CAMPAIGN 2008: Iraq and the war against jihadism

No matter who is elected president, American forces will remain in Iraq for a considerable period of time. The serious points at issue have to do with troop numbers, deployments, missions, and the question of a permanent American base in Iraq; “End It Now” and similar bumper-sticker admonitions ill fit the real world of moral and political responsibility. America’s Mesopotamian expedition has been very costly in lives, treasure, and political good will. Domestically, however, the adult questions have to do with what we’ve learned about the exercise of American power in a world in which the art of statecraft remains a subtle and complex one.

So whether it’s President McCain or President Obama, the next commander-in-chief will have to see the war in Iraq through to a successful conclusion. The possibility of just that—a  stable Iraq, safe for pluralism, governed responsively and responsibly—has been enhanced by the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by General David Petraeus over the past 18 months. Unlike other major American institutions—the Congress, for example—the U.S. military has an impressive capacity to learn from its mistakes, and from the mistakes of the nation’s political leadership. That, in itself, is a positive lesson to be drawn from the past five difficult years.

But it’s not enough. The country remains divided on the nature of the threat that could no longer be ignored after 9/11. A common understanding of what we are fighting, and why, is essential in building and sustaining a bipartisan consensus that will allow presidents of both parties to conduct the war against global jihadism over the next several decades—and to do so through all the instruments of statecraft, of which armed force is only one. That struggle is, among many other things, a struggle in defense of religious freedom—a core Catholic concern in this or any other election year.

So here are some questions that Catholic voters might pose to the two principal presidential candidates:

1) How do you define the enemy in this new kind of war? What role does distorted religious conviction play in creating the dangers we face from terrorists?

2) Whatever you may have thought in 2003, how do you think Iraq “fits” within the global struggle against jihadism today? Do you think it possible that Iraq might become a kind of Middle Eastern Poland—the domino that sets in motion a long-term regional trend toward responsible and responsive government?

3) What can the United States do to ensure that those Christian Iraqis who have fled Iraq in recent years have the opportunity to return to a home that is safe for them? What should the U.S. be doing now to protect the remnants of Iraq’s once-vibrant Christian communities?

4) What specific steps will you take to enhance American intelligence capabilities, which have consistently failed us over the past decade? What training programs in the languages and cultures of the Islamic world will you implement in order to upgrade the capacities of both the CIA and the Department of State?

5) If the war against jihadism is, at bottom, a contest between two very different ideas of the just society, what will you do to enhance our national capacity to make the case for civility, tolerance, and religious freedom through our public diplomacy? Is broadcasting American pop culture into the Middle East the most effective way to illustrate our convictions about the good society? What should we be telling an Arab Islamic world, caught in a narrative of failure of its own making, about the goods that freedom brings? Or should we just drop the subject?

6) How will you guide the evolution of an American military that has become confident in its counter-insurgency capabilities and that now has a cadre of brilliant younger officers formed in the hard school of learning-from-our-mistakes in Iraq?

7) In the cases of Iran and North Korea, and indeed as a general principle, do you favor coupling U.S. anti-nuclear proliferation diplomacy to an American  pledge to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons?

8) What did you get wrong about Iraq?

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.