The Rise of the Military Solution and the Decline of Diplomacy

“We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.”

Those words were spoken by President Trump on April 6, in his closing remarks about the targeted military strike he ordered on Shayrat air base in western Syria. The President is right. Our world is indeed very troubled. Even the inimitable Mikhail Gorbachev has weighed in:

“The world today is overwhelmed with problems,” Gorbachev wrote in a recent editorial published by Time. “Policymakers seem to be confused and at a loss. But no problem is more urgent than the militarization of politics and the new arms race. Stopping and reversing this ruinous race must be our top priority… Politicians and military leaders sound increasingly belligerent and defense doctrines more dangerous. Commentators and TV personalities are joining the bellicose chorus. It all looks as if the world is preparing for war.”

The United States, for one, faces international challenges against which its traditional wisdom seems to stand enfeebled. So it is good that the President prayed for God’s wisdom to meet the challenges. With all due respect to the President, however, I can’t agree that deep cuts to the State Department and a large increase to the Defense Department is wise. Yet that is this President’s position, at least currently. Will it make the world a less troubled place if the Pentagon’s already superior war machine becomes even more superior?

It is the State Department, through diplomacy, negotiations, and many other means, that it tasked with easing adversarial relations to prevent conflicts and wars. Wisdom to move in that direction needs to emerge in Washington to help make the world a safer place. In this article, I will try to explain why.

I’ll begin with a conclusion I’ve come to: the greatest challenge for the United States is not overseas; it’s not Vladimir Putin or Bashar Assad or Russia or Syria or China or North Korea or Iran or ISIS. The greatest challenge is here at home: to reverse the ever-deepening militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

This political orientation did not materialize overnight or with any one President. It is a result of a long-standing policy emphasis in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, to steadily increase American military superiority. The build-up of the U.S. military, including its nuclear capacities, did not ease up, as some expected it would, with the end World War Two (1945). Instead, by the end of his tenure as President (1960), Eisenhower warned in an historic speech of the dangers to liberty and democratic processes that hid latently in what he dubbed the “military-industrial complex,” the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.”

This was something new in the American experience, having arisen as a result of World War Two and expanding with Korean War and the ongoing Cold War. Eisenhower predicted that the dependence of the U.S. military and the arms industry on each other would get out-of-control if it were not resisted by “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” (This, from a retired 5-star general and former  Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WW2.)

Commenting in 1970 on the 1960s, Hans Morgenthau (a leading American realist political thinker) had seen Eisenhower’s admonition going unheeded, both by Washington and by the citizenry, and he wrote an essay critical of what he called “the militarization of American life.” (Truth and Power: Essays of a Decade, 1960-1970, Hans Morgenthau; Praeger, 1970; see the Prologue.) (More recent political analysts and historians could also be cited who document the obvious as well as the hidden perils of an out-of-control military-industrial complex and a public disinterested in knowing them. See, for instance, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, an important book by historian and retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich.)

By the start of the new millennial, the centrifugal force of the military establishment and the arms industry had by then pulled the deliberations of Congress solidly into their orbit and a military-industrial-legislative complex was born. One effect of this three-way conjunction has been presidential end-runs around Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Article 1 makes Congress, not a President, the authority to declare war. But that no longer seems to concern our elected officials or to the citizenry that elected them, Democrats and Republicans alike. A President just goes to Congress seeking a “joint resolution” authorizing the use of military force. Of all the “wars” the United States has fought since the end of WW2 (1945), Congress has not issued a single declaration of war since WW2.

The Mythology of the Military Solution
By the time of the unprecedented terrorist attack on America (September 11, 2001), much of Washington had become a faithful believer in the mythology of the military solution.* Bolstered by the military-industrial-legislative complex, this mythology arose around a body of beliefs, values, and ideas that promote and fund policies, supported by both liberals and conservatives alike, to do whatever it takes to ensure U.S. military supremacy.

The cost of the mythology’s power over the faithful on both sides of the aisle and among a majority of the citizenry was evidenced when the U.S. war to dismantle al Qaeda and oust the Taliban from Afghanistan (late 2001) shifted in 2002 to extensive military preparations for the invasion of Iraq (launched in March 2003). Then when the war about Iraq did not end after the ouster of Saddam Hussein from power, but instead worsened and lengthened, Washington faced a serious economic challenge.

