The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, March 20, 2023

It’s Monday, March 20th, 2023.

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


Part I

Lessons From Two Decades of Conflicted History: Christian Realist Considerations of the Iraq War 20 Years Later

It is very hard to take the historical measure of something, even something that’s a fairly recent history. As a matter of fact, there are many ongoing historical debates that simply refuse to be concluded. Robert Kagan, in his new book entitled The Ghost at the Feast, Looking at American Foreign Policy between the years 1900 and 1941, points out that if you look to the Spanish American War fought just over a matter of weeks in the year 1898. There is still virtually no historical consensus about that war, was it or was it not a war of colonialization? He says, “No, at least not in the classic European sense.” Was it or was it not intentional in terms of, for instance, the American involvement in the Philippines directly and for so long. Again, controversial questions well over a hundred years ago, the controversial questions continue.

Just consider the fact that today marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of what we call the Iraq War. 20 years ago today, American and Allied forces entered Iraqi territory with the goal of removing Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, from power and establishing a democratic order in order of freedom in Iraq 20 years ago. Now in American history, you could just mention several wars that remain controversial. The Korean War, which, actually, legally wasn’t a war and, legally, isn’t even over. Or you take the Vietnam War, which again, at least by the lack of a declaration of war, wasn’t officially a war, but it certainly was a war. It really can’t be discussed in moral terms as anything other than a war, and a great controversial war in American history at that. Then the Iraq War 20 years ago today.

Now, it was of a different status legislatively, which is actually a part of the interesting history to this war, but there are ongoing historical questions, massive historical questions, massive moral questions. Was this a righteous war? Was it fought for a righteous cause or not? What was the result of the Iraq war?

Actually, it’s a very mixed picture. And this is where Christians need to understand that we should expect, in situations like this, a very mixed picture. As a matter of fact, Christians should understand that even when we are looking at something as morally clear, you might say, and we would immediately say, as World War II, and the necessity of defeating, just think about the European theater, the specter of Nazism. The reality is that even though the war was clearly necessary and victory in that war was clearly necessary, there are still huge moral questions over that war, and that’s just in the European theater, even more complicated, perhaps, in the Pacific Theater. And then you have the questions of primary and secondary causes for these wars and primary and secondary effects of these wars.

There are huge questions that still can’t be answered, but what is clear right now is that the Iraq war is very controversial in the United States. Just consider the headline in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, “Lost Hopes Haunt Iraqis Two Decades After Invasion.” The subhead, I think, is actually quite clear and honest. “Society is far freer, but many feel unsafe and left out as corruption reigns.”

Now, Christians have been trained to think about war in terms of what’s called just war theory. That is, the Christian theory of when war becomes either absolutely necessary or at the very least, morally justified, and under what terms war is to be conducted if morally justified. That’s a good reminder that the Christian worldview takes violence, in general, and war, in particular, with extreme significance. Just war theory is divided into those two parts; what does it take for the beginning of military action to be justified, and then once it is justified as begun, how is military action rightly and justly to be undertaken?

Lots of rules, including the facts that all wars must, essentially, be defensive rather than offensive, that wars must be legally justifiable by a just authority in declaring the war, that all wars must be limited in their ambitions to remediating a harm or removing a threat, not to advancing something like territorial ambitions. Those are questions on the front side of just war theory. On the backside of just war theory, as a just war is being prosecuted, there are other issues, of course, such as the discrimination principle, which means there must be no targeting of civilians. Civilians are never to be targeted as an act of war.

Clearly all kinds of issues arise here and as you’re looking at Iraq, one of the most interesting things about the Iraq war is that, at the time, in the United States, there was an amazing, if often now well forgotten or denied, consensus about the righteousness of removing Saddam Hussein, the dictator there in Iraq, who was repressing his own people and also threatening other nations. Most recently, of course, sending his armed forces to invade Kuwait.

It was a destabilizing regime that was blood thirsty and had blood on its hands. The authorization to begin military action along with allies in Iraq was undertaken with a broad political consensus in the United States, but that consensus didn’t last. If you go back, for instance, to the 2008 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama won, at least in part, because he had not voted for the resolution authorizing the military action in Iraq, and in the Democratic Party by 2008, that was important. It had a great deal to do with the fact that his main opponent, at that time, for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had voted as a senator for the war resolution, so did a lot of other Democrats including the current Democrat in the Oval Office.

It’s not likely that you’re going to hear much from the White House, much less the Oval Office, on the issue of the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war, but at least we need to take some moral reckoning of what took place and what it means. There was a great cost in human lies. William Inboden, in an article that appears at world opinion this morning, says that there were 8,200 American soldiers and contractors killed, tens of thousands more wounded or maimed and over 200,000 dead Iraqi civilians. He went on to say that the results of the war included the spending of trillions of dollars and emboldened Iran, acrimonious divisions in our body politic and severe damage to America’s international credibility.

One of the big issues, from a Christian worldview, is the fact that we have to take moral responsibility both for action and for decided inaction. If we decide not to act. That, in itself, is a morally culpable or at least morally suspect decision. Someone can contest it, we might have to defend it.

Dr. Inboden writes, “While the enormous costs and errors of the war are well known, the cost of inaction should not be ignored. Had Saddam Hussein been left in power, he had every intention of restarting his weapons of mass destruction program and continuing to diminish the region as well as the United States. He would also have continued to brutalize his own people and potentially resume his genocide against the Kurds. No one,” He reminds us, “Should lament his loss.”

The next sentence is just incredibly important and Dr. Inboden was a member of President Bush’s national security council staff at the time, “This is not to say that the war was worth the terrible price, but rather to remind us of the tragic dimension of statecraft. In our fallen world, with imperfect information, few policy choices are clear or cost free.” That’s a very important Christian realization and it’s based in a Christian principle of realism.

And this realism, by the way, isn’t just realism, say, in looking at facts, it’s realism about the fact that we, as human beings, are trapped, both, in a finite situation in terms of our own knowledge, and we are often confronted with an inability to have an absolutely clear view of the consequences of our actions.

And that’s particularly important and let’s just say the stakes are particularly high when it comes to the most catastrophic of human endeavors, which is war. It is also really interesting to look at Iraq today and recognize that, undeniably, it is a lot freer than it was in the past, under the dictator Saddam Hussein. And that acknowledgement in the New York Times, even in the form of a headline, is really important. “Society is far freer, but many feel unsafe and left out as corruption reigns.” And corruption is reigning.

And here’s where we’re looking at another fact that demands a certain form of Christian realism. By the way, the New York Times article says this, “Most troubling for young and old alike is the increasingly entrenched government corruption, which is rooted in a system of sectarian and ethnic distribution of power that the United States pressed Iraq to put into place after Mr. Hussein, that is Saddam Hussein, fell. Transparency international ranks Iraq 157th among 180 countries in its corruption index.” Well, just to state the obvious, that’s very, very bad and it’s a very tragic result of what was undertaken as a major American military effort, and here’s the next point, that was combined with a moral and political effort.

When President George W. Bush, members of his administration and American Allies spoke of the goal in what became known as the Iraq War, it had centered in replacing Saddam Hussein with a functioning, legitimate democratic form of government in that troubled part of the world, and Iraqi is still, in all likelihood, almost by any judgment, the freest and most democratic of all the nations in that region.

But at the same time, it is not a stable democratic experiment and political corruption is absolutely rife. Sectarianism, political corruption, organized graft, all very much a part of Iraq today. It reminds me of something that was said by the columnist George Will, of the Washington Post, now, well, I guess almost two decades ago, about the prospect of nation building and building democracy in Iraq and it’s really important from a worldview perspective. George Will said something like this, he said Iraq has everything necessary to build a functioning democratic culture except Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton. In other words, there is no democratic tradition.

There is no system of constitutional understanding. There is no commitment to the kind of moral and constitutional order that marks the United States of America. The United States of America, by the way, might declare itself a new order of the ages, and in one sense it is, but on the other hand, the United States, its constitution, its government, its separation of powers, its understanding of human liberty, is entirely dependent upon the inheritance of a long tradition of legal argument and development that, in the English speaking tradition, actually unites rather than divides Great Britain and the United States of America. The United States of America may be the new order of the ages, but it did not come out of a laboratory, just add water and stir.

So on this 20th anniversary, what do we mostly need to think about as we contemplate the legacy and the moral dimensions of the Iraq war? We need to think about this. Number one, human intelligence is incredibly limited. You can say you know what’s going on in someplace like Iraq and you can also say you know what will happen if certain war plans are approved, but at the end of the day, as many military strategists and practitioners have pointed out, a war plan rarely survives contact with the enemy. The fact is that we have to take actions in a fallen world with very fallible and limited information, but nonetheless, we’re accountable for how we act based upon that information and even how we analyze and judge that information.

Something else to understand is that in a fallen world, an enterprise as deadly and catastrophic as war can never be carried out with absolutely clean hands. That’s a very, very sad but very, very accurate assessment. That is not to say that soldiers and officers in the army are not and cannot be noble. No, indeed they are. Defending liberty is inherently noble. Patriotism and the service to one’s country for righteousness and justice sake is inherently moral, and for that, we should thank every American in uniform and everyone who’s involved in defending this nation at the same time, they are likely, if they have any experience in war at all, to be the very first to tell us that war is a very, very deadly and morally messy enterprise.

It’s also important for us to recognize that when you are undertaking war, your goals sometimes simply have to change. The reality is that there was no transformation of Iraq into a modern, western nation in terms of laws and culture and all the rest, and eventually, the culture wins over the politics. That’s a very important conservative understanding. Eventually the culture trumps the politics.

Finally, when it comes to the lessons of history, we’re always learning the lessons of history and Christians remind ourselves that we believe the history matters. We also understand that history is continuously an argument. We also understand that how that argument is understood really does matter, not just in our understanding of the past, but in our understanding of our own responsibility in the present and then we project that responsibility into the future. Nobody told us it was going to be easy. Just consider that on the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq.

Part II

“I Am the State?”: Emmanuel Macron Invokes Article 49.3 For Pension Reforms

But next, while we’re thinking about the most important headlines in the last several days, we talked about the situation in France where the French president, Emmanuel Macron, was pressing for what he packaged as a reform of the pension system there, and in particular the retirement plan, and given the actuarial tables, that is to say just given the fact that there are too many people drawing from those state funds and not enough workers paying into those state funds, simply as a matter of trying to stave off an eventual disaster, the French president proposed raising the retirement age from 62 to 64.

Now, in the United States, that would sound almost uncontroversial because no one in the United States really thinks that 62 should be the standard retirement age for that matter, not even 64. We have a very different way of looking at this, but people can, in the United States, elect to retire as early as 62, but that is without the full range of benefits that will come to someone who will retire later.

Now, in the United States, we have our own fiscal problems, but nothing like the cliff, the absolute disaster that is faced by France. The problem is that the French people are very much in love with the welfare state there, and they do not want what they see as their right to retire a very comfortable retirement at age 62. They think raising it to age 64 is basically robbing them. Of course, the French president is responsible to live by the actual math, and the math is disastrous for a retirement age of 62. But nonetheless, there were mass protests. We talked about this on The Briefing.

There were, basically, almost something like riots, certainly demonstrations. Labor unions opposed him. They raised the political price of raising the retirement age just those two years to the extent that the French president recognized, at the end of last week, that the French legislature just might cave into the pressure from the demonstrators.

And by the way, it’s not just those who were publicly demonstrating, mass public opinion was massively against raising the retirement age. But the French president acted and he used a provision in the French constitution, which, by the way, simply doesn’t exist in the American constitution, to act unilaterally to put this measure into law without the parliament. That is to say, without the French legislature. So that’s something that would be unheard of here in the United States. You can’t have the President propose legislation, Congress say no, and the President say, “On something of this scale, well, I’m simply going to do this myself.” Now, we do have the problem with the overuse of executive orders by American presidents, but executive orders in the United States do not have the same status as legislation adopted by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the president of the United States. So why is France different? Well, it’s because France is different.

As you look at the history of France, even the monarchy in France was very different than the monarchy in the English speaking tradition. The monarch of Great Britain was not an absolute despot, certainly in the modern and in the early modern age, but the French King was an absolute monarch.

As a matter of fact, one of them most famously said, “I am the state.” That is to say, the king himself is the state. And even as the French Revolution was just far more radical than the American Revolution, which, arguably, was actually something like a reformation or the glorious revolution, as it is known in England, they are nothing like the French Revolution. And at the end of the French Revolution, remember what was actually produced was not democracy, but Napoleon. And then by the time you get and remember that France has had five constitutions. The United States has had one. In that period, France has gone through several constitutions.

The current constitution is considered the fifth, thus the government is called the Fifth Republic, and it was basically crafted around one man and that one man was the French general considered the great French victor of World War II, the center of French patriotism, whose name, by the way, was almost as if crafted for the role, Charles de Gaulle, as in, Charles of France.

De Gaulle was willing to take the presidency under the Fifth Republic only if the Constitution gave the French president powers that no other Western president would have, not in a constitutional system of government. And what Emmanuel Macron invoked just days ago, to just bypass the legislature and put this new measure into law, it was the exercise of that section of the French constitution that had been demanded by Charles de Gaulle decades ago. The only way that Macron can be stopped now, and by the way, he wouldn’t be thrown out of office, but the government could fall by a vote of confidence failure, but it’s actually unlikely that that is going to take place.

And even if it does, there’s no real sense of where France could go from there. The most important issue that Macron has going for him is not just the fact that there is this section of the French constitution that he could invoke, but the math, let’s just say, is on his side. But the French people seem to be unmoved by the math. And before we just look down at the French on that, the reality is that when it comes to deficit spending, when it comes to the national debt, when it comes to our own national entitlement programs, the vast majority of Americans don’t want to hear the truth either.

So, over the next couple of days, we’re going to find out if the government there withstands a vote of no confidence. The French labor unions are lining up to make a major statement against the president, but as the president himself said, if there is indeed a failure of the government, it is the Prime Minister who will go not the French president. It’s almost as if Emanuel Macron can say what that French autocrat said as a monarch centuries ago, “I am the state.”

Part III

A Parable of the Human Spectacle: Silicon Valley Bank Merchandise Surges to Sale on Ebay

But finally, today, an interesting insight on human nature, why are we so drawn to disaster?

Why are we so interested in the kind of disaster that has befallen the Silicon Valley Bank? Now, it’s a moral story to be sure as every major disaster is. This one is hugely, in almost every dimension, a moral story. You’re talking about a bank that was catering to the very wealthy in Silicon Valley, that evidently wasn’t really catering to its own balance sheets and eventually the bank fell, it was a bank run and eventually, the Fed stepped in.

All kinds of moral issues involved in that as well, including moral hazard. Did the federal government just come in and reward bad behavior? Is this going to lead to further bad effects? But what I want to focus on is the fact that Silicon Valley Bank was actually known to a fairly small percentage of Americans until it was a disaster, and Americans will watch videos of disaster over and over and over again. No one makes a movie about an ocean liner that made it safely from port to port. No, it’s the Titanic that is the subject to movies.

Just as a picture of human nature, the Wall Street Journal put on its front page, over the weekend, the fact that there is a run on Silicon Valley Bank stuff. It turns out that so much advertising material and material with logos of the bank, it’s now being offered on eBay and there’s a certain market for it. People want a piece of this disaster. They want a mug, they want an insulated cooler, they want a coaster with Silicon Valley Bank on it. One seller on eBay simply advertised, “Own a piece of bank history.”

Alyssa Lukpat and Caitlin Ostroff for the Wall Street Journal tell us, “Sellers have cashed in on Silicon Valley Bank’s infamy to make money on all sorts of company merch they might have once neglected. On Wednesday of last week, there were eBay listings for a Silicon Valley Bank branded blankets, $26, a purse hook, just in case you do not know that you might need a purse hook, $12 and 50 cents, a cheeseboard, this isn’t going to cost you $200. Also, Silicon Valley Bank laptop bags, a branded apron because don’t you need a bank branded apron? And a cardboard box with the bank’s logo. Yes, on eBay, they’re selling a cardboard box. It could be yours. There are also people who are now making unauthorized new advertising material for Silicon Valley Bank, often with a certain poke at the bank. We’re told about one options trader in Raleigh, North Carolina, who has brought out a certain t-shirt advertising and it says Silicon Valley Bank Risk Management Department, and don’t you want that on your resume?

It turns out that there is a certain kind of market for disaster wear, and by this, it actually means sometimes wear, as in t-shirts and sweaters and sweatshirts, jackets, windbreakers, golf shirts that have the logos of disaster related companies on them. What does that tell us about human beings? So again, it tells us that we are drawn to a spectacle. It also reminds us that in a story like this, in which there are such huge moral issues, there are some less huge moral issues as well. Sometimes they all come down to an online auction for a coaster.

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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