Understanding the Religious–Secular Dilemma of U.S.–Middle East Relations, part 4 of 4

long winding roadPart one and part two of this article explained the history of the secularized U.S. foreign policy establishment. Part three looked at the diverse religious histories of Muslim majority countries in the Middle East in the context of their policy making. Parts one thru three were meant as a primer for anyone seeking to discover, in some detail, a realistic picture of why U.S. – Mideast relations have been so intractable, especially since 9/11. The secular – religious dilemma has foiled even many of the best plans and polices. Here in part four, I want to look very practically at several religious challenges In the Middle East that the United States has faced and responded to in recent decades – sometimes successfully for common good, sometimes not so much. Understanding these has greatly helped me to appreciate the ongoing struggle that our presidents and their advisors face at this tough religion/secular intersection.

Religion and the Secular:
The Foremost International Dilemma
of U.S.-Middle East Relations
by Charles Strohmer

Perhaps the most successful initiative occurred in 1978, when what may be called the faith-based peacemaking agreement orchestrated by President Jimmy Carter at Camp David. There, a peace agreement was reached between Egypt and Israel. It “would never have come about,” writes former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “if not for Carter’s ability to understand and appeal to the deep religious convictions of President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin.”[1]

During the 1990s, after the terrorist bombing of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in 1993, President Bill Clinton’s administration devoted time and resources to the issue of how to deal effectively with militantly religious terrorist groups, particularly al Qaeda. These groups were being increasingly implicated in large and deadly acts of violence overseas against various U.S. interests. Despite numerous “threat-and-response studies” considered by the Clinton administration, no consensus could be reached by the secularly institutionalized Washington concerning effective non-military policies for addressing and dispelling the appeal of the religious ideologies of these non-state, terrorist actors. Responses by the U.S. were mostly military ones, such as with the use of cruise missiles.

During the 2000s, the huge policy vacuum that remained in Washington toward engaging with relevant matters of religion in the Middle East meant that non-military policy had to be created on the run as they arose. Albright saw this personally in Iraq during the lead-up to Iraq’s first round of elections in January, 2005, when she chaired the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), which works to strengthen and expand democracy worldwide. The organization is a nonpartisan and neutral NGO and as such cannot support one party over another.

In the lead-up to those elections, NDI was under Albright’s leadership, and at the time the nonprofit organization had been helping both the secular and religious Iraqi political parties to understand and implement the many aspects of a democratic electoral process. The Bush State Department, however, was seriously considering funneling tens of millions of dollars in material assistance to favored secular parties, in hopes of helping to defeat the religious parties.

It was a “dangerous idea,” Albright writes. “If we played favorites, we would confirm every suspicion about our intentions, make our rhetoric about democracy look foolish, and raise new questions about our attitude toward Islam. NDI warned that if the administration went forward with such a scheme, the institute would have to consider suspending its own programs, because its credibility would be destroyed and the security situation – already tense – would become intolerable.” It took months of serious debate before top officials at the State Department killed the proposal, but the Bush administration, she concluded, seemed “far more comfortable working with secular leaders than with Iraqi political parties for whom religion is central. This is true even when the religious leaders are moderate in orientation and generally accepting of U.S. goals.”[2]

Washington’s institutionalized predisposition to rely on a secular calculus for addressing religious issues in the Middle East may also have been evident in the Bush administration’s relationship with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the high-profile religious leader of Iraq’s large Shiite population. Due the country’s Shiite majority, Sistani immediately become Iraq’s most influential religious leader on political matters in the collapsed country, after the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in March-April, 2003. (As we saw in part three of this article, Shias outnumber Sunnis in Iraq. Nevertheless, under the dictator Saddam Hussein, the secular Baathist Party, largely Sunni, governed the country.)

After Saddam’s removal, Sistani’s became the religious go-to voice guiding Iraq’s large Shia population through the troubled waters of the emerging political reconstruction of the government. And yet after Paul Bremer was appointed (May 2003) by President Bush to oversee reconstruction of Iraq, replacing Jay Garner, Bremer only ever managed to talk to Sistani through intermediaries, which took place when necessary. One would think that it would have been expedient, if not crucial, for Bremer to meet personally with the Grand Ayatollah on at least a somewhat regular basis during his year-long tenure as director of post-war planning in Iraq.

Sistani publicly supported the U.S. position on a number of vital political issues, but he opposed other issues vital to Washington. Face-to-face meetings have been known to lead to working through disagreements and reaching mutually accepted policies in a way that may not be possible when only using intermediaries. Of this, political essayist Paul Berman writes that the “Americans blamed the ayatollah for refusing to meet with them, [but with] a proper approach, any reasonable person will eventually yield to an insistent suitor. Sergio Vieira de Mello[3] succeeded in meeting with Sistani. The ayatollah was approachable.”[4]

We can see Sistani’s great sway with Iraq’s Shia population in the January 2005 legislative elections. It was because of Sistani’s edict instructing Shiites to vote in that election that President Bush, afterward, could trumpet the political event as one of his success stories in Iraq. Without Sistani’s edict authorizing them to vote, most Shia would probably have stayed home from the polls, being unsure if their religious beliefs permitted them to vote in that kind of election. An embarrassing turnout at the polls would have probably made it an historic embarrassment for the Bush White House (most Sunnis boycotted the elections and the Kurds represent a small percentage of the population). Further, the large Shiite vote that day won them a huge majority in the new 275-member Iraqi National Assembly.

children's tug of warThere are times, too, when a U.S. administration’s positive gesture toward religion in the Middle East will be criticized. In 2007, President Bush made a gesture which on the surface seemed so ordinary that many political analysts thought nothing of it. In July, President Bush called to congratulate Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (the AKP), which had won a landslide reelection over its two closest rival political parties.

What was wrong with calling to congratulate the Prime Minister? After all, America and Turkey are allies, and Turkey had been implementing serious steps for more than two  decades to be able to enter the European Union. Besides, the gesture may have signaled an improvement in Washington’s approach toward religion in the Middle East. Also, since it came to power in 2002, the AKP had been seen by many analysts as modernizers who fully supported a pluralist and democratic Turkey.

Author Steven Cook, a Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that the AKP has “presided over political and economic reforms that strengthened human rights, overhauled the penal code, improved parliamentary oversight, reined in Turkey’s powerful military establishment, and made Turkish economy the most dynamic in the region.” And with the July 2007 elections, the party returned to parliament with twenty-seven women (more than double any other party) and “scores of young liberal legislators who have joined because they want to live in a democracy.”[5]

What, then, could critics possibly have to complain about the congratulatory phone call? They fumed because the AKP is an Islamic party. President Bush, they said, should have commiserated with its two closest rivals, who lost, and who are secular. Although the AKP is what the Western media and press tend to call a “moderate” Islamic political party – to denote perceived differences to the aims of more militant political groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah – some groups in the West nevertheless strongly oppose the AKP.

Cook concludes that despite some Western suspicions about the AKP’s long term aims, Bush was right to “welcome the Justice and Development win, [for] the Arab world has taken a keen interest in the way both Europe and the United States deal with Turkey’s Islamist government, seeing Turkey as a test case for the West, for much of the Arab world has branded Washington’s democracy promotion policy as little more than hypocrisy.” Thus at the time, Bush’s support of Erdogan’s reelection helped “undermine Arab accusations and signals that Washington is not opposed to Islamist power, but rather opposes certain kinds of Islamist groups.”[6][7]

I hope that the foregoing examples have provided a good, behind-the-scenes practical introduction for negotiating the complicated and challenging secular/religious intersection of U.S. – Mideast relations. In hopes of presenting a more manageable understanding of that, I focused on issues smaller than the big, often sensationalized, ones that make the media.

The Muslim Middle East has much longer history of, and therefore is much more practiced at, orienting its religious backdrop to a secularized Washington than latter has at orienting its secular self to the former. Whereas the modern West at the Peace of Westphalia (1648) began weaning itself from official ecclesiastical influence upon the state, the Muslim world has had fourteen hundred years of religious experimenting with varied and diverse political structures. If, then, the foreign policy of the Muslim Middle East remains for the foreseeable future tied to explicit religious interests (this does seem predictable), then both the U.S. and the Muslim Middle East must find wisdom suitable for peaceable cooperation when negotiating the secular/religious intersection of their international relations.

The realistic picture that this article (begun here) paints of the religion – secular dilemma of U.S. – Middle East relations can leave us feeling queasy. And well it should. Until a new, different, and better paradigm for these international relations becomes normative, we have to do the best we can with what we’ve got. But we’ve got more than what we’re stuck with. In a week or two I hope to have finished (and then to post) an article that details the fine work being done by high-level individuals, organizations, and the U.S. State Department as they struggle, often against great odds, to develop and implement wise ways ahead for peaceably negotiating the rough secular/religious intersection of U.S. – Mideast relations for common good.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty, cpts 5, 7.

[2] Ibid., p. 177.

[3] Sergio Vieira de Mello was the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Iraq. His death in Iraq in August 2003, from a massive truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, led to the UN’s immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

[4] Paul Berman: Power and the Idealists (NY: W. W. Norton, 2007), pp. 264-265.

[5] Steven A. Cook, “Cheering an Islamist Victory,” Op-Ed in The Boston Globe, July 26, 2007.

[6] Ibid.

[7] In recent years, Turkey’s long path to EU membership has slowed to a crawl due to complication in negotiations that have yet to be resolved. Speeches made by Erdogan in 2015 reveal increasingly hardline rhetoric against the West. In Turkey’s 2015 general elections, the  AKP lost its long-standing parliamentary majority.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Top image by Peter Nijenhuis, other image by Jennifer L. Sovanski (permissions via Creative Commons)

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Understanding the Religious–Secular Dilemma of U.S.–Middle East Relations, part 3 of 4

Islam at night 2In part one and part two of this article we looked at the strong influence of secularism on the history of the foreign policy establishment of the United States. But Washington’s relations with the capitals of the Muslim Middle East is not a one-way street. In this post I want to offer an overview of the strong, yet varied, influence of religion in the capitals of the Middle East. This affects their international relations, and some insight into it is crucial for understanding the secular – religious dilemma of U.S. – Mideast relations.

Religion and the Secular:
The Foremost International Dilemma
of U.S.-Middle East Relations
by Charles Strohmer

U.S.– Mideast relations run both ways. Whereas Washington approaches the Middle East from a secularized orientation, the capitals of the Muslim Middle East rely on varying degrees of explicit religious belief, depending on the country in question. In other words, although everyone knows that Islam is that religion, it less commonly understood that there is no universal agreement in the Muslim world how each government should express Islam politically.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, is a monarchy based on Islamic law (shari’a) as it is interpreted and applied through the powerfully influential and well-instituted Wahhabi Sunni branch of Islam. In Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism controls and runs mosques, schools, and clerics, and preaches and enforces a strict Islamic fundamentalism that strongly influences all of areas life. This strict kind of Islam, for instance, has made constructing churches and synagogues in the country illegal.

Like Saudi Arabia, Sunni Islam is by far the most dominant religion in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. But note some crucial differences. In Jordan, a monarchy, Islam is the state religion but, opposite of Saudi Arabia, Jordan is tolerant of non-Islamic religions. Egypt is an Arab republic (not a monarchy), with Islam as the state religion, and the country has significant Christian minorities in the Coptics and Roman Catholics. In Lebanon, the Arab country with the largest percentage of Christians, a unique political system is designed so that more that a dozen different religious groups, mainly Muslim and Christian, are structurally factored into the national government. “Parliamentary seats, ministries, governments jobs, and so on are apportioned according to these different confessional groups. So the political process formally recognizes these religious groups, that each one should have a share in the pie.”

Iran is different still. It is not a monarchy and Shia Islam is dominant, and for most of the mid-twentieth century, the government of Iran was secularized and practiced, in part, separation of mosque and state. Today, Iran a theocracy, constitutionally identified as an Islamic republic. The secularization of the government ended 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979 (he overthrew the country’s American-backed Shah). The contemporary determinacy between the religion of Islam and the politics of Iran dates back to the time. A religious Supreme Leader has since then been the head of the government (first Khomeini, now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).

Besides the Supreme Leader, a twelve member Guardian Council, comprised of six jurists and six religious clerics (all must be highly-educated, dedicated Shia Muslims), oversees parliament. The Council can veto any piece of legislation that it deems to violate Islamic law (shari’a) or the Iranian constitution. The Council approves or disqualifies candidates wishing to run for any election. One of the more alarming ramifications of this for Western powers has been when Council at times disqualified nearly all reformist candidates who were seeking to run for political office, either for seats in parliament or for the presidency.

In this religious–political mix of government the Supreme Leader is thought by Iran’s ruling clerics to be God’s representative on Earth, in the sense of being directly answerable to God, and therefore not as susceptible to public opinion as are Iran’s president and members of parliament.  He is not elected by the public but selected by the Assembly of Experts. Under him is the president, who is elected by the people, and a parliament, also comprised of elected officials. Also, the Supreme Leader has been invested in the legal structure of the Islamic Republic with ultimate political authority. He has the final word on all matters of state, including foreign policy.

Iraqi girl at windowIraq is different still. Iraq’s system of government is constitutionally republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic. Its constitution makes Islam the official religion of the state and “a foundation source of legislation” that “guarantees the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yazidis, and Mandean Sabeans.” Shias outnumber Sunnis in Iraq, but under the dictator Saddam Hussein, the secular Baathist Party, largely Sunni, ruled. After Saddam Hussein’s fall from power in 2003, a predominantly Shia government has ruled Iraq.

Syria is an Arab republic in which Islamic jurisprudence, as stated in its constitution, is “a major source of legislation. The State shall respect all religions, and ensure the freedom to perform all the rituals that do not prejudice public order. The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected.” The Sunni Baath Party controls every facet of Syria, including its military, even during the current horrific civil – religious war.

There are, of course, other Muslim countries in the Middle East. I have only noted some basic, mainly constitutional, religious features of the foregoing seven countries to indicate their governments’ different understanding of how Islam should be expressed politically. It is crucial to understand that there does not exist a single governmental pattern of Islam operating everywhere in the Middle East. This means that Washington cannot have, thus it does not have, a one-size-fits-all foreign policy for the Muslim Middle East. That is impossible.

Yet it is not unusual to find U.S. citizens talking as if “they’re all the same over there.” No, they are not. Foreign policy decision making for a secularly institutionalized White House and Congress in the political–religious diversity of the Muslim Middle East is complicated and challenging. The U.S. has diverse policies for these states.

In the Muslim Middle East, the official conjunction of religion and the state, often called political Islam, seems like a bad marriage to most Americans. In the Muslim world, the alliance is generally considered a good marriage (perhaps it is better to think in the plural, here, “marriages,” since there is no single way in which state politics and religion are wed in that region).

The governments of Muslim majority countries face complicated and challenging decisions. They struggle, for instance, each in its own way, with issues such as democracy, modernization, and globalization vis a vis what (they determine) faithfulness to Islam requires of them in such areas. One of the current crucial international decisions they grapple with is how much cooperation they ought to give to Western powers in dealing with ISIS (a radical Sunni organization). In this, the division between Sunni and Shia governments in the region has played a crucial role in influencing foreign policy. That is, just as Washington engages differently with the various capitals of the Middle East, the various capitals of the Middle East have different policies toward ISIS, and their interpretations of Islam plays a large role in this. Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, for instance, have dissimilar policies toward ISIS.

One thing that does unite the varied religious expression of Islam is that they all face a common problem in the institutionalized, secular reductivism that controls the international relations of America and the rest of the West. This does not mean, however, that when, say, Iran’s foreign minister meets his American counterpart that the former talks like a theologian. He talks to his American counterpart, and seeks agreements, in the language of politics. But he will come to the table knowing that an explicit religious environment hovers over his head nearby.

Countries of the Muslim Middle East, then, face the equal opposite problem to that of the United States. Because their political governances formally recognize religious interests, albeit in varying capacities and with different theological interpretations of Islam, each one must contend from its religious point of view with how its relations should, or should not, develop with the United States, where religious authority is excluded from playing any official role.

Despite ongoing, serious attempts to solve it, the nub issue remains: finding peaceable and just ways to negotiate the secular – religious intersection of U.S. – Mideast relations. Part four of this article will look at ways in which the United States has in recent decades faced challenges at this crucial intersection, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much.

FOOTNOTES

[1] “The Christian Message in Lebanon,” Christianity Today, Aug. 2007, journalist Rami Khouri interviewed by Charles Strohmer

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Top image by Wajahat Mahmood; other image by dvidshub (permissions via Creative Commons).

Understanding the Religious–Secular Dilemma of U.S.–Middle East Relations, part 2 of 4

crescent moonIn Part 1 of this article I discussed why it seemed somewhat odd that the fledgling new nation of the United States of America decided not include a “department of religion” in its foreign policy structure. On the other hand, as a sign of the intellectual times, it seemed normal. But what were those times? Let’s look at that in this post. It was the end of the eighteenth century, and America’s founding fathers, politically, had drawn heavily from Enlightenment rationalism’s so-called secular way of doing politics. And that has had serious implications for U.S. foreign policy ever since. See what you think. Let’s have some conversation about this.

Religion and the Secular:
The Foremost International Dilemma
of U.S.-Middle East Relations
by Charles Strohmer

The secularization of U.S. foreign policy has been aptly explored by Scott Thomas in The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations. An international relations scholar from the London School of Economics who teaches at the University of Bath, Thomas asks us to think about the conceptual map of secularism that has informed U.S. foreign policy making since its beginning.

The map dates back to Enlightenment reasoning, and on it Thomas finds four primary contours that have historically shaped Washington’s approach to international relations. These contours suggest why it is difficult, if not unthinkable, for any presidential administration to seek the proper place of religion in U.S. foreign affairs. Briefly summarized here, the four contours are:

1) Secularization theory, which “helped to explain religion away, rather than to explain its significance in social action,” for it was “argued that the numbers of people who declare themselves to be believers and who regularly attend religious services will steadily decline as a country modernizes.”[1]

2) The civil war between Catholics and Protestants in France (1550-1650) and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) had engulfed all of Europe. The treaties that ended these catastrophic wars brought about what has been called the Westphalian era, in which the rise of “the liberal or secular state” was going to “save us from the cruel and violent consequences of religion. The modern state, the privatization of religion, and the secularization of politics arose to limit religion’s domestic influence, minimize the affect of religious disputes, and end the bloody and destructive role of religion in international affairs.”[2] In the Westphalian system, political governance is organized around states’ so-called secular interests; religious toleration domestically, and religious noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states, are also guiding principles.

3) All of the different Western schools of international relations that have arisen since the seventeenth century have downplayed the study of religion upon international relations. Instead, each school in its own way (e.g., political realism and political idealism), have focused on aspects such as military power, national interests, the balance of power, international law, and international institutions.[3]

4) The Westphalian model has followed the dictates of the modern scientific method, whose twin controls of naturalism and materialism admit into its theories only one reality, the physical world. Here, religion is seen, at best, as a mere epiphenomenon, rather than as a basic instinct of human nature.[4]

To sum up…, Western political theory has explicitly followed secular contours. In so doing it has shaped and validated approaches to the study and practice of international relations and foreign policy in ways that have marginalized the legitimate interests and concerns of religious actors, religious belief, and religious institutions. After settling in, this political way of thinking has had more than 200 years to become second nature to specialists in U.S. foreign policy.

choicesSimilar to Thomas, Edward Luttwak, an international relations historian, attributes Washington’s basic foreign policy problem with religion to what he calls its secularizing reductivism. And he adds this, which helps explain why political analysts, journalists, and others were caught short on the religious implications of 9/11. Today, “Enlightenment prejudice … has remained amply manifest in the contemporary professional analysis of foreign affairs.” And with the sway of modern secularism, both politicians and journalists have often ignored “the role of religion, religious institutions, and religious motivation in explaining politics and conflict.” Instead, they have focused far too much on geographic, economic, social, political, or other non-religious primary causes. For Luttwak, this indicates “a learned repugnance to contend intellectually with all that is religion or belongs to it.”[5]

As I was thinking and writing about this one day back in 2007, I conducted a simple experiment. I pushed my chair back from my writing desk and took a break. I walked to my book shelves, where at the time I had fifty-two titles covering U.S. and Western international relations history, theory, and practice. Twelve of those titles were then in use in American university classrooms. (I ignored the other titles for this experiment.) I wanted to know how much attention the classroom texts (the twelve I knew about) gave to issues of religion in foreign policy. So I made some notes. Of the approximately 3,600 pages that comprise these twelve titles, only 76 pages addressed religious concerns, with many of the references limited to a short paragraph or less. And 61 of those pages appeared in one book![6]

Drawing from her personal experience as a foreign policy student, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confirms the systemic, academic disinterest in religion in university IR classrooms. In The Mighty and the Almighty, Albright reveals that her education in world affairs gave her quite a distaste for anything to do with religion in international relations. To some of her Georgetown students, she opened a window on her academic training:

My speciality was foreign policy, about which such icons as Hans Morganthau, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson theorized in almost exclusively secular terms. In their view, individuals and groups could be identified by the nations to which they belonged. Countries had governments. Governments acted to protect their nations’ interests, at least to the point where wars did not break out and the world did not blow up. Foreign policy was commonly compared to a game of chess: cerebral, with both sides knowing the rules. This was a contest governed by logic; its players spoke in the manner of lawyers, not preachers…. Religion was not a respecter of national borders; it was above and beyond reason; it evoked the deepest passions; and, historically, it was the cause of much bloodshed. Diplomats in my era were taught not to invite trouble, and no subject seemed more inherently treacherous than religion. This was the understanding that guided me while I was serving as President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and as secretary of state. My colleagues felt the same. [7]

Like many in her field, Albright moved off this position after 9/11. Now when teaching in university classrooms she explains to students that learning about world affairs “cannot be done without taking religious tenets and motivations fully into account.”[8]

U.S foreign policy, of course, is not a one-way street. The formal role that religion plays in foreign policy toward America by Muslim majority countries in the Middle East is the other horn of the dilemma in U.S. – Mideast relations. Part 3 of this article delves into this much misunderstood area.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Scott M. Thomas, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations: The Struggle for the Soul of the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillian, 2005), pp. 50, 52.

[2] Ibid., p. 22; see also pp. 54-55.

[3] Ibid., pp. 55-58.

[4] Ibid., pp. 59-63.

[5] Johnston and Sampson, Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft; Luttwak, “The Missing Dimension,” pp. 8-10.

[6] The twelve titles: The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919-1939; The Anarchical Society; Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations; Paths to Power; Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy; Neorealism and Its Critics; Anarchy, State, and Utopia; Understanding International Conflicts; Power and Independence; Politics Among Nations; American Diplomacy; Promised Land, Crusader State (the title with the 61 pages). For complete title information, see this Bibliography on the Web.

[7] Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (HarperCollins, 2006), p. 8.

[8] Ibid., p. 11.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images: Crescent moon by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center; two paths by William Ward (permissions via Creatve Commons).

Understanding the Religious–Secular Dilemma of U.S.–Middle East Relations, part 1 of 4

Common GroundI was in a fascinating conversation recently with a very sharp political science student, talking about the secular and religious intersection of U.S. – Middle East relations. An intricate and intractable problem, I have not said much about it on this blog. Inspired by the help that my student-friend said he got from our long conversation, I went back to my files on The Wisdom Project for the following, informative article I wrote on the subject years ago. Slightly updated, I’m posting it here in four parts over the next two weeks. See what you think, and let’s have some conversation about it.

Religion and the Secular:
The Foremost International Dilemma of
U.S.–Middle East Relations
by Charles Strohmer

At the start of the diplomatic history of the United States, it is curious that the founding fathers of the new nation did not include something akin to a “Department of Religion” in its foreign policy structure. After all, the fathers knew full well that their near-ancestors had acutely experienced negative influences from religion upon political decisions in sixteenth and seventeenth century England and Europe. And even after gaining its independence from England, the fledgling nation of America had ample reason to think about including some sort of religion bureau in its diplomatic toolkit.

Religion and U.S. foreign policy
In 1784-1785, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were trying to negotiate an end to a foreign policy crisis between the new America and the so-called Barbary states (Morocco, Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers), which were under Muslim rule. Ships of Barbary pirates were attacking and plundering American trade ships and selling their crews into slavery. It was young America’s “first acute foreign policy threat,” writes historian Michael Oren. U.S. negotiations to end the crisis were taking place, chiefly in London, with a shrewd foreign minister from Tripoli, a Muslim nobleman. In March, 1785, Jefferson joined Adams in London “for one last attempt to prevent ‘a universal and horrible War’ and reach an agreement with Tripoli.”[1]

Instead, the foreign minister from Tripoli reiterated to Adams and Jefferson that the United States must pay the nearly one million dollar sum that, he said, a peace treaty with the Barbary states would cost the new nation. It was an impossible demand, being nearly one-tenth of America’s annual budget. To further exacerbate the negotiations, the Muslim nobleman shocked the two American negotiators by citing that in the Qu’ran it was written that “all Nations who should not have acknowledged their [the Muslims] authority were sinners, [and] that it was their right and duty [then] to make war upon [them] and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” Oren writes that Adams and Jefferson left the negotiations aghast.[2] (Two wars ensued (1801-1805 and 1815.)

Afterward, the diplomatic toolkit of the United States and the Cabinet remained without any sort of department of religion. It was a sign of the intellectual times. The European treaties of 1648, known as the Peace of Westphalia, had divided up and redistributed political power in Europe. With it, a tremendous worldview shift had begun that would fundamentally alter the relation of religion to European governments. The rise and institutionalization of the modern, western sovereign state had begun, in which the political life of the nation is divorced from any exercise of religious control. The so-called “secular state” emerged.

One result 125 years later was what international relations scholar Douglas Johnston calls “the rigorous separation” of church and state in America. Writing in Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, some eight years before 9/11, Johnston notes that the long and serious history of “separation” in the United States has by our day “desensitized many citizens to the fact that much of the rest of the world does not operate on a similar basis. Foreign policy practitioners, for instance, are often inadequately equipped to deal with situations involving other nation-states where the imperatives of religious doctrine blend intimately with those of politics and economics. At times, this has led to uninformed policy choices, especially in our dealings with countries in the Middle East.”[3]

the better angels of our natureThis conclusion from 1994, the year the book was published, would need to be footnoted today, to note some modifications in U.S. foreign policy that have slowing been occurring. In its international relations, Washington has been taking more systemically the roles that religious concerns, religious institutions, and religious actors may have in starting, sustaining, or ending international political tensions or conflicts.

That footnote has, in fact, become an entire book. Writing in 2003, Johnston and a team of scholars researched start-up initiatives begun by Washington to give religion a more official place in conflict analysis and political solutions. One such major initiative of the State Department was to establish the Office of International Religious Freedom in 1998, making Robert Seiple the first U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom.[4]

Nevertheless, turning the ship of state in the direction of religion goes slowly and is understandably tentative. Although “such measures show a growing awareness of religion’s political importance,” Johnston concludes, “religious imperatives have yet to be incorporated as a major consideration in U.S. foreign policy. They should be.”[5] Turning this corner, however, Washington cannot expect, nor can we as participating citizens expect, in just a few years to wisely overcome two hundred years of institutionalized predisposition against religious concerns in its foreign policy structure.

In order for this institutional shift in Washington to work itself out into normative foreign policy practice, the momentum must be sustained through concerted effort. Meanwhile, a clear understanding of this secular-religious problem in America’s relations with Middle East states is the first step toward solving it.

(See Part 2 here.)

FOOTNOTES

[1] Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), pp. 18-27, citing letters written by Adams and Jefferson.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 4-5.

[4] Douglas Johnston, Faith-based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 3.

[5] Ibid.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images via permissions from Creative Commons.

The Next U.S. President and the Iran Nuclear Deal

glass chess piecesThere are good and sufficient reasons for arguing for and against the nuclear agreement with Iran. Far too much ambiguity exists in human affairs, especially in international relations, to conclude in any absolute sense that either camp has nailed it. The optimists tend to applaud the deal. The pessimists tend to conclude that the deal has us stepping off the cliff. The former trust heavily in the good in human nature. The latter assume, to borrow a word from the field of theology, that human sin prevents reaching responsible compromises among adversaries.

And then there are the diplomats and negotiators. In the real world of international relations, with its perennial admixtures of the constructive and the destructive, they are tasked with finding ways wiser than war. The dilemma they face is called “the problem of peaceful change,” and they focus on finding responsible compromises to try to solve it. To put it in words from the New Testament, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Here, it is regrettably affirmed that in any given situation between individuals, peace may not be possible, yet one of the parties at least still must try. For peace may be possible.

If that is the predicament between individuals, and everyone knows that it is, then in predicaments between adversarial nations, efforts toward more peaceable agreements will be much more difficult. But finding wisdom for war prevention may be possible. This is what diplomats and negotiators are tasked to do. And so we now have, instead of war, the nuclear agreement with Iran.

There will be a new American president one year from now and a new Iranian president a year and a half later. Only God, and novelists, know the future. But the following “if … then” scenario seems a pretty sure bet. If the next U.S. president takes steps to pull us out of the nuclear agreement then the hardliners in Tehran will cry foul. They will say to Iran’s more moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose team negotiated the nuclear deal with the P5+1 nations, “We told you so. You can’t trust the United States.” And then the regime will most likely manipulate into office in 2018 a nightmare Iranian president.

The regime employed this very strategy ten years ago. As Trita Parsi explains at length in his book Treacherous Alliance, Tehran formally reached out to Washington in the spring of 2003 with a comprehensive proposal to start high-level talks on points of contention between the two nations, including about Iran’s nuclear program. But the George W. Bush administration immediately and rudely snubbed the reach out, despite the fact that Iran had been a key actor with the United States in ousting the Taliban and al Qaeda from power in Afghanistan. “An opportunity for a major breakthrough had been willfully wasted,” Paris writes. In Tehran, “the American nonresponse was perceived as an insult.”

The hardliners played the snub skillfully. They undermined the peaceable foreign policy initiatives that Iran’s then president, the more moderate Mohammad Khatami, had in place toward America. They excluded nearly every moderate political candidate from seeking seats in the next parliamentary elections. And they stacked the presidential deck in favor of the sophomore mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2005.

Mark Twain is reputed to have said that history may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme. Constitutionally, it would be possible through executive orders for the next America president to disrespect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear agreement is formally known. New U.S. sanctions could be introduced and the U.S. could withdraw from key committees that oversee the accord.

Of course neither the U.S. nor the other signatory nations to the deal should not sit passively by if Iran makes a habit of violating terms of the agreement, but harsh penalties are in place for dealing with such deceit.

Mr., or Ms., Next President, give the deal a chance. But go even further. Task diplomats and negotiators to use the deal to seek to better U.S. – Iran relations. Wisdom is better than weapons of war.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Neural, permission via Creative Commons.

This editorial was originally published in The Mountain Press, Sunday, November 1, 2015.

Charles Strohmer is a frequent writer on politics, religion, and international relations. He is the author of several books and many articles and is the founding director of The Wisdom Project.

A personal note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present on important issues of the day, 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 just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it here, tell some friends! Thank you.

The Idiot’s Guide to the Iran Nuclear Deal

Iran nuclear facility at ArakWe don’t live in a perfect world, and the Iran nuclear agreement is not a perfect deal. There’s also an old principle in negotiations that goes something like this: People who are not at the table think they are better negotiators than those around the table. We’ve been hearing that posturing in the news about the agreement, and on talk radio. Of course the deal deserves to be debated, and honest people are going to disagree about it. Fortunately, with the signing of the agreement (July 14), its details can be found on the Web, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and others who have actually been at the table, are now out and about everywhere explaining the deal.

As someone who has been writing about U.S. – Middle East relations for many years, and who believes that diplomacy is better than weapons of war, here are seven reasons why I think the nuclear agreement with Iran will make the world a little safer. And that’s a good thing.

(1) It is very telling that President Obama and respected, high-level supporters of the deal – including two dozen U.S. generals and not a few high-profile Israelis, not to mention those who negotiated the deal – have been much more publicly forthcoming about its risks and vulnerabilities than many of its detractors have been about its benefits and substantial achievements. (There are, however, sensible critics of the deal. They do not decry the deal in toto. Rather, they acknowledge its value, while arguing, for instance, to shore up vulnerabilities in the deal and thereby strengthen the agreement.)

(2) This is not an agreement between the United States and Iran. And multilateral diplomacy is not in the same ballpark as trying to settle an argument with your neighbor, or plan the next family vacation with your spouse, or negotiate with the prospective buyer of your house to clinch the sale, or hammer out a difficult new policy on the library board. This is about negotiating nations. At the table are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany. (The so-called P5+1.) Six world powers; five are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Plus Iran.

To hear some people talk, it’s as if the United States has some sort of magnetic hold on China, France, Russia, the U.K., and Germany that can move them withersoever it wills. That’s crazy thinking. Those five sovereign international stake holders, plus Iran, all brought to the process their own national and security interests. All of that went into the mix, tumbled around, and was determinative of outcomes – from the pre-negotiations that got them all to the table in the first place, to securing agendas and procedures, to the actual talks, to the publicity and the deadlines, to the signing of the agreement. It was a huge achievement. With Iran’s national and security interest pulling against the P5+1, and because this was true at times even among the P5+1 nations, none of those outcomes was guaranteed.

(3) The deal should be seen as vital in the (still ongoing) diplomatic recovery of the United States. The path to recovery has been long and tedious and necessary, due in no small measure to the severe damage inflicted on America’s reputation by the Bush administration’s imprudent snub of Tehran’s diplomatic reach-out to Washington in the spring of 2003. The recovery has taken more than a decade and a new approach to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, especially toward Iran, and led by a White House that is willing and able to talk, really talk, to adversaries (not make absolutized demands as preconditions for talks).

Iran uranium conversion plant at IsfahanIf, as many of its detractors want to see happen, the United States walks away from the Iran nuclear accord – which the seven nations’ emissaries have worked tirelessly, in sickness and in health, to forge – it will miserably depress the diplomatic recovery and U.S. credibility will suffer terribly in the international community. America’s good faith will be called into question, big time, and that would usher in an era of international relations that will not be good for Americans or for the rest of world.

(4) Diplomacy and negotiations are better than weapons of war. It may surprise many Americans to know that conservative Republican foreign policy toward the Middle East has been adjusting and adapting itself to the discredited political ideology of neoconservatism that was prominent in White House policymaking decisions about the Middle East during the first term of the George W. Bush administration.

Neoconservatism does not know how to negotiate with adversaries, and it does not favor diplomacy with Iran but, rather, military action. The political shift of many Congressional conservatives to this strategy can be heard in their broken-record, militaristic language about how the U.S. should deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

Pay attention to the language of Republican presidential candidates, not to mention that of liberal hawks, when they talk about their approach to U.S. foreign policy toward Iran. The absorption and promotion of neoconservative foreign policy into the worldview of American conservatism is little understood, alarmingly so.

(5) Diplomatically in the world, fifteen years is long time. Without the Iran nuclear accord, Iran is only a few months away from “breakout time” – the length of time it would need to produce one nuclear weapon. The deal, however, curbs Iran’s nuclear activities in ways that push breakout to around one year, for fifteen years. The year 2030, however, has left many fearful because by then breakout could be back to a few months.

But fifteen years is a long time. By then, Iran’s international actions may have shown a steady posture of coming out of the cold. The world may find an Iran that has not been cheating or kicking out the inspectors. The P5+1 plus Iran may have pulled together on one or two other significant issues. Iran’s government or interests may change. Who knows? In other words, that fifteen years may – please God – buy the world lot of good. If so, how can that be a bad deal? Alternatively, if Iran begins gearing up to produce a nuclear weapon, the P5+1 will have had time to gain additional wisdom for deciding what to do about that threat, and by sustaining its international credibility the United States will have accrued a lot of clout in the decision making.

Iran uranium enrichment plant @ Qom (BBC)(6) The Middle East has become a fragile region. Without this nuclear deal, it is probable that extremely negative consequences that make the region more unstable will arise not far down the road. On the other hand, the Iran nuclear agreement could become the leaven for a wider strategy that makes the Middle East a safer place. With Iran’s nuclear behavior restrained, Israel should calm down some, and the Arab Gulf states should be less nervous and less inclined to seek their own nuclear weapons. Although it is unlikely that Persian Iran and the Arab states will any time soon drop their enmity, the nuclear deal may help them to cooperate against common enemies such as the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

(7) If Congress votes to “disapprove” the agreement (a vote is scheduled for September), and if President Obama does not follow through on his promise to veto that vote, we would get the worst of all worlds. Iran will be the beneficiary of the lost deal, the U.S. the bad guy, with Russia and China rushing in to fill the vacuum, and the world will see not a united but a divided America on this extraordinary achievement. And even if the agreement stands, the next President could have enough domestic political support to pull the U.S. out of the deal, or to make U.S. support of the deal so unrealistically conditional as to become untenable.

Conclusion. If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends but your adversaries. War does not resolve international problems. Diplomacy and negotiations accomplish that. If you agree with this editorial, now is the time to write or email your representative in Congress and tell him or her to vote to “approve” the Iran nuclear agreement. It is not based on trust but verification. It is currently the wisest available way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. The world will be better off with the agreement than without it.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Addendum: A couple of days after I wrote the above article, I read a piece in The Atlantic explaining how Iran could derail the nuclear deal.

Charles Strohmer is a frequent writer on politics, religion, and international relations. He is the author of several books and many articles and is the founding director of The Wisdom Project.

Top image: Iran’s heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak (AP). Middle image: uranium conversion plant at Isfahan (Alamy). Lower image: uranium enrichment plant at Qom (BBC).

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

An Imperfect Nuclear Deal with Iran: What Else?

Kerry & Zarif at the tableYou only have to glance at news headlines in recent days to see that the nuclear deal with Iran raised as many tough questions as it solved. Jubilant Iranians in Tehran danced in the streets after the April 2 announcement while Iranian hardliners criticized the deal. In America, Republican presidential hopefuls were everywhere in the media voicing their opposition while President Obama explained his support of the deal to Thomas Friedman at the White House. In Israel, some editorials cautiously favored the deal while Benjamin Netanyahu stated plainly that the deal threatened Israel’s survival. The mix of opinions and emotions ranged far and wide and the wrangling won’t go away anytime soon.

Now that a solid interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has been reached between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany), the parties will bump along toward the June 30 signing deadline. As they do, during the next twelve weeks you’re going to hear high-level critics and defenders of the deal abuzz in the media, locked in a fiercely pitched verbal battle arguing their cases and trying to increase public and political support for their side.

Behind all the pushing and shoving, of course, is the question of whether this is a good deal? We all want to know the answer to this. And the only way to know – let’s be honest – is to understand the nuts and bolts of the agreement. But let’s face it, most of us don’t have the specialized technical and scientific nuclear training required for that kind of knowing. Even if we did, it will only be after the signing, perhaps well into the future, before we will know whether this was a good deal. The unpredictability of domestic and international politics, if not the intentions of a signatory, can scuttle even a good deal after it has been implemented. And there are other possibilities. The signing deadline might be pushed into the future or it may never take place.

Meantime, before June 30, as the final very technical details are being resolved (that is the goal), you will be hearing from supporters and naysayers about issues such as the upsides and downsides of the inspections, the break-out time line, the sunset clause, sanctions relief, Iran’s ballistic missiles, and an array of other strengths and deficiencies of the agreement. We will also be hearing that the deal doesn’t do a thing stop Iran from bankrolling terrorism or from quashing human rights. But diplomats, negotiators, and deal signers know that you’ve got to start somewhere.

Iranian workers at nucelar plantWho, then, are we to believe? What are we to think about this? It seems so murky. And what about trusting Iran? But the deal is not based on trust, President Obama said, but on an “unprecedented verification” inspections regime. Everyone will have to make up their own mind about the agreement. My advice during the coming weeks would be to listen chiefly and carefully to the hopeful but cautious supporters of the agreement who also admit to and discuss its weaknesses. Ignore the critics who have nothing good to say about the agreement.

No deal is going to cover all the bases, never mind being perfect. And if in the end, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say, does not accept it, the deal will not be signed by Iran. Despite all the uncertainties that remain, what we’re getting is far batter that what anyone anticipated when the current round of serious, high-level talks commenced in February 2013. (Diplomacy is often protracted, intense, and boring, with deals emerging after all-nighters and a lot of coffee. Iran and the P5+1 have been in various levels of talks about Iran’s nuclear program since June 2006.)

What we’re getting is basically an arms control agreement. Iran has agreed to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. If the agreement is in good measure successful, it will be historic, not only because it would help usher Iran back into the community of nations or because it would be a giant step toward ending the thirty-five-year-old cold war between the United States and Iran.

If successful, the framework of the pact could also be used to break the pattern of nuclear proliferation that has been taking place since World War Two (think India, Pakistan, North Korea). Thinking paradigmatically, the agreement with Iran could be a template for preventing nuclear proliferation. And that would be historic.

There are only two options to this deal. One option is increased and stricter sanctions, which would destabilize the region even more. The other is bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would certainly be the prelude to another U.S. war in the region. So there is the stark reality: the deal, stricter sanctions, or war. Given the likely ramifications of the latter two options, this agreement is a significant accomplishment and probably the best alternative.

Iran and P5+1 nego table (uncredited photo)There are good and sufficient reasons, therefore, for welcoming this arms control agreement, despite its imperfection. Differences remain on both sides and must be resolved for the June 30 signing, and both sides want to see the deal improved in their favor before its signing. So much wrangling will take place around the table also. Who knows what the outcome of this final stage of negotiations will be? Only novelists know the future.

It is not the done thing in foreign policy circles to ask for prayers. The secularism of the circle rules that out. But if you are a praying person, you might want to pray that the agreement will be successful. It seems like a reasonable deal. The space that the diplomats have worked tirelessly to create for the world on this crucial issue is so much better than an Iran with nukes.

Outcomes cannot be guaranteed and troubling concerns will remain unanswered on June 30. But wisdom has a vital interest in seeing international relations established on mutual ground for mutual good amid their diversity. Wisdom is better than weapons of war.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Here is the full text of the April 2 agreement.

Here is President Obama’s very forthright discussion with Thomas Friedman about the June 30 agreement.

Here is a series of in-depth posts – they start here – about what turns out to be the surprising history of U.S. – Iran relations since 1979.

Top photo courtesy of Press TV. Center photo courtesy of IIPA via Ghetty. Lower photo courtesy ICHR Iran.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

“WAR NO MORE”

skill in wisdom

“When a maestro conducts a symphony, which of course the composer ‘heard’ in his or her head first, the symphony depends on each instrument doing its own work in keeping with its own distinctive character, and as close to a perfected art as possible. There can be no reduction of all instruments to some homogeneous totality. The very nature of musical meaning is that it is precisely many distinctive sounds (on the scale) and many distinctive kinds of instruments (playing with each other), blending, doing counterpoint, and all the rest to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.”

Those words are from Jim Skillen. Some years ago we were talking about the kind of justice that must exist between peoples internationally if peace among nations is to be achieved. Jim said that he had been thinking about this, “trying to find an image to capture the sense of a larger communal whole.” He came up with symphonic justice.

With so much war ongoing in our world for thirteen straight years, and which shows no signs of ending but of becoming increasingly worse, it almost seems abnormal to think about orchestrating peace. But we must. We must. And we must not only think about it. We must engage in orchestrating peace sans weapons of war if there is to be any hope of reversing the trend.

Sometimes when I get overwhelmed by it all, I turn to music, so I leave you today with this, an exceptional five-minute music video: War/No More Trouble.

Someone heard it in his head first, saw the possibilities, arranged it with like-minded others, and then put it out there for all to learn what is possible. I hope it inspires you as it always does me. (Heads up – You actually need to watch the video, not just listen to the song, if you want to experience the full force of what is possible.)

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image via permission of Creative Commons.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.