The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

It’s Wednesday, September 15th, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

America’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lands in Controversy — What Does This Mean for America’s Constitutional Order?

In the normal course of events, the average American citizen would not even know the name of the incumbent chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the American military. But that’s in a normal state of affairs. Today is decidedly not a normal state of affairs when it relates to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who right now is dominating the headlines and is likely to do so for some time. There are huge issues that are invoked in this story. There are huge issues we need to take apart. First of all, why are we talking about the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chief of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, today?

We’re talking about it because yesterday a media firestorm erupted over conversations that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff had over the course of the last year. First of all with a prominent Chinese general, and then secondly, with the speaker of the House of Representatives. Those conversations were separated by a matter of months, but they are joined together in controversy about the actions of, and the role of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. To cut to the quick, the issues come down to the fact that according to a new book out from Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, the book is entitled Peril, and it’s coming out next week, the fact is that the claims being made in the book indicate that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff had a conversation with his prominent Chinese general, basically giving him insight information about the state of mind to the president of the United States and indicating to the Chinese Armed Forces, the military intentions of the United States of America.

The second conversation was with the speaker of the House of Representatives in January of 2021, this very year, in which the chairman of the joint chiefs assured the speaker of the House, that he would intervene in order to prevent any action by the president of the United States, then Donald Trump, the commander in chief, that he believed was ill advised or reckless. Both of these are huge stories, but we shouldn’t be talking about the chairman of the joint chiefs. First of all, we need to understand the office. We need to understand what is actually involved in the responsibilities of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

First of all, it’s a fairly new position in American history. It dates only to 1949. Secondly, it is not a constitutional position at all. There is no mention of such an office in the US constitution. In 1947, the United States Congress passed what is known as the National Security Act. Two years later in 1949, the bureaucratic structure of the Pentagon was reorganized because of several developments, most importantly, what was learned by the nation in the experience of World War II. There was also another development, which was the new branch of the armed services then known as the Air Force.

The third development is that the Cold War by that time was already looming so much in the vision of American policy makers, including the Pentagon, that the Pentagon had to find a way effectively to pivot from the war effort of the Second World War, to the likely scenarios of the military challenges to the United States over against the aggressiveness of the Soviet Union and its satellites.

But going back to 1949 and that amendment to the National Security Act, Congress was intent on making one point perfectly clear. In creating a position known as the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, what the Congress did not want to do was to create a super military officer, someone who would stand the top the chain of command and would basically be a one person command structure for the United States military. That is not what is allowed by law in that position. Instead, and by the way, this had to be clarified over a matter of time, the ultimate clarification came in 1986 when Congress passed another amendment, which indicated that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff was to be considered the senior military advisor to the president of the United States. His responsibility is to offer best military advice, first of all, to the president, and secondly, to the secretary of defense.

He is not in that sense, a super general. But it is not clear what General Mark Milley, the current chairman believes his job to be, but the headlines indicate that he has crossed very important, very urgent lines in the American command structure and in our constitutional system of government. Perhaps even worse, for example, and this is confirmed by General Milley, according to press reports, he placed a phone call to General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army in China. He did so both on October the 30th of 2020 and on January the 8th, 2021. In the latter of those conversations, he is reported to have said to the Chinese general, “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”

Now, what is unprecedented there is that it is reported that the chairman of the joint chief of staff of the United States military called one of the nation’s leading adversaries, not only in order to lower military tensions, but actually to go so far as to say that there would be no military attack from the United States, and to say, “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.” It is likely that there is no precedent for such a conversation, much less for such a statement to be made by a senior American military official. It’s hard to imagine the context in which such would be imaginable.

The context that is argued by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their book, again, it’s coming out next Tuesday, entitled Peril, is that the Trump administration in its final days was in meltdown. The president was in a state of psychological distress and perhaps even psychiatric breakdown, and the reality is that the People’s Liberation Army in China feared that the president of the United States might launch some kind of reckless attack. And that’s the conversation between the People’s Liberation Army general and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the American military. But even as that is the context that is argued by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in their new book, the reality is that the truly shocking thing is that such a statement would be made, much less confirmed by a chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Remember he is the current chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

The point is this, arguably any statement like that made by a member of the United States military to an adversary of the United States, in this case, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, that such a statement would be classified as treasonous. It was a statement that regardless of the intention of the one making it, could well be understood as an intentional statement in juious to the national security of the United States of America. The fact that those words would have been stated by the chairman of the joint chief of the staff of the American military is an astounding development.

Now, someone might come back with the argument that the events of January the 6th would have been sufficiently unsettling, even for the international community, that there may have been questions raised about the stability of the American government. But it’s one thing for American military or for that matter political constitutional officers to affirm the ongoing integrity of and stability of the United States government, is quite a different thing for the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the American military to tell America’s most important adversary in the world, that there would be no military attack without his advanced warning. That is the chairman’s advanced warning to America’s adversary of an impending attack.

According to the press, the other conversation took place at roughly the same time. This was a conversation with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Now, Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House. Constitutionally, what does that mean? It means that she is the chief officer of the House of Representatives. It also means that she is, as is so often affirmed, third in line of succession in the case of a vacancy in the office of president of the United States, third in line of succession. But here’s the point. Being third in the line of succession or 18th or 185th in the line of succession, means nothing until there is a succession. There is no constitutional role to anyone in the line of succession. Rather, it simply means that if there were to be a vacancy in the White House and the vice president were to be unavailable for service, the speaker of the house would be next in line of succession.

The point is this, according to the press and according to a transcript reported upon by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff actually spoke openly to the speaker of the House about actions that he would take to ensure that the American military would follow no command considered to be reckless or unacceptable that might come from the president of the United States. This was an intrusion by the speaker of the House into the operations of the American constitutional order and the order of the American military by United States federal law. To put the matter clearly, the speaker of the House has no direct constitutional responsibility or authority to insert herself in the American military command structure, none at all.

But it’s also more important to understand that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff answers to two people. Number one, the secretary of defense of the United States of America. Ultimately he reports to the commander in chief of the American military, the president of the United States. There is no role for the speaker of the House in that command structure, and so the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff basically violated the chain of command, that it is his responsibility to protect. Now, almost immediately, you have American media going to 1974. From 2021 they’re jumping back to 1974. Why?

Well, for one thing, the common link is Bob Woodward. He was then one of the two most famous reporters in the United States of America, a reporter for the Washington Post. Along with his colleague, Carl Bernstein, he basically broke so much of the Watergate story. In 1974, by the time this controversy came to its fulfillment, Richard Nixon was close to his historic resignation from the office of president of the United States. But something we need to note, is that in 1974, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff did not act unilaterally in any way, expressing concern that some kind of reckless order might come from the then President of the United States, Richard Nixon. No, in 1974, the primary action was taken by the Defense Secretary of the United States, James Schlesinger. He, by the way, gave an order through the command structure that affirmed the fact that no order should be followed until it was ascertained that it actually had gone through the appropriate command structure.

I hope you’re hearing a categorical difference between what Secretary Schlesinger did in 1974 and what Woodward and Costa are now reporting that the current chairman of the joint chiefs of staff did earlier this very year. The secretary defense does fulfill constitutional responsibility, also has a direct role in the command structure. Here’s what we need to note. The secretary of defense is by definition and by law, a civilian, not a member of the uniformed armed services, even if the secretary of defense at some point in his previous service served in the military. The secretary of defense role is a civilian role intended to preserve and to perpetuate civilian control of the military. But the constitutional commander in chief of the armed forces remains and always remains the president of the United States.

Now, as you can tell, there are huge issues, constitutional issues, moral issues, legal issues, and of course, political issues involved in this story, but also invoked in this story is a basic need to what did take place. We also need to recognize that threats to America’s constitutional order can come from any number of directions. One of the things we need to note is that the press will largely take sides in something like this, suggesting that anyone who is opposed to President Donald Trump must be on the side of right, regardless of constitutional niceties, and anyone who was defending him must be in the wrong. But of course, the issue is that regardless of who sits in the Oval Office in the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., that individual is the president of the United States until such time as his term office shall end, or he shall be removed from office by constitutional means.

Our constitutional order demands that everyone who is a part of our constitutional process honor, and follow, and preserve that process, not step out on his or her own. There will be some huge issues that will simply explode in the news in coming days about this, but there’s something else I want us to think about and as Christians understand how these stories happen and what they mean. We need to understand that a certain kind of game is being played here. I at least want to try to outline that game.

Number one, this book, the book is entitled Peril, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, comes out next Tuesday. Earlier yesterday, the New York Times announced that it had received somehow a copy of the book it wasn’t supposed to have, and was offering reporting based upon the book in order to give its readers an inside look at this book that was coming out. That’s the way the game is played. Anyone who believes that the New York Times got that book by accident, doesn’t understand that this controversy is invaluable public relations for what will surely be a blockbuster book. Every book that Bob Woodward has written or co-authored in this process, going back to the 1970s has been a New York Times bestseller, and here’s something else to understand about the way this game is played.

The way game has played, is that when you have a figure in the media world in Washington, like Bob Woodward, eventually people come to understand that if they talk to Bob Woodward, they’re likely to be treated well. If they refuse to talk with him, they are likely to be treated rather poorly. That’s just the way it works. Look at his book. Book after book, after book. Now, make no mistake, Woodward has written some really fascinating material. Every one of his books becomes a bestseller because of the inside information. But over a period of time, the question comes, why did that particular person make that statement? How self-serving are these statements? What’s missing? That’s a crucial question when you read a book like this, not only what’s there, but what’s missing and why is it missing?

The reality is that Chairman Mark Milley is almost surely to remain in the headlines for some time. Remember those headlines are not just about what happened in January of this year or phone calls that date back to October of last year, including conversations with the speaker of the House, and with a leading officer in the People’s Liberation Army, after all we’re talking about communist China, no, he is likely also to remain in the headlines because of his role in the disastrous withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan. Yes, that’s as current as the headlines today. Undoubtedly, we will learn more about all these situations in time to come, but it is really important that Americans understand that if we really are committed to our constitutional order, we’re committed to it in full, never just in part. To be committed to this constitutional order in part is to undermine the whole.

Part II

The Parable of Bitcoin: The Digital Is Never Merely Digital, for We Live in a World That is Made of Matter

But next we’re going to shift to a couple of issues that have to do with arguments about the climate and about human impact on the climate. But it’s not the usual kind of controversy you see in the media and in America’s public conversation. Now, there are two issues that are side by side in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times that tell us for one thing, just how complicated the question is and also the fact that even as people say, “Hey, we know how to resolve this issue.” As it turns out, no one really knows how to resolve this issue. What am I talking about?

First of all, yesterday’s edition to the New York Times had a major article, the headline, Bitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. It’s a puzzling story because many people thinking about Bitcoin, the so-called digital currency, would say, how is it that it uses so much electric power? Well, it is because of the accounting system that is set up in order to provide global access to Bitcoin. It’s a very convoluted system. The technology itself is incredibly complex, but the bottom line is that according to the New York Times, the process of creating Bitcoin, “Consumes around 96 terawatt hours of electricity annually more than is used by the Philippines, a nation of about 110 million people.”

There it is. Bitcoin, and let’s face it, so many of the digital elite love the idea of Bitcoin, by the way lots of people like Bitcoin, as a way of trying to get around, say nationalism, national sovereignty and national currencies. There are so many in the modern metropolitan elite who love the idea of Bitcoin. They also consider themselves champions of trying to end fossil fuel use and carbon, but now they have to face the fact that Bitcoin itself is one of the most egregious and outlandish users of fossil fuels and electricity around the world. Again, this one digital technology, Bitcoin, the New York Times tells us consumes just about as much electricity on an annual basis as the entire population of the nation of the Philippines, which is 110 million people. We might just have a problem here.

But there’s another very, very interesting acknowledgement in this article and it’s actually important as we think about how Christians should understand the world. Christians must understand the world as being tied to reality and reality eventually means stuff. By the way, this means human beings as well. God’s intention for human beings is that we be embodied, and that’s the whole point by the way of the central theological principle of Christianity, which is about the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, the son, the second person of the Trinity, assuming human flesh. That means that the Bible grounds all of reality in space, in time, in history and yes, in the biblical story in stuff.

Thus, we come last paragraph in this New York Times article about Bitcoin. It tells us, “Though Bitcoin mining might not involve pickaxes and hard hats, it’s not a purely digital abstraction either. It is connected to the physical world of fossil fuels, power grids and emissions, and to the climate crisis we are in today. What was imagined as a forward thinking digital currency has already had real world ramifications and those continue to mount.” Which is another way of saying if Bitcoin has value only in the air, it has no value. That value has to eventually be real on the ground. Guess what? If you’re on the ground, you got all the problems on the ground. Bitcoin doesn’t avoid one of them.

Part III

Sometimes the New Solution is Worse than the Old Problem? “Experts” Argue that One Climate Solution May Be Worse than the Problem

But the article that is published on the very next page of the New York Times by Hiroko Tabuchi, is running with the headline, “Cleaner jet fuels may help climate, but experts worry.” Now, wait just a minute. If these are cleaner, new jet fuels, that’s good news, right? Why would the experts? Now here again we see that trip wire, the use of the word experts in a headline like this, because there is no particular expertise that may fall to any particular expert. But in this case, the New York Times is simply pointing to the fact that even as airlines and airline authorities around the world are working with governments to come up with new fuels that will be less carbon based and will also leave less carbon in the atmosphere, the reality is that even though that is celebrated as good news, by the way, especially by those who are trying to push these new fuels and make a mistake, there is an economic incentive there. This will be big business. There will be winners and losers in the green game.

But even as it is acknowledged that these new fuels for airliners might have a good ecological impact in and of themselves, the experts are worried. Why would they worry? It is the because obtaining those new fuels may actually cause greater ecological damage than using those old fuels. The way out of the problem turns out to be the way back into the problem. There’s a parable there for us all to understand. First of all, it’s a parable about the complexity of the world. The fact is that the world is so complex that fixing one thing here might create a bigger problem there. That is not an argument for doing nothing. Where doing something would actually help or where doing something might actually even offer the possibility of help.

But here you have a graphic underlining of the fact that so much of what is touted in politics and in the media, as the sure thing, actually has the experts scratching their heads as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. The new good thing might actually be worse than the old bad thing. Well, there’s the human quandary for you. It’s a parable of Genesis 3, but this one’s actually on page B7 of the New York Times.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for the brief.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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