Monday, December 18, 2023

It’s Monday, December 18, 2023.

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

Part I

There Are No Holidays from History: Big Questions Arise as the War Between Israel and Hamas Rages

Well, here we are with just a week coming before Christmas. Christmas Eve comes on Sunday, Christmas comes a week from today. And for very good and understandable reasons, most of us are going to be shifting our attention that way as we go through this week, certainly by the time we reach the weekend.

But we do need to recognize right now that as we go into this week, there’s some massive issues that we have to confront. And it’s almost as if the events are just underlining for us, the fact that the world does not take a break at Christmas and especially when you’re looking at the arena of war. And even as you’re looking at domestic policy and even as you’re looking at the American border in the South, there just is no break that is really coming and there are huge stories that are breaking.

So we need to take a look at several of these. And in a way, that’s a bit unusual for what I do on a Monday. I just want to set out a few of these issues because some of them are so big, there is just no way we can really deal with them today, but I’m going to do my best to get to them in the course of this week. And so we do have to start with the two biggest international stories. And of course that means the war right now between Israel and Hamas, and in particular in the area of Gaza. Headlines coming out of that, and big headlines having to do with issues, including what in the world do the United States really believes about the situation and what American policy really is. But we’re also going to have to look at Ukraine. And oddly enough, we’re going to end up asking some of the same questions.

But first, let’s go to Israel. All of this in the aftermath of the brutal attack by Hamas on October the 7th, 2023, with such an incredible death toll with such brutality. And of course the tales of brutality just continue to unfold, including what can only be described as the sexual abuse of many of the women who have been, and presumably at least some of them, still are being held hostage by Hamas. We need to remind ourselves that even as we’re looking at this issue, we have to watch our language very, very carefully because when you are considering what was undertaken by Hamas on October the 7th, we need to remind ourselves that not only was it marked by this unspeakable brutality in terms of the deliberate invasion and killing targeting of young people at a music festival, the killing of infants, you could just go down the list.

It also included taking so many hostages, because to be honest, Israel goes to incredible links in order to get its hostages back. And that gave Hamas an advantage to do evil here. It gave an incentive. And Hamas, which by the way is a terrorist organization that has often embraced death at its very heart, the ticking of hostages, is in moral terms for that organization, not that big a thing, especially when you look at the brutality of the attack itself. And they’re willing to use human beings as leverage. We need to keep that very much in mind because that’s exactly what Hamas is doing right now, not only with the hostages, but with the inhabitants of Gaza, the very inhabitants that Hamas claims to be speaking for and acting for.

So we do need to know there’ve been some horrifying headlines coming out. And in particular, the most troubling of the headlines has to do with the fact that IDF, that is to say Israeli Defense Force personnel killed three escaping young men who were actually Israelis being held hostage by Hamas. They killed them somehow believing that they were part of some kind of military threat. And the details that have come out just in the last several hours indicate that the three young men who had escaped, we don’t know all the circumstances. But nonetheless, were trying to get to Israeli forces. They were shirtless and were carrying some form of white flag, but that wasn’t enough. And this of course is a great tragedy. It’s an embarrassment to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s an embarrassment to the IDF, its officers. It required IDF leadership to say that soldiers had not followed the orders of war and military engagement. It required the officers who had the IDF to make a public acknowledgement that the soldiers who killed these escaping hostages were not acting in accordance with IDF policy, the rules of engagement in this conflict.

But I just want to point out that in the fog of war, and that’s exactly what war is, and in the messiness of combat, it’s very difficult to know who’s who, who’s friend, who’s enemy, and who’s telling the truth, who’s lying, who’s an attacker, who is an ally. All of this becomes very, very confused. And then you talk about the particular danger of close order combat, and that’s where Israel is right now in Gaza. Close order combat means that when you’re on the streets of Gaza and you are an IDF soldier, you’re personnel there on the ground, you are dealing with situations that are extremely volatile. This is exactly what the United States discovered both in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

And so even as the United States has responded to this quite sympathetically, but also speaking of concern, even as this is an embarrassment of course to the Israeli government, we need to note that had this happened on the other side, we’d never know about it because this is not an equilateral situation. You’re talking about Israel. Israel is a democratic form of government. It has freedom of the press and it has a government that is in some way accountable to the people. In the situation of Hamas and Gaza, you have a terrorist organization, an Islamist terrorist organization that is using its own citizens as fodder and as human capital. It’s putting its own people at risk leading many of them to assure death simply because it wants the civilians to share in the suffering. That’s actually actually a part of the Hamas doctrine.

Now, no doubt there will be an accounting for this, and there should be, because of course that’s the way a government should work. That’s the way there should be accountability. But at the same time, we are talking about a very, very difficult situation, and we’re also talking about soldiers who have been pressed to the extremes of their limitations. We saw the same thing happen with American troops, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We saw similar things happen with American troops in Vietnam before that. And of course, in every major conflict. That doesn’t excuse things. That doesn’t mean that there should be no accountability. It is simply to say that war by very definition is one of the messiest endeavors human beings can ever be involved in.

Part II

The U.S. Calls for Israel Fighting in Gaza to ‘Slow Down’ Soon? But What Is Really At Stake? What Do the US and Europe Really Want? What Are Leaders Really Saying?

But on Israel and the situation in terms of the war against Hamas there in Gaza, I think it’s really important that we look at the headlines that have come out the last couple of days. And just thinking of the big issues that are at stake in worldview consideration, we just need to ask ourselves how we know what’s real here. And when I speak about that, I’m even speaking about the statements made by, perhaps particularly speaking of the statements made by the Biden administration, the US government and European allies, because the language has been really strong. It hasn’t been exactly the same country by country, but it’s been really strong calling for Israel to exercise restraint. And over the course of just the last couple of days, the United States government, the Biden administration in particular, has warned Israel or spoken of its intention that Israel must narrow the scope of its military attack there in Gaza, try to preserve as much when it comes to civilian life and the civilian culture and civilization there as possible.

But it’s really interesting that we should ask ourselves whether the Biden administration really means what it says, even as we try to come to terms with the language the administration is using. We just need to ask ourselves, “What’s really going on here?” And we need to understand there’s a background to this that we always need to keep in mind when dealing with a nation, any nation, including our nation at war.

The front page of the New York Times going into the weekend included this, “Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national Security advisor, met with Israeli leaders on Thursday about the direction of the war. Mr. Sullivan did not specify a timetable, but four US officials said, Mr. Biden wants Israel to switch to more precise tactics in about three weeks. The officials asked for anonymity to discuss the president’s thinking.”

So what is going on here? Well, let’s talk about this particular situation. What exactly does the Biden administration want? What does the United States government want? And are we communicating both to the public and to the Israelis what we actually want, what should we want in this? Of course, we should want to limit any damaged human life. We should want to protect every human life possible. As I’ve already said, Hamas has made that intentionally difficult. And after the murderous attack of October the 7th, and frankly, an honest assessment of the looming threat, Israel is determined to eradicate Hamas as a military threat. Now, here’s what we need to know. The United States government and our European allies are actually, whether they say it out loud or not, counting on Israel to do just that.

But as we look at this, we need to recognize there are several different interest groups here. For one thing, the president of the United States is an elected official. And as you know, President Joe Biden, and this is not the time to talk about his candidacy, it is the time to acknowledge he is running for reelection in 2024. He has to worry about the impact of this military situation, of the war in Gaza on his base and in the electoral count. He has to be very concerned about that. At the same time, he is the commander in chief of the United States military and he is the president of the United States and our chief executive, he is the director of our foreign policy.

This is one situation in which it really does matter that Joe Biden’s been around in government for a very, very long time. He does know the score in much of this. And he knows that even as Israel is fighting him, lost directly there in Gaza, the United States and our allies are really counting on Israel being effective. Quite honestly, it’s hard to know the extent to which the American government is speaking the truth about American intentions in this situation. And in the fog of war, it’s also unclear how much we would want the United States to say about what is privately being said to the Israeli government and the Israeli prime minister, what is being said to European allies and what is being said inside the channels of the US government.

