sunsetOkay. I promised a post about the post-9/11 big picture. This is not an exact science. If you ask several artists to paint the same landscape, you will get several perspectives of it. Ask several analysts to describe the post-9/11 world and they will paint different pictures of it for you. And, as everyone knows, the picture has been changing dramatically many times, sometimes shockingly, over the past thirteen years, since the Taliban and al Qaeda were booted out of Afghanistan at the end of 2001. So approaching this topic with some humility of mind is, I think, required. The past is history and only novelists know the future. Today’s picture may not be tomorrow’s reality.

In broad brush strokes, then, the current picture includes at least the following: the Middle East policies of the United States, European states, Russia, and Israel; diplomatic initiatives; military interventions; widespread internecine Sunni/Shia violence in Iraq; the “civil” war in Syria; the unresolved Israel/Hamas dilemma; heightening tensions between Arab states and Persian Iran; fears about Iran’s nuclear intentions; the rise and geographic spread of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria); the plight of millions of refugees who have fled Iraq and Syria; and the forming of unbelievable political alliances to deal with threats such as ISIS.

The picture has become so bleak and is now running with so much blood that respected senior statesmen and military advisers have publicly alluded that social and political chaos in the Middle East is the new normal. There has, of course, been chaos in the world in previous eras, but this time, they say, it’s chaos with a difference. For instance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. National Security Advisor, said in Foreign Policy magazine that the chaos that has broken out is the kind that governments are less capable of handling than they were, say, during the aftermaths of the two world wars of the twentieth century.

Statements like Brzezinsi’s have been alarmingly heightened in meaning by statements from Chuck Hagel, U.S. Secretary of Defense, and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. With the rampaging hellhounds of ISIS having carved out for themselves large swaths of Iraq and Syria, holding key cites in both countries and continuing their savagery, a consensus has emerged in Western and Middle Eastern capitals that ISIS has become everyone’s archenemy.

sunset 2 (mikelehen)Referring to ISIS (it now calls itself simply the Islamic State, or IS), Hagel recently said that “this is beyond anything we have seen.” ISIS is “beyond just a terrorist group.” They are an “imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else.” (Joshua White, formerly a senior adviser in the Secretary of Defense’s office, and now at the Stimson Center, pointed out that the word “imminent,” as used here by Hagel, probably “signals justification of military force.”) Major General Paul Eaton, a senior adviser at the National Security Network, has said that the “ISIS foreign policy problem trumps other American interests in the world,” and so the Obama administration needs “to assign as its main foreign policy effort, the defeat of ISIS.”

ISIS may not be the main foreign policy effort of the United States but the defeat of ISIS is now a top priority. President Obama, John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Hagel just spent time in Wales drumming up EU support to deal with ISIS. This includes, significantly, an anti-ISIS coalition of ten NATO states. In Wales, President Obama stated that the object is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Apparently, a plan will be forthcoming by the time the U.N. General Assembly convenes on September 14 in New York City.

Policy aside, General Dempsey’s recent language is quite revealing. ISIS, Dempsey said, has “an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision [that] will eventually have to be defeated.” The word “apocalyptic,” of course, has a strong, ominous religious connotation. Coming closer to the religious mark, in my view, is no less a foreign policy heavyweight than Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, who titled a recent article “The New Thirty Years’ War,” in which he explains that the conflict between extremist Sunni and Shia in the Middle East has now reached such a pitch of violence that it has become analogous to the devastating religious war between Catholics and Protestants in first half of seventeenth century Europe. Haass is the first high-level foreign policy expert I know of to publicly argue this, although in the article he does not ponder the implications very much.

The big picture in the region, then, is also a modern-day religious war between extremist Sunni and Shia in the region. It is a huge factor in what a secularized media and many politicians typically portray – employing a less volatile image – as a “sectarian conflict.” The implications are huge, and I want us to spend some time with this beginning in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Fr Antunes & mikelehen respectively (permission via Creative Commons)


wisdom of pulling togetherIf we think about their political or religious ideologies as individuals, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavaro live in three different worlds. It is hard to image them ever being friends who just hang out together. But when they are functioning in their roles as diplomats negotiating with one another, an esprit de corps exists among them as members of an elite international community. This too could seem rather surprising, actually, given that they are representatives of nations whose foreign policies often clash.

But this is part of diplomatic life on the international stage. We can see it in action in Daniel’s life as a statesman-diplomat. Although a devout Jew, his esprit de corps with his Chaldean colleagues in government is apparent. In previous posts we have seen a Daniel who, in the wisdom schools of both Jerusalem and Babylon, was tutored in a style and tone of communication and behavior to function as diplomatic official and negotiator. This, we saw, contrasted to the style and tone of someone functioning in the prophetic tradition.

Spokespersons in the prophetic style, at least in the Bible, were often sharply confrontative when speaking the truth to power. Unlike negotiators, the prophets do not seem to be interested in reaching midpoints conducive to common ground agreements across boundaries. One cannot imagine Elijah the prophet sitting across the table trying to find common ground with the prophets of Baal. “A sword against the Babylonians!” the prophet Jeremiah shouts (50:35), with an eye to its officials (śārîm) and wise men (hakāmīm), whose policies are arrogant and oppressive. That is hardly the cry of a diplomat. Examples such as these are easy to come by in the prophetic literature.

There is no negotiating with a prophet who is making absolute demands. But we never see Daniel doing that, and there is no indication in the book of Daniel that he ever would have done so in any of his roles as a government official in Babylon. Bellicosity just does not seem to have been part of Daniel’s DNA. It is not that Daniel does not hold strong religious convictions, or that he is a Caspar Milkquetoast, or that he is blind to the core differences between his worldview and that of the his Chaldean colleagues.

What’s the deal then? Look at it this way. “War of words” is not an image synonymous with the peaceableness of the wisdom tradition. Further, Daniel is in Babylon and he has been told by Jeremiah to seek the shalom of the city.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace [shalom] and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Jeremiah 29:4-7

It would seem unlikely that Daniel had not read, or had not been apprised of, the contents of, that letter from Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to seek the peace (shalom) of the city. Having been trained in wisdom, both in Jerusalem and in Babylon, Daniel would know exactly what Jeremiah was on about. And through his training in the wisdom schools he would know how to lead and model shalom in what for the Jews was nightmare situation (see the book of Lamentations).

Next time we will look at how Daniel’s esprit de corp with his Chaldean colleagues played a role in taking Jeremiah’s words to heart amid a life-threatening situation.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer