MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE INAUGURAL LECTURE
“WHAT IS OLD, NEW AND UNPRECEDENTED
IN AMERICA’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE MIDDLE EAST”
ST. AMBROSE UNIVERSITY
APRIL 10, 2014
Let me begin by stressing how impressive it is for St. Ambrose to establish a Middle East Institute and, more broadly, how prescient this fine university is to integrate global engagement and international studies into its curriculum, culture, and campus life.
Some may ask, why establish a Middle East Institute in the heart of the Middle West? Why set it in a faith based, liberal arts university? The rationale could not be more compelling: It is a citizenship responsibility and humanitarian obligation.
Put in the most basic context, the fate of humankind has never been more interwoven with unprecedented security challenges. Jeopardized at one end by weapons of mass destruction and at the other by hatred-driven anarchy, civilization and civilized values are being challenged in unprecedented ways. Vulnerability is now the state of man, everywhere.
The bottom line case for international studies is thus a risk management one: the necessity to help students understand more deeply the world in which we live and, as a consequence, be able to assist society at large in developing the wisdom, policies, and tools to avoid the apocalypse. The only credible methodology to secure and ennoble life on the planet is to build habits and techniques of conflict resolution that do not involve recourse to violence at every level of social interaction. This can only occur if there is instilled in peoples around the earth a sense of common destiny, of shared community, of appreciation for the core importance of loving, or at least respecting, thy neighbor instead of hating what makes him different.
Accordingly, stewards of national power – and in a democracy that means all of us – have no choice except to strive to appreciate more fully the human condition. Livelihoods and life itself demand attention to wide horizons. As important as controversies of the day, politics of the moment, may be, they are generally surface concerns. To understand problems on the surface it is necessary to know the depths below: the history and culture of one’s own society and that of others, even the most distant.
What is needed in a world in flux is a new understanding of the meaning of the basics in education. Traditionally, the basics are about the three “R’s,” which here in Iowa are sometimes understood to be “‘readin, ‘ritin, and ‘restlin.” However defined, they are critical. Nonetheless, they are insufficient. What are also needed are studies that provide perspective on our times and foster citizen understanding of other cultures as well as our own communities.
To understand and compete in today’s market of goods and ideas we need a fourth “R,” what for lack of a precise moniker might be described as “reality” – which includes relevant knowledge of the world and its people near and far.
As individuals each of us tries to make sense of our own odysseys through life. Our universe is small in relation not only to the solar system but the communities in which we live. But wherever we might be, we are affected by global events, whether related to the challenges of national security or the global hiring hall. In this insecure political and economic environment, a deeper comprehension of the fourth “R” (reality) has never been more important.
How can we compete in our own markets if we don’t understand our own culture and its enormous variety of subcultures, or abroad if we don’t understand foreign languages, histories and traditions?
How can we understand our own era and the place of our own values if we don’t study other faith systems – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and the relationship of diverse religions to the Old and New Testaments?
How can we contain prejudice and counter forces of hatred if we don’t come to know more about each other?
How can we undergird our civic institutions and precipitate sound public policy if we don’t understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?
Several years ago I gave a talk at Georgetown, one of St. Ambrose’s sister institutions in Washington, D.C. Afterwards a visiting student from Egypt asked me a question I had never encountered. What, he queried, did I think was the most important subject a college student should study? I hesitated for a moment and then simply asked him how he would answer. Unhesitant, he replied: “Of course, it is comparative religion.” I then asked: “Why?” and he responded: “Unless we understand each other, we will never get along.”
The profoundness of his response made me think of a little noticed speech given in Iowa half a century ago. This audience may recall that in 1954 Winston Churchill gave a famous speech at a small college in Fulton, Missouri where he coined the term “Iron Curtain” to describe the oppressive hegemony the Soviet Union imposed on countries of Eastern Europe in the wake of World War II. A decade later the great British historian Arnold Toynbee gave a speech at another small Midwestern college, Grinnell, where he hoped to make a deeper impact with a different kind of message. He chose the moment to warn the Soviets that their notion of class warfare and Marxist economic determinism held no historical justification. At the same time he cautioned our country, which was then in the thralls of a seminal civil rights movement, that the divisions in the world that were most likely to lead to war in the foreseeable future had little to do with race discord. Instead, he predicted the great conflicts to come would more likely be rooted in religious differences.
