediocre review. Perhaps this comes from chagrin on my part, for when I started it, my hopes were lifted by the excellent cultural history it held. The fact that it aimed to integrate policy as well, raised further my spirits. And yet in the end, for a book which preached overcoming boundaries and divisions, it never succeeded in integrating the two. It is ultimately, a sad result for a book of such excellent material.

2 stars for American Orientalism

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Ryan Thomas

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • Jay C OBrien profile image

        Jay C OBrien 

        12 months ago from Houston, TX USA

        This subject is probably beyond my understanding. I do not understand American foreign policy, but here are a few observations.

        In 1945 the Allied Powers agreed to carve out Israel out of the Middle East. This caused a problem with the people who were already there. Since 1945 Israel, with US assistance has fought a series of wars to expand their original territory. I believe it was wrong to expand territory through warfare.

        Israel claims self defense, but that does not justify adding territory beyond the 1945 grant.

        Israel has no greater claim to the land than the Palestinians. The Hebrews and the Palestinians are actually the same group as their are interbred. The difference is their religion.

        Judaism claims The Lord gave them the land and the Muslims dispute this. I personally do not believe God/The Lord/Allah gave land to anyone.

        Lastly, it is wrong to fight or harm anyone based on your religion. If you do, you are a Terrorist.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)