Saturday, April 14, 2018

Musings of a Maverick on Military Legitimacy

#177: Musings of a Maverick on Military Legitimacy  
 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Does might make right?  It did in World War II, but since then U.S. military interventions have more often been wrong than right.  Military legitimacy is about might being right, and when public support is needed for U.S. political objectives in the area of operations, military force must be restrained to be considered legitimate.

America was able to extricate\itself from an illegitimate intervention in Iraq but remains mired in Afghanistan.  It is America’s longest war, and one we cannot win. After helping the Kurds defeat ISIS, America is now aiding them and other rebels in opposing Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.  Russia and Iran support Assad, and Turkey is fighting the Kurds. Military legitimacy is elusive in such a complex conflict with its shifting alliances.

President Trump vowed to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria before chemical weapons killed scores of children last week.  In 2013 Trump had warned Obama not to use military force against Assad, but after Assad used chemical weapons last year Trump criticized Obama for not using force in 2013. Trump often contradicts himself and blames others when he’s wrong; and he believes that winning is everything and the use of overwhelming military force is the way to win.

President Trump doesn’t understand the lessons of legitimacy learned in Vietnam and Iraq.  While overwhelming military force is needed to defeat an existential threat in unlimited war, it is counterproductive to U.S. strategic political objectives in limited warfare where public support in the area of operations is required to achieve those political objectives.        

There is a real danger that President Trump as commander in chief could be provoked to deploy a sizeable U.S. combat forces in Syria.  Secretary of Defense Mattis understands the dangers of such a deployment, but he is subordinate to Trump in the National Command Authority and cannot prevent it.

There are alternatives to another U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.  The most common is providing advice and assistance to local military forces. Other alternatives to combat are providing humanitarian aid and assistance to war victims and reporting and collecting evidence of war crimes, and then apprehending the perpetrators.  All may be needed in Syria.

In limited wars military advisors are required to bridge the formidable gap between the limits of diplomacy and military operations.  The diplomat-warriors of U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) have the background and specialized skills to advise and assist indigenous military counterparts in hostile cultural environments without compromising their legitimacy.

In the Middle East and Africa SOF military advisors have assisted local forces defend against Islamist terrorists.  In Islamic cultures U.S. military forces are considered infidels, so it takes culturally oriented diplomat warriors with language capabilities to maintain the trust of their indigenous counterparts.  Maintaining their legitimacy is a prerequisite for mission success.

Religions are a primary source of conflicting concepts of legitimacy, and the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors—including our neighbors of other races and religions—as we love ourselves is a common word of faith and legitimacy for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.  It is also the moral foundation for fundamental human rights.

The U.S. cannot “win” wars in the Middle East and Africa; it can only advise and assist local forces who must fight their own civil wars.  Military and political legitimacy depend on public support. While overwhelming military force can defeat an enemy, without the legitimacy of public support a military victory can become a disastrous political defeat.  

Since the U.S. cannot use overwhelming military force to win limited wars in the Middle East and Africa, it must use other military means to achieve its political objectives in those unforgiving but strategically important regions.  The diplomat warriors of SOF can make a critical difference in protecting U.S. national security interests by meeting the requirements of military legitimacy in hostile cultural environments around the world.

Disclaimer: The author is a retired Army officer who served with Army SOF.
Greg Jaffe has explored how for Trump and his generals “victory” has different meanings.  See
Katrina vanden Heuval has criticized Trump’s ambivalence on U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Syria, first criticizing it and then promoting it.  She noted that “Americans prefer peaceful pursuits. They are slow to anger and not eager for military engagement [and] when called to fight, they want to go in big, win quickly and get out.”  She concludes that Trump’s policy to continue those conflicts “makes no sense.” See

Ishaan Tharoor has described Trump’s real Syrian policy as hypocrisy based on Trump urging Obama to avoid air strikes in Syria after Assad’s chemical weapons attack in 2013 and then conducting air strikes in Syria himself in 2017. See
After promising air strikes against Assad for chemical attacks earlier this week, Trump now signals a more deliberate approach on Syria and is reviewing options for a possible attack.  See

In The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. (2018)  Max Boot describes Edward Lansdale as a classic diplomat-warrior who understood the importance of public support to military legitimascy and political objectives in hostile cultural environs.  See  Also,
Max Boot has acknowledged that in Syria “it’s important to maintain an international norm against weapons of mass destruction” and advocated that “the best policy for the U.S., now that the moderate opposition has been defeated, is to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab militia that hold roughly one third of Syria’s territory.  But that would require the kind of sustained commitment in the Middle East that Trump is congenitally allergic to.” See
Edward Lansdale was never a combat leader, but he had the confidence and respect of those he advised.  He helped Ramon Magsaysay counter the Huk insurgency in the Philippines in the 1950s with a commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.  Lansdale was a diplomat warrior equally at home in a military or civilian environment and was not hesitant to criticize narrow-minded military leaders. On the diplomat warrior and Lansdale, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, 1996), chapter 5, posted in Resources at
On human rights, military legitimacy, and the diplomat warrior, see Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission, Special Warfare (January-March 2013), posted in the Resources at

Related commentary:

(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy
(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?
(8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy
(9/3/16): The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace
(8/26/17): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Politics and War

(9/2/17): The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

American politics are mired in moral depravity, with a narcissistic president setting new standards of moral corruption; yet his Christian evangelical followers continue to support him.  This degradation of morality among Christians requires a moral reformation to restore the primacy of the altruistic teachings of Jesus to Christianity. Only then can providing for the common good be restored as a political priority of the American civil religion.

