We need to do this in a way that marks us as being completely different than them, and I don’t mean by that how advanced our military is compared to theirs. I’m talking about a difference in character and mission.
For the record, I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. I’m not a Liberal or a Conservative, or even a Libertarian, though I suppose Libertarians will find the most to agree with here. I don’t fit easily into any of these labels but then neither will a solution to the Middle East crisis, if there is one to be found. We really can’t ignore ideas about what to do just because we might be able to pass it off as “an Evangelical answer” or “a Liberal answer.” The Middle East is complex and requires an honest look at all the options.
I’m not much into labels, but one label I do accept is “Christian.” This means different things to different people but nevertheless as Christians we do have answers to the world’s problems. Here are mine. I do hope this reflects not just a “biblical world view”, but reflects the heart of God for the Middle East.
I want to get one thing straight from the outset. My blood boils just like anyone else’s when hearing about the brutal atrocities being committed by ISIS fighters against just about everybody but themselves. I don’t have a problem with America being the world’s police force, or the big kid on the block protecting the little kids on the block. I think it’s an honorable thing to do. Speaking of which, I often wonder why the Middle East gets all the attention when far worse atrocities and genocide are happening in other parts of the world and we sit idly by doing nothing. I suspect it has something to do with the price of gas at your local station. But that’s the subject for another post.
As you can see I am not a pacifist. I don’t interpret “turn the other cheek” the way pacifists do. I really don’t think Jesus was thinking about international power politics when he said that. If you are a pacifist looking for a don’t-defend-under-any-circumstances answer you will be disappointed with me. Unlike a pacifist, I can find justification for dropping A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (but not invading Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq). The justification is that if that war had continued for just one more month then just as many Japanese people would have been killed and a lot more if the war had continued for more than one month, not to mention how many Americans would have been killed if Japan hadn’t surrendered when they did. History has proven that was a humane decision.
With the war on terrorism, however, history is not supporting our actions. Nobody can make a solid case for how many lives or even if there has been a net gain in lives due to our campaign to eliminate the terrorists. On the contrary we can point to specific instances where Americans have been killed BECAUSE of our involvement in the Middle East. We have those dead and injured numbers, and it doesn’t look good. Furthermore, many say we have killed more people in the Middle East than radical Islam has killed. Would they have killed more if we had left them alone? According to this article the answer is no, definitely not.
In Jay Sekulow’s (American Center for Law & Justice) new book called Rise of ISIS – A Threat We Can’t Ignore he lays out only two options, either negotiate with the enemy or “evil such as this must be met with force. Nothing else will do,” and by force he means try to kill every terrorist in the Middle East. If Mr. Sekulow is the voice of the Christian Right then I have a problem with the Christian Right and hereby turn in my membership card. As followers of Jesus there is so much more we can do and it’s sad that Christians can’t think of any. I no longer want to be a part of a movement that has nothing more to offer the world than what the world can produce well enough on its own: fear, hatred, and violence. As Christians I think we can do better. Way better.
I’m not a pacifist, but I am also not a war-mongering right winger so if you’re expecting a “peace through military strength” answer you too will be disappointed in what I have to say.
Emotion certainly is a good motivator of the masses, but we can’t remove our heads when deciding what to do about the ISIS crisis. We need to go about the Middle East wisely, in a way that’s not counterproductive, and helps both us and the people of the Middle East. We need to do this in a way that marks us as being completely different than them, and I don’t mean by that how advanced our military is compared to theirs. I’m talking about a difference in character and mission.
Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples of all nations. Many Christians believe radical Muslims are a lost cause but Jesus wasn’t excluding anybody from the Great Commission. The turmoil in that area, much of it caused by us, has left a huge door of opportunity for us to be the hands and feet of Jesus in that broken land but we are squandering it on more bombs to create more turmoil.