Toynbee’s speech was either un-noted or dismissed in Moscow. It received little comment here, even in this state where it was delivered, because it seemed out of touch with the times. We, after all, were deeply challenged in the mid-1960s by the ramifications of two centuries of failure to implement our revolutionary commitment to equality of rights for peoples of African ancestry. Nevertheless, relative to many countries, America had come a long way in advancing greater respect between various faith systems. Hence, we had only distant memories and limited grasp for the religious intolerance that was part of our own country’s past as well as that of the various societies from which most of our forebears had come. Yet, as we have seen in recent events, disdain for other faith systems characterizes many parts of the word.
History is strewn with intolerant acts rooted in religious differences. The Holocaust, for instance, is without question the greatest sin mankind ever perpetuated on itself. It and its aftermath have created a special tie between America and Israel. But, to understand the Middle East we must also recognize that Muslims note that they weren’t complicit in the Holocaust. Accordingly, Palestinians argue that they deserve to be recognized as holding legitimate historical claims on parts of the Holy land. Unfortunately, as in many human relations, radicals tend to weaken their own positions when they employ uncivil tactics, terrorism being an extreme example. Some like former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even ignite discord by denying history itself and suggesting that the Holocaust simply did not take place.
Only demagogues like Ahmadinejad fear the liberal arts. Like would-be thought controllers before him, he purged all humanities courses from any content not approved by censors. The liberal arts are anathema to tyrants precisely because they are specifically intended to liberate the mind, which is harder to incarcerate than the body. Yet the will of a people interested in exploring ideas, self-governance, and self-expression cannot forever be held in check. It was, in the end, the singular leadership of a shipyard electrician in Poland, a poet/playwright in Czechoslovakia, a Pope in Rome, and poorly armed tribesmen in Afghanistan who overthrew the hegemony of a totalitarian state. And it was a generation of young activists demanding dignity and seeking opportunity who sparked the civil rights movement in America and Arab Spring.
The history of our country is one of assimilation and expansion of pluralism in culture as well as law. But there can from time to time be a kind of group-think in politics that leads to problems of institutional dysfunctionality.
Despite, for instance, America having an abundance of pragmatic leadership in commerce, science, the arts and every facet of the academy, the political system is increasingly hamstrung by ideological cleavages. President Eisenhower warned years ago of a military-industrial complex. Today my worry is more about the rise of a “political-ideological complex.” Ideologues use politicians as pawns while politicians use ideologues, especially those with deep pockets, as enablers of personal ambition. This reinforcing set of mutual interests has little to do with the common good and much to do with the break-down in civility in public life.
Care has to be taken to recognize that seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual, one political party or one ideological movement.
Whether a person knows a great deal or very little, caution should be taken about being certain of very much. To know a lot may be a preferable condition to knowing little, but the best and the brightest are not immune from great mistakes. Imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition. That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why civility is such an important part of an interconnected world polity.
If all men are created equal, it inextricably follows that public officials must respect and factor into decision-making the views and life experiences of their fellow citizens. Loyalty should principally be to country rather than party, to Constitutional processes rather than partisan posturing.
In governance, process is our most important product. We used to instinctively treasure our democratic processes and trumpet them as a model for the world. Today many around the globe see us as running through a rough patch. In exasperation and more than a little anger, American citizens find themselves increasingly using the adjective “dysfunctional” to describe Congressional decision-making.
When narrow interests and self-serving ambition trump the common good, respect for our political system declines. This trauma intensifies if for co-mingled reasons shoddy ethics increase reputation risk on Wall Street.
We have had more difficult times in our history. Far greater political intransigence, for instance, was reflected in the decade before the Civil War. Nonetheless, it is jarring for the public to see tremors develop in credit markets as budgets are put together in a crisis manner. There is fair reason at all times for philosophical disagreements to be aired between the political parties. But the greater our problems, the more important it is for the political establishment to work out differences in an open and respectful manner.
