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.

The Rise of the Military Solution and the Decline of Diplomacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

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

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

The Foreign Policy of the Personality

God and Adam“The foreign policy of the personality.” The late John Peck, British theologian par excellence, used this fascinating play on words in a class he taught about the fruit of the Spirit. As far as I know, he originated it. But anyone who has heard him teach will not be surprised at his ability to turn a phrase to give us fresh ideas for thinking about old truths. So what’s with this strangely clever idea?

After talking about love and joy, John had come to the third fruit in the list, peace (Galatians 5:22). He reminded the class that the great Old Testament word for “peace” is shalom, adding that it was the special task of the king to establish shalom (peace; well being) in the forms of political and economic justice, including, and especially, for the poor, the needy, and the afflicted – as they often have no advocate. (For a fuller look at the word shalom in the OT, see this.)

“In the individual,” John then said, “the equivalent of justice in shalom is a balanced personality, one that doesn’t give undue weight to one thing over another. It is an ordered makeup in which priorities find their due place. The economy of the personality is neither inflated or deflated. In external relationships – the foreign policy of the personality, as it were – is secure.”

I heard that word play through the lens of someone who has written much about foreign policy over many years (on this blog and elsewhere), so my mind immediately began making all sorts of associations and analogies between what goes on in the field of international relations and the relationships that can, and do, exist between individuals.

For instance, as with bilateral international relations, relations between two individuals can be tense or relaxed, threatened or secure, unjust or just, adversarial or allied, broken or repaired, distrustful or trustful, unfriendly or friendly, uncooperative or cooperative, intolerant or respectful, and much more besides. But as everyone knows, human relationships are never that cut and dried. They always evidence some mixture of these features. And in some cases, for some periods, they may indeed be mostly friendly or trustful or cooperative, but it doesn’t take much to turn them unfriendly or untrustworthy or uncooperative.

For we are not only sinners privately in the sight of God. Like soil contaminated with sewage or water with lead, our relationships with one another are also befouled by our sinfulness. No bilateral (or multilateral) relationship is going to be perfectly secure, just, or respectful.

“If only it were all so simple!” Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago. “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

But there is also twisdom traditionhis. No relationship need stay adversarial or broken or unjust if the redeeming and renewing grace of God is at work in it. So with all these associations and analogies rattling ‘round my brain, I challenged myself: What kind of shape is the foreign policy of my personality in these days? Am I increasingly walking in the redeeming, renewing grace of God with every passing year? I’ve been thinking about this. And there are so many contexts in which to think about it, and to do something about, or not. Husband – wife; parent – child; sibling – sibling; employer – employee; pastor – congregant; congregant – congregant; board member – CEO; neighbor – neighbor – the contexts seem endless.

Perhaps I am getting lazy about this transformative process, or making excuses, or unconcerned about it, or even going backward?

One unnoticed way of going backward is by subtly absorbing into our DNA the anti-graces that can be heard in the unbalanced and disordered personalities of any number of public voices, and over time picking up unredemptive attitudes and actions toward others as a result. Be careful what you hear, Jesus said.

In international relations, adversarial or broken or unjust relations are changed through negotiations, persistently pursued. Likewise, achieving the kind of “balanced” and “ordered” personalities of shalom in our relations with others is possible through “negotiations,” persistently pursued. Therefore, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).

Of course, getting to shalom takes time, concerted effort, and skill. And it may entail, as in international relations, bringing in a mediator. And in this world, some relationships may never reach the heights of shalom that we might like them to achieve. But apart from working at it, what other option did the Prince of Peace, Sar Shalom, leave us?

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images permission of Creative Commons.

Note from Charles: For the next several weeks, I’ll be blogging somewhat less than my customary once/twice-a-week in order to concentrate on meeting a writing deadline for a large project I’m on and also to finish work on a very special Web project, which you will hear about in the near future. Meantime, you many want to catch up on any reading you’ve been wanting to do in one of the topic categories: see on the main page, left column. Thank you very much for your interest in this blog.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Neural, permission via Creative Commons.

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

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

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

Israel and the Iran Nuclear Deal

choicesThere has been very little reporting in the U.S. media about what Israelis think of the Iran nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as it is formally known. In fact, given the media’s persistent focus on Prime Minister Netanyhu’s condemnation of the deal, it is tempting to think that every Jew inside Israel is also against the deal. But this is far from true.

I only hinted at this in a previous post about the nuclear agreement, so I thought it would be good to say more about the notable leaders from across the spectrum in Israel who cautiously support the agreement. But I’m not going to do that in my own words. I want you to hear from someone else, someone whose “first personal encounter with Iran left me surrounded by death and destruction.” Read: Someone who could easily justify a view that opposed the nuclear deal, instead cautiously supports it. Why?

This someone is Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff. I realize there is controversy and contention over the nuclear agreement even among friends, so I urge you to read his article, published in The Jerusalem Post on the eve of the agreement’s assured passage through the U.S. Congress. It is “in large part because of my memories [that] I stand with the growing number of Israelis and Americans, including many Jewish Americans, who support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran,” Resnicoff writes.

Sukkot structure with ladsIn the interest of full disclosure, Rabbi Resnicoff is a friend, but that is not why I want you to hear him. I have read a lot views about the deal, as I’m sure many of you have, but his article may be the best of the lot: in its sensitivity to both sides, its insider’s street cred, and the wise lesson that the solemn Jewish holiday of Sukkot can teach us about the nuclear deal.

Like the walls of the sukkot, Rabbi Resnicoff writes, the agreement is “a little shaky, and it might not last, but if it is the best that we can build right now – and I agree with the Israeli and American experts who say that it is – then build it we must.”

“[M]any Jewish groups have been trying to create the impression of consensus against the deal across the American Jewish community. But polling shatters that illusion, revealing that 63 percent of respondents who have an opinion on the deal are in favor of it. Top pro-Israel members of Congress from the past four decades have spoken out in favor of the deal. I was among more than 400 rabbis from across America’s denominational spectrum who signed a letter recommending support for the deal, at the same time urging increased efforts to fight Iran’s actions against Israel and other nations.”

“In Israel, too, the myth of the anti-deal consensus has been shattered. A pivotal point was the release of a letter in favor of the deal signed by dozens of the deans of Israel’s defense and intelligence elite, from former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet and the Israeli nuclear program, to generals and admirals from all branches of the military.”

Read his entire article in The Jerusalem Post for full story of why Rabbi Resnicoff supports the deal. And then let’s have some conversation about it (use “Leave a Reply” at the end of this post).

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, captain, USN (ret.), is a former special assistant on values and vision to the secretary and chief of staff of the US Air Force. He is a former national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and was the first rabbi to study at the US Naval War College.

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

Top image by William Ward (via Creative Commons). Lower image from atzimmes (via Creative Commons).

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

The Idiot’s Guide to the Iran Nuclear Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

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

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

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

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