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.

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.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this 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 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.

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).

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WHAT IF IRAN AND THE UNITED STATES . . . .

Statue - Saddam HusseinAs the implications of President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” became clearer in 2002 and 2003, editorials appeared in America wondering how Al Gore would have responded to the 9/11 attack on America had he been the U.S. president. Would Gore have begun a “war on terrorism?” Would he have gone to war in Afghanistan? Would he have invaded Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein?

These were not silly questions. For one thing, the election results were so close that it was a Supreme Court decision that decided who won the election. But the questions really went to the different political philosophies of the two politicians. Bush, a conservative Republican and former governor of Texas, was a kind of idealist realist on foreign policy who, it turned out, leaned strongly on neoconservatism immediately after 9/11 and for the rest of his first term. Gore, a liberal Democrat and Bill Clinton’s vice-president, was a fan of liberal internationalism and multilateralism. So it could reasonably be expected that President Gore would have responded to the 9/11 attack with at least some markedly dissimilar policies to those of President Bush.

Of course it’s impossible to know how things would have been different, if much at all, in Afghanistan and Iraq between, say, 2001-2004 had Al Gore been the president. Nevertheless, it was good to see a thought experiment from foreign policy community trickling down into the street to get people thinking and talking about this. In foreign policy circles it’s know as counterfactual analysis, in which policy makers and advisors imagine alternative pathways into the future.

Since history, so to speak, is path-dependent, and since paths are choice-dependent, the present was not historically determined. So if the present seems bad due to foolish choices in the past, policymakers may seek to understand how things would have been different by imagining a counterfactual: What if Gore had been president?

Foreign policy counterfactual reasoning is a tool for relating to history in a way that helps us not only to see things differently but, hopefully, to be able to make wiser judgments in decision making. There is much more that could be said about this, particularly concerning the criteria used to keep counterfactual analysis from running away with itself. But hopefully I have now said enough about it, here, to consider the following example.

What if President Bush had not snubbed Iran in May 2003 but had taken the Iranians up on their formal diplomatic reachout? More specifically, how much is the snub implicated in the direction that the political hardliners in Tehran Iran took their nations diplomatically and internationally after the snub? It’s a critical question for two significant reasons. One, it bears upon the direction of Iran’s nuclear program since 2003. Two, entering negotiations about its nuclear program was a salient point in Iran’s proposal for talks with the U.S. in May 2003 – when Iran was much more open to negotiations about its nuclear program. Relevant to this is what took place in Iran after May 2003:

Inside Iran after the Bush snub:

  • Ultrafundamentalists politicians and religious leaders had the political propaganda they had been hoping for to successfully undermine President Khatami’s reformist domestic policies and his “dialogue of civilizations” foreign policy with the United States.
  • Iran’s rigidly ideological Council of Guardians, which vets all political candidates seeking elected office, increasingly disqualified moderates and reform-minded candidates for the presidency and for parliament (they number in the hundreds every election cycle).
  • Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), a large branch of the military tasked with defending the Islamic republic from external and internal threats, expanded areas of its control, including  tightening its grip over many of the country’s economic sectors through multi-million dollar take-overs of key industries in Iran’s telecommunications and energy sectors. Today, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, the IRGC “presides over a vast power structure with influence over almost every aspect of Iranian life.”
  • dominoesIn June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ultrafundamentalist mayor of Tehran and former member of the IRGC’s infamous Basij militia, became president of Iran and, in controversial speeches, makes his radical religious-political views known to the world.
  • In the summer of 2006, Iran is implicated in supplying military support, and in green-lighting, Hezbollah in the Israel – Hezbollah war fought in southern Lebanon.
  • With the Council of Guardians disqualifying candidates en masse for political office, the ballots are stacked with fundamentalists and ultrafundamentlists, who win a huge majority of seats over reformists and moderates in the March 2008 parliamentary election.
  • Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has final say in all things political in Iran, sides with the hardliners in June 2009 and authorizes the Basji militia to use extreme measures against hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Tehran, who are protesting the suspected widespread vote rigging that saw Amadinejad reelected as president.
  • As organized protests continue to disrupt Ahmadinejad’s plans for a smoothly running government, the regime spends the second half of 2009 taking revenge on high-level moderates and reformist politicians and their supporters through bogus arrests and trials.

Iran’s nuclear program after the Bush snub:

  • The Iranian government intensified its cat and mouse game with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), shrouding the secrecy of its nuclear program with ever more riddles, while international appeals for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment go unheeded.
  • Iran significantly reduced the IAEA’s inspection rights in 2006, opening paths to conduct nuclear activities in secret; it enriches uranium.
  • International tensions mount in 2006-2008, as both the United States and Israel think out loud about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.
  • News surfaces in 2009 about a secret uranium enrichment site being built underground near the holy city of Qom.
  • Despite four rounds of economic sanctions passed by the UN Security Council between 2006 and 2010, Iran continues to stonewall IAEA inspectors and double down on its nuclear program.

I’ll stop there.

Conclusion. Iran’s thickly veiled nuclear program since the Bush snub is central to why I have been arguing that the May 2003 snub of Iran may yet go down as the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the United States.

Since 2003, more than a dozen serious diplomatic initiatives, proposals, and negotiations from Western nations, China, Russia, and others, including from Iran itself, have taken place, with varying results but with no comprehensive agreement as yet having been reached. (Here is a detailed history of the official negotiations.)

Success on the issue became more promising after President Obama removed the Bush administration’s precondition that Iran first suspend certain nuclear work before the U.S. would enter talks about Iran’s nuclear program. At the time of this writing, detailed and very technical negotiations to reach a comprehensive solution are taking place in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 nations (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), as yet another deadline for reaching an agreement, November 24, approaches. The deadline may be extended. Who knows?

What is known is that the United States, the EU, Russia, China, and many other nations are not willing to take Ayatollah Khamenei at his word when, in February 2012, he said in a major foreign policy speech: “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons … because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin.” What is also known is that no one really knows if the United States or Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities if negotiations collapse.

palm tree (cariberri)In the spring of 2003, the George W. Bush White House was flying high. It had ridden the crest of its swift victory in Afghanistan into Iraq, and on May 1, after less than a month of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, a large red, white, and blue banner that read “Mission Accomplished” hung unashamedly on the USS Abraham Lincoln as President Bush landed on the flight deck. It signaled to all the world America’s precise, speedy, and bold defeat of the largest military in the Middle East, while President Bush gave a nationally televised speech under the banner.

 

Also in the spring of 2003, as a net result of Bush’s year and a half of wars in the Middle East, Washington found itself breathing the air most envied by many world capitals: extraordinary diplomatic negotiating power with capitals of the Muslim Middle East. In that atmosphere of diplomatic advantage, it was foolish for the Bush White House not to ride those winds into negotiations with Iran.

Today, after eight years of Ahmadinejad, Iran has another moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, whose cabinet includes a number of people from the reform-minded Khatami administration of 1997-2005. And the United States is deeply engaged in the nuclear talks with Iran. We do not want to see another decision, like the Bush snub, that can be used by the hardliners in Iranian regime as another “told you so” moment that provides political ammunition to destroy the Rouhani presidency and bring the ultrafundamentalist to power again.

If you can do nothing else, pray that the talks succeed. It may indeed take the wisdom of Solomon for them to succeed. If they fail, the United States or Israel may bomb Iran. If that occurs, it is likely to result in the Iranian government’s immediate marginalization of Rouhani and a protracted retaliation from Iran to the bombing that includes increased terrorism; greater instability in Iraq and Syria; disruption in oil distribution; military conflict between Shiite Persian Iran and some Sunni Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia; and many other terrible consequences, not to mention an Iran more determined than ever to become a nuclear weapons power.