Understanding other perspectives is particularly important today because of the unprecedented burden put on us by modern science. In the profoundest political observation of the last century, Einstein noted that splitting the atom had changed everything except our way of thinking. Given mankind’s new capacity not just to wage war but destroy all life forms, we have little choice except to try to understand how and why others think the way they do.
Never has it been more important for individuals in the public arena to appeal to the better angels of human nature. Whether the issues are social or economic, domestic or international, the temptation to appeal to darker instincts must be avoided. The stakes are too high. The health of nations is directly related to the temperance of statecraft, to whether public officials inspire hope or manipulate fear.
It is also related to the depth of knowledge applied to decision-making. In reviewing, for example, our decision to go to war in Iraq it is extraordinary how inadequate attention to cultural issues may have cost lives and reputations as well as money. Yes, there was an “intelligence” failure related to misjudgments about alleged Iraqi complicity in 9/11 and the status of Iraq’s nuclear and bio- chemical weapons capacities. But the greatest “intelligence” failure was our
lack of understanding of the region, the history of its people and their religions.
Despite having gone to war in the Persian Gulf a decade earlier, Congress and Executive branch policy makers understood little of the Sunni/Shi’a divide when 9/11 hit. Likewise, despite the French experience in Algeria and the British and Russian in Afghanistan, we had little comprehension of the depth of Islamic antipathy to foreign intervention. And, despite the tactics of a Daniel Boone- style patriot named Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, who attacked British garrisons at night during the Revolutionary War and then vanished in South Carolina swamps during the day, we had little sense for the effectiveness of asymmetric warfare.
A skeptic once suggested that the liberal arts are little more than studies of flaws in human nature. Actually they uplift on the one hand and warn on the other. The power of a few to commit acts of social destruction and the contrasting capacity of a few to precipitate uplifting change has grown exponentially in the last century. A race between these contrasting capacities is gathering momentum.
For the best of our values to prevail, Americans must awake from historical slumber. A renewed emphasis on the study of various liberal arts disciplines, especially history and international relations, is vital because of our unique role in the world and because academic testing tells us that Americans have more limited historical and geographic knowledge than virtually any other advanced society.
To look presciently forward we have no choice except to look carefully back.
History has a circular quality. It tends to repeat, sometimes rewind. Wisdom, by contrast is linear. Smart people, parents tell their children, learn from their own mistakes. A really smart person, a corollary might suggest, learns from the mistakes of others. And a sage gleans great truths from the wise as well as mistaken steps of those who came before.
Every circumstance is, of course, different than any other. We don’t ever walk in exactly the same way in the same physical or social environment. People and situations change. Hence it is important to think imaginatively as well as pragmatically and historically. There are many ways to stimulate the imagination, from reading literature to studying and creating art. But the lynchpins that most often tie other studies together are history and story-telling, oral and written. No disciplines outside the liberal arts more effectively allow us to put on the shoes of others in past ages and different contemporary circumstances.
St. Paul once suggested that we all look through a glass darkly. Metaphorically, Paul may have made the ultimate case for humility. While faith may be absolute, Paul suggests that man simply doesn’t have the capacity to know the will of God or apply perfectly the wisdom of His apostles on earth. An analogous lack of certitude should be applied to history. There can be clarity about certain historical facts like names and dates but the whys and wherefores of events can be elusive. It is no accident that history can be more controversial than current events. Nonetheless, despite the fog that always hovers over memory, it is clear that the deeper our understanding of the past, the greater our capacity to cope with the present and mold the future.
Life of society and the individual is a continuum. History may be the story of the dead but it never dies. It continues to shape who we are and how we think.
Over the years I have often referenced a literary moral about open-mindedness derived from a set of four novels called the Alexandria Quartet that I first read in college. Written half a century ago by the British author Lawrence Durrell, each book is a first person narrative covering the same cluster of minor events between the two world wars in Alexandria, Egypt. An individual may wonder why read about the same happenings four different times? It ends up that while the events are the same, the stories are quite different. One person’s perspective proved to be only a snapshot of reality. The moral Durrell implicitly sets forth is that a clear picture cannot be pieced together without looking through the lens of a multiplicity of eyes and experiences. If such is the case in one town in one time frame, doesn’t it take many eyes and many perspectives to develop a bare inkling of understanding of a moving kaleidoscope of events, especially when they occur thousands of miles from home?
Change and its acceleration hallmark the times. Nevertheless, what is old and a relative constant in decision making about issues that may be large or small is human nature. No one knows, for instance, the origins of multi-century references to the seven deadly sins. For this discussion, I would like to dwell for a second on the distinction between greed and pride. Greed is disproportionately a problem in business where it is constrained by competition and the rule of law. Pride, by contrast, disproportionately affects politics where in a democracy elections are the principal constraint.
Greed is more practical than pride because the profit motive is self-evidently rational. If, by example, a book store owner were to read two books and like one better than the other, he could be expected to inventory more of the one he likes than the one he appreciates less. But if customers show more interest in the one he underestimated, he won't place another order favoring the one he likes. He will go with his customers.
Pride-centered politicians, on the other hand, find it difficult to acknowledge error even when their customers (the voters) want a new course chartered. Changing directions is out of character. If a policy is not working, a liberal might argue that the problem is that not enough money has been thrown at it; or if it is a conservative initiative that is not panning out, an advocate might suggest that the tax cuts were simply not steep enough. And in foreign policy when a policy is not going well for whomever is in power, there is always a temptation, as in Vietnam, for decision makers to double down, allowing the logic of one policy to trip, domino-like, escalations of failing initiatives.
We all saw a prospective emanation of this phenomenon as we watched American policy toward Syria unfold last summer and fall. The President had previously indicated that he would not countenance direct intervention in Syria unless the government crossed a red line by employing chemical weapons (CW). In the wake of the second alleged Syrian usage of CW, political pressure mounted for the President to keep his word. Maintaining consistency, the White House found itself committing foursquare to a policy that the President clearly preferred to avoid but had verbally locked himself into.
Understandable hesitancy became evident as the President suddenly announced last August that he wanted the Congress, then in recess, to authorize military action before he ordered a strike. Perhaps concern had grown in the White House that a failed intervention could have intolerable political ramifications, especially if Congress did not share accountability, if a strike did not go well; or if the wrong people came to power if it went too well; or in either case, if it precipitated an escalation of terrorism around the world. Concern might have also grown that efforts to destroy CW stockpiles with air strikes could precipitate the lethal release of gases and that attacks on army units guarding them might increase the risk of CW stockpiles being transferred to terrorist parties not accountable to any government.
lntervention in civil wars, which in Syria pits Sunni against Shi’a, has clear pitfalls with unknowable dimensions. An American air assault in Syria could easily have caused us to become mired in a third war in the Muslim world, and tilting to the Sunni side against a Shi’a-leaning government could have strategic consequences throughout and perhaps beyond the Muslim world. Ironically, the more effective American military action against Assad would be, the greater the risk would grow that factions in the opposition associated with al-Qaeda would accrue power in Syria. Accordingly, the White House tried to make clear that it was not contemplating placing “boots on the ground.” Rather, it indicated that it was only considering a kind of Goldilocks strategy -- an air strike that would neither be too much nor too little: in other words, a lethal and functionally improbable “non-interventionist” intervention. The only certitude about such an intervention was that there would have been little ability to contain its consequences.
Get breaking news sent instantly to your inbox
Then out of the blue a Russian leader whom we had reason to distrust announced a diplomatic initiative to save the White House from a policy that polls indicated the American public did not support. There was thus a palpable sigh of relief in Washington when Putin's call on the Syrian government to destroy the country’s stockpiles of CW under international oversight was accepted by the Assad regime. It allowed the administration to reconsider and hold military engagement in reserve pending Syrian fulfillment of the Russian-led agreement.
If Putin hadn't preempted the stage, the U.S. appeared poised to add a new dimension to a presumptive “policeman of the world” role. The strategy under consideration would have, in effect, established the U.S. as the “punisher of first resort” for arms control violations.
The case for the international community to continue to address CW usage in Syria and begin more meaningfully to counter other humanitarian travesties taking place in the country is powerful. The challenge is to figure out how to go about it. Just war doctrine requires more than a just cause; it also requires responses that are proportionate and likely to lead to a constructive outcome. The latter requirements are judgmental stumbling factors despite the death toll rising to over 150,000 and the millions of Syrians who have become uprooted from their homes.
Complicating traumas in the region has been the Russian takeover of Crimea and the new tensions in Eastern Ukraine that could in the near future lead to another partial or even complete dismemberment of Ukraine and quite possibly domino interventions in other former republics of the former Soviet Union. Despite therefore American acquiescence to a Russian initiative in Syria which itself was designed to address American concerns, it is unlikely that any broad improvement in U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations is on the near horizon.
Indeed, after the Syrian acceptance of the Russian CW proposal, Putin wrote an op-ed in the New York Times castigating President Obama for referencing “American Exceptionalism” in a manner that self-linked his policies with the neo-con strategies of his predecessor’s administration. At issue for Putin, as well as for others around the world, is what a claim of “exceptionalism” implies. America is undeniably an exceptional country with an exceptional history. But many around the world doubt whether we are always exceptionally wise and whether strategic preeminence entitles our government the unilateral right to contravene norms of international law and civil conduct that apply to others.
Friends and foes alike may have differences with U.S. foreign policy but I can recall no precedent of a foreign leader writing an op-ed in America’s signal newspaper criticizing a sitting American president. Putin presumably had multiple motives. One rationale for his brazen criticism of President Obama quite likely relates to the ramifications for Soviet leadership of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
In 1962 we had inadequate, indeed faulty, intelligence about what Castro and Khrushchev were up to and were caught completely off-guard with the placement of nuclear armed missiles in Cuba. It wasn't until decades later that we learned: a) that many more missiles had been sent to Cuba than our satellites revealed at the time; b) that Castro had notified Khrushchev that he approved their launching against the United States if American troops attacked Cuba; c) that in Moscow, Russian leadership had concluded that Castro was Acrazy@ for his unsolicited approval of a nuclear strike; d) that four Soviet submarines patrolled the area and that each carried a single nuclear warhead; e) that the captain of one submarine which the Pentagon ordered a squadron of destroyers to bring up with depth charges had in response approved launching the warhead. But because Soviet naval protocol required the approval of three officers before a nuclear warhead could be unleashed, the launch did not take place, making the single officer who refused to concur, a Russian submariner named Vasili Arkhipov, a true hero of the Cold War.
In this strategic context, the scope of which from beginning to end we knew shockingly little, the Attorney General Robert Kennedy was instructed in a last ditch effort to avert military intervention to inform Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador, at his Justice Department office that we were prepared to make a deal. We would agree to withdraw our intermediate range missiles from Turkey during the coming year if the Soviets immediately withdrew their missiles from Cuba. But our part of the bargain was conditioned on Soviet leadership not revealing what we had agreed to do in exchange.
Consideration of a mutual nuclear “step-back” (Turkey for Cuba) had been proposed by our Ambassador to the U.N., Adlai Stevenson, at the first White House meeting JFK called on the crisis that had a diverse set of high level participants. Concern in that initial meeting, vocalized most strenuously by General Curtis LeMay, was high that such a bargaining approach would be perceived to represent an American cave-in.
In this highly charged political setting, the Pentagon was ordered to prepare for an invasion. Meanwhile, American geo-strategists concluded that within a year our Mediterranean fleet could be equipped with a sufficient missile deterrent to compensate for withdrawal of missiles from Turkey. Therefore, with only seven Americans authorized to know of the offer, an unlikely interlocutor, the young Attorney General, presented the proposal to the old hand, the Soviet Ambassador. Dobrynin had one question for which the Attorney General had no instructions. Could the politburo inform top Russian generals of the American commitment to withdraw missiles from Turkey? Robert Kennedy hesitated for a moment and then presciently said “yes.”
