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Totten on Oren

A great Q&A with the author of the book every American should be reading. Two choice extracts: MJT: In your book you show how the Middle East was connected to our Civil War in some ways at the time. Yet … Read More

By / February 27, 2007

A great Q&A with the author of the book every American should be reading. Two choice extracts:

MJT: In your book you show how the Middle East was connected to our Civil War in some ways at the time. Yet it seems there should be no connection at all. Tell us about that.

Oren: Oh, there are many connections. During the Civil War about 500 Egyptian soldiers served with the French Army invading Mexico. It was the only time Arabic-speaking Muslims have fought on North American soil. One of the people involved in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination plot managed to escape to and was arrested in Egypt. There were Civil War officers – Union and Confederate officers – who went to Egypt right after the war to help modernize the Egyptian army. They ended up building a school system for Egypt, as well as exploring and mapping the Sudan.

The biggest impact of the Civil War was on the Middle East rather than the Middle East on the Civil War. The biggest impact was cotton. When the North blockaded Southern cotton the textile mills of Europe went dry. So they turned to the only other place in the world that had cotton of a similar quality and that was in Egypt. The price of Egyptian cotton went up about 800 times. Egypt made a lot of money. And with that money they built wonderful buildings and palaces, they built the opera house where Verdi used to perform, and they also built the Suez Canal which completely changed the face of the Middle East.

In 1869 the cotton market in the South came back and the Egyptian cotton market went bankrupt. Egypt went bankrupt and that led to the British occupation of Egypt that lasted for 70 years. There was actually a direct line between the Civil War and the Suez crisis of 1956 during which the Egyptians tried to nationalize the Suez Canal. Britain and France invaded. And so, really, the reverberations from the American Civil War in certain ways continue to course across the Middle East.

[...] MJT: You have taken the long view of American involvement in the Middle East perhaps more than anyone else in the world. Having done that, are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

Oren: As a historian I’m optimistic. Listen, I view the war in Iraq not as a war, but as a battle in a much more protracted war. Iraq is America’s Bull Run in the war in the Middle East. It’s our first losing battle.

It is not Vietnam. You cannot withdraw from Iraq and be confident that the enemy is not going to follow you. Because the enemy is going to follow you. America can’t detach from the Middle East because the Middle East is not going to detach from America. And America’s going to have to learn to fight this fight to win in a much more prudent and effective way. And there are ways America can fight it more effectively.

Pajamas Media: Power, Faith, and Fantasy in the Middle East

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