March 21, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, March 21, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Obama's historical visit to Cuba highlights difficulties of statecraft in a fallen world
In the midst of rain, Air Force One touched down in Havana, Cuba yesterday, marking the first time the President of the United States has visited that island nation in almost a century. The visit by President Obama will make history. In the President’s words,
“This is a historic visit and a historic opportunity.”Show Full Transcript
But it remains to be seen how history will judge this visit. Already there is controversy and there are concerns about the President’s visit. The Los Angeles Times reported that the President arrived in Cuba amid a wave of excitement and expectations from the Cuban people that he will mend what was described as a half-century of Cold War enmity as the first sitting U.S. president to visit the nation in nearly 90 years. Upon landing on Air Force One in Havana, the President said,
“Looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.”
The President made that statement over Twitter. President Obama pointed out that back in 1928, President Calvin Coolidge visited the nation on a battleship,
“It took him three days to get here,” said President Obama. “It took me only three hours.”
But that three-hour flight was also highly symbolic in terms of the background of the last more than half-century of history between the United States and Cuba. Cuba remains one of the last communist outposts in the entire world. You can speak of a declining number of communist nations in this sense, with China, on the one hand, as the largest communist power, but that is a country that has been moving towards a market economy even as the Communist Party clings to power. North Korea combines communism and a pagan cult of personality, but in Cuba it is one consistent, socialist revolution that has been defined by communism going all the way back to the Cuban revolution in 1959 that toppled the regime of President Batista. At the head of that was Fidel Castro, still alive, though not still officially in power. Instead, the current Cuban president is his brother, Raúl Castro. The controversy over the President arriving in Cuba has everything to do with the fact that the Cuban government has made no sign whatsoever of softening its repression of dissidents or in any way increasing the liberty and freedom of its own citizens. As the Los Angeles Times reported,
“Yet while the government of President Raúl Castro was eager to welcome President Obama, it is also determined to reassert its own socialist values that it insists will not be bent to U.S. will.”
The paper goes on to say,
“In recent days, a string of Cuban officials has said that only lifting the half-century old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba and not the smaller measures announced by the Obama Administration that ease some restrictions will significantly benefit the Cuban people.”
Bold statements were made, blunt statements by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who said last week that certain U.S. government officials have stated lately that the objective of these new measures is to empower the Cuban people. He said,
“The Cuban people empowered themselves decades ago.”
He was referring to the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power. With Castro came a communist regime that has been one of the most bitter opponents of the United States throughout the entirety of the Cold War. But the Cuban Foreign Minister said,
“In our relationship with the United States,” speaking of this new relationship, “under no circumstance is the realization of internal changes in Cuba on the negotiation table.”
That was an embarrassment to the Obama Administration right on the eve of the President’s arriving in Cuba. What President Obama wants to declare is a new era in the relationship between the United States and Cuba. But if it is a new era, it appears to be a very one-sided new relationship, with the United States giving and with the Cuban government not budging at all.
That same newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, reported just two days ago,
“On the eve of President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, authorities there are ordering dissidents invited to meet with the American leader to stay home instead,”—that according to a leading human rights activists.
That activist quoted in this story by reporter Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times goes on to detail the fact that many of the dissidents personally invited to meet with the President had been detained by Cuban law enforcement officials. They have been detained by the government so that they cannot or would not meet with the American President. That will be another embarrassment to the President who, upon his arrival in Cuba, said that he was looking forward to meeting with the Cuban people. But it is likely he will meet a very highly selected group of the Cuban people. The resistance of the Castro government to change was made very clear in those statements by the Cuban Foreign Minister. Again he said that what’s not on the negotiating table is any internal change in Cuba. But internal change in Cuba is what President Obama and his administration have promised is the ultimate goal, and they’re claiming the immediate result—at least to a partial degree—of the President’s overture to the Cuban government.
Back when the Castro revolution took place in the year 1959, the United States government made very clear its opposition in terms of the communist revolution just 90 miles off of our shore. The United States has been opposed to the communist government in Cuba going back to the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, who of course began the process that eventuated in the invasion by Cuban dissidents backed by the United States of the Bay of Pigs invasion that took place in the early months of the administration of President John F. Kennedy.
Just to mention the Kennedy administration brings us to the moment of greatest tension and urgency and danger in what was known as the Cold War, when in the early 1960s, the Soviet Union began to install thermonuclear weapons on missiles in the island nation of Cuba, placing those nuclear weapons less than 100 miles from the American border. President Kennedy and his administration, it is now believed, faced the moment of greatest danger in the entire history of the Cold War and the thermonuclear face-off between the Soviet Union and the United States. It is now known and very well documented that during that crisis both nations were exceedingly close to launching a nuclear strike.
For more than 50 years, the foreign-policy of the United States toward Cuba has been isolation, attempting by means of an economic embargo to limit the reach and influence of that nation and to demonstrate the fact that communism cannot deliver on its promises. This came after the communist revolution nationalized many properties owned by Americans and major American corporations. But the biggest blight upon Cuba has been the treatment of that nation’s Communist Party of its own citizens and that treatment has been exceedingly brutal, leading to waves of immigration of those who have fled Cuba and have fled Cuba often at the very risk of their own lives. Even in recent days, a group of Cuban refugees has come to the United States spotted off of Marco Island in Florida, and it is now known that at least some of those were attempting to gain their liberty by coming to the United States, just in recent days, died in trying to make the transit.
President Obama’s visit to Cuba has to be in the background of what he said in the beginning of his administration when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. Geoff Dyer of the Financial Times of London reports,
“When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 Barack Obama told the audience in Oslo that dealing with authoritarian regimes may lack ‘the satisfying purity of indignation’ but the alternative was ‘a crippling status quo.’”
The President said then again in 2009,
“No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.”
It is apparent as the Financial Times in London explains that President Obama is trying to do something similar, if not parallel, to what President Richard Nixon did in 1972 in visiting China and thus opening the United States’ relationship with that communist nation. As the Financial Times states,
“At a time in his presidency when defining a legacy becomes an obsession, this is Mr. Obama’s Nixon-to-China moment.”
The paper went on to report,
“The White House hopes the visit will achieve two goals: nudge the Cuban regime to open its politics and economy and to make it impossible for Mr. Obama’s successor to reverse course and abandon the attempt to engage Havana.”
What the Financial Times fails to explain is that when President Nixon went to China in 1972, it did open a diplomatic initiative to that nation, but the larger political background was that President Nixon wanted to use China as leverage over against America’s primary enemy in the Cold War, which was the Soviet Union. The geopolitics of the 1970s Cold War meant that the United States had everything to gain by separating China from the Soviet Union as those two nations, though both communist powers, were at that point having their own chill in relationships. The United States capitalized on that by creating a diplomatic initiative to China at the expense of the USSR. Though the challenge of global politics continues, there is nothing in the contemporary context by which the United States is going to gain by this overture to Cuba that might come at the expense of the very Cuban people President Obama said he wanted to visit in order to know them and in order to encourage them.
This comes at the very same time that the Cuban government is making very clear that it does not intend to give its citizens any increased liberty and when, as even the Los Angeles Times is reporting, on the eve of the President’s arrival there is a crackdown on dissidents. It can be argued in an historical perspective that the Cuban people have never enjoyed the liberties that are taken for granted in the United States: freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, the freedom of the democratic process, and the freedom of religion. All of these have been forbidden the Cuban people by a succession of governments, and never more so than under the Castro regime that came to power in a violent revolution in 1959.
The Christian worldview reminds us that in a fallen world corrupted by sin, statecraft is often a very difficult matter. It is often very difficult for a political leader to know what will genuinely help, what will truly lead to greater liberty for people and what just might be something that will play on the other hand to the advantage of the nation’s enemies. History will one day record whether or not President Obama’s trip that began yesterday will lead to greater liberty and freedom for the Cuban people. There are already warning signs that it very well might not. But in any event from an historical perspective, the President has to know that in landing on Air Force One in Havana, Cuba yesterday, he was reversing the policy of 10 different Presidents of the United States who had preceded him, going all the way back to President Eisenhower in 1959.
Evil in the heart of man: ISIS operative's arrest reveals bloodthirsty change in tactics
Next, shifting from Cuba to Paris, France, a chilling report came over the weekend in the aftermath of the arrest on Friday in Belgium of the man believed to be the sole survivor of the terror attacks that killed 130 people in Paris last year. As the New York Times reported yesterday,
“The arrest in Belgium on Friday of Salah Abdeslam, who officials say was the logistics chief for the Paris attacks, offers a crucial opportunity to address the many unanswered questions surrounding how they were planned. Mr. Abdeslam, who was transferred to the penitentiary complex in Bruges on Saturday, is believed to be the only direct participant in the attacks who is still alive.”
It is hoped that the arrest of this man will lead to further answers in terms of how the attacks by the Islamic State took place there on November 13 in Paris. But what’s even more chilling in coming to us as news over the weekend is what law enforcement officials in Europe and in particular in France and Belgium now know about those attacks. What they know is that the Islamic State has now the capacity throughout much of Europe to conduct similar attacks. What they now know is that law enforcement officials in those nations failed to recognize patterns that would’ve detected the attack. And what they now know is that the governments are in no better position today than they were when the attacks happened in November of last year to recognize the same kind of attack as it might be in motion.
This came after French intelligence and law enforcement officials had released a 55 page report that was eventually leaked to Western news media. French officials, according to the New York Times, have repeatedly warned that more strikes are possible, saying security and intelligence officials cannot track all the Europeans traveling to and from Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Iraq. And according to the paper, Western intelligence officials say their working assumption is that additional Islamic State terrorism networks are already in Europe.
Late yesterday, the New York Times offered another story datelined from Brussels telling us that Abdeslam is now believed to have been attempting to “restart something” in Brussels, even as since November 13 he had been in hiding from intelligence and law enforcement officials in both France and Belgium, and even as he was the subject of one of the largest European manhunts in world history. The reality is that he was believed to have been trying to restart a new terror attack, even as he was apprehended in a shootout with police on Friday. The danger posed by the Islamic State and the new danger that was exposed in this report is made very clear in the headline of yesterday’s story in the New York Times. That headline is this:
“Paris attackers refined tactics to inflict harm.”
It is a horrifying story indeed, and the New York Times deserves credit for a massive job of reporting on this from several different angles. It is now clear that what the Islamic State was doing is changing its tactics as Al Qaeda had been focused on symbolic targets, including in the United States, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Islamic State is going for maximum damage, maximum carnage and maximum bloodshed in killing. As the investigative team for the Times reported yesterday,
“Taken as a whole, the documents, combined with interviews with officials and witnesses, show the arc of the Islamic State’s growth from a group that was widely viewed as incapable of carrying out large-scale terror assaults. And they suggest that nearly two years of previous, failed attacks overseen by the leader of the Paris assault, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, served as both test runs and initial shots in a new wave of violence the Islamic State leaders have called for in Western Europe and Britain.”
At the very beginning of the article, the Times reports the French investigators have now come face-to-face with the reality that they had missed earlier signs of the Islamic State was building what is described in the paper as,
“The machinery to mount sustained terrorist strikes in Europe.”
Speaking of what can only be described as a bloodthirsty change in tactics, the Times reports,
“In the previous small-scale attacks, the Islamic State, much like Al Qaeda before it, had taken aim at symbolic targets, including security installations and establishments with clear links to Israel or Jewish interests, like the Jewish Museum in Brussels. But in an interview published in the online magazine [that is ISIS own online magazine], a senior ISIS operative identified as Boubaker al-Hakim, described as the godfather of French jihadists, advised his followers to abandon the symbolism.”
Here again, they’re leaving the symbolism and going for maximum carnage.
“My advice is to stop looking for specific targets. Hit everyone and everything.”
To use the word horrifying in terms of these reports is, if anything, a moral understatement, but it raises a host of issues from the Christian worldview. What worldview can explain that this much evil can reside in the human heart? And then what worldview can explain how this evil can be shared by so many co-conspirators in a plot that is so sadistic and so calculated to create maximum death of what are identified as innocent parties? Furthermore, what worldview can explain why people can be so motivated to take actions based upon what they claim is a religious ideology in an age that Western Europe believes has been increasingly, pervasively, and inevitably secular? As we have pointed out so many times on The Briefing, one of the things revealed but rarely acknowledged in terms of report like this is that the intelligence and law enforcement officials join cultural and academic and intellectual officials in nations throughout Europe in being unable to recognize the true nature of the enemy they face.
It turns out that the secular worldview is incapable of understanding the worldview of someone who comes with a strong theological argument, and secularized Europe has largely disarmed itself unilaterally from being able to recognize even the nature of the terrorist threat they now face. It turns out that secularism can’t understand Islamic terrorism, and the very secular nations that had been doing their best for the last 200 years to expunge the theological worldview of Christianity now find that in the vacuum they have created it is Islam that has invited itself in and, as this article makes clear, militant Islam in the form of jihadist groups, including the Islamic State. The cold reality made clear in this article is that Europe is not now just worried about lone wolves that might be mobilized to jihadist; it’s not worried about groups even like Al Qaeda, as deadly as those groups have been in recent years. It is now facing the reality that the Islamic State has refined its tactics to create maximum carnage, and it is targeting new operations throughout Europe. And European authorities have now had to admit that they lack an adequate means of detecting, much less preventing, such an attack happening again on European soil. The clear implication of this article is the question is not “if,” the question is only “when” and “where.”
North Korea sentences American student to 15 years hard labor for theft of "sacrosanct" sign
Next, but staying on a theme, moving from Paris, France to a story datelined from Seoul, South Korea, Choe Sang-Hun reporting for the New York Times says,
“Punishing a foreign tourist with 15 years of prison and hard labor for trying to steal a poster inscribed with a political slogan might seem preposterous in most of the world. This week, North Korea’s Supreme Court did just that to Otto F. Warmbier, a 21-year-old American student.”
But the real worldview importance of this story comes in the second paragraph where we read,
“But in North Korea, where the leader is treated as a deity, political slogans are sacrosanct — a point that does not loom large in many outside appraisals of Mr. Warmbier’s plight.”
There is so much loaded in that little paragraph. It tells us something that informed observers already know: The North Korean communist, totalitarian regime is based upon an idolatrous cult of personality that is centered in the claims of deity of the nation’s leader. The New York Times is not exaggerating when it says in North Korea, the leader is treated as a deity and thus even signs of his political slogans are sacrosanct, a very interesting word in a secular age. The report in the New York Times goes on,
“At the beginning of each year, North Korea issues a new set of slogans as unbreakable guides. The gate of every factory and the wall of every classroom bear such slogans. The freshly painted and ubiquitous red-on-white banners are virtually the only thing that leaps out in otherwise drab North Korean towns.”
It turns out that this American college student on a dare while visiting North Korea attempted to steal one of these political slogan posters in order to take it back as a trophy of his visit. In most parts of the world, stealing a cardboard poster would be something of a misdemeanor, if that. But in North Korea, it is heresy; it is an attack upon the deity, and that’s why this American college student now faces 15 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison camp for just attempting to steal a political poster. Trying to explain all of this, the New York Times said it’s hard to overstate the importance North Koreans attached to safeguarding the names and images of the Kims, that is the ruling family, who have created a personality cult for decades. Here’s an interesting paragraph:
“Likewise, harming slogans bearing their names can be one of the most serious crimes in the North. Defectors have testified about neighbors banished to prison camps for sitting on a newspaper that happened to carry the photo of one of the Kims.”
That’s what happens when you claim a political leader as deity.
Twitter celebrates its 10th anniversary. How has its 140-character limit shaped the world?
Today marks a 10th birthday: it is the 10th birthday of Twitter. It was 10 years ago today that the first tweet was published in terms of the platform, and of course, its 140-character limit has now reshaped American culture. The anniversary of Twitter now reaching 10 years old reminds us of how new social media is and how newly powerful it is as a pervasive reality in American life. The anniversary also causes us to remember that the Christian worldview explains why every technology comes with the ability to do both good and evil, and in short order, both good and evil showed up on Twitter. It would be a vast overstatement to say that Twitter 10 years ago began the process of changing the world. But it would also be important for us to recognize that the advent of social media, with Twitter as just one example, has changed a very great deal. And it also reminds us that we’re living in a world that is increasingly reduced to 140 characters, plus a hashtag.