Forty-eight hours before 200,000 American troops were to land in Cuba, the Russians informed the White House of their acceptance of our terms.
In a 2002 forum on the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis at the Harvard Kennedy School, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Ted Sorensen, JFK’s principal speech writer and close political adviser, gave somewhat differing interpretations of decision-making. Sorensen emphasized the judgmental adroitness of the President. McNamara quietly, almost under his breath, murmured: “We lucked out.”
The relevance of these events informs the Syrian CW crisis in the precedent established of a Russian leader precipitating a crisis and then becoming a central figure in its resolution. The manner of the resolution of the Cuban dilemma was such that President Kennedy was allowed to stand tall while Khrushchev, despite achieving a significant Soviet objective, was humiliated.
By keeping his word not to reveal the full terms of the agreement, Khrushchev had made himself vulnerable to an eventual politburo coup d’état. It is thus not unlikely that when Putin, who had over the years authorized the significant provision of arms to the Assad regime, suddenly decided to embrace the position of an American President on chemical weapons, he had the Kennedy-Khrushchev stand-off in mind. Accordingly, his seemingly gratuitous critique of President Obama in the New York Times was almost certainly designed to ensure that he would not be backed into a humiliating position similar to the one Khrushchev had been placed. Putin wanted to one-up rather than be one-upped. Pride matters at every level of politics, particularly the top.
Governance is about choice making: how to tax, what to spend, how to protect the national interest. In international as well as domestic affairs the build-up of debt over the past decade has reduced federal options. Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has gone so far as to suggest that our debt may currently be our greatest national security threat. The debt issue is aggravated by the fact that the wars we have been fighting and the interventions we have been making in this new century are unique in history. No shared sacrifice by the American people was called upon. As citizens of the first country that has ever opted to “finance” war with tax cuts, we have passed on to future generations the obligation to absorb the multi-trillion dollar costs of an interventionist foreign policy. We seem to have forgotten or simply ignored the lessons of the Agreatest generation@ which not only won the greatest war in history but accepted financial and strategic responsibility to help re-energize Europe in its aftermath and prevail in the Cold War.
In Western civilization’s most prophetic poem, The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats observed that the center cannot hold “when the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats was reacting to the seemingly senseless carnage of World War I trench warfare. But the chaos of modernity has produced a crisis of perspective as well as values that give his words contemporary relevance.
Education is an enterprise that like all others has a price tag. So in this era of splintered politics and globalized economic competition, the question for policy makers is straight-forward: should attention to the liberal arts and international studies be upgraded or allowed to become decreasingly relevant? In pondering a response it is instructive to consider the “what ifs?” in the life of a nation.
What if there had been no Vietnam War, no intervention in Iraq, no maintenance of troops in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the first Gulf War, the presence of which was the cause célèbre of the al-Qaeda plotters who struck the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?
Would America today have a stronger economy, more security at home, and less anti-American hostility around the globe?
We, of course, have no choice except to plug ahead with policy options constrained by contemporary events. But of the many lessons emerging from this generation of strife, one surely is that cultural considerations matter, that international studies and outreach programs and, most significantly, liberal arts curricula in colleges and universities, are compelling social investments.
Which brings me to the final “what if?” What if society allows liberal arts and international studies to fade in significance?
Is it not likely that America’s capacity to lead the world and manage our own institutions of governance and commerce will diminish?
To fail to study history and ponder deeply what it means to be human, to refuse to contemplate the human condition revealed so resplendently in great literature, and to decline to think through the sources of our religious differences and the ethical and philosophical quandaries of the day is to impoverish our potential for making good decisions for ourselves and for our country.
We discount the role, indeed the power, of the liberal arts and the importance of international studies at great cost and greater risk. That is why this distinguished Catholic university should be commended for making a commitment to inculcate its student body and the community it serves with a respect for faith based values and an understanding of their relevance in a splintered world.
In this context, the leadership of Sister Joan and the generous gift of Greg Schermer to advance understanding of distant lands and disparate peoples are deeply appreciated.