“Walking through Twilight” – Book Review

“The meaning of history,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is to be a sanctuary in time.” With that subtle insight, the noted twentieth century rabbi drew attention to the paradoxical standing of human presence in the world. By our individual acts we can either increase the misery, suffering, and pain of others or contribute to their relief, healing, and well-being. Whenever we do the latter, Heschel writes in God in Search of Man, we are creating sanctuaries for people in distress. When you see someone who is a living epistle of that kind of compassion and care, you really must stop and wonder. And when you see it taking place day after day in a loving marriage, and in the bitterest of conditions therein, you are beholding a blessed sanctuary indeed. In Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness – A Philosopher’s Lament, Douglas Groothuis invites us to experience what daily life is like in one such sanctuary of compassion and care.

The eloquently written memoir begins with the tragic reversal of fortune that has come to him and his wife, Becky, and from its opening lines we learn how difficult it was to write. For Groothuis had to speak not only for himself but also for Becky, a once-talented author, editor, and member of the Mensa society who now lives virtually without language capabilities. She suffers from primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a rare disease that disables the speech and language centers of the brain.

In scenes poignantly described by Groothuis – in their home, at a restaurant, in an art gallery – we meet an embattled couple whose better half is nearly completely unable to speak or to understand what she hears. “She must fight a bloody war,” he writes, “to secure the simplest word.”

Thankfully, Groothuis, who teaches philosophy of religion and ethics at Denver Seminary, does not offer a time line of his wife’s mental deterioration. Instead, he recounts many and varied experiences along what he calls the “darkening footpath.” And he does not mince words. His willingness to be dead honest about his confusion, anguish, denial, anger, and lament is both painfully moving and biblical in its realism.
In his Introduction to the memoir, Nicholas Wolterstorff aptly captures this tenor when he writes that Groothuis “does not flinch from the painful reality [that] this ravaging disease has wreaked in his life and that of his wife.” Each chapter bears this out, as do chapter titles such as: “Rage in a Psych Ward.” “The Temptation to Hate God.” “Learning to Lie to My Wife (as Little as Possible).”

“Under the tyranny of her disease,” Groothuis writes, “I learned of depths of sorrow and distress I had never known before. . . . Little did I know how much psychological agony a human soul could bear. . . . I learned how it feels to weep often and to cry unexpectedly, even in public. When my eyeglasses are smudged, and I take them off to look at them, I often find the marks of tears. I now behold much of the world through tears and am alert to the tears of others.”

Such unflinching honesty runs throughout this beautiful love story, and it made me wonder: how in the world does he keep going? Eventually it hit me. It isn’t only Becky who is changing. As Christ was changed by his cross relevant to our sin, the caregiver himself is being changed by his cross relevant to her disease. And in the process he, like Christ, is being carried along in his sufferings by the loving, caring grace of God, even during days when the sun is eclipsed by the moon.

That narrative of grace is the secret story of Walking through Twilight. And it recalled to mind Marilynne Robinson’s idea of finding a story that has a suggestive power far beyond its subject.

tear dropsThis, then, is no woe-is-me memoir. Groothuis writes “to offer courage, hope, and meaning.” Scenes throughout the book run between the tender and the tragic, giving witness to the couple’s experiences of grace and meaning on their distressed path. There is the amusement and comfort the couple receives from Sunny, their almost-human Goldendoodle. There is the weight and effect of Becky’s illness on Groothuis in his classrooms, where we see him struggling to answer the question: “how can my sufferings be nobly born before students?” There is a groundbreaking and probing chapter of lessons he has learned from lamenting online. And the penultimate chapter – an Interlude given the title “Resting” – is so intimate a sanctuary moment that I wondered if the veil should not have been left drawn across it.

The story is rich in wisdom from Christian writers such as W. H. Auden, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis. Groothuis also draws clarity and inspiration, often during the darkest moments, from unlikely sources: the essayists Michel de Montaigne and Christopher Hitchens, the music of Pink Floyd or Metallica, and the paintings of Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko.

Groothuis’s greatest solace, however, is found in scripture, especially in the Bible’s literatures of lament and wisdom. He digs deeply into these waters, refusing to rely on cliché or rest in simple explanations. The book of Ecclesiastes is a particular saving grace for him. He writes that the book gives him “the perspective and language of lament necessary for my own sad sojourn during the last fifteen or so years with my chronically and now mentally ill wife. It is a deep well of tough wisdom for the weary and wasted soul.”

By contrast, Groothuis and his wife find moments of relief, surprisingly, in simple laughter. “Becky’s humor,” he writes, “while not so fine-grained as it was, remains more in tact than most of her other mental functions.” A laugh momentarily “removes us from Becky’s memory loss, speech loss, happiness loss, and the near loss of faith.”

And their closeness over many years, he writes, gives him “a comedic freedom not afforded to others. Becky cannot dish it out as she used to. But she can take it and laugh.” Even at gallows humor. Of course there is nothing funny, he explains, about Becky’s condition itself. “To ridicule it would be sadistic. But humor can find odd angles of vision on even the worst situations and without rancor or ridicule.” One such moment happened after dinner:

“I anomalously left a piece of pie with cream on the dining room table and went to my desk to do some paperwork. (Me doing paperwork can be quite humorous in itself.) Becky soon walked to me with that piece of pie, but without a fork. I said, ‘Where’s the fork?’ She looked perplexed and said she didn’t know where they were. I went with her into the kitchen, opened the utensil drawer, pointed, and said, ‘Well, there they all are.’ We both laughed again.”

Contrary to popular belief, and Superman mythology, real diamonds are not formed from lumps of coal. Neither are literary diamonds. Both require a combination of extremely high temperatures and intense pressures found in the deep depths of the Earth’s mantle. Yet over time, some get forced to the surface. Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness, A Philosopher’s Lament is such a literary find. Grace-giving love is its underlying narrative. Because of that love, this memoir will help readers who are beset by real troubles to face them with courage, wisdom, and hope. And find sanctuary.

Charles Strohmer is a freelance writer and the author of eight books and numerous articles. This review was originally published in Touchstone (Sept/Oct, 2018).

©2019 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Creative commons.

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Re-enchanting the Star of Bethlehem

It’s no surprise to Christians that the star of Bethlehem and the wise men who followed it occupy a prominent place in the Nativity. My childhood memory is typical of many. Our family Christmas tree was topped off every year by a large star. Below it on the carpeted floor near the tree was our nativity scene, peopled by Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus in the manger, shepherds holding their staffs, and several winged angels and tiny white sheep. And of course three colorfully dressed wise men stood at a respectful distance gazing toward the newborn child.

But this might surprise. Around Christmastime every year, the phenomenon of the star of Bethlehem and the mission of the wise men interest millions who would not consider themselves Christian. Every December you will find them reading magazine articles or listening to current affairs stories purporting to explain the true meaning of the mysterious star. These explanations, however, typically lean heavily on naturalistic interpretations, particularly from the field of astronomy, ignoring important details from the narrative provided by Matthew’s Gospel. The net effect is the de-enchantment of the mysterious star. This approach may sit well within the larger cultural zeitgeist of secularism but it does not square with Christian belief.

A solely naturalistic or materialistic interpretation of the star ignores its revelatory nature. This is a serious matter, much more so than the historical inaccuracies commonly depicted in nativity scenes. A careful reading of Matthew 2 with Luke 2, for instance, suggests that the wise men, or magi, were not present at the birth manger. Apparently they arrived many months, if not a year or more, after the birth, and at a house in Bethlehem where Jesus was then staying with Mary and Joseph. Also, there is no biblical reason to limit the magi to three in number, despite their gifts being three (gold, frankincense, myrrh). And there is no mention that the magi were kings, as was popularized by the nineteenth century Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

Such historical conjectures are small change when compared to accepting purely naturalist or materialist conclusions, which bankrupt the Nativity of its divine otherness. The star of Bethlehem is then robbed of its mystery, the magi are reduced to being clever astrologers, and Christ’s birth loses its revelatory meaning. Here’s how that occurs and why we don’t have Christmas when it does.

The problem with naturalistic explanations of the star
Solely naturalistic or materialistic views of the starry visitor that led the magi are many and varied: nova, comet, meteor, supernova, or the sighting of a new star. There is astronomical evidence for some of these stellar occurrences, any one of which could have produced a bright phenomenon in the night sky to set the ancient world abuzz. A new nova, for example, was discovered about 125 years before the birth of Christ by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus. According to Ptolemy, this nova was visible to the naked eye until decades after Christ’s death. Within naturalism, the shepherds (see Luke’s account, chapter 2:8-15) must have mistaken the bright nova for the angelic visitation that appeared, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Daft, lonely shepherds. Spending so much time with sheep – stars don’t talk!

Another natural phenomenon was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets of our solar system, around the time most scholars place Christ’s birth (4 BC). There is a consensus among astronomers since Kepler that this planetary conjunction occurred around 7–4 BC. It would have been a prominent sight on a clear night in the ancient Middle East. Modern astrologers typically assume that the magi interpreted this planetary conjunction as an astrological sign indicating the birth of such a significant person that it warranted their arduous trip from the East to Jerusalem.

Comets, too, were not unknown in ancient times. The famous Halley’s comet, originally discovered in 240 BC by Chinese astronomers, was also visible in 12–11 BC. Another comet appeared around 4 BC. If the star in Matthew was a comet, as the early church theologian Origen assumed, its dramatic appearance in the night sky would have quite the attention-getter. And its linear movement across the heavens would more closely approximate the account of the star in Matthew than would the movement of a planetary conjunction. Even so, the meaning of star of Bethlehem cannot be reduced to any purely naturalistic interpretations; nor can the way the magi followed the star to the Christ child be justified astrologically.

The star has a mind of its own
Significant non-natural characteristics of the star as it is described in Matthew cannot be explained by the science of astronomy. Fair enough. Any scientist worth his or her salt will admit that science cannot explain any phenomenon to complete satisfaction. That attitude is not being questioned here. At issue is the naturalism that explains away the divine otherness and meaning of the star of Bethlehem as silly religious nonsense or superstitious belief.

Also at issue is the occult method that astrologers claim the magi used as a kind of road map to follow the star from the East to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem. As someone who once practiced astrology, I have some sympathy for what astrologers are trying to achieve by this. Like many sensitive people they refuse to allow themselves to be suffocated within the metaphysical box of naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism. Their way out, when it comes to the star of Bethlehem, is to accept astronomical evidence for the conjunction but then to claim the magi among their number by introducing a tincture of occult otherness to the nativity narrative.

Mindful of potential audiences likely to include high numbers of rationalists and spiritual seekers, many Christmastime magazine articles and current affairs segments on radio or television will combine elements astronomy and astrology in their stories about the star and the magi. A close reading of Matthew chapter two, however, tells a different story. Here are the essentials.

The phenomenon that is called the star of Bethlehem seems to have acted with a kind of life and intention of its own. According to the text – and as Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying, “Stick with the text” – the star “appeared” at a particular time and it “went ahead of them [the magi]” … “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere; it “stopped over the place where the child was.” In other words, the star is not governed only by the laws of nature any more than a human being is. This “star” apparently has some sort of personal intention in its nature. As such, its meaning cannot be reduced to the laws of nature, whether by those of a nova, a planetary conjunction, or a comet.

If we set aside the bias of “silly religious nonsense,” the text of Matthew 2:1-12 seems to be revealing some sort of presence to the magi that is as supernatural as that of the angels appearance to the shepherds (see Luke’s account). The New Testament Greek language of Matthew’s account lends itself to this view. The word translated with our English word “appeared” includes meanings associated with a shining light and is occasionally used to describe the appearance of an angel, such as to Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19). The word is also used of Jesus when he “appeared” to his followers after his resurrection (Mark 16:9, 12, 14). It is a term, therefore, that can denote forms of luminous bodies other than literal heavenly astral phenomena, including stars.

The verb phrase “went ahead … until it stopped” is another case in point. The word “stopped” is used numerous times in the New Testament to describe people who have chosen to “stand still” (Matthew 20:32; 27:11; Mark 10:49). The verb “went ahead” is a peculiar construction in the Greek, used only a half dozen times in the New Testament, usually for “to lead” or “precede.” So the crowds are leading Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9) and Jesus is leading his disciples to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). Curiously, the construction is used once about prophecies being fulfilled (1 Timothy 1:18).

The text does not report that the star spoke to the magi (as the shepherds heard the angels). Pretty convincingly, however, the text does allow for the idea of personal intention and purpose in the nature of the phenomenon called the star of Bethlehem. This cannot be said of inanimate objects (comets, planets) obeying natural laws only.

The magi, their method, the true meaning
This brings us to the magi, to their careers and to the actual way they got their leading to Bethlehem and the child, and to the revelatory message and meaning of the Nativity.

The word “magi” (singular: “magus”) originated centuries before the time of Christ to describe a caste of very learned priests and scholars among the ancient Medes and Persians. Like Her Majesty’s Privy Council today, magi were the go-to advisors for kings of the time, for taking decisions domestic and international. They were educated in the literature and languages of surrounding nations and in the equivalent of a world religions curriculum that included studies in divination, esoteric wisdom, magical practices, dream interpretation, and the zodiac (astronomy and astrology for them a single discipline).

In the Bible they are first mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3, 13, where one of Nebuchadnezzar’s officers is called “Rabmag” (AV), or “chief of the Magi.” In the Book of Daniel, the Jewish young men Daniel and his three friends were put through an education in Babylon similar to that of the magi before they could enter their careers as the king’s counselors (Daniel, chapter one) . The Greek word in Matthew 2:1, often rendered “wise men,” is magoi (magi), and “Simon the magician” (Acts 8:5-25) is known traditionally as Simon Magus.

The magi of the Nativity, however, do not resort to astrology or to any other esoteric art or method to make the long trip to Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel indicates that these magi knew the Hebrew/Jewish scriptures and took their cues for the journey from that source. So, upon seeing the mysterious star in the East, they referenced it to Balaam’s prophecy in the Book of Numbers about the coming Messiah, which was prophesied hundreds of years before Christ’s birth: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (24:17). This verse was usually treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine Ruler to come. Taking their cue from Scripture, the magi head for Jerusalem, the heart of Israel’s religious life, to seek further instruction.

In Jerusalem, the magi’s determination to learn the whereabouts of this new king of the Jews raises havoc throughout the city and enrages King Herod, who interrogates the city’s rabbis. They crack the books and tell Herod that any fool knows where this ruler will he born: Bethlehem; and they show him a prophecy in Micah: “And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth to rule Israel for Me – one whose origin is from old, from ancient times” (5:1; The Jewish Study Bible). With murder in his heart, Herod secretly questions the magi and sends them off to Bethlehem, several miles south of Jerusalem. Again, the magi are following Scripture not astrology.

But on the outskirts of Bethlehem the magi get stuck. “Where do we go now?” I can hear them saying. “We’ve got the right town but now we need Jesus’ address.” Here, the otherness of the star may again be noticed. It “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Thrilled to bits with this personal guidance from the “star”, the magi, “on coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him’ (Matthew 2:9-11).

Finally it’s time for the arduous trek back to their own land. But earlier in Jerusalem, Herod had lied to the magi. He had told them to report back to him from Bethlehem so that he, too, could go and worship the child. But he wanted to know the address so that he could have Jesus murdered. The magi, unaware of Herod’s plot, are warned by God in a dream to return to their country by “another way.” Which they do.

This little phrase – “another way” – is for me a key to the revelatory nature and meaning of the Nativity. It speaks a phenomenon (the “star”) that cuts across the grain whatever esoteric knowledge and learning the magi may typically have relied on, whether for their personal guidance or their counsel to kings. In this sense, the Matthew narrative of the star carries a message for us that is, in fact, like that of the Genesis 1 narrative, where we learn of God’s creation of all things. In that narrative, God’s creation of the stars is mentioned but, as important as stars are, the text merely states that God “also made the stars.”

In the context of reading the entire detailed account of creation, this brief mention of stars appears almost as an afterthought. There is no mention that stars, or any other part of God’s creation, is to be used as a system of esoteric knowledge and learning. Yet that is precisely how neighboring cultures (of the ancient Hebrews) such as Babylon and Egypt used the stars (the sun and moon, too). And there is a consensus among Bible scholars that the afterthought mention of stars in Genesis 1 is an implicit warning to those ancient cultures, and to any today, not to employ the stars as a means of esoteric or occult knowledge, but to instead rely on God for guidance. Which brings us full circle back to the star of Bethlehem and the message of the magi.

To conclude, conjectures may be made, and many people have made them, about the nature of the astēr (the Greek word translated “star” in Matthew 2), but it is not possible to make a solid conclusion about its nature. If you were standing in my backyard on a clear night, I could point out to you any number of planets or stars by name. “There’s Venus, there’s Mars, there’s Vega, there’s Sirius.” No such solid conclusion can be made about the astēr of Bethlehem.

I don’t doubt that there may have been a conjunction, or a comet, or even a supernova during the period of Jesus’ birth. I just don’t think that the astēr of Bethlehem refers to any of them. Instead, it seems meant to indicate a miraculous star. And the appearance of that, my friends, would certainly have gotten the profound attention of the magi, who were well-skilled in knowing what the appearance of the night sky should look like to them. This astēr was something other than that. And they knew it. This is why I say that it cut across the grain of their esotericism.

Any meaning of the Nativity that leaves the seeker of Christ boxed in by naturalism, philosophical materialism, or scientific rationalism ends up with a God whose greatest claim to glory is being able to time historic events, like the birth of Jesus, to coincide with natural phenomena. This may be Immanuel Velikovsky’s god, who cleverly times the Exodus to occur during an earthquake that parted the Red Sea. It may be Curt Vonnegut’s god, who presumes that there was a small but effective electric power-plant in the Ark of the Covenant to strike down any who touched it. Or it many be the god behind the anti-supernatural current affairs stories and magazine articles about the Nativity. But it is not the God of Creation, who by his mighty power can and does use all sorts of natural and supernatural means to reveal Christ the Savior to those who seek him. Just ask Matthew and Luke. Or the magi.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

(A shorter version of this article appeared at Premier Christianity, 14 December 2018.)

Images: courtesy of Texas Monthly, National Geographic, Dave Morrow photography respectively

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. Thank you.

Prophetic Wisdom?

From 40 years ago:

“Without the self-restraint derived from a common moral ideal, a nation becomes ungovernable except by tyranny. Unless our nation has a spiritual awakening soon, we will probably have little freedom at all to debate Christian attitudes. The trouble is, there isn’t that much time. Revival doesn’t guarantee results that fulfil all its possibilities. An expanding church might still fuss about a few obvious moral problems in society but be unable to relate its faith to the basic problems. Indeed, it might not even be able to handle its own problems. If God’s people propagate a Christian faith without proliferating a Christian mind—a Christian philosophy of life, or way of looking at the world – then there may follow a vengeful reaction from a society deprived of truly Christian insight into its problems; a society driven by spiritual ignorance into despair, despotism, and persecution.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about those words lately. They are from the late John Peck, Christian theologian and philosopher, writing in 1978 about his country, England. Quoted in: Uncommon Sense; God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, John Peck & Charles Strohmer; The Wise Press, 2000; SPCK, 2001; p 10.

The book was written to both English and American Christians. We included those words in Uncommon Sense because as we were writing the book (it took 4+ years) we felt their relevance also to America. The book is not a polemic. It actually offers a way ahead. Just saying.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while. See if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

The U.S. and Iran at War?

choicesIn May, President Donald Trump pulled United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. In June, he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong UN in Singapore to start denuclearization negotiations with the secretive regime. It is hard to square these two historic yet contradictory foreign policy events unless a war with Iran is in the cards. And it may be.

Formal talks with North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons is a wise move, even if realizing that goal will test the diplomatic skill of both sides as well as everyone’s patience. The dueling statements after the recent sit-down between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean diplomats are probably indicative of disturbing disconnects to come. Pompeo called the meeting “productive,” adding that “progress had been made.” But “regrettable,” “really disappointing,” and “gangster-like” was the language of the North Korean foreign ministry.

This should not surprise. Tetchy diplomatic exchanges occurred regularly between negotiators when hammering out the JCPOA. But it is smarter for adversarial states to keep talking to work out their differences. If they do not, they will grow increasingly adversarial by not talking to each other. Yet that is road President Trump has taken America on with Iran by exiting out of the JCPOA. It would have been wiser for the President to task the State Department to springboard off the JCPOA to seek through negotiations to try to resolve areas of critical concern between Washington and Tehran that were not within the nuclear deal’s purview. Such talks may not have been any easier in getting to Yes than they were with the JCPOA. But getting to Yes is wiser than going to war. And war it may now be.

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In October, 1998, regime change in Iraq became official policy of the United States, through a bill that sailed through Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton on October 31 as “The Iraq Liberation Act.” Voila! In the spring of 2003, “Mission Accomplished.” Not.

The U.S. has no official policy toward Iran equivalent to The Iraq Liberation Act, but in 1953 the CIA and MI6 worked together to change the regime in Iran. Sixty-five years later, is this the Trump administration’s unofficial-official policy?

Within two weeks of pulling America out of the JCPOA, President Trump appointed John Bolton, a former U. S. Ambassador to the UN, as his new National Security Advisor. Bolton, a strong and vocal advocate of regime change in Iran, wrote in the New York Times in 2015 that bombing Iran is the only way to stop the development of its nuclear program. “Such action should be … aimed at regime change in Tehran,” he concluded.

In a telling National Review article (August, 2017) titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Deal,” Bolton laid out a detailed, five-page game plan for the kind of spin the White House could use to do that. Bolton, has who called the Iran nuclear deal “execrable,” had been asked in July 2017, by Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief White House strategist, “to draw up just such a game plan…, which I did,” Bolton wrote in the National Review article. It’s a strategy, he states, “that can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook if the administration were to decide to leave the Iran agreement.”

Note the meaning of that carefully crafted sentence. Bolton, who has served at high levels in various presidential administrations, is not saying: here is a just case for pulling out of the agreement. He’s saying: if you [Trump] pull out when Iran is not in material breach, here’s how to spin your decision.

Also strongly critical of Iran is Mike Pompeo. In September, 2015, when he was a Congressman (from Kansas), Pompeo addressed the Heritage Foundation think tank with a topic titled, “A Pathway Forward: An Alternative to the Flawed Iran Nuclear Deal.” On April 26, 2018, four weeks after assuming the office of Secretary of State, and two weeks after President Trump terminated U.S. participation in the JCPOA, Pompeo was warmly welcomed back at the Heritage Foundation, where his topic, “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” includes a string of twelve non-negotiable demands to Tehran, which, if you were that regime, you would see as prelude-to-war talk if all the demands are not met.

Also in the stacked deck are the years of secret talks taking place between the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister. The goal of these no-longer-secret talks was to form a solid coalition with other Arab Gulf states to combat Iran. That goal was partly held in check for eight years by the foreign policy of the Obama White House. With Donald Trump in the Oval Office that Middle East military alliance against Iran has been strengthened by the Trump family’s long-term friendship with Netanyahu, his withdrawal of America from the JCPOA, and the results of his first official foreign trip, in May 2017, to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Changing the regime in Iran may not be the only way to square talking to Marshal Un’s regime while refusing to talk to Tehran, but it has an ominous historical rhyme to 1998-2003. As then, today there are many hawks in Congress, and in think tanks and the news media, and influential editorialists, who would support regime change in Iran backed by the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East. Iran would fight it tooth and nail, which could easily lead to direct U.S. military involvement.

And just today, July 23, we awoke to President Trump’s ominous all-caps tweet to Iran’s President Rouhani, “NEVER EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE…”. This was in response to what President Rouhani is reported to have said on June 22, at a gathering of Iranian diplomats: “American should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”

Of course, well known is the long list of Iranian policies and actions in the Middle East that are of critical concern to the U.S., its Middle East allies, and Europe. As far back as the spring of 2003, Tehran itself, with the ayatollah’s imprimatur, formally reached out to the Bush administration to start talks about these issues, which included its nuclear program, cooperation with the U.S. on al Qaeda, leaning on Hezbollah, accepting the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration for a two-state solution, and ending Iranian material support to groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Team Bush was riding high just then, after the U.S. military toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in a short war, so it would have been an opportune time for talks with Tehran to begin. But in an irrational move that puzzled some of his political allies, President Bush snubbed Iran’s formal diplomatic reach out, and the magnitude to alter U.S. – Iran relations for the better was lost.

The harsh snub gave the hard-line politicians in Tehran opportunity to make Iran’s then President Mohammad Khatami (an Iranian moderate who had been promoting a dialogue of civilizations) look so foolish in Iran that radical hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President in 2005. It wasn’t until another Iranian moderate, Hassan Rouhani, was elected President in 2013, that Tehran got serious again about negotiating with the U.S. about its nuclear program. And it took an American President who was willing and able to do that. What will be the consequences of President Trump’s unwillingness to start talks with Tehran without first making absolute demands of the regime?

Diplomacy and negotiations is not a one-way street. The JCPOA is a flawed agreement (is there any perfect international agreement?), but it was a start, and it left the door open for hammering out a less-flawed nuclear deal, perhaps even a treaty. The JCPOA was also indicative that Tehran, with the ayatollah’s support, was willing to talk about other matters of critical concern. For the U.S. to enter into such talks is not a sign of weakness. Whatever good things could have come out of such talks now seems to have disappeared down the drain.

A war with Iran would likely begin between Iran and Saudi Arabia with its Gulf State allies, who will have intelligence and possibly material help from Israel. Such a war could draw in Israel directly. At that point, and depending on how Israel fared, Israel could, even if as a last resort, ask for direct U.S. intervention in Iran. If so, it seems unlikely that the U.S. would deny its closest Middle East ally a direct war between the U.S. and Iran.

But consider an alternative scenario. On June 8, in its most recent report to the UN, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which spend upwards of 3,000 calendar days a year in Iran sustaining the toughest of inspections, stated that Iran is complying with its commitments. This is also the conclusion, to date, of all other signatories (except the U.S.) to the JCPOA – China, France, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union.

War is not a wise way to solve international disagreements. Talking openly and honestly with Iran to bring that nation further out of the cold is the wiser policy. In the words of the late Israeli military leader turned politician Moshe Dayan: if you want to make peace, you don’t need to talk to you friends; you talk to your enemies.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images: permissions via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. Thank you.

The Fourth of July: Religion and Politics in America

In the autumn of 2004, I answered my office phone and for a few seconds thought someone was playing a joke on me. Until it dawned on me that I really was listening to someone with that unmistakable BBC radio accent. Long story short, a producer from the BBC wanted to know if I would write and present a 30-minute radio program for them that traced religion and politics in America from the nation’s founding fathers and the fourth of July to today.

It’s a strange sensation, I’ll tell you, beavering away on a writing project, hidden out in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and suddenly have the BBC World Service offer you a freelance job. “We got your name and number from one of your friends here in England,” the producer said. She laid out the idea, I plied her with many questions, and we reached an agreement. Over the next 2-3 weeks I wrote the script and we communicated frequently to polish a final draft. The program aired successfully on BBC radio, October 31, 2004.

I had occasion recently to read the text of that program, which I haven’t done for years. Today, fourteen years later, most of it strikes me as very relevant still (one bit in particular does not).

Before the program aired, two aspects of the editing process fascinated me. One was to see what bits of text the BBC omitted from my final draft in order to find time to include parts of well-known patriotic songs, readings, and interesting personal anecdotes from others, which I had no control over.

I wish I could reproduce those inclusions for you, here, but the program is no longer on the Web. Instead, I thought you might like to see the entire unedited text. I’ve noted the places the BBC omitted by placing brackets at the start and end of that material, and I added the song titles and other bits. Also, toward the end of the text I included some pretty bold statements, and I was pleasantly surprised that the BBC left those in the program.

START OF BBC RADIO TEXT

“God bless America.”

These three short words bring together religion and a nation – and all the controversy and paradox, and yes blessings, that the invocation reveals about America’s pluralistic experiment.

It’s not unusual to hear these three words on the lips of American politicians, especially during the closing remarks of important Presidential speeches.

Invoking God finds deep historical roots in America dating back to the nation’s Founding Fathers, and even before that to the Pilgrims and to the Puritans, who first settled in close knit Christian colonies along the New England coast in the early seventeenth century.

Even today millions of Americans genuinely believe that the nation should be blessed by God, and we’ll be hearing from some of them later. Many may even sing the famous Irving Berlin song God Bless America, written in 1938, at large sporting events.

Song – God Bless America

I never thought much about that song or its implications while growing up in Michigan in the more liberal North.

It was only after moving to the South, 15 years ago, where I settled into the beautiful rolling foothills of the Smoky Mountains, then I saw just how seriously
many people take the words “God bless America.” I had moved into the heart of what is called the Bible Belt, a large area of the country where Protestant fundamentalism is widely practiced.

Every Fourth of July, for instance–or Independence Day, as people call it–our nation celebrates one of its most cherished documents, the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776.

Reading from – The Declaration of Independence

We, the Representatives of the United States of America … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world … solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States [and] that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British crown …. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honour.

In the church that my wife and I attend, Sunday services every Fourth of July come alive with political fervor.

Inside the packed sanctuary you’ll see a large American flag with its bold red, white, and blue colors prominently displayed.

You’ll hear the pastor preaching a rousing sermon about why America is a Christian nation, a chosen nation.

[And the choir and congregation will ignore religious hymns that morning in order to sing patriotic songs like God Bless America or America the Beautiful.]

Song – America the Beautiful

There’s no doubt that religion and politics are in our bones here in the States.

[When the prominent French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville arrived America in the early 19th century to write his classic book, Democracy in America, he wrote that the first thing that struck him in the United States was its religious atmosphere. De Tocqueville marveled not only at the number of religious denominations but also their mutual toleration.]

pause
God permeates much of everyday American life today.

On Sundays we pass the plate and on Mondays we pass the buck. And in both transactions God slips through our fingers – the slogan “In God We Trust” engraved on our money.

[And speaking of money, America’s deep religious beliefs have made it a very giving nation, both philanthropically and charitably, at home and abroad.]

And whenever students stand in their classrooms, hand over heart, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, God gets a mention even in our secular, state school system.

Reading – Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

BBC added a comment from a Southern Baptist pastor from Dallas and a comment from a “humanist.

[It was in 1954 that Congress passed a law inserting the two words “under God” into the Pledge, and reasonable people have disagreed about that clause ever since.Two years ago, for instance, a self-professed California atheist got a Federal court to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge. But just recently the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that verdict.]

pause
The religious conviction that America is “a chosen nation” dates back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, who were fleeing religious and political persecution in England and Europe.

Many of their early documents reveal their deep faith in God, such as the 1620 Mayflower Compact, named after a ship in which many Pilgrims had sailed from Plymouth England to the New World.

Reading from – The Mayflower Compact

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politic.

Winthrop ship The ArabellaIn a famous 1630 speech, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop stood on the deck of the gun-ship, the Arabella, in which he had sailed from England, and invoked blessings on the new colonies that were straight from chapter 30 of the book of Deuteronomy.

As Winthrop articulated his Christian vision for the New World, he declared that the colonies should be “a city upon a hill” — a direct reference to Jesus’ statement in St. Matthew’s Gospel that you are the light of the world, and that a city set upon a hill cannot be hid.

Reading from – John Winthrop’s 1630 speech

The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, [so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with]…. The God of Israel … shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

Many of our politicians today, such as the late President Ronald Reagan, have appealed to Winthrop’s ideas.

At least twice in his speeches, Reagan included Winthrop’s phrase about “a city set on a hill” – once during his campaign for a second term; and later during his farewell address to the nation.

Did this mean that every early Christian leader believed that they were founding God’s chosen nation? Not at all.

Puritan leaders like Roger Williams warned that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen nation. And this is a position that continues to be held by many prominent Christians today.

Nevertheless, not long after the nation had formed, the religious conviction that America was divinely chosen gave rise to Manifest Destiny, the powerful 19th century political doctrine that the United States had the right and the duty to explore and to expand itself throughout North America.

And in those more militant times, as today, Americans could be inspired by the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a rather frightening song about God wielding his swift sword against his enemies.

Song – The Battle Hymn of the Republic

In quite a different spirit today, the U.S. Congress acknowledged God’s special relationship with America shortly after the attacks on 9/11. On October 23, 2001, Congress passed a Resolution that permits a national day of reconciliation to occur every year.

The Resolution states that “the two Houses of Congress shall assemble [once a year] . . . to humbly seek the blessing of Providence for forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity for all people of the United States.”

This tradition dates far back in U.S. history, such as to President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day address in 1863. In a very moving appeal during the nation’s tragic Civil War, which was being fought between the North and the South, Lincoln declared bluntly that the nation had “forgotten God.”

The nation, said Lincoln, who had been made gaunt by the War, had become “intoxicated with unbroken success.” It had “become too self-sufficient.” And therefore we ought to “humble ourselves,” and “confess our national sins,” and “pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

Times haven’t always been pretty when it comes to religion in America. The Civil War was being fought chiefly over the slavery issue, and religious faith dictated two opposing views. Christians in the industrial North opposed slavery. In the agricultural South, with its huge plantations, Christians wanted to see slavery extended.

The suffering slaves themselves drew from powerful redemptive Christian imagery forged upon the sorrow of their chains.

Dozens of so-called Negro spirituals arose out of the slave’s pain and oppression, including songs like There Is a Balm in Gilead, and the soulful Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which was taken from Psalm 68:17: “The Chariots of God are tens of thousands.”

Song – Swing Low Sweet Chariot

BBC added a “testimony” from an Assembly of God church member and from a Catholic woman.

The relationship of religion to government in America has sustained one of the nation’s longest-standing and most heated controversies: the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.”

[The great controversy has always been about how to interpret that. Since 1802, it has been known as the “separation of church and state,” a principle that has been derived from a letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson, our third President. In that letter, President Jefferson — a religious man who was not a Christian but a Deist — wrote that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between church and state.”]

To many Americans today, this means that religion and politics should have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But to many other Americans, that is going way too far.

Battles over the meaning are played out regularly in our courts, where, for instance, rulings have been handed down to remove Christmas nativity scenes from government buildings.

[One of the most far-reaching decisions occurred in 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the saying of prayers in our state schools.]

But the battles are also played out between friends and neighbors. I used to have quite animated conversations about religion and politics across the fence line with my neighbor, Don, a silver-haired, straight-talking man who had retired to the Smoky Mountains from Florida.

Whenever I happened catch him cutting his lawn, Don would stop and wave me over to the fence line, where, as neighbors do, we would catch up on things.

Knowing I was a public Christian, within minutes Don would be baiting me about America’s religious right and its national political arms, the Moral Majority, and later, the Christian Coalition.

“What business do they have, always sticking their nose into politics?” Don would say.

Well, I took his point. But it must be said that government needs some sort of moral base, otherwise there’s going to be chaos or anarchy. The Pilgrims and Puritans understood this, but I don’t think that many non-religious Americans today think much about it.

But both liberal and conservative Christians today think about it. Big time. Both sides of the religious divide spend huge amounts of time, money, and effort trying to implement their version of Puritan moralism in American public life. [They also believe that it’s essential to elect Christian politicians to key offices, whether locally, regionally, or nationally.] Their efforts, however, may not be producing the intended moral effect on the nation.

After all, we’ve had almost 30 straight years of Presidents claiming to be “born again” Christians, ever since Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, popularized that phrase in 1976.

And polling research indicates that close to fifty percent of the population now attend church on Sundays.

The great irony is that after three decades of Christian Presidents and widespread church attendance, America still continues its slow general trend into materialism and moral decline.

I think there are many reasons for this.

Many churchgoers still cling to a 19th century pietism – a private faith that has little public relevance. [And many Christian politicians often fail to put forward viable policies that make sense to the nonbelievers in their constituencies.] Also, Christian activism often finds itself opposed by parts of society, whether rightly or wrongly.

[In their book The Search for Christian America, scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden write that when Christianity is closely linked to a society, it can transform aspects of that society; but “on any large scale or in the long run such a transformation will be severely limited by other forces at the base of a society…, [especially] anti-Christian forces.”]

Clearly not everyone would “Amen” the sentiments of Walt Whitman, one of American’s great 19th century poets, when he wrote a poem called “Prayer of Columbus.”

Reading from – Walt Whitman’s Prayer of Columbus

All my emprises have been filled with Thee,
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee,
Sailing the deep or journeying the land for Thee;
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine, leaving results to Thee.

O I am sure they really came from Thee,
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
A message from the Heavens whispering to me even in sleep,
These sped me on.

Song – America, America

BBC added a Catholic man’s “testimony,” a doctor from Dallas who was a former rock musician.

Many Americans like religion as a touchstone, but they resist having it enforced politically.

Nowhere has public resistance to religious activism been more successful than in the case of abortion, which was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Even after more than 30 years of tireless widespread religious activism, the abortion decision has never been overturned.

[Christians have had much better success when working one-on-one with Americans on this emotional issue.]

pause
With all the Christian influence in the nation, however, do people of other faiths, such as Jews and Muslims, and even those who claim not to be religious, get a fair shake?

I think that most of the time they do.

A very tangible blessing of America’s pluralistic experiment lies not only in the U.S.
Constitution but also in the Declaration of Independence, which states clearly that “all men are created equal,” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

This means that “equal rights” for all takes precedent over any one faith. Rights, therefore, come first. And every American citizen has them. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. Should people’s rights be violated, as U.S. history reveals, the courts are brought in to settle the abuses.

pause
I’m sure that to people looking in from the outside, it must seem like the whole nation is one big religious hothouse, a society where religion is continually shoved in your face.

I think that would be an inaccurate picture of America.

For me, even as a Christian, I think that one of the great things about the American experiment is you can live here quite happily without being accosted by religion.

Many people live here for a long time and are not fussed about religion at all, even as I lived during one 10-year stretch of my life, when I was a New Age neopagan. Then in July, 1976, coincidentally during the month that America was wildly celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary, I was living alone like a hermit in California. That month I had a dramatic and unexpected encounter with the risen Jesus, which has always reminded me of Paul the apostle’s startling experience when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

The experience immediately changed the direction of my life completely. I suppose you could say that I now find what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” to be both personally essential and a public good.

Of course, nonbelievers won’t see it like that, but neither will they feel awkward seeing so many of their neighbors driving off to church on Sundays, although they might joke about seeing religious stickers on their neighbors cars, stickers that may say “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or, “I’m too blessed to be depressed.”

I think that Americans of any faith, and people of no faith, have all learned to live here with grace toward each other – as we spend everyday in each other’s company, whether at work, at play, or across the fence line.

It’s certainly not perfect. We’ve got a long ways to go. But for the most part, we get along — even during a heated political season like the current campaign for President.

And that, it seems to me, is part of God’s grace blessing America.

Song – Amazing Grace
END

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

President Trump, John Bolton, and Regime Change in Iran

playing chessIn an article I wrote last year, I did not foretell that John Bolton would become President Trump’s National Security Advisor. I argued that President Trump’s posture on Iran was nearly identical to President Bush’s hawkish attitude toward Iraq in 2002-2003, which led to the war about Iraq, and I documented Bolton’s overt militant stance on Iran, which could provide a rationale for Trump’s goal of withdrawing the United States from Iran nuclear deal (aka: the JCPOA).

Bolton, a hardline foreign policy hawk with strong neoconservative leanings, has had a long career as a high-level policy advisor in various capacities since the Reagan years. It was probably inevitable that Trump would eventually choose Bolton to be his National Security Advisor (in April, 2018). But I will let you be the judge of that. Here is part of what I wrote in September, 2017:

From 2017
In a telling article in National Review (August, 2017) titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Deal,” John Bolton, a former U. S. Ambassador to the UN, laid out a detailed, five-page game plan for the kind of spin we can expect to hear about Iran from the White House and the media in the following months. Bolton, who calls the Iran nuclear deal “execrable,” was asked in July by Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief White House strategist, “to draw up just such a game plan…, which I did,” Bolton wrote in the article. It’s a strategy, he states, “that can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook if the administration were to decide to leave the Iran agreement.”

Note the meaning of that carefully crafted sentence. Bolton, who has served at high levels in various presidential administrations, is no stranger to spin. He is not saying: here is a just case for pulling out of the agreement. He’s saying: if you [Trump] pull out when Iran is not in material breach, here’s how to spin your decision. [In previous administrations, Bolton has been tasked with helping to sell presidential policies to the public.]

Under four subheadings – Background; Campaign Plan Components; Execution Concepts and Tactics; Conclusion – Bolton’s argument may be summed up as: here’s how to pull out all the stops in a domestic and global campaign to get as many influential agencies, allies, and media as possible on board to support “a decision not to certify and to abrogate the JCPOA.” His ways and means include, but are not limited to:

■ developing momentum in Congress for pulling out,
■ diplomatic and public education initiatives,
■ early and quiet consultation with key players,
■ explaining why the deal is harmful to U.S. national security interests,
■ a full court press by U.S. embassies worldwide,
■ coordinating with all relevant Federal agencies,
■ the timing of announcements,
■ having unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran ready to be implemented,
■ encourage public debate that goes further than abrogating the deal,
■ announcing U.S. support for the democratic Iranian opposition,
■ expedite delivery of bunker-buster bombs,
■ and actively organize opposition to Iranian political objectives in the UN.

Bolton expands on the “how” of those and other strategies throughout his article. “This effort,” he concludes, “should be the Administration’s highest diplomatic priority, commanding all necessary time, attention, and resources.”

If Iran continues to implement the deal but Trump remains firm about tearing it up, we should be prepared to face a deluge of what the distinguished foreign policy thinker John Mearsheimer calls, in his insightful little book Why Leaders Lie, “a deception campaign” based on fearmongering, which “occurs when a state’s leaders see a threat emerging but think that they cannot make the public see the wolf at the door without resorting to a deception campaign.”

“History may not repeat itself,” Mark Twain has been noted to have said, “but it sure does rhyme.” If we draw lessons from the deception campaign of Bush White House in 2002, it’s not hard to divine what kind of rhyming statements, i.e., sound bites, are going to be hawked by the Trump White House and influential others in the coming months. Here are some likely ones:

■ Of all of Obama’s wrongheaded policies, none is more dangerous to the US that the Iran deal…
■ Obama, Kerry, and others in that administration were naive to think that Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons…
■ The time has come to pull out of the deal…
■ We have clear evidence that Iran is not abiding by the nuclear deal…
■ Congressional leaders are united in their view that Iran will…
■ The only way to stop Iran from having nuclear weapons is to pull out of the deal and place very tough US sanctions on Iran…
■ The Iran deal has not deterred it from pursuing paths to have nuclear weapons….
■ We support the President to pull out of the deal…
■ We are confident that Iran is seeking means to build a nuclear weapon…
■ If we do not pull out of the Iran deal and enact very strict sanction immediately…
■ Iran had no intention of honoring the agreement….

Back to today and looking ahead
You only have to read President Trump’s public statements about the Iran deal to see that many of them resemble the above sound bites. It is foolish to try to predict what the next five to ten years will look like now that the United States is no longer committed to the JCPOA, now that “the highest level of economic sanction” is being instituted (Trump), and now that all sorts of changes toward engaging with America are being discussed and implemented by many U.S. allies and partners, including in the EU.

Common GroundI, for one, however, hope that Trita Parsi is mistaken, though I fear he is not. Parsi, a respected foreign policy analyst, Iranian expert, and author, wrote in July, 2017, that Trump’s rationale for pulling out of the JCPOA was a “a rerun of the machinations that resulted in the Iraq war. It doesn’t matter what Iran does or doesn’t do….”

A far-fetched goal of the Trump White House? Don’t count on it now that John Bolton is the president’s National Security Advisor. In 1998, nineteen high-level Middle East policy advocates sent a formal letter to President Bill Clinton. Written on Project for a New American Century (PNAC) stationery and dated January 26, the letter argued that “the aim of American foreign policy” should be “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.”

PNAC was a well-funded, well-connected neoconservative think tank (1997-2006). “We urge you to articulate this aim,” the letter to President Clinton concluded. “We stand ready to offer our full support in this difficult but necessary endeavor.” Signatories includes: Robert Kagan and William Kristol (PNAC founders), Elliot Abrams, Francis Fukuyama, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and John Bolton (a Director at PNAC).

It is tempting to conclude that this was “just a letter.” And many analysts have concluded that Clinton ignored it. Maybe. Maybe not. Certainly he never made any attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. But regime change takes time to plan and to implement. Consider what did take place quietly in the halls of power nine months after Clinton received the PNAC letter.

