Iran Is the New Iraq: Why That’s Big

History is about to rhyme. Here’s how. And why you don’t want it to.

During 2002 and into early 2003, the American public, U.S. allies, and the rest of the world were treated to more than a year of strongly worded statements cherry-picked from U.S. intelligence communities by the George W. Bush administration and sophisticatedly spun together into a policy for acting to stop Saddam Hussein from deploying chemical and biological weapons and to prevent him from starting a nuclear program. That policy led to the U.S. war in Iraq.

Today, in 2017, fifteen years later, the cherry picking and policy spin begins again. This time with Iran. This time, about pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. Yet the consequences this time may be no less severe than those that have materialized since the “Mission Accomplished” banner hung above the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly criticized the nuclear agreement with Iran, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As President he has been asking his advisors for a way to get the U.S. out of the deal. Since none have as yet been forthcoming, at least not to Trump’s satisfaction, he has twice this year recertified Iran’s compliance with the agreement, most recently on July 18. (In May, 2015, Congress passed the Iran Nuclear Review Act, by which Congress receives ongoing reports about Iran’s behavior regarding nuclear agreement compliance; the Act also requires recertification by the President every 90 days.)

But this President is not one to be deterred from a stated goal. Although Iran has not been in material breach of the agreement, game plans are being presented for the President to act on to pull the U.S. out of the deal even if the Islamic republic is not in material breach.

According to foreign policy analyst and Iranian expert Trita Parsi, one of those game plans entails decertifying the deal if Trump can justify a claim that Iran is not implementing it. That certainly would be fair enough if Iran were caught in material breach of the deal. But as of this summer, Iran has not been in material breach, as Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, affirmed on July 26. In an interview with David Ignatius, Corker, who remains adamantly opposed to the deal, pointed out that there are technical breaches and material breaches. “[It’s the] material breaches that matter. Well, right now, they’ve had some technical non-compliance but they get back into compliance from time-to-time.” In other words, the President needs Iran to get caught in a material breach in order to argue with a straight face that Iran is not implementing the deal. Then he can legitimately decertify.

The obstacle for Trump has been that Iran has been implementing the deal but he wants to tear it up. So what to do? Find a way to claim justification for decertifying the deal anyway. Parsi learned of one rationale which would do just that. It would involve using “the spot-inspections mechanism of the nuclear deal … to demand access to a whole set of military sites in Iran. Once Iran balks … Trump can claim that Iran is in violation, blowing up the nuclear deal while shifting blame to Iran.” And Iran will balk, because “the mechanism is only supposed to be used if tangible evidence exists that those sites are being used for illicit nuclear activities.” In other words, the agreement does not allow for fishing expeditions.

This would be a “charade,” Parsi writes, “a rerun of the machinations that resulted in the Iraq war. It doesn’t matter what Iran does or doesn’t do….” Trump is not interested in “determining whether Iran is in compliance or not. The administration is committed to finding a way to claim Iran has violated the accord, regardless of the facts – just as George W. Bush did with Iraq.”

“Shifting blame to Iran” is essential to any game plan for end-running the deal if the United States hopes to get its allies behind America’s exiting of the deal. This is what Corker himself wants. You “wait until you have your allies aligned with you.” Then you ask “to get into various facilities in Iran. If they don’t let us in, boom. [W]hat you want is you want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the United States because we want our allies with us.”

John Bolton, another high-level foreign policy advisor, absolutely does not want the deal to continue. In a telling article in National Review titled “How to Get Out of the Iran Deal,” the former U. S. Ambassador to the UN recently laid out a detailed, five-page game plan for the kind of spin we can expect to hear from the White House and the media in the following weeks and months. Bolton, who calls the Iran nuclear deal “execrable,” was asked in July by Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief White House strategist, “to draw up just such a game plan…, which I did.” It’s a strategy, Bolton states, “that can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook if the administration were to decide to leave the Iran agreement.” Note the meaning of that carefully crafted sentence. Bolton, who has also served at high levels in various presidential administrations since the 1980s, is no stranger to spin. He is not saying: here is a just case for pulling out of the agreement. He’s saying: if you [Trump] pull out when Iran is not in material breach, here’s how to spin your decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is foolish to try to predict what the next fifteen years will look like should such sound bites about Iran succeed, but if they succeed it is equally foolish to assume that consequences at home and in the Middle East will be less severe than they have been during the past fifteen years. Even if the American public only wants ponder its future on the basis of its collective self-interest, it may want to consider what would occur in the oil markets if Iran, in retaliation, not only disrupted the flow of oil out of the Persian Gulf but attacked the oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. And here we find another lesson from fifteen years ago.

Despite the Bush administration’s unprecedented, multi-aspected spinning throughout 2002 to try to assure everyone of the wisdom of invading Iraq, the President still had many significant doubters, at home and overseas. To try to convince them to have faith, Bush would occasionally trot out what he called the success of the U.S. policy in Afghanistan. After all, he would say, al Qaeda had been routed, the Taliban government had been ousted, and Hamid Karzai, the new President of Afghanistan, was cooperating with the West.

Well, now. The war in Afghanistan is in its sixteenth year, there is no end in sight, suicide bombings are common, the Afghans are fed up with burying their dead, the Taliban have regained strong holds in many places, the government only rules about 60% of the country, and more U.S. troops are being deployed there.

Some may say: well, that’s hindsight; we want to look forward. Sure, let’s look forward. But you won’t move forward wisely apart from applying wisdom learned from past mistakes. The decision not to finish the job with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan but to instead go to war in Iraq is at least partly implicated in the terrible, ongoing suffering of countless millions of Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians. And the decision has also cost the U.S. dearly in many ways, both domestically and internationally. The American public knows this. What they may not know in the coming weeks and months is that they may be being played again.

Talking to Iran is what’s needed. This, too, is another lesson to be learned from the Bush era. Well-known among the foreign policy establishments of the West and the Middle East, but virtually unreported by the news media, the Iranian government sent a formal diplomatic letter to the Bush administration in May, 2003, seeking the start of direct high-level talks on a wider array of issues crucial to improving the bilateral relations.

Parsi helpfully included a copy of the letter as an Appendix in his illuminating book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S. The Iranians, he writes, had prepared a comprehensive proposal. It had been drafted and known only to a closed circle of decision-makers in Tehran and approved by the highest levels of clerical and political authorities, including Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the supreme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state.

Apart from Khamanei’s imprimatur, the proposal would not be taken seriously by the Bush White House. Most significantly, then, the proposal was authoritative. Thus the Americans, Parsi writes, were stunned by it. The proposal called for a dialogue of “mutual respect” and listed major points of contention that Iran was willing to discuss with the U.S. In the letter, Iran declared itself willing to:

■ talk about its nuclear program;
■ increase its cooperation with the U.S. on al Qaeda;
■ help stabilize Iraq;
■ lean on Hezbollah “to become a mere political organization within Lebanon”;
■ accept the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration for a two-state solution.
■ end Iranian “material support to Palestinian opposition groups” (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, et al.) and pressure them “to stop violent action against civilians.”

Of course bilateral negotiations are a two-way street, so the proposal also spelled out what Iran would like to see on the table in return from the U.S.:

■ the removal of Iran from the “axis of evil”;
■ an end of sanctions and impediments to international trade;
■ “full access to peaceful nuclear technology”;
■ recognition of “Iran’s legitimate security interests in the region”;
■ U.S. help against anti-Iranian terrorists.

The letter closed by suggesting mutual next steps, including public statements, establishing parallel working groups, and hammering out a timetable for implementation. Since Washington and Tehran had had no embassy-level bilateral relations for a quarter of a century, the offer was unprecedented. How would the Bush administration respond?

Stop and think about this for a minute. As with all initial steps toward diplomacy, this one was but a starting point. Both sides would know that the proposal was not set in stone. It was merely the potential beginning of the international game of give-and-take of getting to Yes. But first the waters needed to be tested by both parties. If they liked the temperature, then some next steps might include discussing some of the items. If that process continued, long story short, items and issues in the original proposal would probably hit the cutting room floor, with the potential remaining that some items might be taken to an agreement, even if that took months or years to hammer out.

Given the unprecedented nature of the proposal, it would be an exceptionally irrational move if the recipient did not engage with the sender to at least test the waters. Not only did the Bush White House choose not to do that. It immediately and rudely snubbed the reachout. “An opportunity for a major breakthrough had been willfully wasted,” Parsi concluded. Larry Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the time, believed the mistake was huge. According to BBC News security correspondent Gordon Corera, Wilkerson afterward said, “In my mind, it was one of those things” about which you say “I can’t believe we did this,” especially at a time when Iranian vulnerability was at its greatest and Washington at its most triumphalist. That snub looms large in how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the radical fundamentalist politician, became Iran’s president in 2005, and also why it became so difficult, and took so many years of trying, to get Iran to the negotiating table for its nuclear program.

President Trump’s willingness to tear up the Iran nuclear deal seems to stem from his anger at the Islamic republic’s ongoing support of Hezbollah, its attitude toward Israel, and its ballistic missile program. But the way to seek changes in Iran’s behavior that would benefit the United States is through diplomatic initiatives that seek to talk with Iran about areas of concern to both countries. A huge obstacle to that today, however, is that, as in 2002, we have a White House that doesn’t want to talk but to dictate to Iran.

Of course the Iran nuclear deal is not a perfect deal. Nothing done by humans in this world is. And no future deals with Iran, or with any other state, will be perfect either. It would be unwise in the extreme, however, and harmful to America, for a U.S. president not to put honest, serious, and concerted efforts into trying to build diplomatic relations with Iran. The JCPOA can be a springboard for that. It gives the P5+1 nations a verifiable framework for monitoring Iranian compliance. It give the U.S. many years to talk with Iran about other matters. And it comes at a time when Iran has recently re-elected a president who is open to talking.

For Trump, Corker, Bolton, and many other influentials, the strategy seems to be: tear up the deal and enact very tough sanctions, which will force Iran to negotiate a better deal. I don’t believe that pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement will, as Bolton wrote, create “a new reality” that will “enhance international peace and security.” I don’t believe America’s allies – possibly there will be a few exceptions – will buy that either. Pulling out would certainly create a new reality. I would be very surprised if it did not rhyme with the reality that emerged during the last decade and a half. If it does emerge, it will be yet another case of wisdom lost.

Diplomats and negotiators have a lot of wisdom and President Trump should give them carte blanche to start reaching out to Iran. As one of the biblical kings has reminded us, after he saw peace ensue from an unlikely diplomatic mission, “wisdom is better than weapons of war.”

We can learn wisdom from history or remain foolish decision makers. If the Trump White House refuses to get wisdom from the mistakes made by the Bush White House, God help us.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images permissions from Creative Commons: Geo. W. Bush (BBC News); Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images); John Bolton (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty); Afghanistan war scene (Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty); President Rhouani (STR/AFP/Getty);

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Dear President Trump . . .

Kerry & Zarif at the tableDear President Trump,

Thank you for again re-certifying the Iran nuclear deal the other day. Although you did not want to do this, and although you are still looking for a way to rip up the deal, you listened to and took the advice of all your major national security advisers. That was a wise decision. Your European allies have breathed a sigh of relief, and many of us hope that you will make every effort to re-certify the deal next time around.

I know you have a lot on your plate, but just to say…. It seemed clear from your speech in Saudi Arabia last month that your Middle East foreign policy includes moves to increasingly isolate Iran. Wouldn’t it be wiser to get the diplomats, negotiators, and mediators to work to try to bring Iran out from the cold? If a deal with Iran could be reached on its nuclear program, why not on other crucial matters?

Wisdom is gained from history’s learned lessons. You may be unaware of the big mess, really big mess, that resulted when in 2003 the Bush White House snubbed Iran’s unprecedented and formal diplomatic reach-out to the U.S. The snub occurred because many of the President’s closest advisers talked him into it. For the next ten years Iran ran it’s nuclear program in full tilt boogie. That snub is a huge reason why it became so difficult, and took so many years of trying, to get Iran to the negotiating table for its nuclear program. You can read a summary of the snub here, and about the stunning details that Iran wanted to discuss with the U.S. It’s pretty clear what has been lost by not talking.