Before I can give you a plan that will make much sense you need to understand several presuppositions on my part:
- Killing off the terrorists is not possible. No expert on the Middle East thinks this is possible. Military leaders don’t even think it’s possible. Yet House Speaker Boehner said on 9/28/14 about our boots on the ground if no one else puts their boots on the ground: “We have no choice. These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don’t destroy them first, we’re gonna pay the price.” Listening to our military and political leaders you would think we effectively neutralized al-Qaeda but here we are yet again dealing with an organization that is “intent on killing us” which sprang from al-Qaeda and is so ruthless even al-Qaeda divorced them. Let’s learn our lesson from history. Islamic terrorist groups are like the mythological many-headed snake called Hydra. Cut one head off and two more grow back. I’m sorry Speaker Boehner, your ways not only don’t work but are working against us. You are just creating more of them. The proof of this is the fact there are at least 100 times more ISIS fighters than there were al-Qaeda members on 9/11. This happened BEFORE the Iraqi government told the Obama administration we need to remove our remaining 30,000 troops. This happened when we had the MOST troops in Iraq at over 100,000, shooting the most bullets and dropping the most bombs.
- Understanding the enemy is essential if we are to be effective in our efforts. Statements like, “Force is the only thing they understand,” “Muslims want to take over the world,” and “Radical Muslims are just doing what their book says to do” need to be examined for accuracy. It’s too easy to only hear what we want to hear in order to justify what our leaders want to do with our military might. Honest appraisal is not only needed, it’s just what upright people do. Remaining ignorant isn’t something Christians should promote or be proud of, and that includes repeating disinformation on Facebook because we are too lazy to find out if it’s accurate.
- Not only do we need to know our enemy we need to know ourselves. Are we doing what we are doing because we know it’s the right thing to do or because we have a war-mongering spirit? Are we really interested in a long-term, as-peaceful-as-possible approach or are we just looking to pick a fight? Is this really about “self-defense” or just an excuse to flex our military might? A Christian response to ISIS should include a measure of humility and self-assessment without being branded as unpatriotic or anti-American, which is how it’s all too often judged by the Christian Right.
- We need to stop thinking everything we do is right and we’ve always traveled the moral higher ground. We need to ask tough questions like, “Terrorists respond to our occupation of their land by taking down two of our skyscrapers and we respond to that by bombing the hell out of them. Why is their action any less justified than ours?” We need to stop worrying about being accused of being un-American, or God forbid, a Liberal, if we dare suggest we are a part of the problem. We need to put love of Christ above love of country and recognize when blind patriotism is getting in the way of approaching this crisis like Christians with the mind of Christ.
- The vast majority of Muslims don’t interpret the Koran the way Christians typically interpret the Koran who find verses to prove that Islam is a violent religion. That doesn’t make any more sense than atheists pointing out how God commanded the overthrow of Israel’s enemies as proof Christianity is a violent religion. Christians simply don’t interpret those verses that way. Our use of Koranic verses to paint all Muslims with a broad stroke is like a Muslim looking at Westboro Baptist and thinking this represents all Christians. Our enemy is not Islam, but a small minority within Islam that are their right-wing fundamentalist fanatics. Those who are trying to warn the West about what Islam is all about are spreading fear and hatred, not an accurate portrayal of Islam.
- Islam is consistently portrayed as a religion to be feared, one that has world domination and the destruction of Christianity as its goal. Some who live in this fear will tell you that when push comes to shove every Muslim on the planet will side with the radical Muslims against Christians, even if said Muslim was born and raised in America. Specifically, the line of thinking is if we don’t kill them they will come over here and kill us, just like they did on 9/11, because that’s just what these Muslims are about: destroying Christian and Jewish nations. 9/11 is often seen as proof of this. The truth is, every single Muslim terrorist attack for the last 100 years, and maybe longer (that’s as far back as I needed to go in my research), including 9/11, has been a territorial dispute. It has been a strike in response to what they perceive as aggression against their claims as a homeland, or in the case of Hamas in the Palestinian Occupied Territories has been an answer to oppression by Israel. We may dispute their claims and certainly the territory being carved out by ISIS is not a legitimate claim, but it’s clear 9/11 was a response to our aggression in their territory, not an attempt to expand their territory into the Western Hemisphere. To use 9/11 as proof we need to fear them swarming over our southern border and taking over our country is to fear an imaginary boogeyman. No Islamic group has designs on our land or would have the ability to do anything about it if they did. They are lucky enough to carve out a measly patch of rocky dessert in the Middle East with their Muslim brethren getting in their way let alone taking on the world’s superpower in our own land to make this the Caliphate States of America. I recently heard one military expert say on CNN that ISIS doesn’t even have the ability to overtake Baghdad even though it’s guarded by a corrupt and ineffective Iraqi army. We have overblown this threat.
