WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper sought to douse an international outcry on Monday by ruling out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict with Tehran escalates further, despite President Trump’s threat to destroy some of the country’s treasured icons.
Mr. Esper acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime, putting him at odds with the president, who insisted such places would be legitimate targets. Mr. Trump’s threats generated condemnation at home and abroad while deeply discomfiting American military leaders who have made a career of upholding the laws of war.
“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Mr. Esper said at a news briefing at the Pentagon when asked if cultural sites would be targeted as the president had suggested over the weekend. When a reporter asked if that meant “no” because the laws of war prohibit targeting cultural sites, Mr. Esper agreed. “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”
The furor was a classic controversy of Mr. Trump’s creation, the apparent result of an impulsive threat and his refusal to back down in the face of criticism. When Mr. Trump declared on Saturday that the United States had identified 52 potential targets in Iran if it retaliates for the American drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, none of those targets qualified as cultural sites, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified correcting the president.
Nonetheless, when Mr. Trump casually said on Twitter that they included sites “very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” the resulting uproar only got his back up. Rather than simply say that cultural sites were not actually being targeted, the official said, he decided to double down the next day with reporters flying with him on Air Force One, scoffing at the idea that Iran could “kill our people” while “we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site,” saying, “It doesn’t work that way.”
Donald J. Trump
….hundreds of Iranian protesters. He was already attacking our Embassy, and preparing for additional hits in other locations. Iran has been nothing but problems for many years. Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have…..
….targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!126K people are talking about this
The comments drew protests from Iran and other American adversaries who said they showed that Mr. Trump is the aggressor — and not just against Iran’s government but against its people, its history and its very nationhood. Even some of America’s allies weighed in, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain breaking with Mr. Trump by issuing a statement through an aide warning against targeting antiquities.
Military leaders were left in the awkward position of trying to reaffirm their commitment to generations of war-fighting rules without angering a volatile commander in chief by contradicting him. Mr. Trump’s remarks unsettled even some of his allies, who considered them an unnecessary distraction at a time when the president should be focusing attention on Iran’s misdeeds rather than promising some of his own.
“We’re not at war with the culture of the Iranian people,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and one of the president’s staunchest supporters in Congress, said on Monday. “We’re in a conflict with the theology, the ayatollah and his way of doing business.”
Mr. Graham, a retired military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, said he delivered that message to Mr. Trump in a telephone call on Monday. “I think the president saying ‘we will hit you hard’ is the right message,” he said. “Cultural sites is not hitting them hard; it’s creating more problems. We’re trying to show solidarity with the Iranian people.”
Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Trump’s threats would only encourage despots of the world to target antiquities themselves.
“America is better than that, and President Trump is flat-out wrong to threaten attacks on historic places of cultural heritage,” said Mr. Reed, a former platoon leader in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. “Destroying some of these culturally significant Iranian sites wouldn’t be seen as just an attack against the regime in Tehran, it could be construed as an attack on history and humanity.”
Iran, home to one of humanity’s most storied ancient civilizations, has 22 cultural sites designated on the World Heritage List by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, including the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire later conquered by Alexander the Great. Others include Tchogha Zanbil, the remnants of the holy city of the Kingdom of Elam, and a series of Persian gardens that have their roots in the times of Cyrus the Great.
The United States is a signatory to a 1954 international agreement to protect cultural property in armed conflict and has been a leader in condemning rogue nations and groups that destroy antiquities, including the Islamic State’s destruction of sites in Mosul, Iraq, and Palmyra, Syria, and the Taliban’s demolition of the famed Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.
Experts said that what Mr. Trump described would likewise violate international law. “We and others accused ISIS of war crimes when they did this,” said Jeh C. Johnson, a former secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama who previously served as the top lawyer at the Pentagon. “Certainly, in aggravated circumstances, it should be considered a war crime.”