A 21st century Reformation would require religious revolutionaries to challenge religious and political institutions that have contributed to the current moral malaise.  Jesus set the example when he challenged the religious leaders of his day who were teaching that obedience to Mosaic Law was God’s standard of righteousness. Jesus refuted those teachings with an emphasis on love over law, and that radical word of love cost Jesus his life.

Jesus announced a coming kingdom of God based on altruistic and unconditional love.  He called his disciples to follow him as God’s word, not to worship him as God. It was Paul who asserted the divinity of Jesus with an exclusivist atonement doctrine that considered Jesus God’s blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of all believers.  The Apostles’ Creed confirms that the letters of Paul had a greater influence on shaping Christian beliefs than did the teachings of Jesus.   

Jesus and Paul were both Jewish religious revolutionaries, but with different missions.  Jesus sought to reform Judaism while Paul promoted a new religion based on the divinity of Jesus.  It’s understandable that as a 1st century Jew Paul considered Jesus a sacrificial lamb who died to save believers from sin; but today the resurrection is better understood as God’s validation of the teachings and example of Jesus as God’s living Word that will never die.

More than 2,000 years after the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus should have the last word on God’s will.  It’s summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to believe that God sent Jesus to save us from sin; it just means that following Jesus as God’s word should take precedence over worshiping Jesus as God.  That’s the meaning of discipleship.
Since Jesus and Paul there have been many religious revolutionaries within Christianity, among them Martin Luther, John Wesley, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.  In the 16th century Reformation Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola fide denigrated the moral imperatives taught by Jesus with an emphasis on faith alone, but in the 18th century John Wesley countered Luther’s sola fide with James’ moral imperative that a faith without deeds of love is dead. (James 2:26)  

In the rising tide of evangelical Christianity in 20th century America, Billy Graham tried to balance evangelical beliefs with the moral imperatives taught by Jesus, but the ease of an exclusivist belief in a divine Jesus unencumbered by altruistic morality was a form of cheap grace exploited by evangelical leaders.  By the 1980s, Jerry Falwells’s Moral Majority was supporting GOP candidates with a religious fervor, and that led to the election of Donald Trump.

History illustrates that Christianity has often emphasized exclusivist doctrines and ignored the altruistic teachings of Jesus in its zeal to gain worldly power.  That was evident in the Crusades and medieval Inquisitions, and even with the Puritans in colonial America. That didn’t change until Thomas Jefferson, a deist inspired by the moral teachings of Jesus and a child of the Enlightenment, transformed religions in America with the freedoms of religion and speech.

The American civil religion is a mix of religious and political values shaped by Christian morality, since over 70% of Americans are Christian.  A Christian reformation is needed to restore altruistic morality to the American civil religion. Christian revolutionaries are needed to save Jesus from the church, or better yet, to save the church with the teachings of Jesus.  But no moral reformation can succeed without public support, and sadly, that support seems lacking.    


The moral corruption of Donald Trump and his Republican Party is most evident in putting their own selfish and partisan interests in wealth and power ahead of providing for the common good.  See

Jim Wallis and a distinguished group of Christian clergy have advocated  Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis to counter the moral corruption of Trump and his evangelical supporters. See

John Bennison has cited Robin Meyers from Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, (Harper One, 2009) and Bishop John Shelby Spong in describing how the emphasis of the church on belief in exclusivist church doctrines and creeds has denigrated the teachings of Jesus and undermined the moral relevance and legitimacy of Christianity.  See

Related Commentary:

(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(4/5/15): Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(4/19/15): Jesus: A Prophet, God’s Only Son, or the Logos?
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(1/2/16): God in Three Concepts
(1/16/16): Religion, Politics and Public Expectations
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(4/30/16): The Relevance of Religion to Politics
(5/7/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(5/21/16): Religious Fundamentalism and a Politics of Reconciliation
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(10/29/16): A Revelation in American Politics and Religion
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(2/4/17): When Confrontation Trumps Reconciliation in Politics and Religion
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism  
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion  
(9/30/17): The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: What Does It Mean Today?
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion
(10/28/17): The Moral Decline of Religion and the Seven Woes of Jesus
(11/11/17): A Politics of Reconciliation that Should Begin in the Church
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy?
(1/6/18): The Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/10/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religion, Spirituality and Politics
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy