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Larry Arnn And Kenneth Calvert On Syria And The Middle East Of The 2nd Century

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This is the hour that many of you have come to say is your favorite hour of the radio week, the Hillsdale Dialogue, when I join with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and one of his colleagues. Today, it’s Dr. Kenneth Calvert to discuss one of the great episodes in Western Civilization, be it literature or art or music or history. But today, they’re both back, and we began a study of the early Christian years last week, and we’re going to pick that up in a second. But this is a time of anniversaries, Drs. Arnn and Calvert, the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington was last week. On September 10th, it’s the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie. It is the first anniversary of the massacre in Benghazi, and of course, a dozen years since the massacre of 9/11. But today, today, September 6th, is the 70th anniversary of the visit of a great man to a great university.

WC: …that we are your worthy brothers in arms, and you will know that we shall never tire nor weaken, but march with you into any quarter of the world that may be necessary to establish the reins of justice and of law among men.

HH: That, of course, is the voice of Winston Spencer Churchill, then prime minister of a nation at war and besieged, in a speech called The Price Of Greatness Is Responsibility. Dr. Arnn, I hope you are commemorating today at Hillsdale. I wrote about this at the Weekly Standard.

LA: I wish I had known that, yeah. Of course we are.

HH: Oh, good. It is a terrific, and let me read this speech. I’m sure you studied this speech with Martin Gilbert. There are four paragraphs in it that I want you to apply to our current situation, Larry Arnn, to Syria. They read, “Twice in my lifetime,” Winston Churchill said in Sanders theater 70 years ago today, “The long arm of destiny has reached across the ocean that involved the entire life and manhood of the United States in a deadly struggle. There was no use in saying we don’t want it, we won’t have it, our forbearers left Europe to avoid these quarrels, we have founded a new world which has no contact with the old, there was no use in that. The long arm reaches out remorselessly, and everyone’s existence, environment and outlook undergo a swift and irresistible change. What is the explanation,” he says to the president of Harvard, “Mr. President, of these strange facts? And what are the deep laws to which they respond? I will offer you one explanation. There are others, but one will suffice.” He pauses and goes on. “The price of greatness is responsibility, that the people of the United States had continued in a mediocre station, struggling with the wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and a factor of no consequence in the movement of the world. They might have remained forgotten and undisturbed beyond their protecting oceans. But one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without becoming involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies, and inspired by its causes. Had this been proved in the past as it has been, it will become indisputable in the future, that people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility. Although we live in a period so tumultuous that little can be predicted, we may be quite sure that this process will be intensified with every forward step the United States makes in wealth and in power. Not only are the responsibilities of this great republic growing, but the world over which they range is itself contracting in relation to our powers of locomotion at a positively alarming rate.” Seventy years ago, Larry Arnn, he said that. How relevant is it today?

LA: Well, of course, Churchill was a genius, and you know, I looked up, I had a feeling you were going to ask me about this, so I looked up, by the way, two quotes from Churchill that run a different direction. On May 9th, 1938, Churchill wrote, “This is no question of resisting dictators because they are dictators, but only if they attack other people.” Then, in a more famous speech in the United States, the famous Iron Curtain or Fulton, or Sinews of Peace speech given on March 5th, 1946, “It is not our duty at this time when difficulties are so numerous to interfere forcibly in the internal affairs of countries which we have not conquered in war. But we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man, which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world.” Now you just read a quote from Churchill during the Second World War, and I just read one from just before in relation to the Nazis, and just after in relation to the Communists. And they seem to cut in different directions.

HH: Yeah, they do. Wow.

LA: And I think I know what unites them. And Churchill, in the middle of the first World War, resigned his job and left in the cabinet, because he said, and he stood up in the Cabinet Room and he slammed his fist down, which he was not at all given to do, and he said those brave, young men dying 10,000 a day have a cause. They do not need you for that. They need a plan. So what Churchill thought, and I think this is demonstrable and easy to prove, is that we need a plan. What are we going to do there? And what are we going to get for it? And what we’re doing right now instead is we’re just posturing like crazy. An so what I would like to see is some, you know, I mean, I will confess I used to argue with the second Bush administration about this. I said you’re going to build a free nation in Iraq, are you? And they said yes. And I said how long’s that going to take? And they said well, they want it, don’t they? And I said is that what you think it takes, because you know, Churchill was a colonialist, but not in Iraq. So the funny thing about this whole thing is who’s our friend there, and what do we get when we help them? And I must say, I can’t find an answer to that question.

HH: Now I’m going to turn the floor over to Dr. Calvert here for a comment, but I will say this is a conundrum, because on the one hand, we have Marco Rubio voting against intervention. On the one hand, you have your Churchill quotes, and I have my ‘price of greatness is responsibility’. And since he delivered this at my alma mater, it must be the better speech. But we have two Kagan’s, Tom Cotton, General Keane, Bill Kristol, Michael O’Hanlon, Max Boot urging that we buttress this very weak president from the outside, and then we have so many smart people on the opposite side. So Ken Calvert, what would the ancients have us do?

KC: Well, the ancients, that’s a good question, and it would depend entirely upon which ancient you’re talking about. If you’re talking about St. Augustine, who you will be looking at in a couple of weeks, Augustine talked about the notion of just war, and there were definitely some restrictions on just war. If you want to go back and talk about Constantine, who we’re going to be looking at soon, Constantine would do what is in the best interest of the Roman empire, not even necessarily of Christianity, but what’s in the best interest of the empire, its stability, it’s continuity, and the peace within the empire. You know, Constantine in many ways knew what he was about, knew what needed to get done much more than some of the leadership that we experience, and therefore, I don’t know that there would have been much dithering over it.

HH: Dr. Arnn?

LA: Yeah, well, you know, Steve Hayes is in the Wall Street Journal today discouraging support for this resolution. He says what we ought to do is topple and set up a friendly regime there.

HH: Yes.

LA: And you know, if we, and if that’s a goal, and you know, first of all, that’s a real goal. I’m going to remind you about, remember who Edward Luttwak is.

HH: Yes.

LA: He was a very important and good guy in the Reagan years, and when we had a bunch of guys in barracks in Beirut, and they got blown up in the Reagan administration, Luttwak said that there are two hard policies, and they both make sense, and there’s one soft policy, and it makes no sense. And the hard policy is go to Damascus. And a hard policy is come home. Leaving a bunch of soldiers just as a present there is not. It’s a soft policy. So I think Steve makes sense. And I think if you’re going to do something, do something real. It’s in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, on the front page, not the editorial page, with quotes from the Obama administration that they wish to make strikes that do not change the balance of power, because they don’t trust anybody in the rebels, and they don’t trust Assad. Now the journalist, maybe he’s wrong, but he’s quoting sources inside the Obama administration. And you know, in other words, we’re going to go kill some people and blow up some property without an attempt to alter the situation, because we don’t trust either side. That’s what the Congress is being asked to support. It doesn’t make a blind bit of sense to me.

HH: That does not, but Cotton’s argument is we can, through the legislative language and through the vote, steer that incredibly feckless and incoherent policy towards the goal that you articulated Churchill as pounding his fist on the desk demanding. 30 seconds to the break, you are skeptical of that?

LA: Well, mostly what I think is I think we made a mistake in Iraq. I think that we, you should fight your wars in a way so that you’re stronger when you emerge from them than you were when you went in, if you win. And what we did in Iraq was we expected things to unfold in a very different way than they have. And by the way, I give them credit. Iraq has worked better than I thought it would. Is it a stable ally over time? I doubt that.

— – – – –

HH: Now we’ve got to go back, and Dr. Calvert, it’s important that we not lose sight of our friends, the Jews, as they are destroyed as a people and disbursed. What happened? And how do they come back round again into Western Civilization and thought at this point?

KC: Well, that’s a complex story to attack, but let me try to put it in a nutshell for you. The Jews returned from exile under the Persians, and under Persian rule, they had a certain amount of freedom, and a certain amount of ability to express their religious, and even to a certain extent, political will. And that was good. The Persians were conquered by Alexander the Great, and under Alexander the Great, the Jews continued to have a certain amount of freedom. They had an independent kingdom for a time, from 165-163BC. It was the last independent Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land until 1948. And so you see, they have this, and then they came under the Roman rule in the 60s BC. So you see, they have this experience during that time of being a people under polytheistic, under pagan rule, of people who worshipped one God, worshipped, were monotheists, worshipping one God. And that experience forged, for Judaism, a kind of sense of living in a foreign land along with their exiles earlier in the Old Testament in the Hebrew Scriptures. But under these foreign rulers, they had this experience of living under polytheistic or foreign rule. Eventually, they rebelled twice against the Roman empire, and they were disbursed. They disbursed into the Roman empire and to Europe, as far east as India and to Africa. And this idea of a diaspora became a very strong part of the Jewish experience. And certainly in Europe, they met some persecution there. And so this idea of a people living among other people in other nations was very much a part of the Jewish experience, at least until Zionism in the 1940s when they established a new state.

HH: Now we are, of course, in the middle of the high holy days.

KC: Yes.

HH: And it’s the Sabbath. And Dr. Arnn, I’m sure you’ve got lots of students at Hillsdale observing these high holy days. But what does this diaspora do to the West? I mean, I’ve got some obvious answers. It sets up many dramas and many intellectuals, and many different, incredible stories of redemption. But it’s unique in human history.

LA: That’s right, and you have to go back to the difference between the Jewish and the Christian faith with the ancient faiths of the ancient cities, because, and the Jewish is the first. After Alexander sacked and destroyed Thebes, Thebes was gone, and its gods were gone, and its people were, they’re not Thebans anymore. But the Jews were stubborn, and they had a God who said He was everybody’s God, and never mind that his place, He hadn’t, He had been a God who’d been mobile anyway, never mind that His place was gone, He was not gone. And so when these Jews are scattered, they carry a message, and it goes everywhere, and if you think of Western Civilization as the confluence of the streams that flow from Jerusalem and from Athens, different things, but both universal in their import, both covering all human beings with a message of good, then the Jews spreading carries that message. And you know, Churchill, we’ve been talking about Churchill today, he says once, he was a great, he was a Zionist, and he was a great lover of the Jews, represented them in Parliament often in his life, and he said once, wherever there are three Jews, there are two prime ministers, and one leader of the opposition.

HH: (laughing) Well, you know, I’m thinking of, in the notes to prepare for this, you talked about your friendship with Martin Gilbert and his friendship with the greatest archaeologist-warrior, I guess ever, and I was in the tunnels next to the Temple two years ago in the summertime thinking this is the most extraordinary place on the Earth. And it was, Dr. Calvert, destroyed, utterly destroyed only to be recovered again.

KC: That’s correct. It was destroyed in the second great rebellion of the Jews against the Romans, the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-135. And it was at that time that the entire city was destroyed. The Temple had been destroyed in an earlier revolt in 70AD. But Jerusalem remained as the center of the Jewish population. But yeah, the Romans made the city into a Roman city. They made it into a pagan city and drove out the Jewish population.

HH: Now Larry Arnn, your friend, Sir Martin Gilbert, with whom you labored for so many years on the Churchill biography, the one that continues at Hillsdale, he lived not far from that place, correct?

LA: That’s right. You know, it’s, I’ll just recur briefly to that discussion we started with. If you look at the strategic situation in the Middle East, Iran is the worst problem.

HH: Yes.

LA: And its influence with Russia and China is toxic.

HH: Yes.

LA: And we need to be figuring out what they’re doing and doing something about it. But the great hope in the region is the free country in the region, the country where an Arab, for example, can vote freely, write what he wants in the paper, serve in Parliament, dissent from the government, hold property securely, have a trial by jury. And that country is called Israel. And this Israel that we’re dealing with, modern Israel, which I happen to have spent a lot of time there with Martin Gilbert back in the 70s when I was young, you know, it’s a very extraordinary place, because it’s one of the oldest scenes of Western Civilization, and there are walls that are part of the old city wall that reach back to the time of King David. And Martin Gilbert happens to have a flat, well, he doesn’t anymore, but he did back then, have a flat that’s across the hill, across the wall from the old city of Jerusalem, and you could stand on his porch and look at all of that. And you know, modern Israel, when we think about these wars that we’re in right now, think about how modern Israel got founded, because this guy, Yigael Yadin, who was the excavator of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of Masada, a great scene of action in this Jewish revolt down by the Dead Sea, one of the greatest archaeologists in the world, was also a military commander in the 1948 war, where Israel won its independence, sort of on a shoestring and bailing wire basis, and then he was the commander in 1967 that took the old city of Jerusalem from the Jordanians. And one night, he came over to dinner at Martin Gilbert’s house. At that moment, he was the acting prime minister of the country. And we were sitting in a place where his troops had gone over in that battle. And that means it’s a small country, and a few guys did a lot of really great things.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Calvert, we were talking about, at the beginning of the show, the region and how it’s aflame, and of course, that’s not any different. Larry Arnn just mentioned Masada, where I’ve been. It’s really one of the more extraordinary places as well. But it is a region that has never not been riven by wars and terrible, terrible things. Any reason to think that that will ever be other?

KC: Well, that’s a good question. It was a place of conflict for centuries all through the ancient world, not necessarily because of its resources, but because of its strategic location. It’s located there in the ancient near East on the Mediterranean Sea, and it’s the place where the highways to Africa and to Egypt pass through. So it’s not so much its resources as its strategic location. And everyone wanted to control it – Babylonians, Persians, Romans, you name it, the Byzantines, and later, even the Arabs when they emerged out of the Arabian Peninsula. And so I don’t know that we can say that it’s going to get any better, but I think that Dr. Arnn made a significant point here, that on this very unique location, geographic location, you have a stable, peaceful, forward-looking liberal democracy established as the state of Israel in 1948. And again, it’s the first independent Jewish state since the 2nd Century BC. It’s a remarkable, remarkable political entity.

HH: Larry Arnn, our mutual friend, Bill Kristol, just returned with Elliott Abrams, and was speaking to me last week on the air. He said everyone’s very calm in Israel. And I think it’s because of people like Yadin, and I loved your story about wandering around the city and showing up for dinner at Martin Gilbert and in walks the acting prime minister of Israel, and just defying everything and having won all these battles. They really don’t get flustered.

LA: You know, that’s, they’re very tough people, and thank God for them. I’m looking at a map right now. I was inspired to go look by what Ken just said. If you look at the map of that area where the Mediterranean, the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, that’s where Napoleon and the Tsar fell out with their compromise, couldn’t work anymore, because it’s the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa. And if you look at those countries there right now, and see, this is the way we should be talking about this thing, right? We know that Assad is a murderer. The question is, did he use chemical weapons, and is that the trigger? Or are we thinking about how we win in the long term, because north of Syria is Turkey, and that’s an old friend of ours that’s become shaky. And south and west of Syria is Israel, and Egypt is in turmoil, right? We should be looking at all of this to make the best plan we can around the people who are the best friends we have, and that starts with Israel. And instead, it’s a lot of moral posturing, specifically without a plan, and maneuvering for political advantage.

HH: You know, I’ve been telling everyone all week, and I have it in my hand again, the new Foreign Affairs, Who Is Khamenei: The Mind Of Iran’s Supreme Leader by Akhbar Ganji, who spent a half dozen years in Iran’s worst prisons. And Michael O’Hanlon, who is very slow to say such a thing, just said flat-out, this is an evil regime in Iran. And that’s really, Assad’s just an extension of Iran, and Hezbollah’s just an extension of Iran. And if our friends in Israel think that this is the time to push back, what do you suggest, Dr. Arnn, happen if no one in the Congress except Tom Cotton and a few, because it’s not really a lot right now, of people I look up to, are willing to say take him on directly now? Are we becoming Great Britain under Stanley Baldwin, an analogy I’ve used a few times this week?

LA: Well, you know, prudence is a funny thing, and it depends upon all of the circumstances, right? So I don’t think that we’ve gotten stronger since we invaded Iraq. And I think we might have done if we had invaded Iraq and toppled that regime and got out of there more quickly. And I think the principle that we adopted, that if you break it, you own it, I don’t think that’s the right principle, because it isn’t right to go into such a place unless they have provoked you. And if they do provoke you, and Iraq had provoked us, then you can go in there. And if you leave it at least as well off as it was, then, and you leave yourself safer, that is a legitimate action. And what we do is we go around there, and we expect people, like in Egypt, what are the choices? A military government or the Muslim Brotherhood? That’s a tough choice.

HH: But…not really. I hope, I think it’s easier than that.

— – – – –

HH: We’re slow. It’s like the Russian spring. And we are moving forward very, very slowly. But that’s okay. Dr. Calvert, in the course of Western Civilization, what does an educated person have to know about Jewish thinking? I mentioned Maimonides, and there’s that wonderful history by Paul Johnson, The History Of The Jews, that I repair to. But what do you tell your undergrads they’ve just got to read and know?

KC: Well, first of all, what Dr. Arnn said a little bit earlier about their understanding of God and who He is as a God throughout the universe and throughout the world, an understanding of God that’s much larger than just the local and the national. And that is a very important aspect of Jewish thought. Now you mentioned Moses Maimonides, who was a philosopher in the high middle ages, actually, in the 1200’s a very, very important Jewish thinker. And I think during that time when you had some ability among Jews, Christians and Muslims to sit and to think together and to talk together, it didn’t last long, but there was a time in which that could happen. And Moses Maimonides was one of these, really a contemporary or near contemporary with Thomas Aquinas and some others of the age, and really bringing together Aristotelian thought, bringing together much of what had been preserved from the old Greco-Roman period, and was now coming back into Europe and being revived, much of that because of Christian study, because of Muslim study, and because of people like Moses Maimonides. Now Maimonides tried to tackle this whole question of who is God, and in relation to the Christians and to the Jews and to the Muslims in a wonderful book called Guide To The Perplexed, and I think we can all say that we need that kind of book, but it’s a wonderful book. He spent most of his life really saucing out this idea of who is God in the midst of all of this, and spent most of his life both in Spain and then in Cairo, but really represents that idea of what Judaism and Jewish thought bring to the West and to the world in this understanding of who is God as sovereign God in relation to human life.

HH: It’s interesting, Dr. Calvert, you mentioned Guide To The Perplexed, it made me think of Walker Percy’s wonderful book, Lost In The Cosmos.

KC: Right.

HH: And Walker Percy once said anyone who denies God has to explain to me the Jews. And Larry Arnn, that’s why I guess Western Civilization really cannot, we can’t catch up to Constantine, which we’ll next week, I hope, and get back to our outline without having sort of filled in this gap, this unusual, extraordinary people with a special promise and a special mission who are celebrating their high holy days right now. You can’t, it’s like unwinding a DNA molecule of humankind.

LA: When you read Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas, contemporaries, you are reading great moments in the intersection of what we know by faith and what we know by reason. And these are the chief components of the civilization of the West, and they come together in that part of the world that’s so troubled right now.

HH: Of course, I often, with my friend, Dennis Prager, talk about anti-Semitism. So in four minutes, because that’s all the time both of you two great brains should need, why, then, anti-Semitism, with the contributions so incredible, Ken Calvert?

KC: Well, that’s complex, and part of it has to do with the fact that there’s a division between the Jews and the Christians over who Jesus is. There’s a division between the Jews and the Muslims over who Muhammad is. And these are significant divisions among those folks.

HH: Oh, those are the divisions playing out, Larry Arnn, in Syria. Those are the…

LA: Yeah.

HH: It’s the same deal with the same sort of savagery that has so often marked the civilizational conflict.

LA: Well, the great realization of the great thinkers and the founders of America is that there is not any reason for conflict between Christians and Jews, or between any faith that believes that your conscience is your guide, and your relationship with God is your own. So there’s no reason for it. And here’s another thing to understand. If you’ve ever spent much time in the Middle East, which I know you have, what you’ll find out is the Arabs and the Jews are relations, right?

HH: Right.

LA: They’re both Semitic peoples. They’re the children of Shem. And so when you, I have a really great memory, because I used to go in the 70s, and for many weeks, I was there. And I remember watching some Arabs and some Jews arguing about the price of fruit in Jericho, a beautiful city which is dangerous to go to right now at night. And I looked, I had a guide, and there was both Arabs and Jews standing near me, and I said you guys are too much alike. That’s what’s wrong with you. They were using the same gestures, right? Well, isn’t the point that we need in the Middle East, and everywhere else, a politics that doesn’t slaughter people over their relationship with God?

HH: I think the point is that they need leadership, and they’ve got it in Netanyahu, but I go back to where we began, Winston Churchill 70 years ago today, the price of greatness is responsibility. And the United States has a role there that it’s got to play, Dr. Arnn, right?

LA: Well, that’s right. And you know, you go read, and we’ll have a session on Churchill one of these days, and I’ll just tell you some stuff about that guy, because he was really good at it. And you can’t, he would want there to be a workable plan. And he would not want to risk anything in the absence of that, and I can show you a hundred places where he spoke like that.

HH: You got any hope at all that this team, this President, who’s in Russia tonight, isn’t that odd he’s in Russia tonight, can come up with such a plan? Or are we 39 months without a chief executive, a republic without a CEO not intended by the framers?

LA: I don’t think it’s their intention to form such a plan, and so they’re not very likely to do it.

HH: All right. Next week, we return to the Hillsdale Dialogue, and we will be with Constantine in 285. We’re finally going to get to the second page of the outline. Dr. Kenneth Calvert, Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, thank you both., remember, I’m trying to find someone out there that will build Larry a chapel like Sydney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. We’ve got to put a church right in the middle of that Memorial Hall to all the wonderful people of Hillsdale. And we need him a chair in rhetoric as well, so he stops taking it out on poor radio hosts left and right. We have to endow that chair so we teach him how to be gentler with people. And all of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at There is a button at as well, which makes it for a shortcut. Go there, go now, and come back next week for the next Hillsdale Dialogue.

End of interview.


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