- Whatever our military does it does in the name of Christ, as perceived by people in the Middle East. We may debate whether this is a Christian country, but to them we are a Christian country just as much as they are a Muslim country, Israel is a Jewish country, and India is a Hindu country. Whatever we do over there reflects on Christ, in their eyes. Every president we have had in recent history has claimed to be a Christian and so his reaction to the crisis over there is seen as a reflection of our leader, Jesus Christ, and so it should. Wouldn’t we as Christians want our leaders to ask themselves, “What would Jesus do”, and act accordingly? Including how and when to use drone missiles? Do we really have the luxury as Christians of separating what we do in some official secular capacity as somehow not falling under the lordship of Jesus Christ? What are we saying about Christ when the message we are sending them is, “We are going to occupy your poor miserable country and solve your religious, political, and social problems with our bombs and bullets.”? We may want to comfort ourselves by saying we are just protecting ourselves, but even if that were true that’s not the message they are getting. Just as in politics, perception is reality, and the message we are sending them is that we are an aggressor occupying force (which, regrettably, is a fair assessment). Our good intentions from this side of the ocean mean nothing to them on their side when we are killing their women and children. They in fact will be glad for someone, anyone, to provide some level of stability in the wake of our aggression, even if that someone is an extremist group they don’t even like.
- Our nation picking sides and pledging support for any group and hoping for a solution that will take longer than a year or two is not tenable or sustainable. We get a new president every four or eight years and that new president isn’t going to be hog-tied by the policies of the last president, and neither should he be except in the case of formal treaties between nations. Concerning the people who come to rely on our intervention, our picking sides has historically produced people that feel like they have been betrayed by our country and the Christian West when our policies change and we abandon them. This has happened so many times they simply don’t trust us anymore. Every president needs to ask himself what he is forcing the next president to support should he go through with his plans. We may want to blame President Obama for pulling all of our troops out of Iraq and creating a power vacuum for ISIS to fill but did President Bush really think every president after him would support his nation building efforts? It was different with his father’s campaign because that was a winnable war. Iraq advanced into Kuwait and President George H.W. Bush simply had to take the battle to an empty desert and cut off the invading army’s lifeline to their mother country. It only took four weeks to accomplish and once it was over it was over. We don’t have that luxury with terrorist organizations that don’t operate like standing armies. What worked in the 90’s won’t work in the 10’s. Some might call this “appeasement” but promoting alternatives to a kill-them-all-off approach can’t be compared to allowing Hitler to gain in strength as it’s often portrayed. Those analogies just don’t make sense in the Middle East of today.
- Not only do we foster distrust of us when we fail to carry out our commitments in the Middle East, we don’t really know who we can trust and just about everything we do over there backfires. Our involvement in the Middle East has never really worked well. Why does Obama think he’s got a solution? We help to get rid of the prime minister of Iran who wanted to nationalize their oil industry and then later the Shah we support doesn’t respect the common people and he ends up running for his life. We then get the Ayatollah Khomeini in his place. Because of Iran’s nuclear ambitions we pose sanctions on them which harm the populace but fail to slow down their nuclear program and simply alienates the people and turns the people against us. We arm Saddam Hussein’s army against the Iranians and then we have to go up against those same weapons when Iraq invades Kuwait and in the process we destroy Iraq’s economy making it vulnerable to extremists who have taken over the countryside and the second largest city. Then we arm the Iraqi army, again, in its struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS) and ISIS takes those weapons and, once again, they are being used against us. Saudi Arabia is considered one of our most loyal friends in the Middle East yet many suspect them of funding radical Sunni jihadists such as ISIS. We talk about not giving terrorist organizations “safe haven” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, but Saudi Arabia has been a major terrorist breeding ground for a long time. The majority of the terrorists involved in 9/11 were Saudis, you may recall. Are we also going to bomb Saudi Arabia to prevent safe haven? We supported the Afghan mujahedeen (people of the struggle, or jihad) against the Russians and then the country descends into devastating civil war with not two sides fighting each other but no less than seven sides fighting each other. One of those seven was funded by Osama bin Laden and the Saudis. Another one was led by a village mullah named Mohammed Omar that became known as the Taliban. We see despots like Moammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak that we don’t like and work to get rid of them only to have their two countries, Libya and Egypt, plunged into the hands of Islamo-fascists, namely the Muslim Brotherhood as well as various al-Qaida-associated terrorist militias. If all this sounds like we really don’t know what we are doing over there you would be correct, but that leaves a lingering question, does President Obama know what he’s doing over there? What are the chances that he does? Why are we supporting him? Why are more Republicans in Congress supporting him than Democrats when he asks for more money for more bombs?
