Shadow Government

Chuck Colson and American foreign policy

The death of Chuck Colson over the weekend marked the loss of an American original. As many news stories attest, Colson embodied a quintessentially American life, from his rise to prominence in the Nixon White House, to his disgrace and imprisonment for Watergate-related crimes, to his conversion to Christianity and rebirth as the head of a worldwide prison reform ministry and leading evangelical social thinker. Colson's experience was also deeply human, a moving account of grace and redemption that resonated with millions of those across the globe influenced by his work and thought.

Yet most of the obituaries neglect Colson's notable influence on American foreign policy. Colson emerged in the 1980s as a leading thinker on Christian participation in politics and policy. His 1989 book Kingdoms in Conflict sought to recover the Augustinian tradition and make it accessible to American evangelicals, who continued to be susceptible to erratic swings between pietistic withdrawal from the world and triumphalist political crusades. Instead Colson argued for a thoughtful participation in politics that sought to achieve proximate goods, while respecting pluralism and not conflating the earthly realm with the eternal realm.

Based on this theological foundation, in the 1990s Colson helped lead a broad movement of American evangelicals into activism on an array of foreign-policy issues, including religious persecution, human trafficking, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, genocide in Sudan, and human rights atrocities in North Korea. Colson also equipped evangelical Protestants to engage in co-belligerency on specific issues with people of different faiths but similar goals, including Catholics, Jews, mainline Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, Bahais, and secular human rights activists.

I inadvertently experienced a sense of Colson's power to mobilize in 1996 when I worked as a staff member for Sen. Sam Nunn. One day Colson dedicated his daily radio broadcast to a human rights issue in Kuwait and urged his many listeners to phone the State Department switchboard and ask the secretary of state to take action on this case. Unfortunately, Colson erroneously read out to his listeners my direct office line rather than the State Department phone number, and I spent the rest of the day explaining to befuddled callers that I was not Warren Christopher.

Mixed-up phone numbers notwithstanding, Colson and like-minded leaders formed a coalition that achieved some notable policy and legislative successes. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the State Department offices of International Religious Freedom, Trafficking in Persons, Global Aids Coordinator, Special Envoy for Sudan, and North Korea Human Rights would not exist today without Colson's work in generating support for their creation. In the process, Colson and his cohort helped raise the awareness of American evangelicals about a broader set of global issues beyond their traditional domestic social concerns.

In his political thought and engagement, Colson took as his role model the early 19th-century British parliamentarian, abolitionist, and social reformer William Wilberforce. Wilberforce, as Colson often noted, spent as much time thinking carefully about how he participated in the political process as worrying about the outcomes. In Wilberforce's case -- which Colson attempted to emulate -- this meant principled disagreement with his opponents while holding them in charitable regard, and marshaling persuasive evidence and appeals to conscience rather than indulging in deceptions and demagoguery. The challenge now for the next generation of American evangelicals, who first developed their foreign-policy awareness under Colson's influence, is to deepen their political and theological reflection and engagement on complex global issues that do not lend themselves to simple humanitarian appeals, such as great-power relations, international economics, and war and peace.

For all his decades of post-prison work to make a better world, Colson never lost sight of his faith in the world to come. With his passing he has crossed the proverbial river, and I pray he now knows the peace of eternal rest.


Shadow Government

Debating Iran in the marketplace of ideas

Who is winning the public debate on Iran, the hawks or the doves? The polling is pretty ambiguous, as it usually is at this point in any foreign policy crisis/issue. The public is not committed to using military force, but the narrow majorities expressing support for military strikes actually represent a fairly permissive public option. Should President Obama choose, he probably could rally strong support among the public, at least initially.

To be sure, the public seems to want exactly what President Obama wants, which is to resolve this stand-off diplomatically. Yet it is striking how, in the absence of strong war-talk from the White House -- indeed, given all the poor-mouthing of the military option from administration officials -- there is still a reservoir of public support for the hawkish policy.

This is all the more remarkable, given that we live in a post-Iraq era. The echoes from Iraq are almost deafening in the Iran debate, and yet the public has not closed off its ears to the hawkish view.

My dovish friends think this is because the intellectual playing field is biased in favor of military action. They claim that it is easier to hype threats than to downplay them, and they speak about a dysfunctional marketplace of ideas that crowds out dovish approaches.

Such claims are not very persuasive. This might have been true in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But in the wake of the Iraq war, surely the opposite is the case. It is easier to persuade people that perhaps Iran is bluffing (or we have misunderstood their nuclear ambitions) because that is what seemed to happen in Iraq. It is easier to convince people that any war will drag on and be more costly than advertised because that is what happened in Iraq.

As a hawkish friend of mine pointed out to me recently, to argue the hawkish side feels like arguing in favor of the human costs of war. Emotionally and psychologically, it is easier simply to dismiss the threat and thus avoid the costs.

Public support for the hawkish position is not so strong or resolute as to force President Obama's hand. But it might be strong enough to allow a president who has repeatedly said that letting Iran develop a nuclear arsenal is unacceptable to take decisive action to launch military strikes to prevent that, if he believes it necessary.