Of course the Iran nuclear deal is not a perfect deal. Nothing in this world is. And no future deals with Iran, or with any other state, will be perfect either. But I think it would be unwise in the extreme, and harmful to America, for a U.S. president not to put honest, serious, and concerted efforts into trying to build diplomatic relations with Iran. How about using the nuclear deal as a springboard for that? Not to mention that Iran has recently re-elected a president who is open to talking.

Diplomats and negotiators have a lot of wisdom. And as one of the biblical kings has reminded us, after seeing peace ensue from unlikely diplomatic mission, wisdom is better than weapons of war.

Thank you for listening.

A concerned American,

Charles Strohmer

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image permission Press TV, via Creative Commons.

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

WHY DIPLOMACY?

Vietnam memorial wallTwo years ago a national poll conducted jointly by NBC News, the Wall Street Journal, and Annenberg showed that 71 percent of Americans believed that the Iraq war was “not worth it.” That was up from 58 percent a year earlier, in an ABC News and Washington Post poll. Today, if the Republican presidential candidates are any indication, even the GOP, including establishment figure Jeb Bush, believe that invading Iraq was a mistake. Why do so many Americans regret that war, and what can be learned from that regret?

I see at least two reasons why an overwhelming number regret the war. One is the large number of Americans who have learned wisdom from the history of the past 13 years. They see the unrestrained blowback that began with the insurgency in 2003-2004 and the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq. They see that the ISIS horror show emerged from al Qaeda in Iraq and the historic humanitarian crisis that is a result. They see the unprecedented, multi-aspected costs, and much more besides. This group sees the bad fruit and now regrets the war.

But they still need the “why” answered. Why has so much gone so wrong? Well, that depends whom you’re asking. Generals? Foreign policy analysts? Presidential candidates? Economists? Journalists? Other experts? Each will propose good and sufficient reasons that must be included for a credible picture of what went wrong. But if this group must also ask “just war” theorists, those ethicists, theologians, and religious leaders who deal with the moral problem of war. In its most sophisticated Western development, just war theory is found in the writings of the theologian Thomas Aquinas.

This bring us to the second reason, the large number of Americans who did not first need to see recent history. In 2002 and early 2003, many and diverse ethicists, theologians, and religious leaders, their constituencies behind them, presciently argued that the George W. Bush administration’s rationale for going to war in Iraq did not meet the requirements of just war, therefore it was immoral and unjust. Therefore, it was implied, the United States could expect all sorts of unpredictable things to go wrong in the Middle East if the war was launched. Unfortunately, little was made of this in the media at the time, despite the fact that so many Christian denominations and other religious bodies were stating it formally in letters to the Bush administration, including denominations to which the President, Dick Cheney, Carl Rove, and Donald Rumsfeld belonged. An article by the theologian and political writer James W. Skillen, “Evaluating America’s Engagement in Iraq with Just-War Criteria,” shows very clearly why the U.S-led war about Iraq did not square with the five main principles of just war theory.

This big picture answers the question “why diplomacy?” This is the pressing political question of our time. Since President Obama took office in 2009, a very vocal, influential segment of American political commentators has been habitually critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. By and large, this is the same pack of pundits who supported launching the war about Iraq, and whose latent militarism today can be heard by anyone with ears to hear what their policy rhetoric about the Middle East implies.

Why diplomacy? Look at just the past two years, as Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, reminded Charlie Rose in a recent intervieKerry & Zarif shake handsw. It was American diplomatic leadership that mobilized the world to fight ebola, that brought 66 countries together to fight ISIS, that led negotiations to the nuclear agreement with Iran, that brought Cuba in from the cold, and that led to the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Afghanistan. Of course none of this, Blinken added, “has happened as well as it should [or] as effectively as it should.” But, “You take the United States out of any of these pictures [and] it doesn’t happen. We are the single country that has the ability to mobilize and move others more than any other country.”

Why diplomacy? Diplomacy will not bring heaven on earth. Far from it. But diplomacy seeks solutions even to the most intractable international problems through means other than war. One of its indispensable purposes – dare I add, a purpose under God – is to prevent types of hell on earth such as the ISIS movement from materializing. Surely promoting the art of diplomacy is wiser than regretting the annals of war.

