News your connection to The Boston Globe

Tugging at a mass of tangled threads

Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, By Michael B. Oren, W.W. Norton, 778 pp, $35

In 1773, John Ledyard dropped out of Dartmouth College and paddled down the Connecticut River and into a life of adventure that would take him to the Pacific Northwest; across Siberia; and, in 1788, to the Middle East, reporting back from Egypt that "nothing merits more the whole force of burlesque, than both the poetic and prosaic legends of this country."

Some 225 years later, Nathaniel Fick , a graduate of Dartmouth, entered Iraq as commander of a Special Operations platoon, recalling later that "[he] felt totally disoriented, utterly adrift" in a region he saw as "a hall of mirrors."

These impressions bracket Michael B. Oren's sprawling account of America's encounter with the Middle East.

In his aptly titled "Power, Faith, and Fantasy," Oren pursues two threads. A distinguished scholar -- he was a visiting lecturer last year at both Harvard and Yale -- he provides a provocative analysis of that involvement. And he illuminates it with a parade of colorful characters : commanders and explorers, missionaries and settlers, creators and consumers of fantasy, from the tales of "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights" to the musical "Kismet."

Power, he writes, is seen in "the pursuit of America's interests," not only diplomatic and economic, but also assisting the exercise of American faith.

Again and again, beleaguered missionaries and agricultural colonists would call upon American warships to protect them, and the arrival of those warships off a Middle Eastern coastline would signal the expansion of American military power.

In the wake of an attack on an American agricultural mission near Jaffa in 1858, the American consul in Alexandria advised the US government to send "an emblem of our power" to safeguard "the unprotected heads of the Christians and Jews in Palestine." And in response, the USS Macedonian was dispatched to the Syrian coast.

Protestant missionaries, the earliest ones from Boston and New England, were in the Middle East as early as 1819, many eagerly adopting the "restorationist" cause of a Jewish state in Palestine.

In 1881, reacting to Russian pogroms, the State Department instructed its ambassador in Istanbul to urge the Ottoman government to open Palestine to Jewish immigration.

That ambassador was Lew Wallace, the Civil War general and author of "Ben Hur," not by far the only American notable to make a surprise guest appearance in the region -- and in Oren's pages.

Herman Melville had visited that agricultural mission during a tour of Palestine, which he found "half melancholy, half farcical -- like all the rest of the world." And Mark Twain's "The Innocents Abroad" is a memoir of his travels in the region.

General William Tecumseh Sherman visited Egypt in 1872 and was treated to a performance of the opera "Aida," staged for his benefit by the ruling khedive. And then-former President Grant followed a few years later.

Oren draws his final conclusions from Captain Fick, interviewed after he returned from Iraq and while pursuing graduate studies at Harvard. It speaks more of the heady days when battleships could be dispatched to show the flag, than of the downwardly spiraling Iraq war. "By responsibly wielding its strength and consistently upholding its principles," Oren writes, "the United States might yet transform its vision of peaceful, fruitful relations with the Middle East from fantasy into reality."