Thursday, January 16, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, January 16, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Dictator’s Dilemma—Stay in Power or Leave Feet First: Raw Power on Display in Moscow as Putin Seeks to Hold Power Indefinitely
One of the greatest insights on the corrupting power of power was made by Lord Acton, the 19th century British thinker who said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Keep that in mind with yesterday's headlines coming out of Russia. As Leonid Bershidsky reported for Bloomberg news, "In his State of the Nation address on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed a sweeping constitutional reform that would give him several options to retain power after 2024 when his term ends."
The report in Bloomberg went on to state, "The announcement led to the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's government, showing that a full reset of Russia's governance system is underway and that Medvedev won't succeed Putin as president as he did for one term in 2008.”
What we're talking about here is exactly what Lord Acton warned about, and that is what happens when a totalitarian government, in this case a one man government for all extents and purposes, becomes an autocratic leader. For some decades, everyone has known that the only power that matters in Russia is the power of Vladimir Putin, and behind this is a massive story, and there is also massive worldview significance.
Just think about the importance of government and forms of government. Russia is actually a government of raw power, a regime of power alone. That was the case in Russia through centuries of the rule of the Romanov dynasty. The tsars of Russia were the most autocratic leaders of all of the crowned heads of the European continent. Furthermore, when you're looking at Russia, you have to understand that there was a relatively brief interregnum in the scope of Russian history during most of the 20th century when under the rule of the Communist Party, Russia became the Soviet Union and it became an ideological government. It is not an ideological government now.
Contrast that, for instance, with the similarly dictatorial, but very different rule, of the Communist Party in China. The Chinese Communist Party, and the government that it has put in place, they are entirely ideological. Not the case in Russia. All that matters in Russia is Vladimir Putin. You can call his theory of government, or for that matter, his theory of insects, Putinism, it doesn't make any difference. It's not really about ideas. It is only about raw power.
That's what was on display yesterday in Moscow in Putin's State of the Nation address. What he was saying in essence was, “I'm not going anywhere.” Now, listening to the address, he did not say that he is going to make constitutional changes so that he can remain in power as president. No, he called for constitutional changes, but they are not to allow him to succeed himself yet again. He's currently term limited to two six year terms. He was elected to the second term back in 2018. That term doesn't end until 2024. That may seem a long way off, but it became very clear yesterday that Vladimir Putin believed that he had to make not only a national, but an international, statement to the effect that he is going to remain in power.
The report in Bloomberg News indicated three different ways outlined by Putin yesterday. If you're reading between the lines, or sometimes even just listening to his words, it is not clear which one of those routes he will take. He has made clear he's not going to succeed himself as president, but the constitutional reforms, reforms here is a euphemism, that he proposed yesterday would effectively so weaken the role of the president that the president would no longer be the center of power.
Who would then be left as the center of power? Well, you can fill in that blank: Vladimir Putin. One way or another, he's going to continue to be not only the power behind the throne, but effectively he's going to be the power on the throne.
So what are we to make of the timing of the announcement yesterday? Well, that's almost assuredly an internal matter to Russia. Russia is a land of oligarchs. It is Vladimir Putin is at the very top, but he is surrounded by those he has made and those he controls who are oligarchs of vast wealth. They are vassals, basically, of Vladimir Putin. They have enormous power, but they owe all of that power and that almost incalculable wealth to one man and to one man alone, Vladimir Putin. They know it and he knows it. So there has been a great deal of nervousness, especially in Russia, as to whether or not Vladimir Putin has been thinking ahead. Because as we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and a political vacuum is the most dangerous vacuum of all.
But there's something else here in deep worldview significance that we need to observe, and that is the so-called dictator's dilemma. Once you become a dictator, it becomes almost impossible to retire. Putin is also extremely worried about Russia. He understands that he has become the personification of Russia, and that Russia has already suffered two massive political collapses, both of them in the 20th century. You can date them to 1917 and 1991. 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution and the fall of the tsar. 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union.
Julia Ioffe, in a brilliant article written for The Atlantic back in 2018 entitled, “What Putin Really Wants” wrote this: "Putin governs with the twin collapses of 1917 and 1991 at the forefront of his thinking. He fears for himself when another collapse comes, because collapse always comes, because it has already come twice in 100 years. He is constantly trying to avoid it. The exiled oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky has publicly spoken of deposing Putin, and until recently did not eschew violet means."
As Ioffe rightly points out, the Kremlin's main determination is to forestall that political collapse as far into the future as possible. Looking to the future is exactly what powerful Russians have been doing. Ioffe writes, "There is one dot on the horizon that particularly worries the Kremlin. In 2024, Putin's next six-year presidential term will be up. The constitution limits Putin to two consecutive terms and he will be 71 years old." One businessman identified as high up in United Russia, that is Putin's party, said, "All of these guys are thinking about 2024."
Now that article was written back in 2018. Here we are in 2020, roughly two years closer to the end of that constitutional term, and it's really clear that Putin felt like he had to make a statement, once again, he's not going anywhere.
Ioffe understands exactly why this is so important. She writes this: "So what is Putin to do? Will he hand off his throne to a successor? There are ever fewer candidates." She writes, "His circle of advisors has shrunk. Now it's made up mostly of old men who like him came from Leningrad or served in the KGB." You recall that was the infamous spy service and internal police force of the Soviet Union.
The article continues, "In recent years, he has replaced regional governors with young loyalists and even former bodyguards, most of whom have no significant governing experience, but owe everything to him." Footnote here, when the prime minister resigned along with his entire government yesterday, Putin replaced him with a man who was actually just responsible for tax collection in Russia, a man with no considerable political experience, just making this point all over again in the developments yesterday.
But Ioffe went on to say this of Putin: "More and more, he appears to be a man without an exit strategy. As one Putin ally," she writes, "told me in 2013, we don't have this tradition of, ‘Okay, you serve two terms and you leave.’ We have no other tradition but to hold out to the end and leave feet first.” That is, in a coffin.
She cites one expert on Russia in the United States who said, "It's the dictator's dilemma. The only way to take away risk is you can't leave, and you can't reform because that leads to cracks in the system that lead to your overthrow." Again, the dictator's dilemma. And it's not just about the survival of the dictator, but about all those others who are entirely dependent upon him for their wealth and power. It's a regime of nothing more than power. It's a regime also of corruption.
The Economist of London is one of the world's most respected news organizations, and in a tweet yesterday, the Economist said this: "Vladimir Putin's regime has killed too many people to make it plausible that he would voluntarily give up power."
Winston Churchill put it this way. He said, "Once you decide to ride the tiger, you cannot get off because the tiger will eat you."
Now in bigger worldview analysis, one of the things we need to recognize is that there is no longstanding tradition of human dignity and individual freedom and anything like democratic self-government, anything like an ongoing constitutionalism, within Russia. For most of the centuries of its existence, Russia was an imperial monarchy. It was an absolute autocracy. The tsars of Russia were absolute. Their word was the absolute and only effective law. There was no really functional court system. There was no really functional legislature. It was an attempt to moderate, somewhat, the absolute power of the tsar that led predictably to the collapse of the tsar, and to the collapse of the Romanov dynasty. Of course, that ended in bloodshed in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, that union basically disintegrated. Russia lost so much of its wealth, it lost so much of its territory, and it lost so much of its international prestige that Russians are determined not to lose that way again. That's why Vladimir Putin is not only a heroic figure within Russia, regardless of all of his terror and his murder in his regime of power and corruption, it is because, so far as most Russians are concerned, at this point, Vladimir Putin represents Russia. Without Vladimir Putin, the oligarchs are absolutely convinced there would be no Russia, meaning that there would be no oligarchy that would remain. It would all collapse.
This should remind us that, for example, when you look at the constitutional government of the United States of America, it doesn't emerge out of a vacuum. Certain structures, certain affirmations of human dignity, certain ideas have to be present. They have to be largely honored by the entire population before an experiment in limited self-government can take place, much less be sustained, as the United States experiment has been sustained for now well over 200 years.
We're just so often reminded that ideas have consequences, and political ideas have political consequences. The dictator's dilemma, as we are witnessing it now in Russia, is one of those ideas that comes with very inevitable consequences.
In the U.S. Constitutional Order, Who Has the Power to Initiate War?
But then, next, thinking about the Constitution of the United States, thinking about our aversion to an autocracy, our effort to try to limit government power through a separation of powers with three different branches of government, this leads us to a very interesting development and a constitutional question for the United States right now.
Now, of course, most Americans, hearing that we are in a moment of constitutional urgency, we think about the looming trial in the United States Senate of President Trump after his impeachment in the House. But that's going to be as it already has been, a largely partisan affair that is unlikely actually to have long-term constitutional consequences. It is going to be, of course, what's going to consume all the oxygen in Washington starting next week.
But there is another perhaps more important issue of constitutional urgency that is taking place right now. Consider the fact that yesterday's edition of the New York Times included a headline story "Four in GOP,” that's the Republican Party, "Support a Curb on War Powers."
As Catie Edmondson reports, "A measure that would force President Trump to win congressional authorization before taking further military action against Iran now has enough Republican support to pass the Senate." That according to Tim Kaine, a key Democratic senator from Virginia, the sponsor of the legislation in the Senate. You might remember he was also the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in the 2016 presidential election.
So what's going on here? Well, just a matter of days ago, the House of Representatives passed a similar resolution. It was largely partisan, but not entirely partisan. The House of Representatives passed a resolution that sought in some way, at least rhetorically, to limit the war powers of the president of the United States. Now, why would that majority in the House have done so? Well, it's in response to the military action undertaken by the United States at the order of President Trump that led to the death of Iranian general Soleimani, and, of course, to an international controversy.
But that's a very interesting development, because even as the majority in the House, a largely Democratic majority, voted to adopt this resolution, they did so at least attempting to say they weren't trying to put in a good word for General Soleimani, they just didn't believe the president of the United States should be able to authorize such action unilaterally.
Now we are told that there are at least four Republican senators who are willing to join with the Democrats in the Senate to make the same kind of statement. That's all it's going to take, by the way, because this joint resolution doesn't require 60 votes. It can't be filibustered. If there are only 51 votes, that's all it will take in order to pass the resolution.
Now, that doesn't mean it will become law, because as you know your civics lesson, it would only become law if President Trump signed it into law. He is most assuredly not going to do that. There are not enough Republican senators in favor of the legislation to come even close to overcoming a presidential veto in the Senate, and it's not going to happen in the House either.
But as much as most in the nation are largely ignoring this, this really is a very interesting question. There are massive worldview implications here, and looking at the constitutional order of the United States, it isn't at all clear exactly what our founders would have wanted under these circumstances. Because in truth, they really couldn't envision these circumstances. This is a partisan issue, yes, but it's not only a partisan issue. Some of the senators who have been most outraged and have spoken to that outrage have been Republican senators. They may be in the minority when it comes to articulating that position, but this is the kind of thing we need to pay attention to because this may turn out to be a far larger constitutional issue long-term than what the nation is so focused on right now in the impeachment crisis.
Dictatorship or Democracy? The Clash of Worldviews
The Constitution of the United States divides the power of war into two different branches: the legislature and the executive. The legislature, the Congress, is given the sole power to declare war. The president is also authorized as the commander in chief.
The statement says in section two of Article II, "The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States."
So let's just think about that for a moment. This tells us that only Congress has the power to declare war. Well, that would seem to be something of an open and shut case. Except, of course, it isn't. Why? Well, even back during the time of the founding, at the very last minute, the actual text of the Constitution was changed. It was going to state the Congress had the sole authority to make war, but then at least some of the founders recognized, as James Madison tells us, that that would have left the nation without any authority to respond militarily if it were attacked. So they didn't want to deny the president the ability to respond to an attack immediately, but they still left in the power of Congress alone the power to declare war.
Well, we're talking about an American history that's now over 200 years old, how many times has the United States Congress declared war? We have been in dozens and dozens of wars. How many times has Congress declared war? Well, you might be surprised to know it's only five. It happened first in 1812, the War of 1812 against England. Next, the Mexican-American War in 1846 against Mexico. The Spanish-American War against Spain in 1898. Then the fourth instance was World War I when the United States declared war against both Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and then again the fifth time, the last time, was when the United States Congress declared war against both Japan and Germany in 1941, that within four days of each other in December.
Five times, only five times, has the United States Congress declared war. But we've been at war over and over again when Congress didn't declare it. Just consider this, since World War II, the United States has been at war with Korea, 1950 to '53, in Cuba in 1961 through a Naval blockade, in the Vietnam War, 1961 to 1973, action in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Lebanon in 1982, in Grenada in 1983, in Panama in 1989. Then fast forward to 1991, what is now known as the First Gulf War, in which we had military action in Kuwait and Iraq. In 1993, the United States military was active in Somalia. In 1994 in Haiti, in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995, Kosovo, 1999. America's longest continual military action in Afghanistan, 2001 to 2014. In Iraq, as you look backwards, 2003 to 2010.
What does that tell us? It tells us that there have been actually very few years in American history when the United States military has not been firing arms somewhere, but the United States Congress has only declared war in five wars. How does this add up? Well, there's several things going on here. For one thing, if you look back through American history, you're talking now about a situation that really is without precedent, without experience amongst the founders. Now you're looking at intercontinental ballistic weapons. You're looking at atomic weaponry. You're looking at militias and military forces all over the world. You're looking at a communication system that tells us exactly what's going on throughout most of the world. The United States is responding far more quickly than ever before, and there really has not been the kind of historical development that led to the declarations of war in those five specific Wars.
But Congress has sometimes specifically authorized an administration to take military action. That goes all the way back to the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, in the war against the Barbary pirates. Congress specifically authorized the military action, but Congress did not declare official war against Tripoli, Algiers, Tunisia, and Morocco, even though they declared war on the United States, because all the U.S. wanted to do was to secure the freedom of navigation on the seas. It really didn't want to conquer territory in North Africa.
There's another very important political reason why you have so much military action without congressional action, and that is because Congress is itself simply unwieldy as an organization to decide military strategy, and sometimes even to take responsibility for direct military action. There's something of a wink and a nod that goes on here. You have members of Congress, both in the House and in the Senate, who want the president to take responsibility for military action because they are unwilling to take that responsibility themselves.
Just consider what's going on right now in the Democratic Party. Consider the debate that took place in Des Moines on Tuesday night. In 2003, both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden were senators. It was Bernie Sanders who voted against authorizing military action in Iraq, and Joe Biden, later Vice President Biden, he voted for authorizing the Bush administration, and notice the lesson that Joe Biden learned in that. If you take a vote to authorize military action, then as a Senator, you largely become considered responsible for the military action. That goes both ways. That's nonpartisan. The reality is most senators don't ever want to have to take a vote because they do not want to have happen what happened to Joe Biden on that debate stage on Tuesday.
Now, I do want to say that there is a long tradition going back at least to the 1960s with many Democrats taking a frankly unrealistic view of the world and of the United States military, which means the two parties are not in the same predicament here. But the reality is that Congress doesn't want to take much responsibility for war because then they have to take responsibility for war. Instead, they want the president of the United States to take that responsibility, and then they want to be able to criticize it, which is exactly what's going on in the aftermath of the U.S. military strike in Iran.
There's a little bit more here we need to note. Back in 1973, the United States Congress passed the War Powers Resolution intending to tie the hands of the president as commander in chief so that there would be, in the words of many who adopted the legislation, no more Vietnams. It was adopted in both the House and the Senate. President Nixon vetoed it, and then Congress overrode his veto. Thus it became law, and that would have appeared to have settled the issue. But of course it didn't settle the issue, because it doesn't settle the basic issue in which Congress has the power to declare a war, but really doesn't do it, it hasn't since 1945, but military action is nonetheless necessary.
Taking a closer look at the measure that just passed in the House and the similar measure, now to be undertaken in the Senate, one of the interesting things to note is that it is full of language that appears to limit the power of the president, but in reality, in an emergency, in anything the president of the United States declared to be a national emergency, it really wouldn't matter. Because, you see, Congress doesn't want to take responsibility for that either.
Once again, we see the worldview significance of the ideas behind the American constitutional order. Those ideas were inherited from centuries of Christian thinking, explicitly Christian thinking. The Christian doctrine of sin and a realistic understanding of both individual and political sin. Understanding the reality of evil in the world. Understanding that power corrupts and wanting to avoid that by a separation of powers into three different branches of government.
Just consider where we began the program today and now where we end. The president of the United States is not an autocrat. The president is elected every four years by the people of the United States, and there are three different branches of government. The legislature can take the most significant action either by declaring war or by exercising the power of the purse. If Congress really believes that a president has acted wrongly, it can use the budget, if nothing else, as a way of reigning in that responsibility.
But Americans have to recognize that even in our constitutional order, especially in our constitutional order, when Americans elect a president, they are electing a foreign policy, and they are electing a commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. Those words are fairly easy to understand.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Orlando, Florida, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.