So if you wonder what’s at stake, just remember that it’s life or death right there in Gaza. It’s life or death right there in Israel. And it has been for a very long time, and Israel understands that. But it’s life or death elsewhere also. And just over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran an article, how’s this for a headline? Germany uncovers alleged Hamas plot to carry out attacks in Europe.

So it’s actually not a very long story, but when you’re talking about a journalistic outlet like the Wall Street Journal conveying that kind of headline, there’s a lot of credibility to it. And that may be an accident, a timing that the article ran on Friday, but going into the weekend, running on the very same day that the United States government was warning Israel, we are told, about ending this particular phase of aggressive action against Hamas. It’s really hard to know whether that was meant for public consumption or it was meant for immediate Israeli attention. Now the second question to that is, what kind of attention would the Israelis give it?

Another clue to just how complex and confusing this is just to look at the official statements made by those in government in the United States. So first of all, you have to start at the White House, but you also have the State Department, you have the Pentagon, and you have the National Security Office of the White House, and it has its own spokesman. He’s been seeing a lot in the news. And what you have is mixed messaging. Now, for one thing, you do have Jake Sullivan, who is President Biden’s National Security Advisor, and he’s in the rather embarrassing position of having given a major address and published an article just days before the October 7 attack speaking of the unprecedented stability and peace that the Middle East was experiencing right then. The article was pulled later in the online edition.

Let’s just say that when it comes to the National Security Advisor to the president of the United States, that is perhaps an understandable situation, but a rather embarrassing one. And the spokesperson for National Security and the National Security Advisor, he’s been quite clear in coming back to say, “We understand Israel has the right and responsibility to prosecute this war against Hamas. We want Israel to continue this effort against Hamas. We want Israel to change the plan.” But if you’re in between the lines, it’s not at all clear that America wants Israel to change the plan too much or too fast. For example, mainstream media reports, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, European papers as well, they basically said that the American administration has sent the message to Israel that they need to wrap up what they’re doing right now in a matter of weeks, not months. So if you’re talking about weeks, you’re not actually talking about right now. There’s an acknowledgement here that the United States and our allies want Israel to change strategy, but not too fast, and we don’t want Israel to change the military goal of the effort.

Now looking at this, we just need to remind ourselves that this is typical of nations at war when there is a public that is concerned. Now in some sense there’s a public everywhere, but as we’re going to see in just a moment, in places like Russia, the public really doesn’t matter much. In the United States and in electoral system of government, the public matters a lot. And this is where President Biden’s in a tough spot because he actually needs support from the left of his own party, increasingly in control, the leftist of his party. And the left is taking the side of the Palestinians. That’s exactly why we’ve seen all this mess on college campuses and all the rest, the academic and intellectual left have been abandoning Israel and basically joining the Palestinian cause for a matter of years now. We’ll have to look at that in greater depth than days ahead as well. We need to trace that story because of further developments.

So the United States president has to say for both domestic and international consumption, politically, he has to say, “Evidently, we need Israel to change the plan.” But officials in his own administration say, “Well, we don’t mean like tomorrow or something. And furthermore, we don’t mean before Israel meets its military goals.” So it’s also open to question as to whether or not this particular public messaging is also coming with the cooperation of Israel, perhaps tacitly behind the scenes. It may well be that it is to the political purposes of Israel domestically and internationally to appear to change the battle plan and certainly to indicate that it is very, very concerned, even more concerned than ever with protecting as much innocent Palestinian life as possible.

Another dose of realism in all of this is that Israel can’t just continue this at infinitum anyway. Israel acknowledges that, American security experts understand that. Israel is pretty much right now at maximum deployment in Gaza, and you also have the Americans and others saying, “We need to know the exit plan.” Well, it’s probably true that right now Israel would like to know the exit plan. And in days ahead and after the first of the year, we’re going to be looking at that public conversation and just huge worldview issues that are at stake.

One state solution, two state solution, no solution, huge worldview implications on these issues. But right now we just need to note that we really don’t know what’s being said, for instance, in private between the American and the Israeli military, between the American president and the Israeli prime Minister. What we know is what both sides, at least to some extent, want us to know. But we also have what you don’t have in autocratic societies. And that is the right of the public depressed questions and also the right of the media to publish reports. And that means that it’s a lopsided issue.

But the bottom line is that in the fight against the kind of evil that Hamas represents, given the strategy of Hamas to surround its own terrorist forces with Gazan civilians, with Palestinian civilians, given the fact that the United States and our European allies are actually counting on Israel being effective in reducing the risk, it’s probably unrealistic to say eliminating the risk of Hamas.

In any event, the United States and Europe have a lot at stake in Israel being successful in this effort to destroy Hamas as a military force. And that report coming out of Germany is just a reminder of what’s at stake. It’s not just a war against Israel. Israel is at the center of the target. But Israel’s not alone. And the United States and our other allies had better be very aware of what is at stake. And we need to be thinking very carefully trying to understand what’s being said for domestic political consumption among Democrats and what’s being said that actually is likely to reflect future action on the ground.

Part III

Where is the Pledged Support for Ukraine? Why is Border Security Linked? Big Issues (and Big Dangers) Arise

But similarly, this now takes us to the situation in Ukraine, and here is the situation in Ukraine. The United States is not sending the military support that the Biden administration had pledged to Ukraine and intended to send, and that is because of the lack of congressional action. And there’s a big story behind that. But it’s also very important to recognize that European allies have also not sent some of the support that was pledged. And in one case, you had a vote in which Hungary voted against sending the aid. It’s uncertain exactly what that means about the future of European aid to Ukraine. But it does mean right now that even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to the United States basically in person to make a dramatic request for this funding, the funding is not coming immediately.

And it’s also interesting to note that something huge and historic has happened on the American side, and it’s happened on the congressional side, and it happened first among House Republicans, but it now includes the vast majority of Senate Republicans as well. And that is the fact that they heard the President of the United States, speaking of national security link three things, Israel, Ukraine, and the crisis on the American border. Now almost as soon as he said it, I think President Biden regretted putting those three things together. And even as you’re looking at a military bill for aid Ukraine and Israel, House Republicans are insisting that real changes be made in border security and we need to understand why. The why is actually quite easy to understand, the border’s out of control. The American government has lost control of the border. And in the name of migration and claims of amnesty, thousands of people are coming into the United States without legal permission every single day. And by thousands, we mean thousands. One day last week, 11,000 in a single day. So pretty soon you’re talking about a major American city a month.

It’s very interesting to see how Republican ranks have closed around this issue. And you really are talking about people who represent the range in the Republican side of Congress going all the way from, say, tea party members of years ago, and those who are very conservative in the house going all the way to like Mitt Romney who’s a moderate within the Senate. The understanding is that something has to be done about the border. And the Biden administration having reversed many Trump administration policies is now in the embarrassing position of frankly just having lost control of the entire situation, having lost control of the border. But he’s also lost control of this issue in his own party to the far left, and the far left of his party actually wants to see unrestricted migration coming to the United States. Now, they don’t say that, but in terms of their opposition to any policy, the word curtail it, that’s exactly what they mean.

And it’s also very important to notice that when the Republicans in the House, in particular the Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, said quite clearly, “Look, we’re not going to go ahead with this unless there is very real curtailment of illegal entry into the United States through the southern border.” The Biden administration came back and said, “Look, we are willing to talk about increased funding to stem the tide.” But here’s the thing, and the Republicans are savvy to this, I mentioned this before, it’s a matter of math. Let’s just say you do have something like 10,000 people coming a day. If you cut 10,000 to 8,500, well, the White House says, “We just compromised with you. But in reality, we still have a border that’s completely out of control. And we have a situation that is a direct threat to national security in the United States.”

And by the way, that is a statement that is backed up by officials in the Biden administration, in particular in intelligence agencies saying, “Look, there is an incredible threat on the southern border to people coming in who are actually involved in terrorist groups, including groups that are cooperating with Hamas.” A nation that doesn’t control its borders frankly loses its own national security. And I think Republicans are absolutely right to put all this together and say there needs to be real change, there has to be a regaining of control on the border.