As the “war” quickly surged far beyond the $50-$60 billion that the George W. Bush administration had initially estimated as its cost, what to do? Because the U.S. government runs on budget deficits, there was no ready cash in the U.S. budget to pay for what was becoming a hugely expensive war. Trying to raise taxes – a traditional U.S. method of paying for a war – would be political suicide, out of the question. In fact, taxes were cut in 2003.

This posed a serious and unexpected problem for the Bush White House, and afterward for the Obama administration. When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, Afghanistan festered and bled. The country became a haven in which terrorist groups regenerated themselves and the Taliban regained footings. As James Fallows has written, Afghanistan “never had the chance, because America’s premature withdrawal soon fractured the alliance and curtailed postwar reconstruction. Indeed, the campaign in Afghanistan was warped and limited from the start, by a pre-existing desire to save troops for Iraq.”

As conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan grew increasingly more violent, Congress needed to find hundreds of billions of dollars a year of additional funds for the Pentagon to sustain a U.S. fighting presence in situ. But there were no increased tax monies to draw from. By the end of 2010, the cost of the war about Iraq alone had risen to just short of $1 trillion. In September of 2016, the Military Times reported that the financial cost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fighting ISIS, had cost the U.S. nearly $5 trillion to date, including costs such as for Homeland Security and expanded Veterans Affairs monies for returning troops.

With no new taxes to help pay for these ongoing military interventions, how then? The Bush administration kept the surging costs off the books, so to speak, by not asking Congress to include them in the U.S. budget with each passing year. Instead, the Pentagon received “supplemental appropriations” from Congress. This was one way to keep funding both fronts of what was originally deemed the war on terrorism. And by keeping the mounting hundreds of billions out of the annual U.S. budget debate, both the Bush and the Obama administrations benefitted by keeping the enormous costs out of the public’s mind.

But supplemental appropriations were not enough to pay for the ongoing wars, which seemed to have no end in sight, and for reconstruction, which never seemed to get completed. So Congress also began using billions of dollars that it borrows from other nations, including Japan and China. It works this way. The United States issues (sells) U.S. Treasury securities (bonds) to foreign countries (American citizens buy them, too), which come with a guarantee to buy them back with interest. These securities are not sold as program-specific. Congress does not say to China: buy such-and-such specific securities to help us pay for our war. Instead, the money that comes in from issuing securities to China and other nations goes into a pot that the government draws from to cover the cost of any number of government expenses. Congress began taking billions a year from that pot to help pay for the increasingly expensive wars.

Of course we’re just talking columns on a ledger here. The economic figures merely hint at what a full accounting of the “costs” of the long war, as some call it, or the endless war, as others call it, would be. The deaths and woundings of soldiers and civilians, including children, and the effect on families. The millions of refugees. The vacated battlefields left full of landmines. These and many other human dimensions of war’s tragedy must be included in any attempt at a true cost. And there is also this consequence to the next generation. Trillions of dollars have been added to the U.S. deficit as a result of going for “military solutions.”* Debt that the American people did not sign off on, and which many are still unaware of, has been dump-trucked on to the backs of their children’s children. Will they be able to shovel themselves out from under this mountain?

The Decline of Diplomacy
If our elected officials in Washington, their advisors, and the American citizenry allow allegiance to the mythology of the military solution* to influence their looks abroad, a crusading spirit will more easily instruct U.S. foreign policy at the expense of diplomacy and negotiations. A case in point is President Trump’s proposal to Congress to pass a 2018 U.S. budget that includes deep cuts to the State Department and increasing funding to the Defense Department.

The State Department’s budget for the fiscal year 2017 was roughly $50 billion. Military spending in the United States for the fiscal year 2017 ran to roughly $582 billion. President Trump’s budget proposal for 2018 will not be finalized until probably sometime in the autumn, but recent figures from the White House revealed the administration asking Congress to increase defense spending by 9% and to slash funding to the State Department by a whopping 29%. This would add roughly $52 billion to military spending and subtract roughly $14.5 billion from an array of State Department operations and programs, including diplomatic initiatives.

United States military spending already exceeds the combined military spending of the next seven countries: China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan. Where does Congress spend all that money? Here’s just one way. The United States has nearly 800 military bases around the world, in more the 130 countries, of various sizes and functions, manned by half a million troops, spies, contractors, and others (see the Pentagon’s Base Structure Report). Yet despite the hegemony of U.S. military bases circling the globe – not to mention U.S. nuclear superiority and the fact that America faces no existential threat – President Trump nevertheless seeks an additional $52 billion for the Pentagon.

With regard to decreasing State Department funding, the Trump administration’s official “America First Budget Blueprint” for 2018, released by the White House in March, states that the proposed budget seeks to “reduce or end direct funding for” programs that “are duplicative, or are not well-managed.” Fair enough. But next comes this: “Additional steps will be taken to make the Department and USAID leaner, more efficient, and more effective. These steps to reduce foreign assistance free up funding for critical priorities here at home and put America first.”

Slashing the State Department while making military solutions,* so called, easier for the White House to reach for seems an incredibly naive rationale for keeping Americans safe in very troubled times. For it is not the arms of the Pentagon but the diplomatic teams of the State Department that are tasked to reach equitable agreements with other nations. Such negotiations seek, for instance, to keep international relations on an even keel, or turn adversarial relations around, or start to repair broken relations rather than resort to war.

As far as the President’s rationale for cutting the State Department’s budget, could not the same rationale have the Pentagon in its sights? Why does the President want to cut waste, curb duplications, and end any possible misuse of funds at the State Department but not at the Defense Department? Has there been none there? Further, does the President really believe that nearly one-third of the State Department’s funding ends up duplicated, wasted, and mis-managed? Is there less of that at the Pentagon? Even if the Defense figure turned out only to be five percent, that would still be approximately $29 billion. That figure doesn’t seem unreasonable. In December 2016, a story in The Washington Post explained a detailed investigation that uncovered $125 billion in bureaucratic waste at the Pentagon.

Be that as it may, rather than proposing draconian cuts to the State Department, wouldn’t it be wiser to leave that funding alone but shift whatever funding may be found to be amiss there into credibly existing well-run areas or to create needed programs and initiatives? If Congress is unwilling to cut waste at the Pentagon, wouldn’t it be better to leave the Defense budget alone (let it increase automatically, as it does, following adjustments for inflation) and instead seek Congress for $52 billion for, say, fixing infrastructure problems? That seems a good way to address “critical priorities” here at home. Why offer the White House a $52 billion temptation to make it easier to reach for another military solution* to make the world a safer place?

Diplomatic initiatives do not sound as sexy as launching Tomahawk missiles, flying off aircraft carriers, or hearing about SEAL Team Six raids. But diplomacy and negotiations are fundamental to keeping good international relations going and to easing adversarial relations, preventing conflicts, and ending wars. The faceless employees of State Department – nearly 70,000 of them at home and overseas – are tasked with making our troubled world less troubling. Diplomats, negotiators, and their teams keep nations talking to one another. Without their tireless, out-of-the news efforts, foreign relations deteriorate. If you stop talking to your spouse or your business partner, that relationship will go south.

The State Department, in part, runs 300+ embassies, consulates, and foreign missions around the world. The work of these venues includes, among many other things: running consular programs; helping people displaced by war; providing economic aid to help stabilize countries; supporting international peacekeeping efforts, disaster relief, and health programs; participating in cultural, educational, and feeding programs; and raising the profile of religious-freedom, which has become a priority in recent years for the State Department.

Besides that broad diplomatic array are international negotiations, such as talks between Washington, Moscow, Ankara, and other capitals to end the Syrian war and find a political solution. Keeping tensions in the South China Sea from boiling over; trying to reach out to North Korea; managing differences between Israel and Arab states; working with UN peacekeeping operations. Such international negotiations are indispensable in our very troubled world, and State Department teams are engaged in all of them, and many more besides, in their efforts with their counterparts in other nations to find equitable solutions and peaceable ways ahead. (Negotiating with those whom I call the “submit or die ideologues” is of course not possible.)

Kerry & Zarif shake handsUnfortunately, diplomats often get a bad rap. But without diplomatic activities and international negotiations the world would be anarchic. Uninformed citizens, however, may get frustrated because negotiations seem to them to be “going nowhere,” or “going too slow,” or “getting us nothing,” or “hurting us,” or “pointless.” Yet it is the diplomats, especially in times of great international distress, not the generals, who can string along negotiations to allow tempers to cool. They can find ways to give facts on the ground opportunities to change for the better and so avoid a worsening of relations. They can open up space for creatively equitable agreements to be reached in order to avoid conflict or war. This was the wisdom of the arduous, P5+1 negotiations with Iran that took years but brought about the nuclear agreement in July, 2015.

The secret to successful diplomacy of this kind is what some call sweat equity. I once heard it put this way: I would rather engage in dialogue that produced 500 liters of sweat than spill one pint of blood. This must be the attitude among all negotiating parties who seek to ease their adversarial relations with each other. In order for that to occur, the parties must be honestly open with each other around the table, willing to set aside any comfortable myths they may hold about the other, and struggle for as long as it takes to reach an equitable agreement between their nations. Skilled diplomats, negotiators, and mediators get this. In our troubled days, more funding of State seems a wise way to increase more of this.

If Washington, the Trump administration, and the citizenry do not recognize anything else, they ought to understand that an underfunded State Department makes it that much harder to sustain U.S. security and promote U.S. values and interests. This was acknowledged by the 100+ generals, admirals, and other high-raking military officers who, on February 27, 2017, signed a letter and sent it to the four top Congressional leaders and cc’d it to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Advisor. They began their letter by saying that they were united in the view that “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development … are critical to keeping American safe.” Signatories included notable such as Generals Casey, Hayden, Petraeus, and Zinni.

By decreasing the number of U.S. diplomats and their teams, “America would be under-represented, facilities would be closed, and the facilities that remain open would be undermanned,” said Douglas Lute, a retired three-star general. Karl Eikenberry, also a retired three-star general, agrees that scaling back the State Department is unwise. It sends the wrong message, he said. Our friends around the world “want to see a strong America, but one that leads by example and diplomacy, not with bayonets.”

In an editorial for Time, Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, documents ways in which the State Department should be strengthened, and why. His reason? “I cannot think of a higher risk for the U.S. than to have widely perceived weakness emanating for the State Department…. an effective State Department is essential…. budget cuts to State must be avoided, even if the Department of Defense has to bear them.”

Of Chariots and Horses
Eisenhower experienced the horrors, evils, and desperate limitations of war. Perhaps this is why he regularly lobbied Congress to reduce the Pentagon’s budget during the two terms he served as President. He of course favored a strong U.S. military. Yet, of the military-industrial complex, he said in his historic speech that we “must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society…. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.”

“In the councils of government,” he warned, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist… We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”

The councils of government, however, have not guarded against the danger. The mythology of the military solution* appears to be winning the day and the decline of diplomacy is a result. It’s not that American diplomacy is a magic bullet. But that’s just the point. More bullets are not the answer. As General James Mattis quipped to a Congressional panel in 2013: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

It’s not even that American diplomacy is unbiased when its ambassadors sit across the table with their counterparts from other nations. But without diplomacy and negotiations the state system has no means for easing adversarial relations, preventing conflict, and ending wars. Or for ensuring the stability of existing peace.

Let us, then, ask God for wisdom to make “our very troubled world” less troubled. And while we’re doing that, let us consider that in the wisdom of the Book “chariots and horses” is an image representing military power and also, often, the human arrogance that trusts in military might (Psalm 20:7-8).

The greatest challenge facing the United States today is here at home: to reverse the ever-deepening militarization of its foreign policy. We need a foreign policy repentance in that direction.

Postscript
If you have read this far, thank you. This serious topic has been a difficult one for me to write about. Although it’s longer than most one-off articles on this blog, and although I did as much due diligence as I could before writing it, it’s not nearly long enough to escape facing appropriate questions and criticisms by military professionals. Several years ago I had a enlightening give-and-take with one such person, who disabused me of a lot of silliness about the thesis but who generally agreed with it. And while writing this article over the past few weeks, I sent a draft to two military pros, who provided challenging feedback, for which I am most grateful. Nevertheless, much remains to be said by people who are a lot smarter than me. I have merely tried to introduce a way of thinking about the U.S. military-industrial-legislative complex and diplomacy and negotiations that does not appear on the radar of most Americas but should.

If you are a military person or if this issue is new to you, at the very least I hope you will take to heart this dead honest reply to me from one of the recent military persons who read a draft of the article: “This is truly very very far from where I live intellectually and that is such a limiting factor that I tried to do some background, then re-read and re-read the article. Even from my hawkish viewpoint (experience, background, cultural, and other excuses/reasons) the piece resonates with me. Why? Because I want it to work without military intervention.”

* I’m using “military solutions” ironically, to mean – quite contrary to Clausewitz’s famous dictum that “war is politics by other means” – that they do not end or resolve the underlying social, economic, and political injustices that lead to wars.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images: The Pentagon, David B. Gleason; The White House, Glyn Lowe; USS Theodore Roosevelt; all permissions via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

“There Are No Ordinary People”

refugee tent city [Klaus Reisinger]These are demanding times for Christians who are committed to loving neighbor as they love themselves. It is becoming increasingly easy to slip into less exacting paths. I am glad that our pastor has been addressing this theme in various ways in a number of sermons in recent months. C. S. Lewis, a highly regarded Christian thinker and writer, also took it on. In a sermon titled “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis offered a stunning insight about loving neighbor, which he delivered during a period of world history when division, conflict, and war offered a steady diet of hate for the soul.

A similar diet is being dished out to our generation – and you know that what you eat you are. Having eaten enough to hate our enemy, we are now being fattened to ignore another of Jesus’ commands: love of neighbor. Why bother loving our neighbor and loving our enemy? Indeed, if we are not being loved I return, why bother? Lewis grappled with this during World War Two. Here, in that inimitable way he had, are his concluding remarks in “The Weight of Glory”:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

“All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image of Tent City by Klaus Reisinger via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

Reconstructing American Political Community

Creative Commons imageAmong the three main points of my previous post, my first since Donald Trump was elected, I argued that there will be no flourishing political community in America if we do not humbly seek God, praying to become “vessels of civility, grace, and hope – to everyone.” That very general statement needs some particulars, and the little phrase “to everyone” is a key.

As Timothy Sherratt (Gordon College) has said, America is a diverse society, and in it we struggle to give that diversity political expression: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Progressive, and Green – to name just several. The problem is, we’ve stupidly turned our diversity into a house divided. We Christians contribute to this problem whenever we take our political cues from the world, so a big question we face is: how do we as Christians flex our political muscles in a way that – at this current time of discord and division – is biblically just.

This is a question that Sherratt takes seriously in very helpful, recent article in Capital Commentary. Arguing for what he calls re-constructive politics, Sherratt calls us to diversity conversations whose virtues are rooted in the fruit of the Spirit, which, he argues, “are correlates of the character of true power” as understood at Calvary. “Their utility for remaking relationship, both political and personal,” he writes, “is what commends them in the present circumstances.”

With that as a backdrop, Sharratt offers a biblical vision of the nature and purpose of politics in our diversity. I urge you to read this important article. It may surprise you.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image via Creative Commons permission.

A personal note from Charles: My sincere thanks to those of you who follow this blog, and to other readers, who helped my previous post become very widely shared, read, and discussed.

Now That Trump Has Been Elected: Three Difficult Tasks Facing American Christians

the better angels of our nature

Three Difficult Tasks Facing Christians

And just to be clear, I would have written the following even if Hillary had won.

(1) Drop the mocking spirit; instead, turn away anger.
Rising anger across in America – left and right, Democrat and Republican – has contributed to our country’s uncivil, graceless, and derisive political rhetoric. This has been normative during 2016 in the blogosphere and social media, on talk radio, in campaign ads, and even from our presidential candidates and many of their leading supporters.

Sadly, many Christians – to call out those in my own faith – have taken their rhetorical cues from these sources. I was on the receiving end of this earlier this year, when a Christian looked me in the face and said, “If you don’t vote for Trump, it’s a vote for the enemy,” after I told her I couldn’t vote for Trump. Well. I did not vote for Hillary Clinton either, but not because I saw her as my enemy (I abhor some of her political positions, as I do some of Trump’s). More recently, I heard the malicious ill will from a Christian woman who asked me in a Facebook comment if I had heard the latest news about “Killery.”

These are just private examples. Public examples abound in the above-mentioned sources, so well known that they need no mention here.

I don’t know why the Bible comes down so hard on mockers. Maybe it’s because mockers are said to have attitudes and actions that smack of pride and discord (Proverbs 21:24; 14:9). Maybe it’s because they get marque billing alongside fools, who hate knowledge, and even alongside the wicked  (Proverbs 1:22; Psalm 1:1). Maybe it’s because they have become so angry that they “stir up a city,” rather than being like the wise, who “turn away anger” (Proverbs 29:8). But that’s not all:

“Penalties are prepared for mockers, and beatings for the backs of fools” (Proverbs 19:29; see also Proverbs 9:11 and Isaiah 29:20).

The Lord “mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34).

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers” (Psalm 1:1).

“How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery?” (Proverbs 1:22). Yes. How long? How long will the poison of a mocking spirit continue to corrupt the political community our country?

Right or left, Republican or Democrat, from sea to shining sea, Christians, of all citizens, should be leading the way to stop this decay of our national body. What way is that? The answer is also in the Bible.

“Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6)

“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).

In other words, let us no longer take our cues (or our cures) from the political rhetoric; instead, let us speak wisely: stop stirring up the city; instead be wise and start turning away the anger (Proverbs 29:8). There will be no flourishing political community in America if we do not repent of our mocking spirt and humbly seek God, praying to become vessels of civility, grace, and hope – to everyone.

(2) Recognize that America is not exceptional or indispensable.
The 2016 campaign season was also a time when the question of America’s greatness gave rise to all sorts of punditry surrounding the assertion that “America is an exceptional nation.” For some, this is a cruel joke; others tout it as a valued and trusted trope. The general impression I get is that you couldn’t even get elected dog catcher in this country if you didn’t believe it.

So it surprised me when Donald Trump said he dislikes the term. But if you read between the lines of what he said, he seems to be saying that if America were truly exceptional – if so many nations weren’t “eating our lunch” – he wouldn’t mind applauding the phrase. On the other hand, at the end of August, Hillary Clinton was in Cincinnati at the American Legion’s national convention giving a speech that lauded America exceptionalism and attacked Trump’s dislike of the term.

hourglassPersonally, I think America is a great nation that has in recent decades gone down some roads that aren’t great. But is America “exceptional?” In other words, is America “inherently different” than other nations and does it have a “unique” role to transform the world. This is the question we must answer truthfully. Words have to mean things. And the words “American exceptionalism” mean that America is inherently different than other nations, unique among nations.

But that fact is that America is like other nations. If it were not, it would not be a nation. It would be some other kind of entity and unsuited to be numbered among 194 other nations of the world. What kind of entity that might be, I don’t know. But if America were unique, it would be a stand-alone something. And it’s not that. It certainly is not, for instance, a school, or a church, or a business. It is a nation among nations.

There has been only one unique nation in the history of the world, exceptional because its founding began with the revelation of God – beginning with the call of Abram:

“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing’” (Genesis 12:1-2),

and continuing with the mission of Moses:

“The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).

America had no revelatory founding.

In 1776 (not 1620), the nation certainly began unlike other nations extant in the eighteenth century in that it was not birthed as a monarchy or as an extension of some other kind of dynastic line of rulers. The nation galvanized around what we could call a synthesis of three very big ideas from salient elements of Puritan Calvinism, Enlightenment rationalism, and Virginia deism (to be brief about it). But this beginning was not a revelatory founding.

This ought to make us not only humble but also fearful and prayerful about the future of America as a nation. Every time I hear a politician claim that America is “indispensable,” I cringe. This descriptive for our nation began with President Bill Clinton, as far as I can determine, and it was afterward noised about by his secretary of state Madeleine Albright. Hillary Clinton affirmed it, at length, as an essential feature of America’s role in the world in her speech to the American Legion.

This political hubris (see Clinton’s speech) ought to frighten us. If ancient Israel was uniquely and exceptionally founded, let us remember that, except for its prophets, it also believed it was indispensable. But it wasn’t. Brothers and sisters, where do we get off believing that we are? Let us stop falling prey to this lie and start looking more biblically at our nation. As the theologian John Peck taught many of us: “If you start from an unbiblical position in your analysis of a problem, you’re not going to come up with a biblical way ahead.”

(3) Admit that America is under judgment.
As an American who is also a Christian, this has been the hardest one for me to swallow. It’s put me in a place of great dislocation. Well, no, that’s not quite right. It’s more accurate to say that it is the only explanation that has, at least for me, sufficiently explained the dislocation, and its attendant confusion and the famine of answers, that has become the American reality. We used to call it a collective worldview crisis. Call it what you will.

SunsetI had been thinking for some time that perhaps this may indeed the case with our country, although I quickly add that when this was on my mind I trotted out theological arguments to counter it. But after the number of presidential candidates dropped to two in 2016, I suddenly found myself without any theological defenses against the “judgment” narrative. As a professor once said, “If the facts don’t fit your theology, change your theology.” This is why I have plucked up my nerve to say I now believe that: (1) America has been under some kind of strange judgment for many years; (2) we ended up with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as our presidential candidates as part of that judgment (evidence: the unprecedented large number of people who concluded that both were horrible candidates); (3) it did not matter who got elected; the judgment continues. The off-the-great-road path that our country is traveling is going to get more perilous as we head to January 29, inauguration day, and into the new year.

I hope I am wrong, but it seems to me that this is the real crisis our nation faces. I have been in grief over this and haven’t a clue about how we get out from under it. Let us seek the Lord. And as much as possible let us strive to be vessels of civility, grace, and hope along the way. May God have mercy on us during this time of disorientation and incoming, yet unknown, reorientation. Who do we think we are, anyway? Who do we think God is?

“Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path to understanding? Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust… Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing” (Isaiah 40:13-17).

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

All images, permission via creative commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and 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 publish a new post. Thank you.

Paul Simon: still right 50 years later

Simon & GrafunkelI’ve been wanting to write what may be my final post about the up-coming election, but I’ve felt a bit sluggish lately, not to mention being burned out from finishing a writing deadline. So for now I’m taking the lazy man’s, quick way out. I was recently humming these familiar lines by Paul Simon, from about 50 years ago.

Siting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon.
Going to the candidates to date.
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose.
Every way you look at this you loose.

To amend Mark Twain: “History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.” Take a break from the laughing and the shouting. Here’s the famous song. Enjoy: Mrs Robinson.

Image courtesy of Simon & Garfunkel website.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

 

Who Lost the First Presidential Debate?

Hilary Clinton & Donlad TrumpPolitical pundits today want to know “who won the debate?” It’s the wrong question. Who lost the debate? That is the question. And the answer is? The American people lost the debate.

For this first of three debates, moderator Lester Holt framed the debate in three broad categories: “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “Securing America.” It sounded promising to me. In more normal times, the event would have entailed a rousing debate between two presidential candidates in which they contrasted their policy plans for those three areas so that the American people could have some clearer ideas by which to help them decide who to vote for on November 8.

But not between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. Oh no. In more normal times, a little sniping at each other between candidates is to be expected, and often couched in a little humor. But not this time. Oh no. Instead, Clinton and Trump spent most of the 90 minutes getting under each other’s skin, poking at raw, sensitive areas in each other’s lives, and then replying with cutting retorts to try to save the moment.

Both candidates have said so many horrible things about each other in the past and are implicated in so many very questionable activities, that this first debate became all about that stuff – i.e., about their personal lives – instead of about the America people – the very people they say they say want to represent and help when they set up shop in the Oval Office.

That’s all I want to say, really. We the people lost. That is the story of the first debate. It is the outcome of having the two most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. It is sad, very sad. And sadder still is that it is a reflection of us, the American people. May God have mercy on us.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image courtesy of scienceblogs.com

For other posts on this blog about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, see these, beginning with this one: To Boldly Go: anti-Trump Republicans Speak Out [June 11]; Donald Trump Is Wrong about the Founding of ISIS [Aug 12]; A Christian View of Not Voting for Donald Trump of Hillary Clinton [Aug 25]; Is Donald Trump Merely Lending His Name to “America”? [Sept 16]; Predicting Presidential Debates [Sept 23].

Predicting the U.S. Presidential Debates

It has been said that only novelists know the future. Even so, I don’t think it’s much of a risk for us to to predict what the debates between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton devolve into. The first of the three scheduled debates begins in a few days, on Monday evening, September 26. For one thing, they will be anything but presidential. Instead, they will be…, well, why wait for Monday? Here’s a sneak peek from the never predictable John Cleese and Michael Palin. This short video from a 1972 Month Python skit tells us what the debates will be like.

A segment from Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic.” Standard YouTube license.

For other posts about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, see these, beginning with this one: To Boldly Go: anti-Trump Republicans Speak Up [Jun 11]; Donald Trump Is Wrong about the Founding of ISIS [Aug 12]; A Christian View of Not Voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton [Aug 25]; Is Donald Trump Merely Lending His Name to “America”? [Sept. 16]; Who Lost the First Presidential Debate? [Sept 26].

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and 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 publish a new post. Thank you.

Is Donald Trump Merely Lending His Name to “America”?

Donald Trump & White HouseHaving recently returned from three weeks in England, I can tell you it was a relief not to be Trump-blitzed everyday by the media. But I’ll also tell you this. When conversation in my home-away-from-home turned to American politics, as it frequently did, not one person I spoke to – and I was with many different kinds of people in varied contexts and cities – was a fan of the Trumpster.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that most had concluded that Hillary Clinton was no great catch either. And among some that I met, I heard a wryly spoken running joke: “Until June, we used to take pride in not being as divided as America. But now we have Brexit.” Welcome to the club, I’d reply. You guys import too much stuff from America! Misery loves company.

Anyway, I’m back home and again running for cover. But I did happen to catch a most enlightening piece of television journalism the other day about Donald Trump’s so-called business acumen that made me take notice. It speaks for itself, so I’m not going to comment on it. I’m just going to quote the speakers. All I want to say, first, is that it left me with the title of this article: “Is Trump Merely Lending His Name to ‘America’”?

During the September 8, 2016 PBS-TV NewsHour program, correspondent William Brangham talked with Mark Fisher and Tim O’Brien. Fisher is senior editor of The Washington Post and co-author of Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power. O’Brien is executive director of the international news agency “Bloomberg View” and author of Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald. Both have extensive knowledge of Donald Trump and his business dealings over many decades, and O’Brien is one of the few journalists who has actually seen some of Trump’s tax returns.

O’Brien doesn’t think Trump will release his tax returns “because I think they will go towards offering substantiation around a bunch of things that Trump has made central to his political campaign: his track record as a business person, how charitable he is as a philanthropist, his operations overseas, and the kinds of business and financial conflicts that could potentially come to bear on him should he end up in the oval office.”

Specifically, however, Brangham pressed the two journalists for some understanding about what we should conclude from Trump’s decades’-long roller coaster ride with his many and varied businesses, for Trump talks about his successes but he’s also had terrible failures, including many bankruptcies. It was Fisher’s and O’Brien’s replies that made me take notice; after all, what did I know, really, about Trump’s business history?

We know a lot about Hillary Clinton’s long, diverse political history – the good, bad, and ugly – so we can therefore make an informed conclusion about what that might mean for America if she were elected President. But about Trump’s long, diverse business history, what do most of us really know? On this question, I found Fisher and O’Brien offering a major piece of of the picture. And what might that mean if he were elected President?

Fisher and O’Brien both pointed out that in recent decades Trump has changed his business model. Instead of organizing and running businesses, which were many and varied and included taking on a lot of debt, and which had both successes and terrible failures, including many bankruptcies, Trump, said Fisher, has been “taking on less debt and less risk. [Now] he essentially rents out his name and uses others to take the risk – investors and others – so he merely rents out his name and gets a guaranteed income stream from that.”

O’Brien confirmed that. “The Donald Trump of the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he said, “was essentially a creature of debt. The last time he really operated a large business that involved complex financial and management decisions was when he was running his Atlantic City casinos, which he essentially ended up running into the ground. He put those through four separate corporate bankruptcies. And he almost went personally bankrupt in the early 1990s. And the Trump who emerged from that is essentially a Trump who is now a human shingle, as Mark said. He oversees a licensing operation where he puts his name on everything from mattresses to men’s underwear to vodka and buildings. And he’s got his golf course development operation, and then essentially a self-promotion publicity machine that made itself most visible during the ‘Apprentice’ years.”

To me, this was enlightening. It’s certainly not an unlawful business practice – what he’s doing lending his name to products. And it’s making the billionaire tycoon more money. Fair enough. But it said to me: “Donald J. Trump businessman” is certainly nothing like the image of a Henry Ford or a Steve Jobs or a Nelson Rockefeller (41st U.S. Vice-President). Instead, I was left wondering: is Trump going after the U.S. presidency to lend his name to “America,” like he has done to other products he wants to hawk for personal profit? Is he letting “America” take all the risk? Why not? That is his business. I want to see him asked these questions during one of the presidential debates, which start September 26.

For more than 100 years, U.S. presidents – Democrats and Republicans – have been increasingly running the United States like a business enterprise rather than a political community. Like them, Trump as president of “America” would amplify this fundamental problem of our nation, big time. During an ABC-TV 20/20 interview (Friday night, Nov 20, 2015), before he won the Republican nomination, Trump was asked what he would do should he lose in November. He admitted it was possible, noting that he was up against many “not stupid people.” He then quickly added, “What’s next? I go back to what I was doing.” It’s an answer that speaks volumes.

Image via VAZVorpal Creative Commons

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

For other posts about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, see these, beginning with this one: To Boldly Go: anti-Trump Republicans Speak Up [Jun 11]; Donald Trump Is Wrong about the Founding of ISIS [Aug 12]; A Christian View of Not Voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton [Aug 25]; Predicting Presidential Debates [Sept 23]; Who Lost the First Presidential Debate? [Sept 26].

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and 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 publish a new post. Thank you.