The Axial Age in China

When I told my students that the culture tendency of China over the centuries has been very conservative, I made sure they understood that I was not referring to positions and issues considered conservative in contemporary American politics. Instead, I was using the word for its core meaning—that the people of China, for the most part, wanted to converse the past. They were uncomfortable with change. New ideas tended to be discouraged; holding to the tried and true tended to be the preferred mode of operation.

Traditional Chinese thought sees the world composed of two forces: yin and yang. Yin is described as feminine, soft, dark, and passive; yang is described as masculine, hard, bright, and assertive. Neither yin nor yang is good; neither yin nor yang is bad or evil. Balance between the two is good. Imbalance—too much of either or two little of either—is bad. Therefore, if a family or community or nation has reached a balance of yin and yang, the worst thing they could do is change. Maintaining balance is better than seeking any improvement. Losing balance is worse than remaining steady, poised, and centered.

Another traditional Chinese belief reinforced this inherent conservatism. Many Chinese people believe that, when people die, they become more powerful. They linger around their families, blessing those who maintain the ways of the past and afflicting problems on those who threaten changes. When one’s ancestors are enforcing the older ways, one does not risk innovation. This burden fell hardest on young women who married into a family and needed to be taught the ways of the family. Any trouble in the household would be pinned to their behavior, and they would be firmly directed to follow the family path, not to innovate. Over time, they would bear sons, the sons would grow up, and the women who once suffered the instruction of their in-laws would now have power to train the next generation.

Only one good way exists to introduce new ideas into such a culture. One must insist that the new ideas are old, that they had been forgotten, that they must be restored to remove current problems and to bring back the peace and harmony of the past. Confucius (551-479 BCE) was a master of such presentation. He insisted that he taught nothing new, that he was restoring the old ways of China that had been forgotten. He introduced no new gods, no new ceremonies, and no new customs. He spoke glowingly of the past. But, while he claimed to be returning to the older and better ways, Confucius introduced Axial Age principles into Chinese thought. His approach was individualistic: Confucius directed people to look within themselves to find the virtues that would be expressed in proper attitudes and proper behavior, maintaining peace and harmony in the family, the community, and the nation.

Confucius was optimistic about human nature. He said that people want to be happy, that obeying the rules leads to happiness, and that people disobey the rules only because they do not know or understand the rules. Therefore, Confucius taught the rules that were appropriate to people in their various relationships: father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, ruler and ruled, friend and friend. Success in following the rules, though, came from inner virtue, from being true to one’s self. Like other Axial Age philosophers, Confucius directed people to search within themselves to find truth, virtue, and piety.

Although Confucius was mostly ignored during his lifetime, a group of students wrote what he said and continued sharing his ideas after he died. Over time, they became more accepted in China and in neighboring lands. Eventually, Chinese government even sponsored the teachings of Confucius. At times, no one could acquire a government job without first passing a test on Confucianism. A government established and in place valued the teachings of Confucius because he told people to respect and help their rulers, not to challenge them or rebel against them. Of course, any revolutionary government had to evade Confucianism. Mao’s Communist Revolution resisted the teachings of Confucius and included them among the evils that had to be overturned in China. But now, seventy years later, the Communist Party in China likes people to learn the teachings of Confucius, because he told people to respect and help their rulers, not to challenge them or rebel against them.

Around the same time that Confucius lived, another philosophy also emerged in China. Attributed to the legendary Laozi, the principles of Daoism also direct a person to look within himself or herself. But where Confucianism stresses rules appropriate to social relationships, Daoism pays more attention to observing the world, fitting into what is happening, and going with the flow instead of fighting the stream.

