vision glassesThe monstrous dose of reality that would soon become known by the iconic shorthand “9/11” plunged America and its leadership into a collective worldview crisis, and many individuals and families suffered terribly as well. Although I did not suffer like many people did, my own experience of 9/11 was so unusual that I felt as if I had experienced it too much but missed it completely. Strange inner dissonance, that. The attack had taken place but I did not know that for many hours. I must have been one of the last people on the planet to learn about it. And when I finally did learn about it, the startling way that happened, and the next four days encamped at Shearwater Air Force Base, made 9/11 seem too much to me.

Despite being well-cared-for at Shearwater, I found it difficult to think, and though I consider myself a person of faith, I found it hard to pray. I often found myself with barely a thought in my head. I was pensive and, back home, became disoriented and could not concentrate to work. I had to postpone a speaking engagement and push two article deadlines further into the future.

But knowing myself, I knew that my only way out of the molasses – my back to “normal” – would be by gaining a good understanding of what had occurred and what responses would be wisest. I had too many questions that I needed answered. To ignore getting the answers would be, for me, like trying to live as if 9/11 had not occurred. And I could not go there. I had to understand. And I wanted to get it right. That would take time, but that path, I knew, would deliver me from the dissonance.

So I set out. I suppose this was quite a natural direction for me to go, given that I am a writer and that writers research their subjects. As well, the timing could not have been better. My seventh book had just come out, a co-author job with John Peck, and I had been wondering what the subject of my next book would be. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should say that I felt more than a natural compulsion. For this new research and writing project I felt a very strong drive.

I should also say that, at the time, I had little interest in international relations and foreign policy. And I will embarrassingly admit to believing that it would only take several months, perhaps a year, to conduct the necessary research. I was foolishly mistaken about that. The most frequent question I get asked is: What’s going on in the Middle East? Unfortunately, many who ask are impatient. They want sound bites, as if sound bites could faithfully answer the persistent questions that have arisen. It takes time to understand how we got here, and why, and what are some wiser ways ahead. Most people reading this blog don’t have time for that amount of study, so I have done the homework for you, and want to offer it to you here.

Today we do not live in a time such as during the Cold War status quo, during decades when, although the United States and the Soviet Union made life interesting at times, international relations between the two super powers were nevertheless static enough. You pretty much knew what was what. Today, the “war on terrorism,” the war in Afghanistan, and the war about Iraq have not – to put it mildly – fulfilled anything even close to either Western or Middle Eastern expectations.

War is a wretchedly incompetent and perverse agent of change. No West – Middle East status quo has emerged. Instead, unexpected major events continue to surprise, and new violent realities emerge so often that it is impossible to put your finger in the script and conclude, “Ahh, this is where we are at. This is the reality. Now here’s what we can do.” So many analysts talk about “the long war.”

And you can forget about what you have heard on the evening news, or talk radio, or the blogosphere. You are not going to get three minutes of “in depth coverage” in the following posts, or sound bites, or cliches, or stereotypical or polemical answers.

We live in a dangerous period. If we do not know why, really why, and if we do not learn from the missteps, then we cannot formulate wiser ways ahead. I don’t claim infallible answers, but over the course of the next several months I am going to be sharing with you on this blog what I have learned from more than a decade of research, including taking you behind the scenes to hear from key people I have talked with on my travels. The unlearning and relearning has been a surprising journey to clarity. I hope it becomes that for you too.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by katerha (permissions via Creative Commons)


map readingToday we have considerable understanding about what occurred on September 11, 2001, and why. We forget that at the time we all grappled in the dark for answers. The irony was palpable. What was being called a defining moment lacked clarity. Why was that? The jumble of mixed messages about the “attack on America” that was coming from Washington and the media those days, and from political analysts and religious leaders, indicated a terrible collective worldview crisis into which the nation had been plunged.

In our more humble moments today, we might be able to remember that America had suddenly been forced to deal with problems so revolutionary and intractable that there was a shaking of the foundations. National life had been going along fairly well for a pretty long period. The Cold War had ended in 1991 and we all hoped for a more durable peace. But suddenly life was no longer normal. Things that had been taken for granted were now being seriously questioned, even by the “experts.”

Although it was refreshing to hear such humility expressed by many political analysts, the hard truth of it was that answers those days were few and far between. A terrible unknown had knocked America off its stride and the nation was scrambling to make sense of what had occurred. The nation was processing one of those (fortunately) rare phenomenon called a national worldview crisis.