In September 1998, a bill was introduced to both the House and the Senate under the cumbersome title: “To establish a program to support a transition to democracy in Iraq.” It sailed through Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton on October 31 as “The Iraq Liberation Act.” With that use of his pen, Clinton made regime change the policy of the United States toward Iraq. Five-and-half years later, in March 2003, President Bush sent the troops.

the White HouseConventional wisdom lays the decision to oust Saddam Hussein from power at the feet of President George W. Bush, but the policy had in fact become official U.S. policy under Clinton. We will never know all the facts and machinations that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As Al Gore once told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, the public only knows one percent of what goes on at the White House.

What we do know is that Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear agreement despite the IAEA’s widely respected conclusion that Iran was not in material breach of the agreement. We also know that part of Bolton’s Middle East policy was regime change in Iraq. We also know that another of his Middle East policies is “regime change in Iran.” This he made clear during a Fox News interview four months before he was installed as Trump’s National Security Advisor.

As Peter Beinart has written, it would be comforting to believe that withdrawing from the agreement has not “put the United States or Israel, or both, on the path to war with Iran. [But] another Middle Eastern war is entirely possible. Where it might lead is anyone’s guess. The greatest current threat to American national security is not Iran, North Korea, or ISIS. It’s amnesia. And Americans need a strategy to fight it.”

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Bullying of a different sort

There are bullies, and then there are bullies. I was reminded of two kinds in as many days. Today I was working out in our local gym, which had its three televisions running, each in different sections of the gym. A sports program was on at the far end and FOX News was running in another section. The program on the television near me was naff, so after determining that the middle-aged woman exercising nearby was not watching it, I found the remote and started surfing. When I landed on CNN News, I left it there and followed along using the “closed caption” option after I got back to my workout.

That was going along well until the middle-aged lady’s husband walked over from the other end of the gym. Nearly finished with his workout, he wanted to know when she would be done. They sorted that out, and he walked off to finish his workout, but not before he had made a rude remark about CNN. I hadn’t paid any attention to this man until the rude remark, which was impossible for me to miss. So I looked more closely and remembered him from the only conversation I ever had with him, in the gym a couple months ago. To each his own, but during that brief chat the guy really put me off with his Mr. Macho personality and hyper-aggressive patriotism. I was glad when he returned to the other end of the gym today. We did not speak this time, and I don’t know if he recognized me.

I kept watching CNN and working out. His wife moved to another nearby machine. Out of the corner of my eye a few minutes later I noticed the husband coming to talk to his wife again. He was done working out. I’ll be done soon, she explained. I got the feeling he was frustrated to wait. He looks up at the monitor, makes more rude remarks about CNN, and then plops himself down on the nearby couch and takes the remote and starts watching the History channel. He knows I’m watching CNN but he doesn’t consult me. Doesn’t even look at me.

Having had that previous distasteful encounter with him I decide to keep my mouth shut. Almost immediately the wife stops working out, walks past the couch, says, “Let’s go,” and heads for the door. This scene takes place about ten feet from me. It’s impossible not to notice some issues there, and I turn and look elsewhere. I’m not completely clear on what then occurred, but apparently the husband jumped off couch and took a few steps toward the door, but then stopped, retrieved the remote and changed the monitor back to CNN. He then spoke to me. “That’s what you were watching wasn’t it?” I look up and nod. He makes more rude remarks, complete with hand gestures, and then exits the building.

It’s annoying, that kind of soft bullying, and it is easily dismissed. Not so the hard-nosed bullying that yesterday strong-armed not only an adversary but also allies with its misguided foreign policy decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. When a child bullies, parents can step in. Who can step into this?

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: by dhruvgpatel via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

It’s the Presidency Not the President

dominoes“The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.

“If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.

“Many of the responsibilities that vex Trump are ones that were not part of the job’s original design. They have accrued to the presidency over time, most in the recent past. The Framers, fresh from a successful rebellion against a tyrannical king, envisioned an executive who was limited in power and even stature. For a good long while, the design held. James K. Polk’s wife, Sarah, was so concerned that the 11th president might enter a room unnoticed, she asked the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to get people to turn their head when he arrived.

“Today we notice when the president doesn’t show up. We are a president-obsessed nation, so much so that we undermine the very idea of our constitutional democracy. No one man—or woman—can possibly represent the varied, competing interests of 327 million citizens. And it may be that no man—or woman—can perform the ever-expanding duties of office while managing an executive branch of 2 million employees (not including the armed forces) charged with everything from regulating air pollution to x-raying passengers before they board an airplane.”

[clip]

“Reforming the presidency is necessary, and hard, because the Framers were unspecific about how the office would operate. That’s why George Washington was so conscious of the fact that his every act would set a precedent for the office. It is a job of stewardship. Since Washington, presidents have tended to the traditions and obligations set by their predecessors and passed them on to the presidents who came later. This promotes unity, continuity, and stability. It also promotes bloat.

“Washington would never recognize the office now, though he could commiserate with its modern occupant. ‘I greatly apprehend that my Countrymen will expect too much from me,’ he wrote his friend Edward Rutledge in 1789. The modern president faces the same challenge of fulfilling expectations, but while Washington was conscious of not overstepping the boundaries of his office and making himself too big, the presidents who have come after face the opposite challenge: how not to seem too small for an office that has grown so large.”

Those are the opening and closing words of a significant essay by John Dickerson in The Atlantic Monthly. Significant to liberals and conservatives alike. In between those words, Dickerson thoughtfully moves back and forth through U.S. history to contrast what the Framers (and the Constitution) wanted the office of the President of the United States to be and how radically different the contemporary office has become today. And why that is a huge problem.

I have interrupted writing the next article I want to put on this blog in order to call our attention to this essay. Here’s why. My work on The Wisdom Project during the last fifteen years has of necessity included much research to try to get my mind around the U.S. presidency. Dickerson’s essay filled in an important area of my thinking. It scratched a deep itch that I have had for a long time. But that’s not why I offer the essay to you here.

After reading it I realized that its clear presentation of major changes to the office of the presidency (changes Dickerson identifies as beginning with the Great Depression and steadily increasing in complexity since then) would be very helpful to anyone who really wants to understand the contemporary U.S. presidency and why its ever-expanding job description does not bode well for the county or for the world. You may or may not agree with some of his equally thoughtful recommendations for the current and future presidents, but it is hard to gainsay his thesis: the problem might not be the president but the presidency.

NOTE: this is a topic that I would like to have some conversation about on this blog. If you’d like to get one going, please use the Comments area to share your thoughts. Using the Comments, rather than email, gives others who read this blog an opportunity to chime in. So we can learn wisdom from each other. Thank you.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: by Great Beyond via Creative Commons.

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