Mr. Johnson and others said there could be situations that are murkier, if the actual cultural value was less clear or it was being used as a military facility. Still, Mr. Johnson said, “my guess is his national security lawyers did not vet that tweet.”
Indeed, the president’s advisers ever since have sought to deny that he was actually making a threat even though his initial tweet said the sites — including those of cultural importance — “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” if Iran responded to General Suleimani’s killing.
“President Trump didn’t say he’d go after a cultural site,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the next day on Fox News. “Read what he said very closely.”
But just hours later, Mr. Trump made very clear that he thought cultural sites were in fact legitimate targets. “They’re allowed to kill our people,” he told the reporters on Air Force One as he flew back to Washington from his winter holiday in Florida. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”
By Monday, the White House was again denying that Mr. Trump actually made a threat. “He didn’t say he’s targeting cultural sites,” Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, told reporters. “He said that he was openly asking the question why in the world they’re allowed to maim people, put out roadside bombs, kill our people, torture our people.”
And he’s on a mission to use the “authority” of the executive branch to stop it.
Why would a seemingly respectable, semiretired lion of the Washington establishment undermine the institutions he is sworn to uphold, incinerate his own reputation, and appear to willfully misrepresent the reports of special prosecutors and inspectors general, all to defend one of the most lawless and corrupt presidents in American history? And why has this particular attorney general appeared at this pivotal moment in our Republic?
A deeper understanding of William Barr is emerging, and it reveals something profound and disturbing about the evolution of conservatism in 21st-century America.
Some people have held that Mr. Barr is simply a partisan hack — willing to do whatever it takes to advance the interests of his own political party and its leadership. This view finds ample support in Mr. Barr’s own words. In a Nov. 15 speech at the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in Washington, he accused President Trump’s political opponents of “unprecedented abuse” and said they were “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.”
It is hardly the first time Mr. Barr stepped outside of long-established norms for the behavior of attorneys general. In his earlier stint as attorney general, during the George H.W. Bush presidency, Mr. Barr took on the role of helping to disappear the case against Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-contra affair. The situation demonstrated that “powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office,” according to Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor in that case. According to some critics, Mr. Barr delivered the partisan goods then, as he is delivering them now.
Another view is that Mr. Barr is principally a defender of a certain interpretation of the Constitution that attributes maximum power to the executive. This view, too, finds ample support in Mr. Barr’s own words. In the speech to the Federalist Society, he said, “Since the mid-’60s, there has been a steady grinding down of the executive branch’s authority that accelerated after Watergate.” In July, when President Trump claimed, in remarks to a conservative student group, “I have an Article II where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” it is reasonable to suppose this is his CliffsNotes version of Mr. Barr’s ideology.
Both of these views are accurate enough. But at least since Mr. Barr’s infamous speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, in which he blamed “secularists” for “moral chaos” and “immense suffering, wreckage and misery,” it has become clear that no understanding of William Barr can be complete without taking into account his views on the role of religion in society. For that, it is illuminating to review how Mr. Barr has directed his Justice Department on matters concerning the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion.
In Maryland, the department rushed to defend taxpayer funding for a religious school that says same-sex marriage is wrong. In Maine, it is defending parents suing over a state law that bans religious schools from obtaining taxpayer funding to promote their own sectarian doctrines. At his Department of Justice, Mr. Barr told law students at Notre Dame, “We keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states are misapplying the establishment clause in a way that discriminates against people of faith.”
In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.
This form of “religious liberty” seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this “religious liberty” rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.
Barr watchers will know that this is nothing new. In a 1995 article he wrote for The Catholic Lawyer, which, as Emily Bazelon recently pointed out, appears to be something of a blueprint for his speech at Notre Dame, he complained that “we live in an increasingly militant, secular age” and expressed his grave concern that the law might force landlords to rent to unmarried couples. He implied that the idea that universities might treat “homosexual activist groups like any other student group” was intolerable.