And frankly, I think every American wants those who honestly deserve amnesty to get it. Yet what we’re looking at now is the fact that on the left and in the Biden administration, there is no pretense that persons actually qualify under amnesty. Indeed, by some of the administration’s own claims, something like 80 to 90% of those who apply should not get it. But the Biden administration’s policy is to release them into the general population. So good luck in fixing that problem. That just indicates the Biden administration really doesn’t have any intention on its own of fixing the problem even of speaking of it honestly.

So this is going to be a very interesting week and the linkage that the president put together, in no doubt, direly regrets at the moment is when the Republicans are going to insist on. But this also leads to the question with which we’ll end today, and that is what exactly is the plan in Ukraine and what exactly does the Biden administration think? What does the American government right now think? What does our own Department of Defense, what do our own intelligence agencies and military strategists think? Because it is becoming very apparent that the situation is at best a stalemate and that it’s unlikely that Ukraine, no matter how many arms America and America’s allies give Ukraine, it’s just very unlikely that the aims stated by the Ukrainian government are going to come even close to being realized.

I would fault the Biden administration here not so much for getting America involved in the defensive Ukraine after Russia’s naked aggression against that country, but I would fault the administration for not being honest with the American people about an exit plan because you know the administration has to be understanding that the situation is not going well for Ukraine. And even as the Biden administration wants to push a lot of money towards Ukraine, and that includes a new weapon systems and American involvements when it comes to assistance and advising and all the rest, at the same time, the defense officials within the Pentagon are being pretty candid. And that’s not just true on this side of the Atlantic. It’s also true when it comes to the military and the intelligence agencies in Europe as well. It’s pretty clear that Ukraine is not a match for Russia.

By the way, who’d be surprised by that? You’re talking about Russia being this massive land mass in an historic civilization with a population that is a multiple of Ukraine, and quite frankly, that has both domestic and international resources at its disposal to fight a very, very long war. And at the very head of that, Russian government is a totalitarian leader who, by the way, politically isn’t really worried about elections. Remember last week, he said he is running for election. As we know, it’s all a show. It’s a sham. He’s an autocrat. There’s no danger he’s going to lose the election. But he might lose popular support if he loses this war. So the one thing Vladimir Putin can’t survive is losing the war or losing face.

As is the situation when we talked about the United States and Israel, it’s not really clear that we know exactly what’s being said privately. I think that’s probably an understatement. We’re pretty sure we absolutely don’t know what’s being said in private between the American administration and the Israeli government leadership. We don’t know what’s being said between the two militaries. We know what’s being said for public consumption. And we are in the same situation with Ukraine. But here the situation is a little bit different because when it comes to the Ukraine War, it is in particular Republicans in the House and some in the Senate who are beginning to ask very hard questions like what is the exit plan?

And it’s unfair to say they just want to abandon Ukraine’s. It’s unfair when it comes to the vast majority of Republicans, but they are saying, “Look, there has to be some kind of strategy here. We need to know what the goal is” because it’s just not honest to say, as the President has repeatedly said, “It’s up to Ukraine to say what the goals are and to define the combat.” Well, that’s true if you have Ukraine fighting with its own arms and with its own economic support, that’s not what’s happening.

So in any event, it is going to be a very interesting week this week leading up to Christmas. There is no holiday from history here. And so especially in the early days this week, we’re going to have to be tracking some of these stories which are going to be unfolding I think very, very quickly. And also this week, we really need to discuss blockbuster revelations about the Dobbs decision by the United States Supreme Court reversing Roe in 2022, just a matter of about a year and a half ago. Some really blockbuster revelations or what are claimed to be revelations that actually lay bare some of the biggest worldview issues when it comes to say, constitutional law, the role of the Supreme Court, and of course, the defense of unborn life. And so there’s a lot to talk about this week, even as we know we are rocketing towards the weekend with Christmas Eve and Christmas next Monday.

But for Christians, that just underlines the fact that we are in a real world with very real threats. And that means that our celebration of Christmas is always yes, joyous, but also in this fallen world, sober, as we understand the reality around us.

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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