April 7, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, April 7, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
America sends a clear signal to Syria: You cannot use chemical weapons against your own citizens
An unmistakable signal was sent late last night, and it was sent in the form of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean sea, and they were fired at the very same Syrian air base from which it is now believed the Syrian government had sent an attack on its own people, an attack in the form of chemical weapons, an attack that killed dozens, including women and children, and which led to an agonizing death from its victims. It is also believed that there are hundreds of additional persons who were injured in that chemical attack. By Wednesday the world knew the scale of the attack, and by late Wednesday it was known that the nation of Turkey had identified sarin nerve gas as the likely deadly agent. That is one of the most feared forms of chemical warfare. It is banned by every civilized nation and international treaty, and the use of it is considered a war crime.
Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, has used that weapon on his own people before. In 2013 he launched airstrikes using nerve gas on his own citizens in the region of Damascus, leading to hundreds of deaths. International outrage was almost immediate, and in the face of a likely military action from the United States and its allies Bashar al-Assad backed down and entered into international agreements. He agreed that he would not use chemical weapons and indeed there was a pledge that the Syrian government under international supervision had destroyed all of those nerve weapons. It is now known that that was an absolutely false promise.Show Full Transcript
The Syrian civil war has been one of the bloodiest and most violent of any civil war in modern history. It’s been going on now for six years, and the government of Bashar al-Assad appears to be absolutely determined to remain in power no matter the cost, even the cost in the lives of its own citizens. And of course al-Assad, the dictator, has powerful allies and protectors, including both Iran and Russia. That in itself states something of the moral character of this regime. The American military response undertaken late yesterday under the direction of the Commander-in-Chief, President Donald Trump, involved, as we have said, 59 cruise missiles, and they were launched from two destroyers, the USS Ross and the USS Porter in the Eastern Mediterranean.
One of the moral issues to be considered here is that it’s not always clear where a nation like the United States should be involved, in particular, militarily. There’s been a great debate in the United States over the last several years, including but not limited to the Syrian civil war. There have been questions about the nature of proper U.S. involvement in the war on terror and in the internal affairs of other countries. Some powerful voices have argued quite influentially that the United States should be involved in such a situation simply in the name of human rights. Others have warned that that is exactly what has gotten the United States into interminable armed conflicts in parts of the world where we have entered in the name of human rights, only to find ourselves mired down in a battle we cannot win and sometimes in a war we cannot even understand.
Somewhere between those two there is some kind of balance that in any given historical moment is going to be excruciatingly difficult to achieve. No doubt the decision was very difficult for the Trump administration. But the President made the decision. In a statement he made to the American people late last night, the President said that the strike was in the vital national security interest of the United States. Furthermore, the American president called on “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. And also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”
President Trump went on to say,
“We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.”
This was of course the first major military action undertaken by the Trump administration, and it involved the President’s senior team working together for the first time. That included Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the President’s national security advisor, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
The background to this also involves the fact that American forces were poised to undertake just such an attack when President Obama called them back, having drawn what he called a red line and then not acting when Syria crossed that line. That inaction on the part of the United States led to the clear lesson learned by Bashar al-Assad that he could get away with virtually anything, including the callous murder of his own people even with chemical weapons.
The attack that was undertaken yesterday with the 59 cruise missiles launched from two U.S. Navy vessels sent a very clear signal that President al-Assad will pay a price for that kind of infraction. Will this military action bring an end to the Syrian civil war? Almost assuredly not. Will it make a difference? As the President said, we must pray so. At the very least, it was a calculated and very limited attack whereby these cruise missiles, rather than armed U.S. personnel or aircraft, degraded the ability of Syrian Air Forces to continue to attack their own people.
The protection of vulnerable civilians is one of the key principles of what has been known as Just War Theory among Christians throughout the centuries. Last night, President Trump made clear that with two U.S. destroyers able to inflict this kind of strike from the Eastern Mediterranean, it would’ve been immoral for the United States not to act. Comments made late last night by the President of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of State made very clear that the U.S. is not signaling a fundamental change in its strategy toward Syria. Rather, it was sending a very specific signal to the Syrian dictator that he cannot get away with using chemical weapons on his own citizens. Where this goes from here, only time will tell, and we must hope for and pray for the best. But at least this much is clear: As of early this morning, we are talking about the ramifications of the actions of the United States, not the inaction in this horrifying situation in Syria.
As today unfolds, look for three specific patterns of response: the first from America’s allies, in particular, France, Britain, and Germany. They are likely to be relieved that the United States finally acted. Back during the Obama administration, Francois Hollande, the President of France, actually had aircraft in the air poised for a strike when the Americans pulled out. Last night’s cruise missile attack is likely to be appreciated by our European allies who intend with us to send such a moral signal. Look also for the response of Syria and its allies, including Russia and Iran. You are likely to hear all kinds of protests from Syria and from its patrons. But note something in particular, last night we learned that the United States had given Russia advance warning of the attack so that it would not have its own personnel in danger. That too is an interesting moral dimension to this unfolding story.
Finally as the story unfolds today, look at the response of American political leaders, especially leaders in Congress. Here’s what you’re likely to note: the response both positive and negative is not going to fall in the kind of traditional partisan lines that have been such a factor in Washington in recent years, even this week in terms of the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court. What you’ll want to note, especially interesting from a worldview perspective, is the fact that even amongst Democrats and amongst Republicans there is something of a polarity between those who tend towards isolationism and those who tend towards internationalism and intervention. As of late last night and early this morning, this is unquestionably the story that dominates the news, and it does so internationally. The explanation for that is quite simple. Just about everyone in the world watching this story understands one thing: this really is a big story.
Triggering nuclear option, Senate Republicans set up confirmation vote for Judge Neil Gorsuch
Next, often it’s hard to take the historical measure of a development as it’s taking place. What’s required is the perspective of history, some distance of time. That means that only in the future will we be able to say more clearly what took place yesterday in the United States Senate. More specifically, how significant it turned out to be. Yesterday in the Senate, the rules were changed so that the filibuster rule was eliminated. Thus the filibuster will not be a possibility for any presidential nomination to the federal courts as of yesterday to the United States Supreme Court. That changed because of the political context that is now well understood. The presenting issue was the nomination by President Donald Trump of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court.
And by the time we come to the year 2017, there is already so much partisan history having to do with controversy over the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has already become so controversial in its self that there was no surprise yesterday. Just about every informed observer knew that this development was in one sense inevitable. Back in 2013 it was a Democratic majority in the Senate that removed the filibuster for presidential nominations to the federal courts but short of the Supreme Court. This final act in terms of removing the filibuster became necessary because Democrats had made very clear they were going to filibuster the nomination of Judge Gorsuch, and that represented the first partisan filibuster of a presidential nominee to the Supreme Court in the nation’s history. And just about everyone on both sides of the political controversy in America recognizes that what took place yesterday was important. But before we consider just whether or not this was such a momentous event, we also need to ask the question as to whether or not it was not only inevitable, but in the long-term beneficial.
Now here’s something we need to keep in mind. The filibuster rule requiring a super majority of 60 votes in the current Senate in order to bring anything, any motion, any nomination to the floor was a development that was not in the Constitution, but rather merely in the rules the Senate adopted for itself. It is rooted back in the early years of the 20th century and especially on the threshold of World War I. What we need to recognize is that that did change American politics for a century. How? It changed American politics because Congress, at least as represented now by the Senate, would be required to have a super majority of support for any legislation or nomination. Now the nomination part actually came later, arguably only beginning in about 1949. But beginning in the year 1917, it was clear that the Senate had moved to require a super majority before any legislation could be passed. Now it’s not in the Constitution. That means it’s extraconstitutional. That doesn’t mean that it’s unconstitutional. That’s an entirely different arguments, but that is an argument that needs to be considered because the filibuster has at least over the course of the last 20 years largely shut down most legislation in the United States Senate.
Time and again as I’ve discussed the fact that federal courts have arrogated to themselves much authority over contentious issues, we need to note that one of the reasons the courts had the opportunity to do that is that Congress has been so inept at passing legislation on so many crucial issues.
In the immediate aftermath of what took place in the rules change yesterday, you’re going to see several very predictable developments. In the first place you’re going to see, likely today, the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch as the next Supreme Court Justice. That set the stage for all of the discussion concerning the filibuster.
But then we also have to note that you’re going to be hearing, mostly from the Democrats but also from many Republicans, a kind of mourning for an age in the Senate lost. And there’s something to note there. The traditions of a body like the United States Senate are very, very important. But in reality those traditions and the rules the Senate adopts for itself must not put an end to the ability of the Senate to conduct the responsibility assigned to it in the U.S. Constitution.
The third thing you’re going to note is that there will now be another inevitable question. How long will the filibuster last for matters of legislation? All that took place yesterday had to do with the nomination by presidents to federal judgeships now all the way to the Supreme Court. Still susceptible to the filibuster is any matter of legislation that comes before the Senate with one exception, and that is the so-called continuing resolutions that fund the United States government. But one of the symptoms of the slowdown in terms of the Senate has been that it has been actually rare in recent years that the United States government has been able to adopt a budget. And it’s no coincidence that that might be the very issue looming before us in which the filibuster is on the line, not just for nominations, but for legislation as well.
Remembering the Great War: 100 years ago this week, America entered World War I
Finally, we cannot let this week pass without understanding that this week marked the centennial of one of the most momentous events of the 20th century. That was the entry of the United States of America into the war that was then known as the Great War. Later, it was known as World War I. The reason it is no longer known as the Great War is because an even greater war in terms of catastrophe occurred in the generation just after. It became known as World War II. But Americans should not forget what took place in World War I. It was 100 years ago this week that President Woodrow Wilson, who had twice run successfully for the presidency with a pledge to keep the United States out of that expanding European war, instead went to a joint session of Congress and asked for a declaration of war there in April of 1917, and Congress gave that authorization. Within a matter of months, 1.25 million Americans found themselves in uniform in action on the Western front. In total about 4 million Americans ended up in terms of the military mobilization, and that did decisively change the war. The war ended, insofar as it ended, in an armistice in November 1918.
World War I was one of the great catastrophes of human history, and we need to look back at it to understand that it began not as a matter of inevitabilities but by the consequences of decisions made by very, fallible, indeed egotistical, European rulers. Europe had become a tinderbox for a matter of decades as war after war had indicated a coming larger war. And it was seen on the horizon as big European empires began banging up against one another in terms of their territorial and political claims. One of the hotspots was what is now called the Balkans, and one of the hottest of the spots was Sarajevo, then the capital city of what was known as Serbia within the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled by the Hapsburgs.
On the 28th of June 1914, a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the throne of the Hapsburg Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. And that set off a spark that absolutely ignited Europe. An alliance emerged as had already been visible between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany and Italy. Italy eventually did not enter the war, but Germany and Austria-Hungary certainly did. On the other side was Russia. That became the Eastern front and then, in particular, Britain and France. But by the time you get to the year 1917 and America’s entry into the war, it was clear that the war had reached a horrifying stalemate.
This was especially true on the Western front. There in the so-called Western front extending from much of France across Belgium, it had descended into trench warfare, into a stalemate all the way from 1915 to 1917. The losses, the casualties, were absolutely staggering. Both sides, but especially the Germans, had descended into an absolute total war perspective. They were using methods of war, including gas, that had never been allowable in terms of European conflicts before, and this stalemate had reached the point that Germany believed that the only way it could win the war was by unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, thus cutting off Britain and France from very necessary supplies. And that included American shipping. That was how America entered the war. But there’s more to the story than that, and it’s important, having to do with the events that took place leading to 100 years ago today, the United States’ declaration of war against Germany, and the entry of the United States in World War I.
In January of the very same year, 1917, Arthur Zimmermann, who was the German Foreign Minister, had sent a coded telegram to the government of Mexico. In that telegram he invited Mexico to declare war on the United States of America on Germany’s side, promising that Germany would then assure that Mexico could regain the territory that would now be considered Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Unbeknownst to Zimmermann and the Mexicans, the British had decoded the German code. The telegram was then understood to read,
“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.”
The British foreign secretary understandably got that decoded telegram into the hands of the United States Secretary of State, who gave it to the President of the United States, who handed it— just before the events 100 years ago this week—to a reporter for the Associated Press. The rest, as they say, is history. The United States Congress came to know of that telegram what Germany had proposed to Mexico and also what was in that first line that Germany intended to move ahead in coming weeks with unrestricted submarine warfare.
It’s hard for us now to imagine just how unthinkable it was the United States Congress and for Americans in general to enter a European war. Ever since the late 18th century, there had been numerous European wars, and it had been an absolute American ambition, indeed a principle, to stay out of those European wars. But by the time you get to World War I, two things are true. Europe is such a mess and America is now such an international power that it cannot ignore a war like what became known as World War I. Inevitably, America was drawn into that war. Also as inevitably, once America was in, the end of the war was very clear. There was no way that Germany could withstand millions of Americans entering the war, much less the great industrial power of the United States that was now very much on the side of the Allies, the United States, Britain, and France in particular.
But what’s also really important from a Christian perspective is understanding what World War I meant theologically. What it meant in terms of the Christians of that era was a death to the idea of progress that had become so infectious during the 19th century, an idea of progress that held the humanity in general and European civilization, including the United States, specifically was moving towards an inevitable moral progress. All of that died in the killing fields, the trenches, and the gas warfare of World War I.
Another devastating lesson was learned by that war. It did not end with Germany’s surrender. Rather, it ended with what was called an armistice. And that, as it turned out, was a horrible historical mistake. It also led of course to the Treaty of Versailles with punitive damages against Germany that led to Germany’s absolute ambition to overcome what it felt was that unfair settlement with what became the logic of World War II. It’s surprising even now for many Americans to recognize that Europe’s entry into World War I came largely because of the assassination of one royal figure in the city of Sarajevo, a figure that most Americans today do not even know or recognized by name. Similarly, it would be a surprise to most Americans to know that the entry of the United States into World War I came, at least in part in terms of the historical occurrence, because of a telegram sent by the German Foreign Minister to the government of Mexico. It’s just a fact of history that just one bullet or one little piece of paper can change history.