- It seems to me terrorist groups love to have the US military get involved in the Middle East. If they can just find some despot in the area to fight against they know we will help them and enable them to succeed, which of course in the future will help them against us with the weapons we supply to them. Also, I’d be willing to bet terrorist groups that we fight against love to have us do it because our bombs anger the people over there because they see it as further encroachment on their land by a meddling superpower. This actually helps them in their recruiting efforts to find more jihadists willing to strap on guns or suicide bombs. Recent history has born that out.
So what are we going to do in the Middle East? One wonders if we had just stayed out in the first place if things wouldn’t be better off for everybody but unfortunately what is done is done. How are we to proceed?
I would like to suggest the following as we go forward:
- Stop using our military for an offensive war. Trying to purge the area of terrorists isn’t possible and is counterproductive for reasons I already gave above. We should only use our military for defending the weak and defenseless. This will require our boots on the ground if we are going to accomplish anything.
- Stop trying to get rid of despots. I understand the problem with despots who use chemical weapons against their own people. I get angry like anyone else when I hear about it. I want to see an end to such inhumanity but in the Middle East the cure is often worse than the disease. One thing a strong armed despot does well is keep radical jihadist groups in check. When we get involved in the overthrow of dictators in the Middle East we so far haven’t gotten a replacement that is much better. Maliki in Iraq, for example. Sometimes we get someone even worse like the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Right now we have a despot in Syria we would like to get rid of but one of the opposition groups in Syria is ISIS who we funded to help overthrow Assad. Who’s to say any other opposition group or “democratically elected” leader that fills a leadership vacuum when we get rid of Assad won’t be just as bad as ISIS? What makes us think whoever succeeds the despot will be so grateful for what we have done that they will automatically behave in a way that’s productive for the area? It hasn’t happened yet.
- Stop doing the things that motivate Islamic jihadism. According to Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s bin-Laden unit, the number one motivator for Islamic jihadism is our support for tyranny in the Middle East for nearly 50 years.
- Stop training and arming other armies. This usually backfires on us. We don’t know who to trust. The best we can offer is intelligence and our own boots on the ground to get stuff done because they will actually do what we want them to do. Do we think we can trust the Kurds? It wasn’t that long ago when both the Kurds and the Yezidis we have been trying to help were killing off Christians. Who knows if they won’t be doing the same if we give them the guns with which to do it?
- Have zero tolerance for collateral damage. There’s a big problem with relying on bombs – they cause collateral damage. It really isn’t so important to kill a terrorist holed up in some Syrian city that we need to risk the lives of others to get him. In a conventional war our laser and GPS guided ordnance works great but when the enemy is able to move into populated areas and use innocent humans as shields the only pinpoint ordnance that works is a sniper’s bullet. This requires a set of eyes at ground level, not a drone flying at several thousand feet. Unfortunately the reality is this set of eyes has to have a set of boots on the ground to get it there.
- Stop invoking overwhelming force. Overwhelming force works well in traditional warfare against standing armies but not against terrorist organizations. Unless our goal is to kill as many innocent civilians as enemy combatants. What we should be doing is enough to keep ISIS from advancing on the ground. We’ve had no-fly zones, why not several no-walk zones that disrupt their ability to move men and supplies around the region? Enemy military logistics are really easy to mess up when you have the abilities of our military compared to what they have. Remember the elite Iraqi Republican Guard platoons surrendering en masse to unmanned drones during the first Gulf War? When they knew they were cut off from Baghdad they had no other option.
- Use our military for humanitarian purposes on a large scale. We have used our military for humanitarian work on a limited scale in the Middle East but we need to make that our main purpose and our stated goal for being there. Many have assumed our whole reason for being there is as a humanitarian mission but humanitarian missions don’t create as many or more humanitarian crisis as they are trying to solve. If we really were there for humanitarian purposes we would be doing things completely different than the way we are doing it. It is obviously a seek-and-kill mission with little regard for the consequences to the citizens of those countries.
- Containment, not elimination. The risk ISIS poses to the world has been blown completely out of proportion to the point the only thing anybody can think to do is kill off all the terrorists, yesterday. More level heads who are experts in the Middle East have been saying that ISIS made quick and early gains by confiscating American military hardware and oil wells and burst out of Syria with alarming speed. Now that they have grown to the size of South Carolina they are going to need a lot of resources to actually rule those areas. Eventually they will run out of resources and crumble under their own weight. If we can simply keep them from advancing any further, which they can’t do without traveling in uninhabited desert areas where they can be engaged without enraging the locals, then we will have time to dry up their revenue stream so they can’t function any longer.
- Stop telling the Muslims our goal and purpose is to come after the terrorists. Not only do we sound like kids on the playground who don’t know of any better way to handle themselves but this sends the wrong message. It sends a message that this is the best we can do for them, we are doing this because we are afraid of their terrorists and feel like we need to scare the crap out of them, and we have our best interest in mind, not theirs. It also reinforces the idea that all our presidents are like the cocky, combative one from Texas.
- Reduce our number of bases in the area. Hawks squawk the loudest when anyone mentions this but good grief do we really need 600 military bases in 128 countries plus our dozen or so carrier battle groups to defend our nation? Do we really need a larger navy than the next biggest 16 navies combined, or spend more on our military than the next 11 biggest military spenders – combined? With those kind of numbers the rest of the world thinks we aren’t interested in our national defense but are more interested in world domination. Even our own military leaders don’t think we need all these bases for national defense and it’s really hard to tell the rest of the world with a straight face that we need all that for defense. I think reducing our footprint in the rest of the world will tell the rest of the world we really are about national defense, not world domination. This message will go the farthest in the Middle East where terrorist groups seem to get a particular sense of satisfaction out of going up against the world’s superpower, even if they get reduced to a skeleton of themselves.
- Take ownership of what happens after our mission is accomplished. This includes laying out how things are going to be when we have rescued a country or a people. If we go in and break it we should own it and own what comes after it. This could include warnings of the US taking over the civil government if whoever is elected violates human rights or fails to form a coalition government that gives all the players a stake in that government. If we shed our blood for them we should not have to tolerate a new leader favoring one sect over another and causing alienation of the Sunnis like Maliki did in Iraq. Ever since Vietnam we have accepted leaders in countries we have saved who become corrupt or dictatorial. We should make it clear to everyone involved that if the new leader crosses a line we reserve the right to remove him
- Start making the Great Commission our #1 means to a peaceful Middle East. We need to stop thinking of bombs and bullets as our only option in the Middle East and stop thinking of Muslims as somehow exempt from Jesus’ departing words to go and make disciples of all nations. Yes, I know our government is not the missionary arm of the American churches, but what we support or don’t support regarding our foreign relations as a nation should reflect our commitment to Christ and his mission. One question we should always be asking is, “Does this policy work for or against the interests of Jesus Christ to make disciples of all nations?” Notice I didn’t say, “Does this allow us to preach the Gospel?” The Great Commission is so much more than preaching. It’s not just talking about Christ, it’s being Christ, and yes, even an unsaved Marine working to help restore wholeness to a broken land through him protecting an unsaved Red Cross worker who is bringing clean drinking water to a village is a powerful ingredient to making disciples of Christ in that land. In the name of the Christian West, as they see us, they will be touching the lives of people eager for anyone to bring stability and basic human rights and needs. Not only will they be addressing some of the core issues that give rise to a radicalized Islam but will be extending the love of Christ to many who will some day consider the merits of what groups like ISIS have to offer. What better antidote against the lies and propaganda they will be hearing about the West than to come face to face with those who are helping them get education, clean water, electricity, and health care? Can we offer this to them or will the bombs and bullets that inflame their hatred be all they get from us? Furthermore, if they see care and compassion demonstrated from what they consider to be Christian nations won’t that make for receptive hearts when they do hear the Gospel, whether they hear it from western Christians or Christians in their own countries?
Many won’t like the idea of adding more religion to the mix of what makes up the Middle East thinking that religion is at the heart of the area’s problems but those people do not have an experience with the heart-changing power of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who do know that the best thing, and for the Middle East, probably the only thing that will bring peace, is if the people are submitted to the King of Peace. If the only “meddling” western nations had done in that area had been to advance the Kingdom of God by being the hands and feet of Jesus we wouldn’t have created so many problems and the Middle East would look totally different than it does today.
By Kirby Hopper
November 9, 2014
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