Iranian retaliation and Western response might even lead to an escalation that draws in China and Russia, who are allies of Iran, on the side of Iran into a fullblown U.S. – Iran war. In short, a bombing campaign and Iran’s retaliation may result conditions that will make everyone rue the day.

Equally disturbing is the fact that even if the nuclear negotiations succeed in keeping Iran from going for the bomb, Iran will nevertheless have reached the threshold of becoming a nuclear weapons power. And that may be incentive enough for nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, if other Muslim countries set in motion their own threshold programs as a balance of power strategy to Iran. Iran then might decide to cross the threshold first, because it can do so in a short space of time. Then chances for a nuclear war increase.

This counterfactual analysis does not place the blame for the current Iranian nuclear dilemma on the Bush snub alone, for a host of national interests, regional strategies, and international maneuvers are also in play. It does, however, cry out for us to learn in an exceptional way from history why diplomacy is better than adversarial relations and war. And that can help us imagine a wiser way ahead today.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Dominoes image by Great Beyond, palm tree image by cariberri (permissions via Creative Commons)

WISE WOMEN OF THE OLD-WORLD MIDDLE EAST

wise womanThe old-world Middle East, in the immortal words of James Brown, was man’s world. Maybe so, but women were noted for their wisdom. The book of Judges (5:29), for instance, mentions a wise [hakam] princess in attendance on Sisera’s mother, who advises her – incorrectly as it turns out – about her son’s whereabouts. But other texts call attention to women with some pretty outstanding wisdom.

In Proverbs, the “wise woman” who builds her house is contrasted with the foolish woman who tears her’s down (14:1). And Proverbs 31:10-31 seems to describe just such a wise woman. Also, significantly, the archetypal silhouette of wisdom in the book of Proverbs is feminine (chapters 1-9, especially chapter 8).

But wise women are also key figures in social and political intrigue. The book of Second Samuel (14:2) describes a “wise [hakam] woman” in the town of Tekoa. There, King David’s decorated general, Joab, needs help from her to pull off his elaborately devised negotiations concerning a particularly sensitive domestic political matter that revolves around the king and one of his sons. And Second Samuel (20:16) mentions another “wise woman.” She lived in the besieged town of Abel Beth Maacah and she negotiated a political settlement with Joab that prevented his army division from destroying the town. Her story, which shows the cooler heads of wisdom prevailing over the hotter councils of war, is reminiscent of “the poor but wise man” of Ecclesiastes who saved his town from war.

It is unlikely that these two female sages were formally educated in the wisdom tradition or that they held privileged status as royal court officials within the formally recognized hakamim. Such political careers seem to have been a bridge too far in the patriarchal structures of old-world Middle East. But I think we are safe to assume it unlikely that Joab would have sought the council of anyone, male or female, who was not widely known for having the kind of outstanding wisdom needed for the diplomatic skills required to resolve a crisis. In fact, the narratives of the wise women of Tekoa and Abel Beth Maach each suggest, in their own ways, that both women were reputed for reliable diplomatic wisdom at a high level of society and politics.

ancient scriptThe Tekoa narrative suggests this in a most fascination way, which elsewhere I have called the art of diplomacy, which is vital to wise negotiations. In the Tekoa narrative, Joab, who, mind you, is a general, shows considerable theatrical talent as a playwright. And the wise woman shows serious acting talent, not to mention great nerve, in the theater of the real. After all, not unlike the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12), she was going to the king with a fiction, in a role in which the king could have had her head off after the performance.

Joab’s script calls for her to perform a dramatic one-act play, a family tragedy, by which Joab hopes to evoke the king’s fatherly instincts and so bring his son Absalom peaceably back home from exile. She agrees to play the part, learns her lines, and appears in mourning before the king. Even her appearance is carefully scripted, right down to a lack of makeup. It was powerful performance art. The king is deeply moved by the drama. His imagination has been opened to new possibilities. This is the power of good art. My son Absalom, the king proclaims, albeit not without some conditions, is to be peaceably returned to the capital.

