Friday, Dec. 21, 2018

Friday, Dec. 21, 2018

The Briefing

December 21, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, December 21st, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What’s really behind the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis?

As the days barrel toward December 25th and Christmas, as the year comes to an end, traditionally this is when you expect the political situation to calm down a bit, to become something of the background noise rather than the foreground noise in the culture.

Not so in Christmas 2018. Instead, what we are looking at is multiplicity of huge political headlines that are continuing to dominate the nation’s conversation even going into Christmas. Yesterday came the announcement that the defense secretary of the United States is resigning from that capacity early in 2019. Now the resignation of any defense secretary at any time is big news given the seniority of that cabinet post within an administration, but in this situation, the defense secretary, James Mattis resigned with a statement. And that statement indicated a deep conflict with the president of the United States over the world picture, over the worldview, over understanding the nature of the world, the identity of the nation’s enemies, and of its friends, and of the relations and defense strategies, the foreign relation approaches that should arise out of that worldview.

Rarely in any administration do you have a defense secretary resign publicly at such a time of the year, making such a statement about a difference with the president. The president himself tweeted that the defense secretary would be retiring, in the president’s words, “with distinction”, and by the way, he is both retiring and resigning. Resigning his defense secretary and retiring after a distinguished career in the military and in government service.

But as we look to the letter addressed to the president by the defense secretary resigning his position amongst his statements early in the letter is this, “One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” He goes on to say, “While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.” I then have to skip several lines to get to the next point when he says, “I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries who’s strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear,” said secretary Mattis, “that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model, gaining veto authority over other nation’s economic, diplomatic, and security decisions to promote their own interest at the expense of their neighbors, America, and our allies. That is why we most use all the tools of American power,” said Mattis, “to provide for the common defense.”

The next sentence ties the two together, “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of emersion in these issues.” He then goes on to say, “Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense who’s views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. The end date for my tenure is February 28th, 2019.

Now let’s look at the two arguments that secretary Mattis is making. He is stating, explicitly here, that there is a disagreement between the president and the defense secretary on these two points. What would these two points be? It has to do, point one, with how America relates to our allies, and point two, how America relates to our enemies, our strategic competitors on the world scene.

What’s really telling here is that the defense secretary in resigning is indicating that he sees that world very differently than the president of the United States. Mattis represents the ongoing, traditional defense mentality of the United States. That makes perfect sense. Before becoming defense secretary, Mattis was a four star Marine general. That means that his entire adult life has been spent within the defense establishment of the United States, within the Marine Corp, and within the high command of American military authorities, but the second point that Mattis makes is not so much about our friends as about our enemies.

And what’s interesting is that he states disagreement with the president about both. What would that disagreement be? Well, the disagreement first of all, has to do with America’s strategic alliances and the network of relationships that has held the western allies together since the end of World War II and throughout the Cold War. At the center of that nexus of relationships would be NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That’s the military alliance that is also a powerful political alliance that combines European partners with North American partners in a very powerful institution. It is one of the most powerful relationships of the modern age.

President Trump is not a big fan, it’s fair to say, of those traditional alliances when it comes to foreign policy and defense arrangements. President Trump has freelanced a good deal of his foreign policy, and he believes that the United States has been taken advantage of by partners in NATO and in other alliances. He has repeatedly pointed to the truth that European nations have almost never met their obligations when it comes to increasing their own defense spending. The president is absolutely right when he points to Europe, for example, and says that the United States is paying far more than our national fair share in Europe’s defense.

However, the defenders of NATO and the traditional order would point to the fact that the American economy, and our own way of life, has been dependent upon a piece that was secured in Europe at great expense in World War II, expense of blood and treasure. It has been very important to the United States for the last several decades that we be willing to spend treasure, but not blood. We avoid that at all cost, and so the political stability, the military stability afforded by NATO has been seen by most western leaders and particularly, by most American presidents as essentially a cost America pays in order to enjoy the relative peace we know in the world which has made possible the vast expansion of the American economy.

But the second point that the secretary makes in his resignation letter has to do, not with America’s friends, but America’s enemies. Here too, President Trump, at least in many ways, has differed from most of his predecessors in the Oval Office and from what has been conceived as the orthodoxy of American foreign policy, again, since the end of World War II. A nation must understand its strategic posture in the world. It must take account constantly of its friends, and even more so, of its enemies.

The statement made by the defense secretary identifies two nations in particular, Russia and China. He makes the point that the United States has very different strategic priorities than both Russia and China, but he goes further. He assigns what he calls malign intention to both Russia and China, indicating that they are seeking strategic advantage in the world at the expense of the United States and our own interests.

Speaking of those different ways, those contradictory ways you might say of understanding the world and America’s place in it, the defense secretary said that the president of the United States deserves a secretary of defense who’s views are better aligned with the president’s on these and other subjects. That’s a very polite way of saying, “Mr. President, you and I look at the world very differently. It has become incompatible. The president and the defense secretary cannot long operate with two very different pictures of the world.”

Not only implicitly, but again explicitly, the resigning defense secretary indicates that he believe that the president is mistreating our friends and giving preference to the nation’s enemies, or at least those who, if not declared enemies, are strategic competitors on the world scene. Specifically, Russia and China, but there are some interesting and very complicated questions to ask about this latter point about America’s relationship with our enemies because it is interesting to note that president of the United States, Donald Trump, has often spoken as if he looks at China and Russia very differently than his defense secretary. But in actual policies, those policies, those strategic moves taken by President Trump, have not always been in contradiction to that longstanding American pattern.

And of course, even when it comes to the trade war we are currently experiencing with China, or when it comes to the sanctions that still remain against Russia, the reality is that the current administration does understand a difference between Russia and China on the one hand and our NATO partners and other allies on the other hand, but what is really behind this letter is the institutional dimension of foreign policy and America’s military power.

This is where the defense secretary is effectively saying the impact of the rhetoric and the approach of the Trump administration is going to weaken our relationships with our allies at the very time that our strategic competitors are trying to establish new partnerships all around the world. The New York Times reported, just in the last several days, that China’s supposedly non-military program of building so much infrastructure throughout the world is, in the case of Pakistan, now becoming explicitly military, even joint efforts in defense in the building of jet fighters.

No one observing the administration up close would be surprised in the least of this development. The timing itself might be surprising, but not the fact that Jim Mattis and Donald Trump have come to the end of their working relationship. But the big question that now looms over Washington is who will be the next United States secretary of defense. That’s an extremely important question, but here’s where Christians understand this is not just the question of one person following another person, of one personality replacing another personality. The question is going to be front and center. What is the picture of the world, and what is the worldview of the individual that President Trump will now nominate to be the secretary of defense.

That will put all of these issues front and center in the nation’s conversation, but you can count on that happening next year. For this year, the big story at the end is going to be the resignation of the United States secretary of defense with a statement. Something that is not totally without precedent in American history, but coming at this time of the year, is a big story that becomes even bigger by its timing.

Part II

Game of political chicken consumes nation’s capital as prospect of government shutdown looms large

Next, shifting back to the domestic picture, the reality is that if there is not an agreement on the continuation of the funding of the federal government some time before midnight tomorrow night, Saturday morning, the federal government is going to run out of money, and there will be a partial shutdown. Now this has been one of the big parts of the political conversation, but we need to say that what’s really been going on here, as is almost always the case, is a game that can best be described as political chicken. You know what we mean by that. It is politics as gamesmanship in which one side says, “We won’t agree without this.” The other side says, “We won’t agree without that. We are both willing to face the consequences of not coming to an agreement.” And yet, at the end of the day, in most of these conflicts, somehow, by some means, at the very last moment, some kind of compromise is reached, and the government is not shutdown.

Now we also need to insert a footnote here, the government of the United States cannot really shutdown. The government is divided between essential and non-essential functions with those essential functions mostly having to do with safety and national defense. They will continue to be funded. That is not in question, but it is those positions that are defined as non-essential. There’s something of an irony for you. Those positions will largely shutdown. In Washington DC and in the federal employment, that means about 800,000 people, but here’s where the issue gets really interesting because as you look at this, as we discussed earlier this week, there is a bipartisan conspiracy to avoid taking fiscal responsibility for this nation.

The two parties are not in the same place. They are not equally responsible, but at some level, they are equally complicit in these continuing agreements to continue to fund the federal government without dealing with the core financial challenges facing the nation. As we discussed earlier this week, the nation’s debt continues to grow. The deficit continues to loom, and we are effectively stealing from future generations by spending more than we’re taking in. We are spending far more than is being contributed, or confiscated, by the United States government.

So as you look at this, we need to understand that we’re arguing about only a portion of the federal budget. We are also arguing about a limited term of federal spending, but here’s the game of chicken. There is a political calculation being made by the White House and by both chambers of the legislature and by Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress as to what is to their own political advantage and what will be more politically costly?

Now, as you remember in that rather explosive session that took place in the Oval Office between the president and the Democratic leaders of the House and the Senate, the President said that he was willing to take responsibility for shutting down the government if Congress would not give him funding for the building of the wall and for increased border security. Both Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, expected to be the next speaker of the House of Representatives, told the president that there is not support in Congress for that funding, but more importantly, the Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate likewise told the White House earlier this week, that neither chamber had Republican votes adequate to approve the funding for the wall.

And so, the White House appeared, earlier in the week, to be backing off of the threat of a government shutdown, but then came critics and the president’s core constituency, suggesting that White House was committing something close to political treason. And thus yesterday, the White House signaled that the president is again, willing to be the agent of a government shutdown by refusing to sign legislation adopted by the House and the Senate to continue the funding of the government.

Now here’s what you need to watch. This is still, even now, and will be, whether not the government shuts down, a game of political chicken. And here’s where the American people often become rather directly involved. When it comes to all of that portion of the government classified as non-essential that shuts down, most Americans don’t care. They have no awareness day-by-day of those functions of government anyway, but here’s where the pressure really comes. Here is where the shutdown of a portion of the federal government does get to where Americans really are concerned.

A shutdown during the summer means a shutdown of most of the national parks and national sites, and this means that many families that had planned vacations are not going to have access to the very parks they had intended to visit. The same thing is true in a different sense when such a threatened shutdown comes at the end of the year because just consider how many calls are made by citizens to government offices at the end of the year rather than at other times of the year. No one is going to answer the phone.

Citizens trying to call the Veteran’s Administration or other key federal agencies are going to discover that the year is running out, and time is running out. And in many cases, the calls are just not being answered. Their emails are going without response. When it comes to this kind of shutdown, there is also incredible political pressure inside the beltway, as it said, inside Washington DC. It’s because just about everyone in the continuing government enterprise of Washington DC finds some level of pain in this kind of partial government shutdown, and when Washington is in pain, given the concentration of media and cultural attention in Washington, eventually it’s as if the whole nation shares that pain.

Part III

How best do we deal with evil on the world stage? Major worldview questions remain as US troops leave Syria

But next, when it comes to the timing of the resignation of the defense secretary, one issue stands out is the likely catalyst for that timing is the announcement made by the United States that we will be withdrawing, almost immediately, all military personnel from Syria. Just to say the word Syria is to invoke heartbreak. We are talking about one of the saddest stories of modern world history. We are talking about a civil war that has been deadlier than almost any other in recent human affairs. We are talking about the fact that the totalitarian dictator of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is one of the most repressive, totalitarian, autocrats on the world stage today.

We are talking about the failure of the Obama administration to maintain credible threat against Assad for attacking and murdering his own people. President Obama drew what he called a red line when it came to the misbehavior of the Assad regime, but when the regime crossed the line, President Obama did not respond with military force. As is so often the case in the long history of military affairs, this kind of military intervention on the part of the United States and allies actually came after it probably would have had maximum effect. And so now you have the Trump administration saying that it is no longer in the American interest to maintain the armed forces there, and thus they are going to be withdrawn.

There is a military objective that was met, and that was the ending of the territorial caliphate that was claimed by the terrorist group, The Islamic State. The territory exists no more. The caliphate, as a geographic reality, no longer exists, but here’s the other reality, The Islamic State does continue to exist as a virulent and violent and very effective terrorist force. And furthermore, the interest of the United States in that region and of our allies such as Israel as well, they’re complicated by the fact Iran has an increasing influence and presence in Syria, something that every single American president has opposed and declared to be unacceptable.

And this is why there’s some surprise in the sudden announcement by the Trump administration that the United States will be removing all of our personnel from Syria, virtually immediately. Again, this comes back to a basic understanding of worldview and to what we call world picture. The world picture is the question of what the world really represents. What are we really looking at? The worldview question is, what is even more fundamental? What explains why the world is as it is?

When it comes to the decision made by the Trump administration on Syria, it raises a huge questions, the human beings and especially nations, have struggled with for a very long time. How best do you prevent evil? How best do you restrain or constrain evil forces? How do you deal with evil actors on the world stage? And of course, the urgent and horrifying modern question, how do you deal with the newly, deadly terrorist organizations that represent so much of the threat on the world scene today?

You could say that when you look at this decision, there are two arguments. They are contradictory, conflicting arguments. On the one hand, you have people who say there is no justification for United States troops and armed forces remaining in Syria after the geographical objective has been met. We are not going to become the defacto police of Syria. The other argument is, well we’re gonna be there again if we leave right now. Given the fact that the Islamic State and Assad represent both of them, such effective threats, it’s just a question of time before some other president has to send in some other military operation to try to bring order out of the chaos that will exist then.

When you think about it, there are few questions larger than that in worldview significance. What is evil? How do you explain evil? How do you constrain evil? How do you deal with evil? Imagine bigger questions. On the world scene, it’s hard to come up with them, but the differences here come down to decisions made, inevitably, unavoidably, by the president of the United States and the White House administration when it comes to defense policy. In this case, it’s not only led to announcement about Syria, as we now understand, it probably explains the timing of the announcement of the defense secretary’s resignation as well.

Part IV

We really do believe: Celebrating Christmas in the truth and glory of Jesus Christ

But to be honest, earlier yesterday, I didn’t have any expectation of talking about any of these issues today on the last edition of The Briefing for the calendar year 2018. That just tells us how fast these events develop, how quickly the news moves. There was no choice but to deal with these issues, even on the last episode of the year, but this is not where we are going to leave the state of affairs. We are not going to leave the issues that we discuss on The Briefing in the headlines that pressed so powerfully upon us day-by-day. We have to turn to the greatest reality of all, and thanks be to God, we are still headed toward the celebration of Christmas on December the 25th. We are still looking forward to the new year that will be dawning on January the 1st.

But all of this for Christians comes back to the basic claim of Christianity itself, the basic truth of the gospel, the greatest good news that human beings could ever hear. And I turn to verse such as what we find in the first chapter of the gospel of John in which that great truth is distilled into just a few words, words that are already emblazoned on your hearts. In verse 14, John writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory. Glory is of the only son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Now let’s just be honest with each other, if that is true, we can face all the headlines of the age. We can face all the issues that are thrown at us. We can face all the big questions of life. We can face the past, the present, and the future. We can face time, and we can face eternity because of the great truth of what it means that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Let’s be equally honest. If that is not true, we have no idea how to deal with anything. All truth is simply negotiable. Our understanding of the world is inherently undermined. Our knowledge of good and evil simply becomes a matter of conversation, of hope, of argument. Our understanding of the past, the present, and the future becomes nothing but dread and despair that might be papered over by a little bit of sentiment at the end of the year.

All this reminds us that as we are celebrating Christmas, we’re only celebrating because we believe in the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only because we believe in the truth of every single biblical claim of the Christmas story. Only because we believe that all Scripture points to Christ and is fulfilled in Christ, and every word of Scripture is true. Only because we really do believe that Jesus Christ was born, as the prophets foretold, in Bethlehem of Judea. That he was indeed conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit. That he was indeed born in Bethlehem. That his birth was announced to shepherds on a hillside who were visited, as Luke tells us, by the angelic host.

We really do believe that Magi from the East, seeing his star appear in the sky, came to visit him because they understood that that star indicated the birth of he who would be the king of the Jews. We really do believe that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We really do believe that we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten Father full of grace and truth.

One interesting way to understand what John is telling us in his gospel is to go immediately from chapter one, verse 14, to chapter three, verse 16. Just hear the words as they run together. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory. Glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. That who so ever believes in him should not parish, but have eternal life.” So the glory that was beheld in Christ was not just the glory of the incarnate Son of God. It was not merely the glory of the preexistent Word. It was the glory of the Son sent by the Father to save sinners because the Father so loved the world that he gave his only Son that who so ever believes in him might not parish, but have everlasting life.

So if that’s true, we can handle anything. If it’s not true, we can handle nothing, but it is true. And we know that it’s true, and we teach that it’s true. And we tell that it’s true, and we preach that it’s true. And not only at Christmas, but in every day of our lives, we celebrate the fact that it is true. So to all the listeners of The Briefing, in all of your homes, to all of your families, in all of your churches, I wish for you a most blessed Christmas filled with the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. May you celebrate in the joy and the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and until we meet again, if the Lord wills in the year 2019.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to

I’ll meet you again on Monday, January 7, 2019, for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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