In recent posts we have been discussing how deeply the crisis effected our personal lives and worldviews, as individuals. But it was, of course, a collective worldview crisis as well, one that deeply effected Washington as a political entity, despite the public image it put forward as being in control. Washington’s treasured and basic ideas for understanding and responding to such a national emergency had suddenly been called into question, for there had never been one like this one.

It was, in my opinion, worse than that of another attack from the air sixty years earlier – on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese air force. Although that surprised the country and plunged it into a terrible national crisis, it was nevertheless understandable an act of war by one state, Japan, against another state, America. And as such Washington could immediately process what had taken place and lean on the traditional way of response: the war system.

In other words, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor emerged from the modern way of thinking about war – state versus state. It was easy for that generation both to understand what had occurred and to recognize the kind of response in kind that would follow. America would go to war and was able to do so. Everyone got this. The nation could be mobilized. Washington could be confident that America could effectively meet the challenge.

The attack on the United States from the air sixty years later was not a Pearl Harbor kind of surprise. It came not from a state but from a group of non-state actors called al Qaeda, led by the religious militant Osama bin Laden. It struck the nation with fundamental unknowns on both preparedness and response. This left the President and everyone else uncertain about why it had occurred and how to respond. Significant books have been written about this early period of ambiguity in the White House. It was amid this kind of national worldview crisis that Washington had to try to identify where the rough ride had landed the nation, and what the response should be.

Sans a reliable map by which sense could be made of the attack, or what the wisest response to it should be, I hasten to add that I had some sympathy for the White House, its advisers, and the Congressional committees responsible for America’s national security.

Story continued next post…..

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Ed Yourdon (permission via Creative Commons)


War and peace. We have lived with both since that day when brother first slew brother in the name of religion and third-party intervention set forth the terms of a settlement meant to prevent further violence. Fat chance of that. The surge from peace to adversarial relations to conflict and war had settled in as an enduringly lamentable fact of human affairs. History reveals a race whose preference for solving crises through nonviolence stretches just so far and then snaps.

war and peaceIn our day, the incendiary conduct of nineteen men aboard four aircraft on September 11, 2001 was the snap heard round the world. With it, the optimism of a fledgling international peace that was in the air following the end of the Cold War fell to earth. Since then, prospects trending toward furthering peace rather than conflict and war have seemed pretty hopeless.

In the previous post, a moving story from Rabbi Marc Gopin hinted at how inner attitudes of one individual toward another (in this case a Jew toward an Arab) can remain tense or adversarial or can ease up and back down. What we think about others who are not like us is going to betray itself in our words, gestures, and deeds. Multiply his story by millions and it is easy to see why individuals matter to war and peace. Domestic attitudes matter to the shape and conditions of international life.

The most formal way in which domestic attitudes and views affect international life is through a nation’s foreign policy. True, foreign policy decision making in the West is not particularly “democratic.” It is superintended by relatively small communities of presidents, prime ministers, and foreign policy elites who do not submit their policies to direct popular votes. Yet domestic attitudes can loom large in a nation’s international politics.

If, for example, a large percentage of American voters favor an easing of tensions with Iran, that attitude will carry weight inside White House policy, whether it is a Democrat or a Republican administration. And if the policy is to succeed in the long run, it must grip the consciences of a large majority of individuals in the nation. If, as the saying goes, all politics are local, then it is equally true that all international peacemaking begins with the individual, with me and you.

Formally, however, the task falls to the diplomats, international mediators, negotiators, special envoys, and relevant others. These are the men and women who get tasked with making things happen when leaders and their nations have determined to end adversarial relations, conflict, or war with other nations and enter into peaceable relations. But diplomats and others who are trying to bring the parties to Yes can get a bad rap. They get accused of waffling, of going too slow, of selling out, and of much more besides. The populations back home, however, usually have no idea of the insurmountable odds that can be stacked against diplomatic teams. This is why I have gained a huge amount of respect for them. They are really up against it, and few understand that.

The historic wisdom literature tradition is not silent on the subject of wisdom-based diplomacy as vital for international cooperation and peace. Beginning with the next post, we will start exploring key narratives that bring this out. And maybe along the way we will discover some lost tools to help in today’s task.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer