The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

It’s Tuesday, September 12, 2023.

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

Part I

An Unlikely Allyship Formed Over a Common Enemy: President Joe Biden Makes Landmark Visit to Vietnam

Sometimes the world is explained in a photograph, sometimes huge questions are invoked by just asking why a plane landed where it did. Now, we’re going to be looking at how these things explain the world today and changes in the world that would’ve been inconceivable just a matter of a generation ago, maybe just even a decade ago. First of all, the plane landing. Where did the plane land? Why does it matter? The plane was Air Force One and it landed in Hanoi in the nation of Vietnam, and it landed with the American president striking a deal with the Vietnamese government concerning an allyship. The reason behind that is the threat of China, but the history behind that is simply massive.

When you invoke the relationship between the United States and Vietnam, you are opening the door to a conversation and a reconsideration of much of the history of the 20th century. Much of the history of what became known as the Cold War, and one of the bitterest memories in American history. That makes the events over the last several days, all the more important.

Historians will record that the Vietnam conflict or the Vietnam War lasted at least officially from the 1st of November 1955 to the last day of April in 1975. That was 19 years, five months, four weeks and one day. But for Americans of a certain age, that became an indelible memory, and if it was an indelible memory for Americans of a certain age, it became certainly even more of a memory in the nation of Vietnam. In order to understand what’s at stake here, not only in the present but in the past, we need to go back to the midpoint of the 20th century and the end of World War II. The defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan literally rewrote the map. The globe was significantly changed in terms even of the identity of certain nations. Empires rose and fell.

Most importantly in the Pacific, the Japanese Empire fell, and American influence and the influence of America’s allies had to fill much of that vacuum, but there was something else going on in the world, and it immediately took shape, even in the final weeks and months of World War II itself, certainly in the immediate period following, and that was the rise of what became known as the Cold War. World War II, as it was known, was replaced with a different kind of war, but it was still a kind of war known as the Cold War, the great conflict between the allies led by the United States representing democracy and constitutional self-government, and then the Communist Bloc, led most importantly enduringly by what was then the Soviet Union and its allies, but increasingly after 1949 by the communist government and the dominance of the Communist Party in China as well.

Nations would later be identified as part of the Third World. That was a third political grouping that was neither a part of the Soviet Union and its Bloc nor of the United States and Western Europe and its Bloc. These would later be defined as non-aligned nations. But the fact is, almost every one of them was contested territory. Furthermore, even as the United States and its allies watched what happened at the end of World War II, it appeared that the Communist menace was beginning to spread all over the globe. As you look at Eastern Europe and you see those nations basically became imprisoned within the Soviet Bloc and under the domination of the communist leaders in the USSR, similarly, especially after 1949, big questions about the alignment of nations throughout much of this Third World, the non-aligned nations, this became a matter of international and global significance and what was understood to be a fatal rivalry between the USSR and the United States, both of them including their allies.

When it came to wars that involved the United States after World War II, both of them, by the way, both of them often legally described as conflicts rather than war, particularly in the case of Korea. In the Korean conflict that came almost immediately after World War II, and then the Vietnam conflict that certainly exploded after about 1955. The argument was that there was an encroaching communist menace that would take over virtually all of Asia if there was not significant Western and democratic opposition.

The foreign policy approach taken by the United States and others was based upon what would later be called the domino theory. Just think of a series of dominoes, one falls, it falls upon another, and before you know it, the dominoes just keep falling. That was matched by the fact that there was a clear ambition on the part of the USSR and Communist China to draw increasing numbers of previously non-aligned nations into their orbit.

The United States and our allies were not wrong to see that as part of a global communist conspiracy and to see that nothing less than human dignity and human liberty were at stake. Now, there was more at stake, of course, there were commercial interests, financial interests, there were defense and military interests, but the fact is that you also had the breakup of previous European empires. In Asia that meant three empires in particular. The Dutch, often identified as the Netherlands, and then France, and most importantly, Britain. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were defeated by the end of World War II, and thus, those two empires fell apart. But the end of World War II also basically meant the end of other forms of European imperialism, certainly the imperialism that had meant so much in terms of the formation of the world in the 19th century into the 20th century.

In Korea, in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the big issue was that communists were intent upon domination of the Korean peninsula. This included support one way or another from both China and Russia, both of whom, by the way, have their own strategic interests in the Korean peninsula. The Korean conflict was from the viewpoint of the United States, never an officially declared war, it was instead identified as a military conflict, but the lessons from the Korean conflict were not clear for the United States and its allies. By the time that the armistice had been signed, there was a communist Korea in the north and a at least western aligned Korea in the South. Similarly, when you come to Southeast Asia, just a matter of a few years later, the contested territory particularly of Vietnam became absolutely crucial. Vietnam had been a part of the French imperial reach, and France was actively involved long before the United States in trying to put down what was unquestionably a communist insurgency.

That communist insurgency in Korea, particularly in the North, became effectively more and more communist. It can be argued that that original insurgency, largely against the legacy of the Imperial rule of France, it was a move towards self-determination in the view of so many who were trying to lead a movement of putting those Third World nations together. It was also true that Ho Chi Minh had been at least largely educated in the West. You can simply look at this as a potential missed opportunity of Western nations to have had a more productive influence decades earlier in Vietnam. But in any event, whatever opportunity there was, was a lost opportunity, and by the time France was clearly in retreat and the United States moved in, it was precisely because of that domino theory and the belief held by successive American presidents and their administrations that if indeed one domino were to fall, others would inevitably follow.

The theory was that if we lose Vietnam, we’ll lose Laos, we’ll lose Thailand, we will lose Indochina as a whole. This was a rather compelling argument. We can look back now and say that there were fallacies in that domino theory, but we also have to understand it wasn’t entirely wrong either. This points to a fact that Christians need to understand, which is that in a fallen world, it is sometimes very, very difficult to determine exactly what world occurrence means, exactly what this insurgency means, exactly how this fits in the larger worldview. Who is a friend, who is an enemy, who’s an ally, who is in opposition? Sometimes it takes some time to figure all of that out. The United States had the mantle of world leadership thrust upon it at the end of World War II. To be honest, the United States was not ready for that burden. I think that is a very fair historical verdict.

The United States did not have a clearly thought out approach at the end of World War II to how the United States should use its influence all over the world, in general terms, in support of liberty in opposition to dictators and tyranny, even as you had western constitutional democracies pressing back against encroaching communist threats. By the way, there was a worldwide conspiracy for communist domination. The fall of the Soviet Union, if anything, just made that all the more clear with documentation newly available. So many American soldiers served nobly in Vietnam, but it is sobering to remember that at least 58,281 Americans died in that conflict. 47,434 according to military sources died from combat. You look at the total military dead in the conflict between 1960 and 1974, it’s somewhere around 392,000 people in uniform. But beyond that, the civilian casualties were absolutely massive.

The total dead among the Vietnamese is estimated as between just less than one million to something like three million. We are looking at a massive scar in history, there’s no doubt about it. A lot of lessons to be learned. A lot of noble causes were fought. A lot of less than noble actions were undertaken in the brutality of war. The domino theory is no longer the primary theory that drives American foreign policy, and it wasn’t exactly right, but it also wasn’t exactly wrong.

By the time the United States pulled out of Vietnam, it was pretty clear that the Communist North would be victorious eventually over the South that collapsed, by the way, came even faster than American military authorities had predicted. Very similar by the way to what happened just a little over two years ago in the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But nonetheless, let’s just set the stage for what happened days ago there in North Vietnam. Air Force One did land with the American President on board, and it was an official diplomatic vision by the American head of state and head of government visiting North Vietnam, and on friendly terms, trying to establish a mutual defense arrangement.

What in the world could explain that? Well, the passage of time and the emergence of a very clear threat from a newly ambitious Communist China. As Katie Rogers of the New York Times rightly summarized the meaning of the event, “During a landmark visit to Hanoi by the American President, Vietnam’s Communist Party leadership formally raised the country’s ties to the United States to the highest level in Hanoi’s diplomatic hierarchy, equivalent to those it has with Russia and China.” Mr. Biden, the American president said, “The breakthrough was the beginning of an even greater era of cooperation a half century after American troops withdrew.” President Biden said, “Today, we can trace a 50-year arc of progress in the relationship between our nations from conflict to normalization.” Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, again, hear that, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam responded by saying, “This is a new elevated status that will be a force for prosperity and security in one of the most consequential regions in the world.”

Just imagine that. Imagine different photographs, you are looking at 1975, the American withdrawal, the fall of South Vietnam. American troops retreating. Just look at the pictures indeed of so many of the awful things that happened in the midst of a grueling war that stretched over more than 19 years, and then fast-forward to the leaders of the two nations standing in Hanoi and agreeing to raise their diplomatic relations to the highest level. That requires a lot of explanation. Certainly a part of this is that nations act within what is perceived to be their self-interest. Vietnam was not forced into this. Vietnam was not coerced into this. Neither was the United States of America. This is something else that is fundamental in a fallen world. Sometimes allies are created by a common enemy, not by a common economic philosophy, not by a common understanding of government, not by a common worldview, but by the reality and the perception of a common threat.

It will take some time to fully understand what this new relationship between Vietnam and the United States means. It is clearly a shot across the bow for the communist regime in China. It is clearly a statement of an entirely new assessment of threat on the part of Vietnam, which is now reaching out to the United States as a quite necessary friend, and that means that they see China now on much less friendly terms. Interestingly, remember both Vietnam and China are officially and in their own way, Communist regimes, but now you have Hanoi developing this new relationship at the highest level of their diplomatic hierarchy with the United States of America.

By the way, in concrete terms, what’s really at stake here? Well, China’s great expansion of influence has been largely by means of an invigorated navy, a blue ocean navy by Chinese aspirations. That’s a completely new thing in terms of the history of China and also of relations between China and other nations, and it is a direct threat to the nations of Southeast Asia and indeed much of the Pacific perimeter because China clearly intends what can only be described as an extension of influence. And what this means here is that communist Vietnam has decided that now is a very opportune moment to establish a new friendship and allyship with the United States of America.

Part II

Threats to Liberty Captured in One Global Agreement: The Budding Relationship of the Leaders of Russia and North Korea on the World Stage

But meanwhile, there is a flip side to this equation. I said it’s not just one photograph. It’s what over the course of days will be a succession of photographs, is not just the leader of Vietnam and the President of the United States in Hanoi, it is also the totalitarian leader of Russia, president Vladimir Putin and the dictator of communist North Korea, Kim Jong Un. This seems like it’s almost right out of a 1970s James Bond movie because when you come up with the reclusive North Korean leader, bellacos, and as we now know, armed with nuclear weapons, you are looking at a cartoon character on the world scene, but in this case, a cartoon character with evil intent and nuclear weapons.

The cartoonish character of Kim Jong Un also has to do with the fact that he doesn’t trust his own aircraft. The meeting is being held in Vladivostok there in Eastern Russia, not because it’s convenient to Putin because it isn’t, but because it is a full day’s journey by train from North Korea, and that’s about as far as Kim Jong Un is willing to go on a train at less than 40 miles an hour. By the way, this has offered the Western Press an opportunity to point out that many of North Korea’s trains operate only at about nine miles an hour. The fastest of them, something like 30 miles an hour, and the Communist leader’s personal car pulled in an armored train reaches a top speed of about 37 miles per hour. It’s a long way to Vladivostok by train.

But this simply raises the other question, why the picture of Putin and Kim Jong-un? The reason is not because of Kim Jong-Un in particular, is because of Vladimir Putin. It is because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what is now beginning to be a severe issue in Russia, not just economic isolation, but also because Russia has been cut off in many sources of armaments, and all of a sudden the armed to the teeth dictator of North Korea looks like just the kind of gun slinger that Vladimir Putin needs to have as an even closer friend.

So if all this unfolds as we expect in a matter of days, you’ll have the picture of the President of the United States and the leader of Vietnam smiling in order to face the fact they have a common foe in the Communist party domination of China, and China’s increasingly imperialistic ambitions.

But then you also have the picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the titles that are granted to the North Korean dictator are longer than I’m going to read off here. I’ll just say the supreme leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, they’re going to be smiling in the photograph. They’re going to be shaking hands because they’re making an agreement, an agreement that quite frankly is a threat to freedom and democracy everywhere, but is easily understood once you understand how quickly the world is changing before our eyes.

Part III

Tyranny is Closer at Hand Than You Might Think: New Mexico’s Governor Attempts Unconstitutional Suspension of Gun Carrying Laws

But next, speaking of threats to liberty, you don’t have to go to Vietnam or North Korea to see threats to liberty. Sometimes you can see it right here. Ground zero for this particular threat to liberty is the state of New Mexico where New Mexico’s governor has taken upon herself the supposed authority to announce a 30-day ban on carrying firearms in public.

The governor described this as a necessary response to what she described as an epidemic of gun violence there in the state a New Mexico. Now, we just need to step back for a moment and say there’s no doubt that there is a violence problem in New Mexico, and in particular, in the city of Albuquerque, and yet what we’re looking at here is a governor of a state who after all took an oath to uphold the Constitution, who is clearly violating the Constitution. This isn’t a close call. This isn’t one of those issues that’s likely to take a long time to work its way through the courts eventually get to the Supreme Court. Everyone’s going to be on the edge of the seat to see how this turns out. No credit to the Washington Post here for running an article with the headline, “New Mexico’s dicey gun restriction draws detractors even from the left.”

In this case, Aaron Blake is the author of the report in the Washington Post, and he makes clear that even some of those on the left are making very clear they’re not going along with the governor on this. The governor seems to believe she has this authority. The governor in this case is Michelle Lujan Grisham, and she’s a Democratic elected governor there in New Mexico–long story behind that. New Mexico’s voting patterns and all the rest. But the point is that what she can’t justify is the fact that the right to own guns according to the Constitution and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States, that’s a constitutional right. It is something beyond the ability of a governor to put on pause. Now, the governor came back and said, no, as a governor, I have the right to declare a state of emergency. But that state of emergency has only been used throughout American history in the most unusual of circumstances, and even those were controversial.

In the suspension of any constitutional right–I mean, you’re really looking at something tantamount to the Civil War, or you’re looking at a complete breakdown of society, say, after a massive hurricane or something like that, just for a matter of time, a curfew, just for a matter of time, a restriction on liberty and movement, but just this blanket announcement of an executive power that is presumed by the Governor of New Mexico to suspend the constitutional rights of Americans in violation of her own constitutional oath. This is something that simply must not stand. Now, this also requires a little bit of political explanation. Why would there be some on the left who are very much in favor of restricting guns? Why would those on the left be also very worried about the governor’s action? The answer for that is actually quite interesting in itself.

When you look at this kind of public controversy, both sides have an interest in making real gains and not in setting themselves up for disaster. By the way, on issues, whether it’s abortion or same-sex marriage or gun rights or all the rest, there can be people who could make arguments that are very difficult to sustain in court. I’ll just put it that way. But in this case, you have gun control activists who are actually quite worried that what the Governor has done here is to set up a situation in which her action is going to be so comprehensively swatted down by federal courts that it’ll make it more difficult for them to make progress by their estimation on this issue. Now, you really are looking at something that is clear in constitutional law. Now you say, well, you can look at the history of the Supreme Court, it’s ruled differently.

Yeah, but let me tell you, the Supreme Court has ruled very consistently with ever-increasing clarity on this issue in the modern age. There really isn’t a question as to what we are to understand the Constitution to mean here. Those who make another argument, they basically lost that argument, at least in terms of constitutional law. But this is another reminder that tyranny is closer at hand than you might want to think, and tyranny can sometimes come in the form of a democratically elected governor of the state like New Mexico. Now, the governor held a news conference last Friday, and I found it extremely interesting. She said that the suspension of the right to carry especially publicly visible firearms, or to carry firearms at all on state property, that this was made necessary in order to provide what she called a cooling off period for the state to come to a determination of how to address these issues legislatively and by policy.

The governor basically also made the argument that because she declared it a public emergency, it simply is an emergency. She said, “I have emergency powers. Gun violence is an epidemic, therefore it’s an emergency.” But there’s something else here that’s really interesting because the governor basically issued this executive order for 30 days, and then when she was asked whether or not it would continue, she made pretty clear she expects that it would continue. I don’t think that’s going to happen because I think the federal courts will intervene a lot quicker than that. But the point is, you say this is a 30-day suspension, a temporary suspension of constitutional rights and liberties, pretty quickly you understand 30 days is going to go in a flash, and in this case, I think the governor’s tipped her hand that 30 days never really meant 30 days. But in any event, the number of days is irrelevant to the constitutional argument at hand.

Now remember, the Governor in New Mexico is a Democrat, so is the Sheriff of Bernalillo County that includes Albuquerque. John Allen is the sheriff, and by the way, that particular jurisdiction voted for President Biden. The Washington Post tells us by a margin of 24 points in 2020, but originally, the Sheriff said he had reservations about the governor’s plan and declaration. He said, “While I understand and appreciate the urgency, the temporary ban challenges the foundation of the Constitution, which I swore and oath to uphold.” Now, that’s a matter of some rare kind of clarity on the part of a public official. But he became even more clear when on Monday of this week, he simply said flat out that the governor’s order was unconstitutional and that he and his deputies would not enforce it: “This order will not do anything to curb gun violence other than punish law-abiding citizens from their constitutional right to self-defense.”

A very liberal democratic congressman from California, Ted Lieu, he agreed on the question of constitutionality. He said, “I support gun safety laws, however, this order from the Governor of New Mexico violates the US Constitution. No state in the Union can suspend the federal Constitution. There is no such thing as a state public health emergency exception to the US Constitution.” Now, when a liberal democratic member of Congress uses that kind of language in response to an action taken by the Democratic governor of the state of New Mexico, you are looking at headline news.

Part IV

What Crime Justifies an 11-Millenia Prison Sentence? Turkey Hands Down 11,196-Year Sentence for Leader of Failed Crypto Exchange

But finally, for today, as we’re talking about law and order, a very interesting headline from Turkey. Angus Berwick reports for the Wall Street Journal that the founder of a collapsed cryptocurrency exchange has been sentenced to more than 11 millennia in jail. In Turkey, this man has been sentenced to a prison term of 11,196 years.

That was handed down, by the way, by a panel of judges in Turkey just a matter of days ago. Let me give you the magic number again:11,196 years in prison, not 11,195, not 11,197, but the magic number of 11,196 years in prison. Now, people must live a long time in Turkey because just a matter of fairly recent times, as seen last year, a man given a sentence of more than 8,600 years on one offense. As the Wall Street Journal points out, this failed founder of a collapsed cryptocurrency exchange has been sentenced only to 11,196 years. Another individual was handed down a sentence of 40,000 years. He was convicted on charges of fraud, money laundering, and operating a criminal organization.

Now, let’s just state the obvious, he is not going to serve a term of 11,196 years. That’s just not going to happen. You figured that out, so why such a long prison term? It is because it is simply symbolic and perhaps even political. It does send a message. You’re sending a man to prison, you say, for 11 millennia.

In a fallen world, it is sometimes difficult to meet the challenge of achieving justice to make the punishment fit the crime, but in this kind of case, well, it does make headline news all the way around the world for a fairly good reason. In jurisdictions like this, I guess you have to worry about, say, running a red light because it might not just cost you money, but oh, I don’t know, a couple of centuries in prison. You’ve been warned.

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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