This form of “religious liberty” is not a mere side issue for Mr. Barr, or for the other religious nationalists who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Mr. Barr has made this clear. All the problems of modernity — “the wreckage of the family,” “record levels of depression and mental illness,” “drug addiction” and “senseless violence” — stem from the loss of a strict interpretation of the Christian religion.
The great evildoers in the Notre Dame speech are nonbelievers who are apparently out on the streets ransacking everything that is good and holy. The solutions to society’s ills, Mr. Barr declared, come from faith. “Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,” he said. “Religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.” He added, “The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.”
Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyperpartisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as “demonic” and associated with “rulers of the darkness.” If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.
It is equally clear that Mr. Barr’s maximalist interpretation of executive power in the Constitution is just an effect, rather than a cause, of his ideological commitments. In fact, it isn’t really an interpretation. It is simply an unfounded assertion that the president has what amount to monarchical powers. “George III would have loved it,” said Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine who once held Mr. Barr’s position as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, of Mr. Barr’s theory. It’s almost beside the point to note, as the conservative lawyers group Checks & Balances recently wrote, that Mr. Barr’s view of history “has no factual basis.”
Mr. Barr’s constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on his commitment to religious authoritarianism. And that, really, gets to the heart of the matter. If you know anything about America’s founders, you know they were passionately opposed to the idea of a religious monarchy. And this is the key to understanding the question, “What does Bill Barr want?”
The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about “originalism” and “judicial restraint” — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices.
Mr. Trump’s presidency was not the cause of this anti-democratic movement in American politics. It was the consequence. He is the chosen instrument, not of God, but of today’s Christian nationalists, their political allies and funders, and the movement’s legal apparatus. Mr. Barr did not emerge in order to serve this one particular leader. On the contrary, Mr. Trump serves a movement that will cynically praise the Constitution in order to destroy it, and of which Mr. Barr has made himself a hero.
It’s time to rethink how we view the U.S. political spectrum.
The 2016 election and President Trump’s first term in office has transformed politics in this country. His election represented not only a radical change in policy but an assault on what we consider fundamental American values.
Going into the 2020 election, many on the left are thinking about the work that the next president and Congress will have to do to repair the damage done since 2016 and address the crises Trump has created and exacerbated. Protect Democracy, for example, has proposed a package of legislative reforms to prevent presidential abuse of power. However, some have argued that Democrats should adopt some of the tactics Trump has used and bend some rules to set the country back on the correct course.
This represents a big shift in the way we think about politics, and we need new terminology to accurately discuss what we believe in.
For most of my life, our political spectrum has run from the political left to the political right. People are socially liberal or socially conservative, economically liberal or economically conservative. Increasingly, this dichotomy fails to capture a new spectrum emerging in American politics — those committed to “liberal democracy” and those more willing to sacrifice it and live under a more authoritarian style of government in order to secure policy gains.
The emergence of this new political spectrum has come about through what has been called “the big sort,” where people’s identities are increasingly aligned with their political parties. Gone are the days when someone who shares your life experience across geography, age, race, and education may belong to either political party. Increasingly, if you know someone’s race, age and education level, you can guess their political affiliation. For example, as a 28-year-old non-white law school graduate, you can guess that I am a Democrat because 73% of non-white millennials lean Democrat as do 59% of voters with post-graduate experience.
Leaders from Modi in India to Trump in the United States to far-right populist movements in Europe are using the fact that our political opponents are often different from us across religion, race, age, and education level to make us fear and even hate them. Around the world, we have seen this suspicion of the “other” play out in political movements through a rise of would-be dictators using racism and a narrow view of national identity for their own political gain. In the United States, Americans increasingly view their political opponents as the enemy, saying that they’d oppose their child marrying someone of a different political belief. In 2018, in a perfect encapsulation of suspicion of the other party, we saw Republican voters wearing shirts saying, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat”.
Furthermore, because of the “big sort,” we have increasingly little interaction with people of different political parties and, therefore, less opportunity to challenge these suspicions or narratives from opportunistic political leaders. For example, I had not knowingly interacted with a Republican until a year and a half ago, when I started at Protect Democracy, a non-partisan non-profit working to prevent the United States from declining into a more authoritarian form of government. Working with Republicans has caused me to challenge my idea that the GOP is the enemy and forced me to think about the extent of my tolerance and inclusion.
I have found myself surprised by my Republican colleagues’ indignation around racism and sexism. And then embarrassed by my surprise. I have found myself moved by their willingness to fight their own party, which for some of them has also meant a loss of close friends or family, because they believe in higher principles and a version of America that more closely aligns with mine than with the Trump-led GOP on race and gender. I’ve become less judgmental and more curious. I also have more trust in the intentions, if not the impact, of my fellow Americans’ political decision-making.
This is important, not only for me as an individual but for American democracy as a whole. We know from the research that “levels of personal trust tend to be linked with people’s broader views on institutions and civic life.” Put simply, if we don’t trust each other then we don’t trust our democratic process to deliver for us. To be sure, our processes are not neutral and often rooted in historic inequality and power disparities. However, if we are unwilling to engage in the project of improving the processes of liberal democracy and are instead focused solely on implementing policy we agree with at all costs, we may create more problems for ourselves in the future.“Democracy in the United States is not guaranteed, it’s an idea that each generation has to renew and redefine. “
For example, some Members of Congress have called for the next President to declare a national emergency to address the actual emergency of climate change. They would have the next President replicate the abuses of President Trump by bypassing Congress for the sake of policy expediency. While I deeply appreciate the urgency of the climate crisis, I also see the danger in a Democratic president legitimizing Trump’s abuse of the National Emergency Act — it could be abused yet again when someone I disagree with gets elected again.
Even as I look back on President Obama’s presidency, I can see the ways that President Obama — struggling with a Republican Senate that wouldn’t work with him — laid the groundwork for some of the abuses that we’re seeing under President Trump on appointments and executive orders. President Trump has taken that lesson and gone well beyond it. I fear what a president with similar inclinations to Trump, but more strategic wherewithal would do.
American politics is no longer split merely between left vs. right. We are in an era of American politics when some people recognize and value the frustrating moderating effects of the checks and balances of American democracy, whereas others view it as a hindrance to achieving their policy goals. Right now many think that it’s those in the opposing party who don’t care about democracy, but I am not convinced. We need a better way to discuss the precedents in decision-making the parties are cementing and the dangers they may be setting us up for.
We need an additional ideological spectrum to talk about politics in America today, one that places those who care about our democracy on one end, and those willing to live under a more authoritarian style of government for policy gains on the other.
As I watch the 2020 primary season play out, I find myself looking beyond a candidate’s policy preferences and paying attention to whether their plans for implementing their agenda will help or hurt our democracy. I believe it’s not enough to win. We have to think about the process and structures we’re leaving in place for the next person, whose policy views we may not agree with. I want to know what candidates will do to prevent the emergence of another president like Trump. How will they make sure our checks and balances work so that someone can’t blatantly disregard norms? How will they ensure elections are free, fair and accessible? What will they change to make sure the marginalized are protected and our right to dissent is maintained?
In order to solve the new problems we’ve been confronted with, we need new solutions. Democracy in the United States is not guaranteed, it’s an idea that each generation has to renew and redefine. By including this new political spectrum in our thinking, we can ensure that we work to preserve and perfect our democracy for future generations.
It’s a standard assumption in the West: As a society progresses, it eventually becomes a capitalist, multi-party democracy. Right? Eric X. Li, a Chinese investor and political scientist, begs to differ. In this provocative, boundary-pushing talk, he asks his audience to consider that there’s more than one way to run a succesful modern nation.
Earlier this year, economist Yasheng Huang (watch his 2011 TED Talk) sparred with Eric X. Li in the pages of Foreign Affairs on a similar topic to today’s TED Talk. The TED Blog asked Huang to expand on his argument in his ongoing conversation with Li.