The Dao is not a god. No one prays to the Dao or builds temples to the Dao. But the Dao is at the center of the universe: it is the source and cause and meaning of all things. One might even say that the Dao “surrounds us and penetrates us [and] binds the galaxy together.” One does not resist the Dao; one cooperates with the Dao, observing the flow of energy around one and finding one’s place in that flow. The Daoist principle of wu wei, sometimes translated as “doing nothing,” is better interpreted as “effortless exertion.” A Daoist is active in the world, but the activity of a Daoist moves with the flow of energy, not against it. While a Confucianist might try to follow all the traffic laws, driving exactly at the speed limit, a Daoist is more likely to conform to the traffic; if all the other drivers are going sixty-five, the Daoist will go sixty-five. (Note: that is meant as an example of how the two groups think, not as a description of Chinese drivers.)

Some forms of Daoism express the thought that a person living in harmony with the Dao will not sicken, age, or die. Such harmony includes the right foods and beverage, the right amounts of exercise and rest, the right meditation, and the right attitude toward family and friends and neighbors and those in authority. Rumors persist among some Chinese Daoists that a small number of experts have achieved that balance and have lived for centuries, not in the cities and towns, but hidden in the countryside. In an effort to stamp out religion, the Communist Party sought the legendary long-lived Daoists to kill them. Failing to find them, Party officials announced that they never existed, that Daoism is a sham. Because those Party officials were backed by soldiers with guns, people nodded and agreed with them. But when the soldiers and the Party officials left, the same people told each other that the experts evaded the government searchers because of their power drawn from harmony with the Dao.

In the western world, Confucianism and Daoism are both studied and described as Chinese religions. They could just as easily be called philosophies. Neither movement added new gods to the gods already worshiped in China; both movements encourage people to honor the same gods that were already being honored. In the Roman Empire and in its aftermath, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle were often borrowed by Christian teachers and adapted to the Christian faith. Some people suggest that, stripped of polytheism, Confucianism and Daoism can also be blended with Christian teachings. Four hundred years ago, Jesuit missionaries in China said that the laws of Confucius were as worthy to be followed as the laws of Moses, but that grace and forgiveness come only through Jesus Christ. Likewise, one might translate verses from the first chapter of John’s Gospel to read, “In the beginning was the Dao, and the Dao was with God, and the Dao was God… all things were made through him… and the Dao became flesh and made his dwelling among us….”

Next to come: the Axial Age in India. J.

When people move

In the course of human events, migration has resembled an unstoppable force, and bigotry has seemed like an unmovable object. Left alone, either could prevail as the primary cause of events. Combined, the two have challenged each other repeatedly, contributing to the ebb and flow of history.

People move. Even after the Neolithic Revolution established settlements where people built homes and cities, tended flocks and herds, raised crops, and set down roots, groups of people have still sought better homes for themselves and their families. People are constantly looking for better farmland and superior water resources, safer and more defendable homes, nicer weather, kinder neighbors, and opportunities to start over after escaping previous problems. When discussing this fact in the classroom, I often asked the students how many of them had parents still living in the same house where they lived when those students were born. The number who said yes was generally small—at times, I was the only one in the room whose parents had not moved.

So, the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley in southern Asia gradually became home to increasing numbers of Indo-Europeans migrating from the north. The blending of Harappan with Indo-European cultures created the Vedic culture of India. Contemporary scholars are unsure which elements of Vedic civilization came from the Harappan strain and which came from the Indo-European strain. Since no one today can read Harappan writing, this question remains unanswered. But the blend of the two cultures definitely produced something new.

The Chinese culture built a wall to keep northern Asians out of their land. The Great Wall of China also prohibited Chinese people from leaving the country without permission, and it provided a great stimulus project that employed many Chinese workers who would otherwise have been unemployed. The Wall was not built at one time, or even in one century. Different segments were built at different times and were connected later; segments were repaired and improved over the centuries, so that the wall that tourists visit today is not the same wall that the Chinese people built long ago. But the Wall remains as a reminder of the extent to which governments will go to prevent unwanted immigration.