In the narrative of the wise woman at Abel Beth Maacah (the texts do not name either of these two women), Joab has his memory prompted about the town’s renown. He is reminded that, in the regional lore, Abel Beth Maacah had over the course of time become a celebrated source for those seeking wisdom. This appeals to Joab. It inspires him to keep negotiating with the woman, who is speaking for the whole town (again, reminiscent of the “poor but wise man” of Ecclesiastes).

After the general and the diplomat conclude their negotiations, the narrator explains that “the woman went to all the people” of the town with her “wise advice.” Of this, Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson writes that in the Hebrew the phrase translated “wise advice” appears to be a kind of technical expression which “indicates that she was a recognized leader with professional standing, perhaps like the ‘wise women’ who were found in the Canaanite court, according to the Song of Deborah” (Understanding the Old Testament; p. 492).

In the next post we will consider the desert wisdom Jethro, Moses’ his father-in-law, and the importance of that governing wisdom upon Moses and the exodus community.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Stuck in Customs (permission via Creative Commons)

MOSES AND THE ROLE OF WISDOM

Moses BridgeCenturies after the Joseph narrative, along come Moses, an Israelite who, soon after birth, becomes the adopted son of a pharaoh’s daughter and is raised and educated in the Egyptian royal court. Commenting on Moses’ schooling in Egypt, the New Testament book of Acts explains that “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). This statement squares with the findings of modern scholarship, that Egypt’s royal court was where gifted and chosen young men were formally educated in Egypt’s  wisdom tradition. And such an educations would have included both religious and political instruction. (See this post and also this post, both about Daniel, for brief descriptions of the wisdom schools of the old-world middle East.)

Decades later, however, Moses has switched national allegiances. He is now a patriotic Israelite and, now also commissioned by Yahweh, he becomes a clear and present danger to Egypt’s national security (Exodus 2-12). In hopes of thwarting the looming existential threat, pharaoh summons his “wise men” [the Hebrew word is hakamim”] to seek advice (Exodus 7:11). You know the outcome. Pharaoh loses the war. Perhaps a million people or more, mostly Israelites but many non-Israelites as well, have been freed from oppression and slavery, while much of Egypt lies devastated and pharaoh’s army has been decimated.

Some months afterward, Moses appoints hakamim from each of the twelve tribes of Israel as advisers and judges to keep order over the roiling multitude, which is now stuck in a hot desert, where temperatures are flaring and arguments and fights are breaking out everywhere. These newly appointed officials, with Moses as the sort of Supreme Court Justice over them, become a defacto governing structure of the nascent society that is now in the process of being formed out of Egypt (Exodus 18; Deuteronomy 1). In a future post I want us to take some time with this absolutely fascinating narrative, but here I am merely continuing what we began in the previous post, which is to briefly acquaint us with some biblical addresses where the role of wisdom in the governments of the old-world Middle East, although clearly evident, has often been unseen by contemporary Christians.

To continue, then. In Persia, King Xerxes, in the delicate matter of deciding Queen Vashti’s fate, sends for his “wise men” [hakamim] for advice on the legal issues he will face when devising a policy to deal with this sensitive matter of the nation’s domestic life (Esther 1:13). The same language, hakamim, is also used in the book of Esther for the officials who advise Haman, King Xerxes treacherous courtier (Esther 6:13).

There are numerous other examples that could be cited of what we may call the diplomatic corps of the Middle East. For anyone seeking wisdom for international affairs and foreign policy, a close reading of these narratives will yield many gems. Women, too, were notable for their wisdom. In the next post we will look at two fascinating stories of women who were diplomatic figures.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by timtom.ch (permission via Creative Commons)

CHRISTIAN ZIONISM: A THEOLOGY OF WAR?

little drummer girlI remember what unbolted me from being held to some aberrant views of the Middle East. It was the power of a good story well told. I’m talking about John LeCarré’s The Little Drummer Girl. This was in the early 1990s. I had asked a literary friend to recommend just one seriously intelligent contemporary storyteller. I was, you see, in a novel-slump. At the time, nothing but the classics were working for me. Where was the power of a good contemporary story?

Ever read John LeCarré? my friend asked. No. Where should I start? Try The Perfect Spy. I did. I was hooked and began reading LeCarré regularly (thank you David). Sometime around then I read Drummer Girl. The novel, first published in 1983, opened my eyes to the Jewish – Palestinian conflict in a way that nonfiction had never done. That troubling story was so masterfully told that I knew there had to be a good deal of truth behind it. I felt compelled to find out what that was, so I set out on a path of research that unexpectedly faced me with a lot of difficult choices.

Central to them was this one. I could either keep believing ideas about the Middle East that I was beginning to see were bogus or I could ditch them. You might say, Well, Charles, what was the problem? We should always ditch our faulty beliefs. But it’s not always so easy as flipping a switch, is it? I had picked up those ideas over the years from the American media and, in the interest of full disclosure, from some Christian pulpits and books as well. I had trusted those sources, especially the latter one, and it was hard to admit they could have been wrong. Besides, what would friends think of me, or colleagues, or people at work, if I could no longer agree with such popularly held views?

This blog is not the place to take you through an exploration of the jungle of my mind to show you why I eventually ditched faulty ideas I held about the Middle East. (I admit that there may be more to go.) I just want to do two things here. One is to acknowledge that it was the power of a good story well told, The Little Drummer Girl, that set me on that path. Having now done that, I want to say a few words about the political theology of Christian Zionism. This was an idea about America and the Middle East I had been flirting with, but eventually left to other lovers.

Christian Zionism is hugely popular in many American churches and institutions, even though it is most likely that the ordinary person in the pew – those not part of the leadership – have never heard of the phrase “Christian Zionism.” Or if they have heard it, they probably know little, if anything, about it as a political theology. To them, it is most likely just a way to “support Israel,” such as through good works programs and monetary donations.

Popre Francis Dome of the RockTo hastily simplify here, the theology is comprised chiefly of a variety of Old Testament verses from the prophets and from God’s promises to Abraham. These verses are used by pastors, ministers, and other Christian leaders to argue that the modern state of Israel absolutely must get all the support it can from the United States and that Christians faithful to the biblical narrative will support this effort. The linchpin used to defend the theology is Genesis 12:3: I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.

A great debate among Evangelicals has been whether the theology is biblical. Stephen Sizer’s book Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon?, published by IVP, is the most definitive critical engagement with the theology that I know of. Anyone interested a very detailed history of the theology, and its religious and political implications, should read it. We could spend many posts unpacking all the existing pros and cons. Instead, after having done an extensive amount of research, here is the conclusion I came to:

Christian Zionism can easily become a theology of violence and war, and as such it has no space for diplomacy and negotiations to bring peace in the Middle East.

This was tough to admit, and it may be even tougher for Christians and churches that support Israel with good works projects. The problem is not in good works – where they are good works indeed.

The problem is in the theology when it tries to become a foreign policy, for there is a terribly disturbing political militancy at work in theology of Christian Zionism, and ordinary Christian supporters of Israel may not be aware of this or of its looming, tragic implications. That is, the theology is always on the lookout for signs that history is nearing Armageddon.

The most dramatic of these signs to date, according to the theology, has been the return of the Jews to their biblical homeland. The next major turning-point event would be the second coming of Christ. So the history of the world, again, according to the theology, is currently experiencing the time between these two events.

The question must then be asked: What, according to the theology, needs to be occurring during this in-between period? Since conflict and war in the Middle East need to be increasing preceding the second coming of Christ exist, the modern state of Israel and its neighbors need to be at war with each other, leading up to Armageddon. In the next post I will explain why I believe followers of Jesus should steer clear of this foreign policy.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer