Christ the Editor

pen, poem, and inkI’ve been thinking again about a peculiar collection of poems that God is writing, and about how great poems get written.

Just as every note in a musical score is significant, every word in a poem tells, and tells significantly. And it does not line up that way by chance or sloth. Poetry, with its compact, exact language and precise punctuation, may be the most carefully crafted and painstakingly written, and edited, form of communication. Poets will fight tooth and nail with a publisher over placement of a comma. And long before that, poets, at least the best of them, may die a thousands deaths over just one poem. Without a will to erase, add, move, or revise lines, to puzzle perhaps for hours over the right word, image, or phrase – then decide to leave it as is – and then to run through the process again, and then again, you just don’t get ascending poetry.

Back in the days of the Greek epic poet Homer (eight centuries before Christ), pieces crafted from metal were called poiēma, a word derived from poiēo, which was a basic term for all kinds of craftsmanship. Within a few centuries, around the time of Plato, poiēma in Greek literature had developed into a word that often denoted what we today would call artistic work, including the work of someone who wrote a book or a play. Plato and others after him also used poiēma especially of poetical works. Quite easily, then, the early church pressed poiēo into service in New Testament Greek to indicate God’s works as creator and redeemer and Jesus’ works and deeds.

So along comes the literate St. Paul, apostle to the Greeks, or Gentiles (as he is called). Paul has a knack for raising the stakes of the common language of his day, as he does with poiēma. In the context of what it means for the believer to be saved by grace through faith in Christ, Paul says, “We are God’s poiēma,” which English translators typically render: “We are God’s workmanship,” or God’s “handiwork,” or God’s “masterpiece.” (I think the latter is the most accurate rendering in this context, Ephesians 2:10.)

The apostle has involved us in a little wordplay here. I don’t mean that we should get all sentimental and call for a new translation: “We are God’s poems.” But we do get our English word “poem” from poiēma. So we have good reason for meditating on the implications of what it means by God’s grace to be God’s poems. You can bet Paul was.

For God’s poiēma, the editorial process began when we submitted our stories to Jesus the Editor, for consideration to be published. Submission is the hard part. We have worked so terribly hard, and for such a long time, on our own stories. And we’re so proud of them. If anyone tries to touch them, look out! So we’re deathly afraid of editors. There may be too much we are going to have to part with, or they may not even like our stories. Never mind that, as any seasoned writer will tell you, working with a skilled editor makes for the emergence of an ascending story.

antique penAfter submission, the editor says, “I like what you’ve got in mind, but there’s stuff we’ve got to work on, correct a few lines, polish it up here and there, if you want to publish with us. Still interested?” Crumbs. More hard work! But what other choice is there if you you want to get published and read. Sure, you could submit elsewhere, but you’ve already done that and nobody else has come even close to the contract that this publisher has offered.

What to do? “Don’t worry,” the editor says. “I’ll save your story for you. I know what to do. I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ll get those flaws out of it. But you’ll need to leave it with me for a while. I’ll get to work on it and then send it back to you for some revisions. But you may need to delete some bits and add some new material, change a few things around here and there, which, by the way, may take you some time. But we will be working on this together. Don’t worry. And thanks for the submission.”

When your story arrives back in your hands you nearly faint dead away. You had no idea! Such extensive surgery. This is going to take time. Yet as you follow the Editor’s guidelines and margin notes, you start to gain a new intuition, which says, yes, this makes perfect sense now. This is the way it should be.

You make the changes and resubmit it. Further drafts of your story then pass back and forth, and you’re sometimes elated at the editor’s work, sometimes deflated. Man, this is taking longer than I thought. When will it be finished? When will it be published so that everyone can read it?

“Patience,” Christ the Editor responds. “You’re making good progress, but we’ve still got a few wrinkles to iron out. You have a tendency to get ahead of yourself or fall behind or forget about a change that’s been made. And your still inclined to insist on keeping material from the old story.

“I know it’s slow and painful at times. I get that. But keep in mind that I’ve already been sending parts of your story around for reviews and, as you know, they’re being well-received. So hang in there. You want that masterpiece I promised, don’t you?

“So when will you have that next draft ready for me?”

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Jonathan Blocker and Fantomette, respectively (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 and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” Whenever I publish a new post, you will then receive a very short email notice. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell some friends! Thank you.


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 seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here, 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.

President Obama, Symbolic Power, Paris, and Public Perception

Paris march millions Every picture tells a story. Finally, instead of more excuses from the Obama administration about why the President was MIA among the world leaders at the Paris unity-against-terrorism March on Sunday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday afternoon that “we should have sent someone with a higher profile to the event.”

All day long Monday, images poured into and out of the media of the million+ people who had quietly gathered in the Place de la Nation Square to show the world’s solidarity for the victims of the Paris terrorist attack. At the head of the marching throng were pictured 40 world leaders walking arm-in-arm. But what many saw was: Where is the President of the United States?

Too short of a notice to get the President there, said the White House, given all the high security measures that would have been needed. It would have disrupted this important event.

And yet, there was British Prime Minister David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and the King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the others. Their security teams pulled off their attendance on short notice.

Paris march world leadersWorse, the scene lacked the presence of any top U.S. officials. That also stared everyone in the face. No U.S. Vice-President. No Secretary of State. Even Attorney General Eric Holder, who had been at a summit on terrorism in Paris that morning, did not take part. There were no senior cabinet officials either. Only U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley and her staff were present.

Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s “Global Public Square,” called the absence of top U.S. officials a “pathetic” mistake. I agree. “I thought this was why God invented Vice-Presidents,” Zakaria quipped.

It’s true that the states represented their by their leaders at the Paris march don’t give a wit about the symbolic “message of the missing president.” The U.S. has been, is now, and shall remain adamantly united with them in their anti-terrorism policies. These leaders know that. Certainly France isn’t fussed about the symbolic message. After the Paris attack last week, President Obama made it a point to reassure French President Hollande of America’s solid partnership with its old ally France on the anti-terrorism front.

Nevertheless, emotional symbols in foreign affairs, like doctrines and explanations, play roles outside the corridors of a state’s power, where they can evoke public responses that can settle in and alter perception. The Paris solidarity march carries such a high degree of symbolism that President Obama’s absence was a glaring image that negatively affected world opinion. For a state that lacks the street cred it had in the world before the war about Iraq, it was indeed a pathetic mistake.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Top photo, AP. Bottom photo, Reuters.

Beyond the Mysterious Star of Bethlehem

star in blue skyI forsook casting horoscopes many decades ago when I became a Christian. Never once have I regretted that change of life, which began the day that I was transformed from being a worshiper of the stars to a worshiper of the God who made the stars. As a Christian, however, I took a serious interest in one star, the star of Bethlehem. Astrologers have all sorts of esoteric views about that star. So as a Christian who accepts the authority of the Bible, I made it a point to try to understand from Matthew’s Gospel just what was going on with this star.

Many people, including many Christians, typically seek to understand the star from strictly naturalist theories, which we considered in the previous post. But naturalism, we saw, is not enough. Theories to explain the star of Bethlehem that depend solely on novas, comets, conjunctions of planets, or on any other natural phenomenon, do not and cannot account for the faith to worship Christ the King that explains the experience of the magi.

But something else often niggled me and I could not put my finger on it. Then it occurred to me. From a close reading of Matthew chapter two, it became clear that naturalism cannot explain the ontology of the star itself, which seems almost personal. It seems to have a mind of its own. In other words, any strictly naturalistic explanation is inadequate because it cannot account for certain “unnatural” characteristics of the star.

In Matthew 2:7-9, for example, the star “appeared” at a particular time to the magi while they were in their homeland (probably Persia). Later, while the magi were on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the star “went ahead” of them “until it stopped.” And it did not stop randomly anywhere, like a car running out of fuel. It “stood over “ (AV) “the place where the child was.” Within the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus, it seems reasonable to conclude that this kind of behavior cannot be attributed to a strictly natural phenomenon. Here is a kind of personal agency, one that sets the star off as something quite “other” than any heavenly phenomenon governed exclusively by natural laws. As described in Matthew, the star seems as supernatural as the angels who appeared to the shepherds at Christ’s birth (Luke 2:8-15).

Personal agency of the star can also be deduced from the original language quoted in the above paragraph. The New Testament Greek word for “appeared” includes meanings associated with a shining light and, occasionally, for the appearance of an angel, such as to Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19). It is a term, therefore, that can be used of forms of luminous bodies other than literal stars. The word is also used of Jesus when he “appeared,” seemingly from nowhere, to his closest followers after his resurrection (Mark 16:9, 12, 14).

The verb “went ahead” is a peculiar construction in the Greek, used only a half dozen times in the New Testament, usually for “to lead” in a deliberate way. For example, a crowd is leading Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9) or Jesus is leading his disciples to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). And the word “stopped” is used numerous times in the New Testament to describe people who have made a conscious decision to stop whatever they were doing to stand still (Matthew 20:32; 27:11; Mark 10:49). All of this is to say that the idea of personal intention and purpose is implied in the nature of the star.

Just as faith is part of the magi’s experience, so is the personal ontology of the star of Bethlehem. Both are necessary aspects. Both are keys to making sense of the story, from first to last.

The star appears in the East and gets the magi going to Jerusalem. It is probable that these wise men knew, or had access to, the Hebrew scriptures, and upon seeing the unusual star they referenced it to Balaam’s prophecy about the Messiah, recorded in the book of Numbers, hundreds of years before Christ’s birth: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (24:17). Traditionally, this was treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine Ruler to come. (See also Jeremiah 23:5-6.)

Arriving at Jerusalem – the heart of Israel’s religious life – the magi receive further biblical instruction, as their announcement about a new king of the Jews having been born raises havoc throughout the ancient city. Eventually, in King Herod’s presence, the rabbis tell the magi that anyone knows where this king is to be born. Why, what’s the big deal, they ask? Well, we saw his star in the East, they reply, and we’ve come to worship him. But we don’t know where to find him.

Mdina streetSo the rabbis crack the books and point out a prophecy in Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times” (5:2). From the Bible they now have the name of the town, which is just several miles south of Jerusalem.

But there’s a huge problem. They don’t have the address. A close reading of the story seems to indicate that Jesus may not have been at the birth-manger by the time of the magi’s arrival. It could have been days or weeks, if not months, or even a year or two, later. There is not scholarly consensus on this. So who knows where Jesus is? The star knows. From a close reading it also seems likely that the star had disappeared for a while and now appeared again to lead the magi to the very place where Jesus was. And there they worshiped him.

Another often overlooked important point is that to get to Jesus the magi are following Scripture, not the stars. They followed Balaam’s prophecy to Jerusalem. They followed Micah’s prophecy to Bethlehem. And then after they find Jesus they take instruction directly from God. Which brings us to a final thought.

Having been warned by God in a dream that they should not go back to Jerusalem to see Herod, they return to their country “another way.” This little phrase – ”another way”– is for me a third key on the ring, with faith and the star’s personal ontology, to the mystery of the message. The message of the magi and the star of Bethlehem is that of “another way” (AV), the way of Christ. To enter that way, faith and divine revelation are required. The wise are no exception.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Riccardo Francesconi & M. Peinado respectively (Permission via Creative Commons)

The Star of Bethlehem + Faith = Worship

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAStories about the magi and the star of Bethlehem (Matthew’s Gospel, chapter two) have fascinated people for two thousand years. Theories have abounded since the rise of modern astronomy in the seventeenth century. It was a very bright light – a supernova, or a comet, or a meteor, or a rare conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. Whatever it was, the magi saw an unusual heavenly phenomena and interpreted it to mean that Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews, had been born.

Is it just me, or does there seem to be more interest in the star this year than ever before? There are even some documentaries on the Web making the rounds, dedicated to the “science” of the star. Speaking of which, I just read a news story in Christianity Today (Dec. 2014) about yet another astronomer, Michael Molnar, who claims to have really figured it out. Molnar is also a coin collector who had only a mild interest in the star until he was investigating the symbolism of an ancient coin he had purchased, minted in Antioch in the early first century.

After sussing the coin’s symbolism, Molar had a hunch that a serious rethink was needed about the star of Bethlehem. The research then spun him off into both the astronomical and the astrological heavens, where the star, it seemed to him, was not any sort of bright heavenly light or a conjunction of planets. Instead, it was a much more modest phenomenon, albeit a rare one: The moon, viewed from Earth, was passing in front of Jupiter in the astrological sign of Aries. Molnar concluded that the magi, upon seeing that and knowing that Jupiter symbolized royalty, and knowing Micah 5:2 – out of Bethlehem a ruler of Israel will come – pulled all these threads together to mean the birth of Christ, the king of the Jews. They then set out on their arduous journey, far from Jerusalem, to worship him.

I’m not knocking astronomical theories. After all, it is the job of astronomers to investigate heavenly phenomenon; someday a consensus may emerge on the science of the star of Bethlehem. Who knows? But even if that consensus is reached, it will not be the science that accounts for the experience and actions of the magi. Science cannot account for the “Aha!” moment of divine revelation that awakens a person to the recognition of who Jesus Christ is.

star in blue skyEven the best of science will leave us at sixes and sevens about Jesus’ identity. Even when Jesus himself was present on earth – when he was heard, seen, and touched – when his doctor could examine him – even that to-hand physicality was not what revealed his identity, about which all sorts of views abounded. Who do people say that I am?, Jesus once asked his disciples. Some say you’re John the Baptist, they said. Some say Elijah. Others say Jeremiah or another prophet. Ask people today and they will say he was a good man, or a wise man, or a teacher, or a healer and miracle worker.

“But what about you?” Jesus asked them. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter, having one of his better days, answered: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:15-17).

It was this divine revelation about Christ’s identity to the magi that explains their experience and actions upon seeing the “star of Bethlehem.” Divine revelation was part of the mix. Apart from that, the star, or whatever it was, would certainly have been a fascinating phenomenon to the magi, but no way do they make the arduous journey hundreds of miles to Jerusalem to worship Christ (Matthew 2:2).

It takes that revelation of God to worship Christ the King, as people have discovered for themselves down through the centuries in countlessly varied contexts in which the physical science is secondary. Rabbi Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus. St. Augustine, in a garden in Milan. John Wesley, in a church meeting in Aldersgate. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while imprisoned in the Gulag. C. S. Lewis, in his digs at Magdalen College. Mine, in a hotel room in southern California.

Where are you, physically, today, in this season of the star? Worshiping Christ the King or unsure of his identity? If the latter, the experience and actions of the magi awaits you through faith. I invite you to pray for that divine revelation.

Concluded in the next post

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by withrow & Riccardo Francesconi respectively (permission via Creative Commons)


U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel listen during the G7 Summit working dinner in BrusselsThis week, Germany expelled the CIA’s top spy in Berlin. It was called an “extraordinary escalation” in the espionage confrontation between two close allies, which began with last summer’s revelation that the NSA was spying on its European allies (No!). Thank you very much Ed Snowden, whose cache of stolen NSA documents may possibly outlast the staying power of the Energizer Bunny®.

Shock. Anger. Breach of trust. All of this and more was felt by the German public last year. A formal investigation was launched, and now the expulsion, apparently for political reasons surrounding lingering public outrage in Germany at the United States.

What shocked me when the original story broke last year, and no doubt it shocked you too, was the disingenuous outrage of the European leaders themselves. Friends and allies spying on each other? That’s a surprise? To those in the corridors of power? Come on. They’ve read their John LeCarré.

The scene is the paneled library of Sarratt, LeCarré’s fictional school for British spies, who this evening, in candlelight, are being regaled by true stories from the guest of honor, the inimitable George Smiley, once Britain’s top spy, now retired. It’s the end of the Cold War. The students are graduating, and the usually secretive Smiley is being an exception his own rule, revealing instructive incidents from his legendary career – mind you, in a room where no recorders are running, no notes are being taken, and no official reference afterward my be made to what was said.

It’s now after dinner. Smiley’s introductory remarks about the globe and its spies are going down with the port, and now the questions are coming – about interrogations, about loyalties, about colonialism, about running joes, about espionage …. Then a challenge from Clare, seemingly about journalists but really a hint that spying may be a dying profession now that the Cold War has ended. Why bother with spying at all? she asks Smiley. Nine times out of ten a good journalist can tell us quite as much as the spies can.

True, says Smiley, “very often they’re sharing the same sources anyway. So why not scrap the spies and subsidize the newspapers? It’s a point that should be answered in these changeable times. Why not? It’s perfectly true that most of our work is either useless, or duplicated by overt sources. The trouble is, the spies aren’t there to enlighten the public, but governments. And governments, like everyone else, trust what they pay for, and are suspicious of what they don’t.”

Then quickly to the deeper issue. “Spying is eternal,” Smiley continues. “If governments could do without it, they never would. They adore it. If the day ever comes when there are no enemies left in the world, governments will invent them, so don’t worry. Besides – who says we only spy on enemies? You’re chosen profession is perfectly secure, I can assure you.”

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Sarratt story from John LeCarré’s The Secret Pilgrim

Image from Reuters


Surprised? Friday night (June 13) on the Charlie Rose television program, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, laid out a case for the United States and Iran to work together to fight back ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in Iraq. Saturday, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani publicly announced that Iran would consider joining forces with the United States to combat ISIS in Iraq. Today (June 16), Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States is open to “any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together.” Despite the core ideological differences between the two governments and their heated polemics toward each other in recent times this should not be happening, right? Frenemies? Iran and America? But this is not the first time in recent years that the two have worked together. Let me tell you a story.

Iran governemt buildingQuietly begun by the UN in 1997, the so-called Six plus Two talks included Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, plus the United States and Russia. The purpose of the talks was to quietly discuss dealing with the Taliban’s solidification of power over Afghanistan and the increasing violence among warring factions in that country. Shiite Iran, in particualr, had a deep stake in these talks. The Taliban movement, not to mention Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network in Afghanistan, were ultrafundamentalist Sunni Muslims who posed a real and present danger to neighboring Iran, with its very long eastern border with Afghanistan. Also,  droves of Afghan refugees were fleeing Taliban rule for Iran.

The Iran – U.S. narrative now begins to sound like a John LeCarré novel. Soon after 9/11, Iran, in definitive way through its considerable resources, began helping the CIA and the U.S. military to oust al Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan. Iran was a major supporter of the Northern Alliance, a motley group of anti-Taliban forces who were already at war with the Taliban and who now became the chief U.S. ally in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban. A tentative partnership that already existed between Iran and the Northern Alliance was helpful to the U.S. in its own partnership with the NA. Iran also agreed to allow any U.S. pilots who were in distress to land on Iranian soil, if necessary, and it agreed to all the U.S. to perform search-and-rescue missions for downed American pilots on its soil. Iran also increased its troop strength along the long Iran – Afghanistan border and, according to Trita Parsi, it sent a dossier to UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan on hundreds of al Qaeda operatives Iran had detained (Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.).

In October or November 2001, the Six plus Two forum had discreetly spun off one on one talks between Tehran and Washington to focus on closer cooperation about Afghanistan. Barbara Slavin writes that more than a dozen secret meetings were held among a small, select group of high-level U.S. and Iranian diplomats until the Bush administration rudely snubbed Iran in May 2003. These secret meetings, she writes, were cordial and professional and alternated between Geneva and Paris, often taking place in a hotel bar where the diplomats would chat over nonalcoholic drinks and potato chips. Parsi notes that the talks were dubbed the Geneva Channel and that the discussions were bilateral and at the highest level between officials of the two countries since the Iran-Contra scandal (Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation). The talks included U.S. ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalizad (both were senior Bush officials) and high-level Iranian diplomats.

Meanwhile, on November 12, 2001, the Six plus Two group happened to be meeting at the UN in New York City when American Airlines flight 587 crashed into a densely populated neighborhood in Queens shortly after taking off from JFK airport. Slavin writes in Bitter Friends that the assembled diplomats at first assumed another terrorist attack. She also reports that Karmal Kharrazi, Iran’s foreign minister, handwrote onto his prepared remarks the following words to a member of the U.S. delegation: “‘The United States should know that the Iranian people and the Iranian government stand with the United States in its time of need and absolutely condemn these violent terrorist attacks’.” Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, in New York City attending the annual UN General Assembly meetings, told reporters that he hoped “this bitter event will be the last we will have, and that terrorism and hate will be replaced by coexistence, empathy, logic, and dialogue.”

Iran then proved to be crucial to the success of the Bonn Conference in December 2001, where, under UN auspices, an international delegation met with prominent Afghan leaders to decide on a plan for governing Afghanistan, which had been without a nationally-agreed upon government since 1979. According to Parsi in Treacherous Alliance, Washington and Tehran had laid the groundwork for the conference weeks in advance, and that at the conference it was the Iranian not the U.S. delegation which pointed out that the draft of the Bonn Declaration, which would create the new government, as yet contained no language on democracy. Slavin agrees that Iran played a very supportive role at the Bonn Conference in the diplomatic area. It was Iran, she writes, that suggested that the draft communiqué call for democracy in Afghanistan and declared that the new government should not harbor terrorists.

Parsi concludes that it was Iran’s influence over the Afghans, not America’s threats and promises, that moved the negotiations forward right up to the end of conference. This was a crucial moment because of a final sticking point with the Northern Alliance about the high number of seats it should hold in the new government. This could not be resolved and nearly scuttled reaching a final agreement, Parsi writes, then noting that it was Iran’s lead negotiator, Javad Zarif, who broke the deadlock, but only by taking the Afghan delegate aside and whispering to him in Persian. A few minutes later they returned to the table, the Northern Alliance inexplicably having agreed to give up two of the seats it wanted in the new government. (Zarif is now Rouhani’s foreign minister.)

the white houseFor Iran, its enemy the Taliban had been defeated. For the United States, its relations with Iran had become less adversarial. Both governments had demonstrated to each other how they could benefit from an improved bilateral better relationship. This historic season of cooperation between the two adversaries, which had been taking place in other ways since 1997, did not go unnoticed at the Powell State Department, where it was hoped that the common interests that both countries had shared in Afghanistan could be expanded to other areas.

Then Secretary of State Colin Powell was arguing for this at the White House, against adamant opposition from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The evening of September 11, 2001, for instance, Powell and a team of close advisors had worked through the night to produce a diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan. It immediately became central to U.S. plans in its war on terrorism. Parsi writes that the plans included initiating the kind of cooperation with Iran that would be used as a platform for persuading Tehran to move beyond its tactical help into a positive strategic relationship with Washington. Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan after 9/11 had made its strategic help at least something worth talking about with Iran.

With Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan paying off, the Powell State Department pushed for a strategic opening with Iran. Powell, Richard Armitage (Powell’s deputy), and Larry Wilkerson (Powell’s chief of staff) had been trying to build a proactive policy toward Iran, but, as Slavin writes, the three faced continual ferocious opposition from Rumsfeld, Vice-president Dick Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. President George W. Bush however, would begin to scotch that possibility in his 2002 State of the Union address, when he included “Iran” in his “axis of evil” (with Iraq and North Korea).

In May 2003, the Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz cabal had succeeded in killing the Powell strategy. President Khatami, despite Bush’s axis of evil speech, was still trying to build better relations with the U.S., and he had persuaded the Iranian regime to take a huge risk in the direction. The regime sent a formal diplomatic letter to the Bush administration seeking the start of direct high-level talks on a wider array of issues crucial to improving the bilateral relations.

The unprecedented offer was immediately rebuffed by the Bush White House, and the ultrafundamentalists in Tehran quickly used the snub to undermine the credibility of Khatami, his team, and other reformist politicians who had been sticking their necks out since 1997 for friendlier relations with the United States. And the rest, as they say, is history, beginning with another surprise election, that of the radical and controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in June 2005.

“This is where things get into the land of the unbelievable,” Haass admitted to Rose.
“We’re going to be on the same side as Iran helping the Iraqi government…. As crazy as this sounds, the moment may have come.” Or, as that great political prophet Mark Twain once said, “History may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme.” The question is, What is the end rhyme?

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Stefan Krasowski and Adam_Inglis, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

Why Did Putin Grab Crimea?

international relationsRight after the Russian military invaded Crimea, seasoned diplomat Nicholas Burns  described Vladimir Putin as yet another of Russia’s innumerable chess grandmasters – it’s just that Putin is moving an army around in a real game. Burns, a presidential adviser as far back as the George H. W. Bush White House, sees it geopolitically as “chess showdown.” He then suggests long-term strategic moves that President Obama and his European allies can make to counter Putin’s move into Crimea. His hope is these moves will outmaneuver Putin “from domination of the Ukraine by the match’s end.”

I disagree, however, with his view that the “Ukraine crisis has become the most complex and dangerous international challenge of Obama’s presidency.” Not Iran? With Syria, possibly Pakistan, a close second? And why does he believe that Putin’s move into Crimea was the “opening gambit” in this particular game? It seems likely that Putin has been trying to figure out a way to gather Crimea back under the wings of mother Russia for a long time. (Khrushchev gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.) If so, and if Putin is indeed a chess grandmaster, then surely he has been making quiet moves in that direction for some time.

So let’s look at the board. Putin’s first calculated, very open move seems to have taken place last autumn when he was exerting a ton of public pressure on Ukraine’s President Yanukovych not to sign Ukraine’s association of unity agreement with the EU. But Yanukovych succumbed, huge protests arose in Ukraine, and he was voted out of office in February. Suddenly Crimea’s large Russian population was in an uproar and looking to Putin for a response to the unfolding situation, and Washington then amped up its grumbling about Putin’s designs on Ukraine.

But Crimea had wanted to secede from Ukraine for two decades. Does anyone really believe that Putin had not been talking quietly to the leaders of Crimea about annexation? The Russian military invasion of Crimea in March and Russia’s immediate subsequent annexing of Crimea, I believe, were a good many moves into Putin’s game.

But what game are we talking about? Putin wanted Crimea and calculated he could use Ukraine as a feint to get it – that game. But why this game? The chess metaphor may be useful to a degree, but like its cousin, the so-called billiard ball theory of international relations, it cannot answer why. Insofar as the game does show where a piece ends up positioned on the board, it shows the logic of how this particular game of the power politics is being played, in this case by Putin, but the other player does not know, at least not in any but the most obvious next moves, what moves will next be made before they are made or why Putin wanted to play this game in the first place.

Of course, no man knoweth the thoughts of man except the spirit of a man that is in him. But here is my best guess about why play this game now. It is about perceptions.

  1. As a Russian, Putin has deep sympathies with Russian societies, not just in Russia but throughout Eurasia, and he perceives them in need of a big bear hug from mother Russia.
  2. He perceives the international distribution of power since the end of the Cold War as terribly one-sided and Russia must rectify this imbalance of power;
  3. He has what may be an unresolvable uncertainty about NATO expansion, whereby he perceives a security dilemma for Russia from the West that he must remedy;
  4. He perceives Russia must must tackle such problems however and whenever it can.
  5. And perhaps most significantly, Putin as a state leader has perceived that the time has come to do just that.

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia knowing that the United States, then bogged down in two wars, could not respond militarily. No doubt Putin has been bolstered to act again by the fact that America is now weary and worn from ten years of war and that Europe is struggling amid weak economic times. In March, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has told television journalist Charlie Rose and others, Putin is not delusional; he is a rational actor who knows exactly what he is doing and is playing a long game.

By hugging – exercising restrained amounts of military power with the support (this is key) of Russian outpost societies – Putin perceives that he can create his Eurasian Union of former Soviet states. The delivery date for this chiefly economic and political organization is scheduled for birth on January 1, 2015.

It is currently unclear what constellation of states will join with Russia. But if it comes to term and afterward thrives, Putin perceives that it will at least be a strong geopolitical force to compete economically with the EU and at best a political sign to America that Russia is back, powerful and secure. We hope for “a powerful supranational association capable of becoming one of the poles in the modern world,” Putin wrote in an op-ed in 2011.

That seems to be a primary strategy in the game, the long game, Putin has in mind. The Ukraine / Crimea moves being his latest ones. But now with the United States, the EU, and other nations acting increasingly negatively to Putin’s game, the irony may already be emerging for both sides. The problem with perceptions is optical illusions.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer