Diplomacy and law-making, not more force, needed in current conflicts

An interview with James W. Skillen

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sunni insurgents are taking over in Iran, the crisis in Ukraine worsens and the war between Israel and Gaza escalates – all this without any consensus among Western nations as to how to respond to these conflicts.

For insight into the unrest around the world today, Christian Courier’s Editor spoke with Dr. James W. Skillen, the first executive director and later president of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), a Christian policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

You have been involved for so many decades trying to raise awareness about principled pluralism – government-protected religious freedom for all – among Christians in the political sphere. From that vantage point, how would you address a situation like Israel and Palestine today?

The great predicament of Israel and the Middle East is so deeply rooted in the historical problems. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, there was no cohesion about how these groups would relate to one another. The UN’s approval of the state of Israel created the potential for nationalism among the Palestinians, but the Arab States never agreed how to support a place called Palestine.

Given the ideologies of both sides, given the deeply rooted prejudices, given the inadequacy of there even being a Palestinian identity except in opposition to Israel, I see no future there unless things radically change. With everything shifting in the Middle East, not to mention Europe’s increasing distance from Israel’s modes of operation, I think Israel would have to see itself as an island that needs to cooperate with nearby states. Will it stand in the world on the basis of military power? More Jewish people live elsewhere in the world now than in Israel. For the future welfare of the Jews, how important is a state which is under complete threat? On the other hand, one can’t imagine them giving that up.

What is the U.S.’s most recent “destructive delusion about Iraq,” to quote an essay of yours from 2007?

Not only in Iraq but in the area, we are still living with the pieces that fell apart under President Bush. The delusion that by simply knocking off Saddam Hussein, freedom lovers there would rise up and form a democracy and govern themselves happily was of course completely untrue. We didn’t have any plan to govern the place even though we knocked off the government. The need for reconciliation between groups couldn’t be done in a short time.

The efforts after President Obama came in, when he pulled back yet needed to do something to keep the radical groups from forming a separate government – there’s no adequate way to pick up those pieces. Obama’s in a tremendous dilemma, hoping that the U.S. can stay out but not be overwhelmed with the mess there.

Should we have something invested in the preservation of a place called Iraq?

That’s a longer-term question. Iraq was artificially created; all that goes back to the end of the Ottoman Empire and World War I. I don’t know that we should be thinking of Iraq as a territorial state as the most important thing to preserve. On the other hand, it’s not obvious how it would be deconstructed and reorganized under two or three states, because you still have the same kinds of problem of Sunni and Shia living together. If a Shia state in the south got organized it would be closely aligned with Iran and whether that would be good or not is hard to say.

Historian Daniel Pipes said last year that “Islamism has peaked as a world phenomenon.” Do current events – in Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Egypt – substantiate or challenge that prediction?

There’s no evidence that radical Islam is in decline. It’s probably not true that a centre of dominance like the one Osama bin Laden held still exists, because [today] these people are spread out and operate small scale operations in different countries. It’s more diffuse; there’s no single centre of the activity. And it’s complicated by many other factors: ethnic, anti-authority, so many different tribal groups. These radical groups pick on and pick up on other differences.

A cover of a recent Macleans magazine here in Canada showed the back of President Obama’s head with the tagline “America Surrenders.” It’s critical of the hands-off approach you were discussing earlier. Can you tie that into your understanding of civil-religious nationalism as a form of idolatry?

Many of the criticisms of Obama are coming from the more conservative side here, mostly Republicans, who I think still live with the illusion that if the U.S. just stood up and started punching and told the world how to turn, it would do so. It’s an illusion that started with Vietnam. That the U.S. can just use force has proved to be wrong – in Iraq, Afghanistan.
If there’s real war, and the conflict depends on one military beating another military, then the U.S. standing up makes some sense. But as has been proved, the problems in Vietnam, in Iraq and in Syria are not a big military that’s opposing us or our allies. That was President Bush’s mistake – after killing Hussein he thought we achieved victory. The problems actually have to do with governance, with conflicts within countries. And that needs to be handled with diplomacy.

Does that require a paradigm shift away from seeing the United States as “God’s chosen vessel to lead the world to freedom and democracy,” as you wrote in 2009?

Yes, that’s fundamental. We still need to go out and promote democracy – if that looks like trade agreements, that’s one thing. But when it goes in the direction that we feel free to break the law and do the things we’d condemn others for, because we’re promoting democracy and it’s part of an American identity, we’ll not only win more enemies but will not nurture a world we need.

Is there a smaller country that models the kinds of international relations the U.S. needs to adopt?

I’m not thinking of the U.S. getting to a position where it needs to hand over major power to China, Russia, Germany, and say “We’re not going to do anything anymore.” There’s no reason, however, that the U.S. can’t practise the kinds of diplomacy practised by Canada and, for example, Britain, now that its empire is gone.
The arts of diplomacy and negotiation and international law-making need to take precedence, [otherwise] we’re just falling into a vacuum.

One last quote for reflection: “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. [. . .] Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. [. . .] Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death” (Matt. 24).

What is Jesus saying to the churches of the west today?

That passage is prophetically pastoral by saying to Christians, “Don’t imagine that joining the right military will bring the Kingdom down to earth on your own.”

The world is in crisis; sin has not yet been finally defeated; don’t imagine that in the on-going movement of history you’re not going to see wars, rumours of wars, nation rising against nation. In the West, [persecution of Christians] only happens on a small scale; but in other countries, in China, that’s a fulfillment of the passage.

The context of the passage does not then say, “Oh well, not to worry, nothing we can do.” What we can see in Scripture is that we are supposed to do everything possible to love our neighbours, to pursue the good for everyone. We ought to be asking, “How do we act as citizens, politically, to distinguish the good from what is evil? How do we seek justice – just states, just laws?”

We ought to see a modesty in government; it’s not able to solve all problems. That doesn’t mean that government doesn’t have a role to play, especially in relation to other governments. We really need to be working for the end of nationalism as the spark to war, asking instead, “how can we work together?”

Skillen’s new book, The Good of Politics, was reviewed by Dr. Koyzis in the July 14, 2014 CC and at christiancourier.ca. The book expands on the Kuyperian view that “God created humans for political life.”


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