Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ministering in a time of war and conflict in the Middle East

An Ethical Musings' reader sent me these comments:

I like your blogs. You have the ability to condense complicated arguments into thought provoking ideas.

I went to see the Viet Nam veteran play on Sunday and just thought about war in general and the results of a few who make the rules but don't suffer the consequences. How sad we live in a world where others die for unjust reasons. In most cases, those who we declare as our enemy would be good neighbors if they lived near you. I was glad to attend the play about what it looks like on the other side of the wall and what people might tell those who died.

"Seeking God's preferential treatment, especially if doing so will disadvantage or harm others, is immoral, a conclusion that most of us along with the Ethical Musings' reader whose question prompted this post intuitively recognize."

So how did you manage to preach to service members? I never ask for favors, just to do what is right.

So can you explain who our enemy in the Middle East is? I hear military leaders try to explain what we are trying to accomplish; but they have no idea how to solve this issue, only kill. Their backup is to establish a stable government as if there are any in the area.

Thanks again for your blogs.

Preaching to military people was sometimes a challenge. The problem became acute when faced with the prospect of ministering to our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither the prospect of caring for individuals nor being a war zone was the issue. The issue was that I strongly opposed both wars, seeming them as impossible to justify morally and as inevitably ending badly. Unfortunately, chaplains are usually expected to be cheerleaders for the troops and their mission, a role that I could not in good conscience fulfill. So, I retired.

Only one other major war occurred during my military service (there were several minor conflicts such as the invasions of Grenada and Panama). Thankfully, I had spent the first Gulf War - through no choice of mine - on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains in DC and did not have to face that question directly. I know that when I preached to President George H.W. Bush on the eve of the first Gulf War at Camp David that he was not happy with my sermon on just war theory. I think he sensed my opposition to the prospect of war and had already decided to launch the conflict.

Who is our enemy in the Middle East? That good question has several answers.

First, our enemy in the Middle East is the fundamentalist/extremist, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Christian fundamentalists unhelpfully want to defend Israel against all enemies, real and imagined. Many Christian fundamentalists believe that the end of the world, an event for which they yearn believing that it will usher in Christ's return to earth and the fulfillment of God's kingdom, requires Israel to re-occupy the lands it held during Solomon's reign. The US should ensure that Israel's enemies do not annihilate it, but that is highly improbable given Israel's status as a nuclear power. Ultra-orthodox Jews (aka Jewish fundamentalists) are also our enemies, cooperating with Christian fundamentalists to expand Israel's territory at the expense of Palestinians and adamantly opposing every move to create an independent, viable Palestinian state. Muslim extremists, compared to Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, receive a disproportionate amount of negative press but are equally responsible for the lack of progress toward peace in the Middle East. Their violent intransigence has repeatedly disrupted peace in Israel, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. Violent extremism – regardless of its religious flavor – is the enemy of civilization, democracy, and peace.

Second, every independent state in the Middle East (this list includes Syria, Jordan, Israel, Iran, Egypt, and others) is our enemy, though I use that word in a different sense. Independent states pursue their own national interests. When those interests conflict with US national interests, then we are at odds with them. For example, Israel's government deems it imperative that Iran not develop or acquire nuclear weapons. Given the physical distance between the US and Iran as well as the US's overwhelming nuclear arsenal and conventional military superiority, Iran possessing nuclear weapons poses little threat to the US. This divergence in positions has been obvious during negotiations with Iran of an accord to forestall Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons.

Third, from yet another perspective, the US has no real enemies in the Middle East. No Middle Eastern state or non-state organization (e.g., a terror group such as al Qaeda) poses an existential threat to the US. Although some terror groups located in the Middle East may perceive opportunistic advantages from launching a terror attack on the US, those organizations lack the people and resources to launch multiple attacks much less to wage war against the US. From this perspective, the only real enemies the US has in the Middle East are those that we (or our politicians or media) create.

Fourth, from yet another perspective, an enemy of the US in the Middle East is any state or non-state group that attempts to disrupt the global oil market. Although the US buys relatively little oil from the Middle East, the market for oil is global. Disrupting source of supply directly affects price and availability of oil across the global market. Supermajor oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron may have their headquarters in the US and need their size and global reach to develop increasingly expensive new sources of oil. However, these supermajor oil companies also have little loyalty to any state and their very existence is indicative of the global nature of oil markets.

As the commenter correctly observed, the US military (or the civilian politicians who wield or would wield that sword) consistently respond to threats by wanting to kill our enemies. With Israel the only stable government in the Middle East (identifying a second stable state in the Middle East is really difficult if one takes more than a cursory look) and a lack of clarity about who is the enemy, nobody should be surprised that the US has for decades had an ineffective foreign policy in the Middle East.


Doug said...

But aren't many of the actions taken overseas based on the principle that the enemy of my friend is my enemy too? Much of the middle eastern mess is caused by the resulting oversimplification of complex situations. Life is mostly shades of grey.

George Clifford said...

Often, a better policy has been that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or at least ally, in the current conflict. You're right, Doug: life is mostly shades of grey.