The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, December 12, 2022

It’s Monday, December 12th, 2022.

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

Part I

Welcomed Back into the Arms of Vladimir Putin: The Merchant of Death Returns to Russia in Brittany Griner Exchange

Big headline news over the weekend as American Women’s Basketball star, Brittney Griner, came home released from a Russian prison in a prisoner exchange between the United States and Russia. And yet as the story continued to develop over the weekend, it was really clear there are huge problems with this story. There is no problem with Brittney Griner coming home. There was no question that she was harshly penalized after being arrested upon her arrival in Moscow in order to work for women’s basketball there on a professional basketball team. There’s no doubt that she was treated harshly. And by all indications singled out because she is an American with cultural influence and basically held as a form of hostage taking. Now she was absolutely foolish to take any form of CBD or cannabis product into Russia and not without plenty of warning by the way, but nonetheless, she was treated in a way that can only be described as unjust.

And yet it’s a complicated moral picture because she voluntarily went to Russia after Russia had invaded Ukraine when Russia was already known for this kind of activity. But nonetheless, she was an American citizen held unjustly in Russia and the American government and in particular the Biden administration and specifically President Biden himself, took a great interest in her case and sought to gain her release. Now as you know, there’s a lot more to the story of Brittney Griner. Brittney Griner is a former Olympian. She’s a very well-known female athlete. She is also openly gay and she has also been rather notorious in the United States for statements very critical of the United States and for resisting the playing of the national anthem at sporting events where she was a participant. So she has been known as a liberal activist, very much associated with what she would describe as a cause of social justice.

She’s also an LGBTQ activist and that makes for a very interesting situation, especially when it comes to Russia. But a particularly dangerous situation when it comes to the administration of Joe Biden. Because Joe Biden has transformed himself as a way of pleasing the left wing of his party into what can only be described as the greatest cheerleader for the entire LGBTQ agenda ever to inhabit the White House. And when it came to Brittney Griner, the political pressure from the left on President Biden was absolutely enormous. It became very, very clear that the administration was seeking a deal. And as is so often the case when it comes to this big of an international story and with the implications this significant, there was all kinds of speculation based upon at least some knowledge of what the negotiations might shape up to look like.

Now, for example, Paul Whelan is an American being held in Russia accused of being a spy. The United States government says he is not a spy. Nonetheless, there is no question that Vladimir Putin is and will be in the driver’s seat in these negotiations so long as he is Russia’s president. And he and the Russian government said no way for Paul Whelan. They said this would be a one for one and the one they demanded, Viktor Bout. Viktor Bout has often been described as the merchant of death. He was also described at one point later convicted in an American court of being one of the most notorious arms dealers in the world. At one point in Russian civil wars, he was selling arms to both sides. Some estimates from the international press have indicated that as many as 300,000 persons have died in some of these conflicts, and much of that death has to be attributed to the merchant of death, the man who profited from the sale of these arms and usually illegal sales of these arms, Viktor Bout.

And yet it was Vicktor Bout that Russia, and in particular Vladimir Putin, demanded to have returned from an American jail. Now there’s quite a story behind the arrest in apprehension in trial of Viktor Bout. He was actually apprehended in Bangkok, Thailand in March of 2008 where he was arrested in a sting operation which involved both the sale of illegal arms and the sale of illegal drugs. And eventually the United States government sought extradition and Viktor Bout was moved to the United States where in 2011 he was convicted in this country of conspiring to kill American citizens. He was also convicted of conspiring to support foreign terrorist organizations conspiring to acquire and export illegal weapons. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Now he has served several years, but he would be eligible for parole only eight years from now. But the moral point is this, it is not wrong to refer to Viktor Bout by his industry and by his personal involvement in profit as someone who profits from murder, indeed mass murder.

But it’s also true that he is now welcomed back into the arms of Vladimir Putin. And make no mistake, Vladimir Putin and the Russians are absolutely celebrating the return of the merchant of death. And that reminds us of an even greater moral urgency in the context of Russia’s military action, indeed its invasion of Ukraine. Russia, as we know, is running low on weapons. It is trying to buy thousands of additional rockets and missiles from nations like Iran, other national outlaws, but it is running out of weapons at the very same time it now has the merchant of death back in the Kremlin. Now, you would think that if there were any moment in world history when the United States would not even think of negotiating for the release of Viktor Bout, it would be right now, but right now is exactly when the Biden administration decided to make this exchange.

And it made this exchange after the administration. Humiliatingly enough admitted that it had started out with a very different negotiating plan. This administration is basically admitted, it absolutely caved. It gave Vladimir Putin and Russia back the merchant of death, and we gained a WNBA star, a celebrated Olympian and an activist for liberal causes who never posed any danger to the Russian people. There was no equivalence here whatsoever, but the political pressure on the Biden administration eventually led the administration and the president to sanction this exchange. It is an unconscionable exchange, but we need to understand that it is so not because Brittney Grinder is LGBTQ in identity, but because the merchant of death is such a deadly agent in the world, the kind of prisoner that no one should exchange. And by the way, the story just gets worse when it turns out that Russia is seeking, at the same time, to put pressure on the United States, to put pressure on the Germans to release a man who is a convicted assassin on behalf of the Russian regime.

So you have the merchant of death and also this convicted assassin. Russia wants them both. And at least Germany had the sense in this case to tell the Americans, no. One Russian legislator wrote about this saying that it represented an American capitulation. The Russian foreign ministry, according to Richard Pérez-Peña of the New York Times has been “flooded with congratulations for his release.” And furthermore, the Kremlin having demanded his freedom, is now celebrating what it sees as a very good deal. And it was a very good deal for Russia, a very bad deal morally speaking for the world. By the way, when Viktor Bout was apprehended in March of 2008 in the sting operation, authorities were posing as “Colombian guerillas who wanted to buy weapons including anti-aircraft missiles that they said would be used to kill American pilots.”

So we know exactly what we’re dealing with here. Tile end knew exactly what it was dealing with. The American military and intelligence entities understood what they, what we were dealing with. And now he is back in Russia’s arms as an arms dealer and we know exactly the business he was in. It is the very business that Russia is celebrating now that he is returned. Now, another moral dimension of this is the absolute shamelessness of Russia. Russia has never really hidden its ambitions to want Viktor Bout back also to want its convicted assassin back. This is just how Russia acts and Russia’s been acting this way for some time. And this is basically a continuation of the kind of moral pattern that was set during the era of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin, you’ll recall, was an officer with the KGB, the Soviet Union’s notorious intelligence operation. He is just operating as he was trained to operate, but now he’s the president of Russia.

Part II

A New Morality of Hostage Takers: Why the U.S. (And Other Democratic Nations) Will Get the Short End of the Stick in Government International Hostage Situations

One of the most important and urgent dimensions of this story was made clear in a front page article over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal. The headline was, “U.S. adapts to era of hostage diplomacy.” A pair of reporters for the Wall Street Journal made very clear that the new trend right now is governments taking hostages and using them for political advantage. As they wrote, “More Americans in recent years have been detained by foreign governments than have been taken captive by terrorist groups or criminal gangs according to US authorities and private assessments.” But here’s the big moral turn, and I’m reading directly from the journal’s front page, “In response, the US has become more willing to temper its traditional aversion to negotiating prisoner deals. Unlike with rogue groups, Washington has established diplomatic channels with foreign governments to facilitate deal making over detainees.” The journal gets right to the point in the next sentence, “Publicly, such swaps look uncomfortably like concessions to hostage takers.”

Now here’s one of the big things we need to keep in mind. America has operated, the American government has operated under the strictures that there must be no reward to hostage takers, that there must be no reward to those who kidnap American citizens. But it turns out that now the governments are doing it, the United States is recalibrating its approach. And by the way, this did not start with Joe Biden and the Biden administration. This has been going on for some time. But it is now becoming what can only be described as an international crisis with the United States at the center of it. But in worldview analysis, there’s something else here that we need to acknowledge. It is not just the evil of it all and it’s not just the fact that the strategy is now more or less out in public.

It’s not just that the strategy works, it’s something else. And that something else has to do with the fact that you have governments like the government of the United States and governments like the government of Russia, and they are incommensurate when it comes to political goals. They are incommensurate when it comes to political attention and to the power of public opinion.

Now, let’s just underline the obvious. The United States holds to a much higher view of human rights than does Russia, a much higher view of human rights. And so we have placed historically a far greater emphasis upon getting our citizens back than have many other nations. Who when it comes to just ordinary citizens frankly just don’t seem to care all that much. Now when you’re dealing secondly with the fact that the United States is a government of laws and it is up against a basically lawless nation as in Russia when it comes to international law, the fact is, it’s incommensurate again. The United States and other democratic forms of government are going to end up in all likelihood on the short end of the stick, as my grandfather used to say, in virtually every one of these deals because the United States has less leverage politically than does an autocratic state. An autocratic state under the leadership of someone like Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly an autocrat, it has power in this situation that the United States does not have.

Why? Because the United States operates, at least when it comes to the legitimacy of the government, by the consent of the government. The American people have a big say in the operation of its government. This was a problem back during the Cold War when the United States faced off for decades against the Soviet Union. We with our allies, the Soviets with their allies, and there were exchanges made back then. The most famous of them were made either in Vienna or in Potsdam outside of Berlin and East Germany on what was known as the famous bridge of spies. More than once, I have had the opportunity to walk across the bridge of spies there in Potsdam, Germany, just imagining the weight of history and what it meant for the Soviets or the Eastern Europeans such as the Eastern German police to show up on the bridge on the one side with a Western prisoner they held in custody. And for the United States or allies to show up at the other end of the bridge with someone the Soviet Union wanted back and there was an exchange.

Now my point is, even though this history is so close to us, so close now that you can go to Potsdam and walk across that bridge yourself, the reality is that the Soviet Union and its allies held the upper hand in terms of political leverage because they could and would do things that America and its allies would not. Now, in worldview, there is also another big issue here. It’s even bigger than this in the background, and that is our understanding of human beings and human dignity. At least in the background of the Western understanding of human rights, is what can only be described as a basically Christian even biblical understanding of the worth and dignity of human beings. That is the very basis historically of what developed over time as the western political tradition in which human beings are citizens and citizens have particular rights, and those rights cannot be abrogated.

And it is the purpose of the government not to create rights, by the way, that was the great liberal dream, but rather to respect rights. And the rights are there because, here’s what Christians understand, because of the Imago Dei, the image of God. On the other hand, you say, why did the Soviets and the other Marxists, why did they hold to a different understanding of human rights and human dignity? It is because they held to a materialistic worldview. They were officially atheistic. Human beings were just material accidents. And guess what? Material accidents don’t have any inherent rights. Now, when it comes to Vladimir Putin, who by the way has this very close chummy relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, he is certainly not going to identify as an atheist. He is not going to base his claim upon materialism. Instead, it is upon the absolute power of the state. And the fact that even Russians, even Russian citizens who act in ways that the state considers contrary to its interest, they can be determined to have absolutely no rights at all. The state giveth, the state taketh away.

The huge issues we have to confront here include the fact that there are numerous Americans held by foreign governments. We just said now more than held by terrorist groups or by international criminal organizations. And the fact is that the precedent set very publicly in the case of Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout, it advertises to the world, hey, the value of those American hostages just went up. They just went way up. The leverage given to our enemies has just been increased, not decreased. Now again, that didn’t start with the Biden administration, but this was a particularly bad deal which establishes a particularly dangerous precedent. It was interesting over the weekend to see how many members of the President’s own party, at least in Congress, began to try to establish or at least attempt to establish a bit of distance with the Biden administration’s decision on this one.

Part III

‘A Role Model and Inspiration to LGBTQI+ Americans’: The Political Pressure on the Biden Administration That Led to the Swap for Brittany Griner

But there are other huge moral issues that come to the fore here.

For example, do we owe Americans who now go to Russia the same kind of effort to get them back? Because after all, everyone now knows that Russia’s at war in Ukraine, everyone now knows that Russia takes hostages like this. So what is the responsibility of America and the American government now? And by the way, Brittney Griner went to Russia to make money. And according to the New York Times, “There are now an estimated 42 Americans playing or planning to play in Russia’s premier men’s basketball league up from 30 just a few months ago, according to tallies by American Sports agents.” The team of reporters to the New York Times on Saturday estimated there are an additional 29 American and Canadian hockey players currently in Russia or at least having signed to play in Russia.

And then the article states this, “These athletes have stayed despite warnings from the State Department, which is advising all Americans to leave Russia immediately weighing the risks of playing in Russia against professional and financial opportunities in a major sports market.” So at least the moral equation has to be factored in here that Americans who under these conditions and for these reasons are making money are in Russia right now. They’re assuming a certain form of risk. But are they also putting the United States government in the position of releasing even more merchants of death eventually to get them home?

And there’s simply no way around the LGBTQ issue here because it was the Biden administration’s chief spokesperson who articulated the fact that that was an issue in terms of the administration’s fervor to get Brittney Griner released. The spokesperson for the White House said, “On a personal note, Brittney is more than an athlete, more than an Olympian. She is an important role model, an inspiration to millions of Americans, particularly the LGBTQI plus Americans and women of color. She should never have been detained by Russia. And I am deeply proud of the work that the president has done.”

Now notice it’s not conservatives who are making this accusation. It is the spokesperson for the White House herself identified as LGBTQ who said, “Brittney is more than an athlete, more than an Olympian, she’s an important role model and inspiration to millions of Americans, particularly the LGBTQI plus Americans and women of color.”

In other words, it was the spokesperson for the White House who said that those issues and that sexual identification is a factor. That was not said by the critics of the White House, that was said by the White House.

Part IV

There’s a New “Independent” in the Senate? Kyrsten Sinema Changes Political Affiliation — But This Is an Unfolding Story, With Interesting Wrinkles

But next we come back to the United States and take a closer look for just a moment at one of the bizarre political stories to emerge here in the United States having to do with Arizona Senator, Kyrsten Sinema.

Here’s the deal. If you go back to the headlines last week after the runoff election was completed in Georgia, the claim made by most in the media is that the Democratic majority was cemented with 51 Democrats and 49 Republicans. Giving the Democrats an advantage, especially when it comes to committees, other power structures, no longer a 50, 50 split with the Democratic vice president necessary to break a tie, no, the Democrats had a majority. Until this morning the math is different. According to the most accurate math, at least for now, the Senate to be seated in the new Congress will include 49 Republicans, that stays the same, but 48 Democrats and three Independents.

But here’s the thing, the three Independents are voting with the Democrats. And as of the weekend, one of those independents is Arizona Senator, Kyrsten Sinema, who had been registered as a Democrat. Now, is this a big game changer or not? At least in terms of how the Senate is supposed to operate for the next two years, not a big difference. And that’s because you have two independent senators who basically caucus with the Democrats already. That will be Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s rather infamous Bernie Sanders. But it’s also interesting that Bernie Sanders has held leadership positions among the Democrats and ran twice for the Democratic presidential nomination. If he’s an Independent, he’s an Independent who isn’t very clear about what it means to be an Independent. The same thing is basically true for Angus King. Bernie Sanders and Angus King vote with the Democrats virtually all the time, every time.

And if Bernie Sanders is ever frustrated, it’s because the Democrats aren’t moving far enough, fast enough left. But Kyrsten Sinema is something altogether different. She’s often been described as bipartisan and something of a moderate. By the way, if she’s a moderate, then the term basically has been redefined over time. It shows you that comparison terms like moderate have no inherent meaning. It just means not exactly liberal, not exactly conservative. When it comes to a voting pattern, Kyrsten Sinema’s voted with the Democratic Administration 93% of the time. So that’s pretty clear, that’s pretty solid. But here’s what’s not solid, her support by her own party, that is the Democrats, her most recent party back in the state of Arizona. When she took certain actions, she voted against the filibuster. She has voted against some Liberal imperatives. She has sometimes joined in an effective partnership with West Virginia Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin, in blocking some leftist Democratic initiatives. And for that, she was censored by her own Democratic party back in Arizona.

Now that raises another issue. How could that happen? It was basically true that Kyrsten Sinema was going to face such a hot Democratic primary if she runs for reelection the next time that she was almost certain to lose. And so she declared herself an Independent. And as most national observers recognize, this certainly has more to do with Arizona politics and with Kyrsten Sinema than it does with the landscape at the national level. But on the ground in Arizona, it turns out it really is interesting because the Democrats in Arizona have the third largest registration. The Republicans have the largest registration, and then no party has the second largest registration and then come the Democrats. Now to be sure they’re pretty close. The Republicans have 34 or almost 35% of the registration, no party or Independents or some identified as moderates, they basically should just be called non-party identified in this case, are 33.89% and the Democrats 30.66%.

Now, that’s a pretty significant fall off to get to the Democrats. But that just raises the issue. When you have, in both parties, by the way, this is bipartisan. When you have people leave the Republicans to identify as Independent, they are probably moving somewhat left. And when you have Democrats who lead the Democratic party by registration to identify as independents, they’re probably moving somewhat, right. You know what that produces? A Republican party that is, if anything, deeper red and a Democratic party that is, if anything, brighter blue. The Democratic party in Arizona is now so liberal that Kyrsten Sinema would almost certainly be defeated. Her popularity rating among Democrats in the state of Arizona was actually measured at 7% in one recent survey. That’s not 70%, that’s 7%.

Just to state the obvious, that’s political disaster from which virtually no candidate can ever recover. Kyrsten Sinema seems to understand that. But this does set up in a couple of years what could be an absolutely fascinating Senate race in Arizona. You could have the Republicans facing an independent candidate, Kyrsten Sinema presumably, and a Democratic candidate presumably significantly to Sinema’s left. So the net result of Kyrsten Sinema deciding to identify as an Independent may be to give her seat eventually to the Republicans. But then again maybe Arizonans would elect her as an Independent. She’s clearly betting on at least that possibility. The Democrats see an opportunity now to have a far more progressive candidate, but at least in most situations, that candidate wouldn’t be likely to win in Arizona. But you know what? Increasingly Arizona is the quintessential swing state so maybe all political bets are off. But here at least we need to note that the Liberals in the Democratic Party in Arizona might have a bit of cause to have a bit of frustration with Kyrsten Sinema. She emerged first on the political scene as a member of the Green Party.

If anything, that party like its European equivalence, was to the left of the Democratic Party at the time. She eventually ran for State office, then she ran for Congress successfully, then she ran for the Senate and she was elected by Democrats who clearly thought she was much more liberal than she turned out to be, at least on some issues. Clearly on cultural and moral issues, again, she’s extremely liberal. She is aggressively pro-abortion, and again, she is the first openly bisexually identified member of the United States Senate. The first to be elected and the second publicly identified LGBTQ Senator. We’re not talking here about a moral conservative, just underline that fact. But at least on economic issues, she has shifted significantly to the right. By the way, the Democrats were very frustrated with her back in Arizona because she refused to join with at least many Democrats in putting an end to the filibuster and thus to Republican efforts to restrain democratic legislation.

Now, that’s problematic enough, but that’s open to discussion. But the big issue is maybe Kyrsten Sinema’s actually better at math than her Democratic critics. Because in the 2024 election cycle, you have well over 20 Democratic seats that are going to be open for contested elections, over 20, and that is a massive exposure for the Democratic Party. Under those conditions, it could be expected that the Democrats might actually lose their very thin majority in the United States Senate. It’s also, let’s just say, at least conceivable that a Republican could be elected president of the United States. And so if the Democratic left were to be successful in eliminating the filibuster, they might greatly regret that fact in just a matter of less than two years. In worldview terms, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story is what it shows us, even about a state like Arizona, where the current Democratic party is so liberal that it has become absolutely frustrated and intolerant with its own Democratic Senator in Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema. She was identified just shortly ago as one of the great hopes of the Democratic Party, but now she’s not even a Democrat.

But again, in worldview terms, recognize that in her voting pattern, she’s going to continue to vote like a Democrat, she’s more or less assured folks of that. And remember, she has voted 93% of the time with the Biden administration already. But even that batting average isn’t enough for the left wing of the Democratic Party. But finally, and quickly as we think about media coverage of this kind of story, I want to show you one paragraph as an illustration of how to understand that the press is signaling, we have no idea what to do with this. The front page article in the Wall Street Journal on Sinema’s announcement says this, “The move sent a jolt through Washington just days after Democrats secured their 51st seat in the chamber by winning a runoff election in Georgia. It raised questions about how closely Ms. Sinema would align with the party in the second half of Mr. Biden’s term and introduced a new wrinkle in the outlook for the 2020, 24 election when she would be up for reelection and when Democrats are facing a tough Senate map.”

What’s the journalistic cue there, it is those words that this move “introduced a new wrinkle in the outlook for the next election.” A new wrinkle in the outlook. In other words, the Wall Street Journal has basically no idea exactly how this is going to play out, nor do I. But when it comes to Kyrsten Sinema, this is hardly her first new wrinkle on the political landscape.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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