This editorial was first published in The Mountain Press, Sunday February 21, 2016.  Charles Strohmer writes frequently 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.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Creative Commons.

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Mutuality: Recovering a Jewel for U.S. – Middle East Relations

PeacemakingIn January on this blog, beginning here, were four articles that detailed the seemingly intractable problem of overcoming the secular / religious chasm of U.S. – Middle East relations. In a follow-up article, we looked at many behind-the-scenes initiatives by the U.S. State Department and many NGOs that focus on overcoming this problem. Today, I want to close off this informal series by calling attention to vital role that the wisdom tradition is playing in these initiatives.

It’s quite a dilemma, the political tug of war between secularism and religion in U.S. – Mideast relations. After all, what fellowship does religious disbelief in God (in political decisions) have to do with religious belief in God (in political decisions)? I hold the view that trying to wrest one side into the other’s camp as the means of resolution is a futile exercise at best and at worst moves the two worlds closer to a clash of civilizations, for their core beliefs conflict.

So what is the alternative? As we saw in this article, both the U.S. State Department and many NGOs and foreign policy think tanks have found a worthy and respected alternative, by bringing the secularly oriented and the religiously oriented around the table to work together on their common ground interests toward common good.

It is just here the historic wisdom tradition, especially its norm of mutuality, comes front and center into the picture. Lady Wisdom, as she is known in the book of Proverbs, cries to be heard at the rough intersection of both worlds, the religious and the secular. And she cries there not of conflict and war but of the possibilities for cooperation. She stands alongside that intersection as a focal point that offers for both worlds a way to follow her lead into a new narrative together.

What is that new narrative? The wisdom norm of mutuality offers considerable potential for building and sustaining cooperative arrangements among peoples who are different, even as different as fundamentally different as religious and secular political outlooks. How is this possible?

The wisdom norm of mutuality stresses a fact of life that we often taken far too much for granted: the interests and concerns of daily life that are held in common by all peoples everywhere, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, or whether we consider ourselves secular or religious. To use a Christian expression, the wisdom norm of mutuality concentrates more on who people are, not on what by the grace of God they may become.

If this seems an alien notion to us today, it is partly attributable to an age, our age, in which rigid ideological divisiveness has divided us and conditioned us to accept sectarian solutions to relational problems as normative. This sectarian dynamic has especially pitted secularly oriented worlds and religiously oriented worlds against each other.

Since time immemorial, every person on the planet has participated in the same creation, held the same basic interests, shared the common bond of what it means to be human. We all want to be able to provide for our families, to see our children raised properly and safely, to see our social environments improve, to find ways to ease the suffering of others, to increase possibilities for well-being in the world, to live peaceably with neighbors.

People everywhere have fundamental desires for such outcomes regardless of their core beliefs (provided those beliefs are not organized around violence). Believers and atheists alike are, for example, moved at the sight of starving children or families left homeless by a tragedy, and both will want to do what they can to alleviate the suffering. In fact, this is precisely where many religious groups, in particular, throughout history have excelled, in caring for people as they are, wherever they are, regardless of their beliefs.

wisdom traditionAs I understand it, the wisdom norm of mutuality does not require people to give up their core beliefs before they can start to build more cooperative and sustainable arrangements with each other (again, provided those beliefs are not organized around violence). The wisdom norm of mutuality does not require a religious or a secular party to ditch its core beliefs before cooperation between them becomes doable. What Lady wisdom does require of them is to turn their eyes to their shared human interests and concerns as human beings made in the image of God.

Our post-9/11 changed world has presented Washington and the capitals of the Middle East with landscapes of international sharp curves, turning points, and cul de sacs that diplomats, foreign ministers, policy analysts, and NGOs are trying to negotiate without misfortune. Here, wisdom is being brought in from the margins and applied with slow but increasing success. When this approach gets circulating more normatively in the DNA of U.S. – Mideast relations, a secularly organized system of international politics and a religiously oriented one will have a responsibly moral way for searching out peaceable ways ahead with each other.

However imperfectly this would be realized where these two worlds meet, it would nevertheless place vital international relationships on more cooperative footing – for the good of our publics and for a more hopeful future down the generations than current seems likely.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images by permission of Creative Commons.

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

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.