Many centuries later, the Romans also struggled to limit migration into their empire from the north. They also built walls. They positioned legions of soldiers on the borders. They even made agreements with some immigrant groups that they would be granted Roman citizenship if they would remain on the border and prevent other groups from entering the empire. Still, so many northern Europeans wanted the advantages of Roman citizenship and of life in the Mediterranean climate that the Romans were unable to prevent their entry. Goths and Vandals and Franks and Burgundians and Saxons and many other groups migrated into the Empire. They adopted some of its institutions (including Christianity) and adapted others, blending them with their own cultures. The results of this migration are called medieval and modern Europe.

Then came the Vikings. They came from Norway and Sweden, settling in Denmark and northern Germany and France. They entered the Mediterranean Sea and became involved with the Christian and Muslim civilizations living there. They sailed up the Dnieper River and established Kiev, the first capital of Russia. (Although Russia is a Slavic nation, its name comes from the label given to the Vikings of Kiev, whose hair and complexion were red.) The Vikings colonized Iceland and Greenland and even found their way to Canada. Hagar the Horrible and the Minnesota football team are far too weak to justly credit the major influence the Vikings had on western civilization.

After 1500, Europeans and Africans poured across the Atlantic Ocean into the Americas. Most Europeans made the trip voluntarily; most Africans were brought as slaves.  Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans were brought to the western hemisphere. After the slave trade was abolished, Europeans continued migrating to the New World, and many east Asians also crossed the Pacific Ocean for life in the Americas.

Yet the story of migration would not be complete without the opposing force of bigotry. Most cultures view the world as divided into “us” and “them.” The books of Genesis and Exodus correctly report the hostility the Egyptians felt toward outsiders, particularly the Semitic people of western Asia. Greeks distinguished between people who spoke Greek and those who spoke other languages—all those other languages sounded like “bar, bar, bar,” to the Greeks, so they called those outsiders “barbarians.” Jews distinguish themselves from Gentiles. The Chinese culture has traditionally seen itself as the only civilization, the center of the world, surrounded by barbarians. Migration is hindered by laws, walls, armed forces, and other deterrents because most groups of people consider themselves better than others. After all, if they didn’t consider themselves better, wouldn’t they seek to improve? Differences of appearance, language, food traditions, religious beliefs, social and political organization, and other cultural differences distinguish one group of people from another. Sometimes a group of people migrates successfully and makes its home in a new place, blending its culture with what they find in that new place. Sometimes (as with the Europeans coming to the Americas) the migrants are so dominant that they gain little from those groups they replace. Rarely does a government succeed in preventing migration into the land it controls. The higher the standard of living in a country, the more likely outsiders will want to move into that country and live there.

The dangers of migration and bigotry, when they face one another, can be reduced with a few simple concepts. One is genuine curiosity and interest, from both groups, about the traditions and practices of the other group. Another is willingness of the older group to teach its ways to the newer group. Legal acceptance of some immigrants and rejection of others can be based upon willingness of the migrants to conform to the values of the native culture. A fundamental requirement for peaceful coexistence is that both groups view the members of the other group as people. People deserve respect. Migrants and other outsiders are included among the neighbors that God’s people are commanded to love. But those strangers also have an obligation to respect their new neighbors, to obey the existing laws of their new homes, and to contribute to the success of the place they now call home. When stubbornness turns to fear and hatred, then the history of migration and of bigotry becomes ugly, often tragic. J.

More history

As people long ago settled into patterns of raising their own food—tending herds and flocks, and planting and harvesting crops—they looked for places with fertile soil, reliable sources of water, and safety from dangerous animals, including other people. Many of these ideal settlements were in the river valleys of Asia and north Africa. In China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, settlements grew until they had become small kingdoms, societies knit together by their common needs and desires.

Plentiful food made specialization possible. Some people focused on the crops and others on the flocks and herds. Still others helped to build houses and enclosures for the animals. Some made tools. Others made clothing from plant fibers and animal skins or fur. Some specialized in the arts, including story-telling; they maintained the histories of their people and also their religious beliefs. Some specialized in leadership; beginning as heads of families and of clans, they became the ruling class of their small nations. Some specialized in hunting and in military protection of their settlements. Some became priests and spiritual leaders, keeping the people in tune with God as they understood God.

Eventually, all these river valley settlements developed written language. Sumer, in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) appears to be the earliest place where humans wrote, although the Harappan civilization in India may have begin writing around the same time. Although the earliest records were probably inventories of food and other items being preserved, soon the same symbols were adapted to record other information that people were determined to preserve. One of the oldest documents found in Sumer is a recipe for brewing beer.

Literacy did not remain an ability of the privileged elite. Egyptian Pharaohs erected public monuments in their cities and at the borders of their land, telling people what they had accomplished. Hammurabi, king of a Sumerian city called Babylon, had the laws of his government carved in stone and placed prominently in his city. These practices indicate that many people living in those places were able to read. Some ancient writings have been preserved, not because of planning, but by fortunate happenstance. Temporary records scratched into clay tablets in western Asia were cooked when the cities caught fire, being hardened for long-term preservation. During the Shang Dynasty in China, people with questions about the future wrote those questions on animal bones. Religious specialists then heated the bones in fire until they cracked; the cracks running through the questions provided answers by means of the specialists. Although we do not know how they determined their answers, we know what questions people were asking in ancient China, which is splendid information for historians.

Many records have been lost over time, because they were written on materials that disintegrated. Others cannot be read because no one today knows those ancient languages. Ancient Egyptian can be read only because of a stone found in Egypt that contains the same message in three languages, including Greek. The Harappan language of ancient India and some of the written languages of the western hemisphere remain mysteries because no similar key has been found to interpret them.

Other civilizations did not bother trying to preserve the written word. In many places, unfavorable climate guaranteed that no written materials would last for generations. Africa, the South Pacific, and parts of the western hemisphere relied largely on oral tradition rather than a written record. For a long time, historians were suspicious of oral tradition. They figured it changed from generation to generation, much as spoken messages are changed from person to person in contemporary cultures. People who never relied on writing improved their memory skills; story-tellers in those cultures were able to maintain reliable versions of ancient narratives because their communities expected that skill from them. Today, historians place far more trust on the oral traditions of such societies; they combine that information with archaeological discoveries and accounts written by visitors to those societies to develop a comprehensive historical record of those nations.

Record-keeping practices constantly change. Electronic storage of information is still new, but the switch from scrolls to codices (the modern form of the book, with a spine and a cover) happened roughly two thousand years ago without bringing history to an end. Record management specialists and archivists continue to refine their skills at preserving digital information. Much will still be lost, as many books and papers are lost, and many ancient documents have disappeared. What is most valuable, though, will be saved. Future generations will study us to learn about our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our fears, and our perceptions of ourselves. We may seem as strange to them as the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Harappans, and Chinese seem to us today. In the most important ways, though, we will all be the same, because we all are human. J.

Foreign policy today

I have never agreed with any United States President one hundred percent of the time, and I have never disagreed with any United States President one hundred percent of the time. Although President Biden represents some ideas and policies with which I strongly disagree, I also believe that responsible citizenship includes support in the areas where President Biden is doing the right thing.

I am glad that the Biden administration is taking a firm position regarding Russia and China. Those two nations and the United States are the three most powerful countries in the world. A balance of power based on mutual respect is needed among these countries. Russia and China are both essentially dictatorships; neither has the checks and balances of a true democracy. Moreover, both countries are historically led by small centers of power. Neither has a history of government that is of the people, for the people, and by the people. As a result, their foreign policies must be shaped by pressure from outside their borders. The United States must be ready to protect and defend its friends. Our government must work with friendly governments in other parts of the world, showing a united front against Russian and Chinese aggression. At the same time, the United States and its friends must continue to speak openly about human rights around the world, including human rights in Russia and in China. We cannot meddle directly in the internal affairs of either country. We can, however, remind those governments and the rest of the world that human rights are important. We can also use economic agreements and negotiations to support policies in Russia and in China that recognize human rights and to punish actions that work against human rights in those places. President Biden and his administration have made commendable first steps in these areas, and we can hope that the course continues to be followed.

Working with people of west Asia and north Africa, the United States must continue to oppose terrorist organizations and rogue governments that threaten peace and security and that would deny human rights wherever they seize power. President Biden passed an early test of his determination to stand by American principles last month when he ordered air strikes against militias in Syria that receive support from Iran. President Obama was unable to end American military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and President Biden should not make the mistake of promising to withdraw all American troops from those countries. (After all, the United States still has military bases in Germany and Japan.) A reduced American presence in those places is not necessarily a problem. But we do not want to appear to be abandoning our friends or to be leaving that part of the world in the hands of determined enemies to our core values of democracy, freedom, and human rights. These values are not opposed to Islam; we should never be seen as fighting against an entire religion, but we should also not surrender the battlefield to religious extremists who seek power and control at the expense of freedom and human rights.

The Biden administration has already learned that it cannot hold to the illusion of an open border with Mexico. We need (as we have always needed) control over immigration to embrace incoming people who agree with American values and will support and benefit our country while barring the entrance of criminals and others who would undermine the American way of life. Efforts to elicit the cooperation of the governments of Mexico and of Central American countries to control migration into the United States are a good step and should continue to be pursued. At the same time, the United States must continue to have border security while dealing with would-be immigrants in a way that is both just and compassionate.

A joke during the eight years that President Obama was in the White House claimed that Obama’s solution to the immigration crisis was to change the United States so it became a less desirable place to live. Some of President Biden’s policies threaten to follow the same path. As he said during the campaign last year, though, Biden’s policies are not as extreme as many of those suggested by his opponents for the Democratic nomination in 2020. Evidence shows that President Biden will have to negotiate with Republicans in Congress to achieve any of his goals. The American system of checks and balances is working and will continue to work. We should continue to pray for all our elected leaders, and we should be prepared to support the best candidates for Congress in 2022. Meanwhile, the presidency of President Biden is not, thus far, the unmitigated disaster that some Trump supporters predicted. J.

Against socialism

I know better than to check social media at bedtime. But, for some reason, I decided to look at Facebook late Saturday evening. When I saw that my sister had shared a poster favoring socialism, my ability to sleep was entirely lost. My first impulse was to reply to her that someone must have hacked her Facebook account, that she could not possibly have intended to share that post. But instead I shut off the computer, went to bed, and tossed and turned for hours, framing the response I wanted to make to her post.

Of course, what I arranged in my head during those hours far exceeded the proper length for a Facebook comment, or even for a single WordPress post. In fact, before I fell asleep, I probably had the makings of a book arranged in my mind. I have taught college history classes. I have addressed socialism as an economic theory: its origins, its beliefs, its strategies, and its results. I have read much about socialism—in fact, this month, I have been reading the philosophical writings of John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth century philosopher who favored liberalism and who addressed the idea of socialism. I am well prepared to discuss the topic, or to write a book on the topic.

But I know how my sister operates on Facebook. She sees a poster that appeals to her, and she shares it. She has not built a consistent philosophy of history or economics or any other field; she does not try to remain consistent with her posts. At one time she will share a poster calling all people to care about each other, respect differences of opinion, and try to get along. An hour later, she will share a post describing how horrible people are who do not wear masks during this virus crisis. She is not seeking to discuss or debate positions. She would not take kindly to a corrective comment.

I wish, though, that I could persuade her to consider the history of socialism. The first time socialism was attempted on a national level was during and after the Russian Revolution, when they formed a country that they called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). After World War II, the Soviets exported their brand of socialism to other countries. For example, Germany was divided between the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany). The western government adopted a free market economy, like that of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other western nations. The eastern government adopted a socialist economy like that of the USSR. After a few years, the eastern government had to surround western Berlin with a wall to keep the German people from fleeing socialist East Germany in preference for free-market West Germany. The wall remained until the socialist government of East Germany collapsed in 1989. Two years later, the socialist government of the USSR also collapsed, ending a seventy-year experiment in socialism—an experiment that found socialism lacking in value.

The experiment was even more decisive in east Asia. Korea was (and remains) divided between North Korea (socialist) and South Korea (free market). Presently, the South Korean economy ranks roughly tenth in the world (depending upon which measurement is chosen), while North Korea comes in at 117th. In 1949, a revolution swept through China, capturing twenty-one of its twenty-two provinces. The government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan and maintained a free-market economy, while the Peoples’ Republic of China fostered a socialist economy. During the twentieth century, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore also maintained free market economies. The results were so clear that in the 1980s, the Peoples’ Republic of China turned its back on socialism and adopted free market practices. China now has the second largest economy in the world.

Vietnam was divided as Korea and Japan were divided. Because the division happened later, Vietnamese people were permitted to relocate before the border was closed in 1954. Ninety thousand Vietnamese citizens moved from south to north, into socialist North Vietnam. One million Vietnamese citizens moved from north to south, into free market South Vietnam.

In 1959, a new, socialist government was established in Cuba. Since then, a few American citizens have tried to get into Cuba. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have tried to leave. In 1980 alone, 125,000 fled Cuba in the Mariel boatlift. At other times, Cuban citizens have risked their lives trying to get out of socialist Cuba and into the free market United States.

Numbers do not lie. Historically, socialism is a failure. Any attempt to swing the United States from a free market economy to a socialist economy is choosing failure for the United States. I have much more to say about this. In the coming days, I will. J.

Let’s talk about the Golan Heights

“After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability,” President Trump tweeted earlier this week. As with everything else the President has said and done over the past two years, Trump has been greatly criticized for those words. But is he right or wrong in what he tweeted, and how much does it matter?

Golan is mentioned four times in the Bible. It is in the region of Bashan, east of the Jordan River. Under Moses the Israelites captured Bashan, and the land was allotted to the tribe of Manasseh. Golan was designated a city of refuge, where a person guilty of manslaughter (but not of murder) could live in safety according to God’s law.

As the kingdom of Aram (ancient Syria) grew in strength, the Golan Heights became contested territory between Aram and Israel. Even before the development of modern weapons, the Heights had significant strategic military value. Like much of western Asia, the land eventually became part of the Assyrian Empire, then moved through the hands of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Eventually the land was captured by Muslims, under whom it was ruled first from Baghdad, then from Egypt, and finally from the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Empire fell apart after the First World War, Syria (including Golan) was made a French protectorate, although the British seem to have been more involved than the French in developing the modern state of Syria. The country first declared its independence in 1941, but over the next thirty years several Syrian governments rose and fell before the Assad family rose to power in the 1970s.

After World War II, European governments gradually gave full independence to their Asian protectorates. The British divided the land along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea between Israel and Palestine, basing ownership of each section upon whether the residents were primarily Jewish or Muslim. (They had previously done a similar division of land between India and Pakistan, based on whether the residents were primarily Hindu or Muslim. Neither division has worked well for the residents of those countries.) Almost immediately war broke out between Israel and its neighbors. The result of that war was the end of Palestine as an independent nation: some parts were captured and claimed by Israel, and other parts were assimilated by Jordan. In 1967, almost twenty years later, a second war broke out between Israel and its neighbors. During that war, Israel captured two-thirds of the Golan Heights, recognizing their strategic value. After a third war in 1973, Israel and Syria were persuaded to negotiate their borders in the Golan Heights region and elsewhere. The negotiations, overseen by American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, involved a detailed study of the region. Kissinger spent nearly the entire month of May 1974 working with both governments. He describes the process as “grueling,” adding that “the long shuttle produced an accord that, with all its inherent complexity, fragility, and mistrust, has endured….”

Shortly after he wrote those words, in 1981 Israel announced that it was annexing its occupied portion of the Golan Heights. Syria protested, and the United Nations deemed the annexation null and void, without international legal effect. Until this week, all people speaking for the United States government on this topic have agreed with the United Nations ruling.

The involvement of the United States in the wars of 1967 was largely—but not entirely—conducted with an eye aimed at the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States was one of the first nations to recognize Israel in 1948, and the Soviets tried to draw Muslim countries in Asia and north Africa into the Soviet sphere of influence. Syria and Egypt particularly benefited from Soviet military equipment and advisors. When they nearly overwhelmed Israel’s forces in 1973, President Nixon did all he could to resupply Israel. One result of his action was an Arab boycott of petroleum sold to the United States and its allies, followed by a massive increase in the price of petroleum. This threw the United States into an inflationary recession for the rest of the decade. But Israel survived the war, and shortly thereafter Egypt threw out Soviet advisors and welcomed the United States as an ally.

The Iranian revolution of 1978 demonstrated that more is involved in foreign relations than a cold war between two superpowers, as the new government in Iran was equally opposed to both the United States and the Soviet Union. Of course, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet government in 1991; but terrorist attacks on the United States ten years afterward demonstrated that America still had powerful and determined enemies. In response, President Bush announced a war on terror, one which included attacks upon Afghanistan and Iraq. The primary goals of those attacks were to confront terrorists on their home ground and to eliminate their access to weapons of mass destruction. Another hope was that governments could be established in those countries that would include western values of freedom and democracy. It must be noted that Israel, during all these years, remained the only true democracy in the region; all its neighbors, even allies of the United States, were under dictatorships.

Years later, while the United States was still struggling to build democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, citizens of Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets and effectively overthrew their dictators. In what was being called the Arab Spring, it seemed at first that a wave of freedom was moving through the Muslim world. When the people of Libya rose against their dictator, Khadafi used his armed forces to try to remain in control. In response, the United States intervened with military force to keep Khadafi from killing his own people, and he was overthrown and killed. Assad in Syria seemed to be the next tyrant to topple, but the United States did not help the people of Syria as it had helped the people of Libya. Even when it was demonstrated that the Syrian forces had used chemical weapons against citizens, they received from the United States little more than a frown and a scolding.

What makes Syria different? One difference is that Assad has maintained ties to Russia in spite of the change in government there since the 1970s. Vladimir Putin does not want the Russian people to hear of dictators being overthrown, so he has provided much support and help to Assad’s government in Syria. While the United States under Barack Obama temporized over Syria, pro-American forces were weakened and an Islamic State was declared. Problems also arose in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as western freedom and democracy did not emerge as expected.

Donald Trump promised that he was going to do things differently. He showed this after the election but before his inauguration when he spoke with the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Ever since Mao’s revolution in the 1940s, American leaders and diplomats have joined the rest of the world in maintaining the fiction that China is one country and has only one legitimate government. From Truman to Nixon, the Communist government was treated by the United States as the illegitimate government, but Nixon opened communication with the Communists, and President Carter recognized the Communist government as legitimate. (All American Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, have made it clear to the Communists that a military taking of Taiwan would not be permitted.) President Reagan once spoke of “two Chinas,” but backpedaled from that position. Not speaking to the President of Taiwan was part of that diplomatic fiction which Trump chose to eschew.

Now he has recognized the reality that the Golan Heights belong to Israel and not to Syria, something which has been practically the case since 1981 (and since the occupation of the Heights began during the 1967 war, fifty-two years ago). As he does on many matters, President Trump has openly recognized reality rather than clinging to polite fictions. After all, the United States has no reason to appease Syria; its government is no friend of our government. Describing reality in blunt terms sometimes is the beginning of solving problems between nations. About the only reason to protest Trump’s statement about the Golan Heights is the reflex assumption some people make that, if Trump did it, it must be wrong. J.