Friday News Roundup—April 3, 2020

America’s Chernobyl; Russia’s Pandemic Exploits; Building a New Marine Corps; Crypto-Fascism posing as Conservative Thinking; plus news you may have missed

Good morning from Washington, D.C. As of this morning, 6,098 Americans have lost their lives due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as the number of cases has topped 245,000 and continues to grow. Here at CSPC, we hope that you and your loved ones remain safe, and we pray and reflect on the memory of those who have succumbed to their illness.

As we have adapted to the circumstances, we find ourselves operating remotely. The CSPC Spring Fellows Conference was conducted virtually for the first time in its 50 year history, and while Zoom is no substitute for real interaction, the conference was a great success. To learn more about this conference, please read this summary.

Also in the press this week, CSPC Fellows program alumnus, Dr. Aamir Hussain, MD, wrote in The Hill about how government can relax regulations to surge medical professionals into the system.

Also, in The Hill at noon today, Dan shares his thoughts on what wartime Presidential leadership can tell us about the Covid-19 response.

Additionally, in the Diplomatic Courier, Joshua Huminski reviewed Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchen’s latest analysis of jihadist leader Anwar Al-Awlaki’s radicalizing message and legacy.

In this week’s roundup, Dan looks at what the pandemic crisis reveals about our leadership shortcomings. Joshua covers how Russia is using the pandemic for information operations. Ethan examines the new plan for the United States Marine Corps. Chris takes on the Conservative legal thinkers who believe morality trumps liberty. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.

America’s Chernobyl

Dan Mahaffee

U.S. Northern Command Photo

When studying the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster stands as a turning point that revealed the weakness of the Soviet system and its fundamental instability. Last year’s HBO miniseries about the disaster brought the disaster back into the public mind. At the time, who could have thought that a dramatization of Soviet history presaged what we now live through.

First, there are those on the “front lines.” First responders, nurses, and doctors are fighting to save lives without the equipment needed to protect themselves. Like the firefighters and “liquidators” of Chernobyl sent to fight radioactive fires, America’s health care providers also face an invisible enemy ready to destroy their bodies from the inside out. In their circumstances, youth and fitness mean little given the amount of the virus to which they are exposed.

In the Soviet Union of 1986, the disaster of Chernobyl was compounded by a political system that incentivized apparatchiks to tell leaders what they wanted to hear, rather than the truth. Critical thinking displayed a lack of faith in the glory of Marxist-Leninst thought and the glory of the Communist party. Human life meant little for the glory of the party and the strength of the Soviet Union. A controlled, captive media existed to serve the purposes of the party, hide the truth, and misinform both the Soviet people and the broader world.

Sure, one can critique this comparison. “Chernobyl was a purposeful test, this is a natural pandemic,” of course, that is a true statement. Yet, in both circumstances, leaders believed that their political rules somehow trumped the immutable laws of physics and biology. In both cases, leaders had access to information that warned them of the looming danger. Soviet scientists and ministers knew of the flaws in the design of the Chernobyl reactor; intelligence reports in January and February told the true tale of the devastation inflicted in Wuhan, China. These were President Trump’s thoughts at the time:

“No one could see it coming” they said, as the Pentagon warned in 2017 about shortcomings in U.S. pandemic preparedness and the 2019 HHS exercise “Crimson Contagion” demonstrated how disjointed the federal response could be. Some experts in government tried to raise the warning, but the impact on the stock market angered the White House. Before then, the leaders of our most important healthcare bodies in government were caught in a “Game of Thrones” battle for the president’s favor. As for the CDC, was its leader chosen based on his track record? Or his culture war bona fides?

At the Defense Department, military commanders were instructed to check that their preparations for the pandemic didn’t cross White House messaging. On Thursday night, the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, suffering from its own rapid Covid outbreak, was relieved of command for “poor judgement” for too widely circulating his plea for assistance from higher up the chain of command — never mind the convicted war criminals asking the President for pardons on Fox and Friends.

For much of February and March, President Trump continued to downplay the Covid-19 pandemic. Fox News did too, until a sudden U-turn. Still, some media stalwarts continued on. Better, after all, to tout unproven cures, even if they did risk sending one’s heart into a haywire rhythm. Of course there are those who still claim to be “Covid truthers” all while frenzied conspiracy theories actually led one California train engineer to try to derail his train into the USNS Mercy hospital ship docked off of Los Angeles to “reveal the truth” — more on that below in news you may have missed.

I’ve always looked at U.S. presidents in office along the lines of “when in an airplane, we’re all cheering for the pilot.” Never could I imagine a pilot saying that some rows of the plane are more deserving of a safe flight than others.

But how else can we interpret the President’s own words? Why has Florida — governed by Ron DeSantis, whose political ascent was fueled by President Trump’s endorsementreceived all its requests from the federal stockpile, while California receives faulty ventilators and Illinois receives the wrong kind of masks?

These are unprecedented times. As the death tolls grow, we have already surpassed the tolls of Pearl Harbor and September 11th. Indeed, we may soon see such tolls on a daily basis. Unlike the Soviet system however, we have a role to play. We are not passive spectators. At the ballot box, we can remember how leaders balanced concerns about polling numbers, share prices, re-election strategies, and the health and safety of the American people. How can we fix the precariousness of so many systems now revealed by this crisis. Does our media give us truth or what we are comfortable hearing? Do we continue to think that celebrity means more than real expertise? In fighting 20th century battles about the size of government, have we lost sight of what matters in the 21st century about the efficacy of government? Do we ignore science and reason because political orthodoxy keeps the primary voters and donors happy?

Our verdict on the President’s pandemic leadership will be delivered in November. Unsurprisingly, he and his allies are already voicing their fears about what might happen if Americans can vote safely by mail. After all, White House advisor Jared Kushner said it best in Thursday night’s briefing, “What a lot of the voters are seeing now is that when you elect somebody…think about who will be a competent manager during the time of crisis.”

“Viruspolitik” — Russia’s COVID Aid Active Measures Campaign

Joshua Huminski

Russian military in Italy sanitizing a home for the elderly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo credit: Claudio Furlan/Zuma Press)

Never let a good crisis go to waste, is an adage to which Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, almost certainly ascribes. While the full extent of the pandemic’s effects in Russia remains to be seen, Moscow is seizing every advantage it can for political warfare and propaganda.

To Italy, one of the hardest hit countries, Russia deployed over 100 troops and 15 heavy lift cargo aircraft to help Rome cope with the outbreak. In the words of one Italian newspaper, “Never had so many Russian planes and personnel landed before in a NATO country.”

Without any sense of irony, the Russian military vehicles flying Italian and Russian flags carried the slogan “From Russia with Love”, a nod to the Ian Fleming book and film of the same title. As the Wall Street Journal notes, how useful those troops will be is unclear as the majority of the personnel are from a biological warfare decontamination unit (though there are some 28 Russian military doctors and nurses among the group), not something particularly useful in the current environment.

Officially, the defense minister, Lorenzo Guerini thanked Moscow for its assistance as did former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Italian popstars and singers also thanked Russia for sending aid, but Russia’s pro-Kremlin social media army went to work promoting effusive praise, purportedly from Italians, in excess of that which was native to Italy. Among the highlights were Italians flying the Russian flag and singing the Russian national anthem.

The United States did not escape Russia’s propaganda push. On April Fool’s Day, what at any other time would have been surely a prank, a Russian Antonov An-124 cargo aircraft landed at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City carrying “60 tons of medical equipment, ventilators, masks & other protection gear.” The air traffic controller at JFK was heard saying “We sincerely thank you for all of the assistance you’re bringing in,” to the Antonov on approach to JFK airport. The BBC reported that the U.S. paid for half of the delivery, but the Russians donated the other half.

Amusingly, Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, noted that the photo from the Antonov surely must have been a hoax as the cardboard boxes were unsecured. Hodges tweeted, “no professional Loadmaster in the world… in any air force… would load a plane like this.”

It is worth remembering that Russia is under severe sanctions from both the United States and the European Union. That Moscow would send aid on military aircraft so brazenly shocked some Kremlin-watchers.

Putin, largely operating remotely at the moment given his direct contact with a doctor who subsequently was diagnosed with COVID, is waging a multi-level campaign. On one level, providing aid abroad is directed towards domestic audiences — if Russia is assisting Italy and the United States, then clearly the domestic COVID crisis must not be that bad. This despite a notable increase in cases and country-wide lock down. Russia, with a population of 146 million, only has just over 1,000 reported cases, leading some to speculate about the veracity of the numbers.

It also helps reinforce his own message that only he can provide stability, or, more broadly, that stability is more important than democracy. As Putin works to ensure his leadership of Russia continues beyond the constitutional limitations — a referendum on extending his term was postponed due to COVID — highlighting the instability of liberal western democracies only strengthens his narrative. For all the resources and “strength” of the west, Putin could argue, the countries are still in chaos. By contrast, as one Russian analyst notes, the country looks calm compared to the United States and the majority of its allies.

Internationally, this burnishes Russia’s tarnished image — from the invasion and annexation of Crimea, the shooting down of MH17 and more, Russia’s global reputation is considerably reduced from that which Putin wishes it to be. By providing aid to the United States, he is, in effect, attempting to argue that Russia is not all that bad of an actor and creating a narrative that in contrast with the U.S., Russia is much more stable.

Moscow is seizing upon the initial confusion and muddled responses of the United States and European Union to the COVID crisis and creating the appearance that it is heroically coming to the aid of the beleaguered governments in Washington, Brussels, and Rome. No mention of the payment by the U.S. for half of the delivery was made in Russian media, referring to it only as aid. The U.S. and E.U. is responding and sending aid to Italy, but the initial missteps created an opening gleefully seized by Putin. Perhaps, if nothing else, Russia’s swift capitalization spurred the west to act and aid Italy.

How effective this propaganda push either domestically or internationally is, remains to be seen. An Italian newspaper reported that Italian officials said 80% of the aid package from Russia was totally useless. Others are questioning whether the aid package was entirely selfless or came with strings attached. In any case, Russia will almost certainly, in the future, point to the aid in its efforts to reduce or remove sanctions.

On the domestic front, if the COVID crisis worsens in Russia, it is doubtful that many Russians will care about the aid being provided to the United States or Italy. As one analyst noted, just because Russia is providing aid abroad, it doesn’t mean Russia’s health care system is covered.

The Marines Returns to their Shock Troop Roots

Ethan Brown

  1. The warfighter who shoots first typically has a distinctive advantage in a gunfight.
  2. If an enemy force has secured a battlespace via coverage of long-range precision fire support, then an opposing unit that is still able to operate within that weapons engagement zone (WEZ) while being able to maneuver out of it has the advantage.

General David Berger, the 38th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, understands these realities and has initiated sweeping changes within the Corps since taking over last year. These changes are being implemented to address global threats and modernizing against the Corps primary area of responsibility: Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, or LOCE (read: the Indo-Pacific).

When Gen. Berger took command, he laid out force strategy (CMC38 Force Design 2030) as his top priority, stating that the “modest and incremental improvements to our existing force structure and legacy capabilities would be insufficient to overcome evolving threat capabilities, nor would they enable us to develop forces required to execute our approved naval concepts”. Like most of the DoD over the past two decades, Counter Terrorism has become the force-shaping locus of USMC strategy. Further, the fight has been in places where heavy armor has become a life-saving component of warfighting and the enemy is difficult to separate from alleged allies. The Corps Commandant is helping extract the Marine warfighters out of the mire of America’s longest and least successful war and driving them to a position of readiness against peer competition in areas of vulnerability.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy identified power competition with an increasingly aggressive, rapidly modernizing China as one of the key priorities for US National Security. In the words of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis from the NDS: “The most far-reaching objective of this defense strategy is to set the military relationship between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression”. In order to deter China from its relentless drive towards an Indo-Pacific hegemony, the NDS demands a littoral shock force built for projecting power and capabilities quickly and with enough immediate lethality to go toe to toe with a peer threat under austere circumstances. This reality required some significant changes to Marine force organization, existing capability divestment, and recommitment to a partnership with the Navy not realized since the two services crawled island to island across the Pacific during World War Two.

Notable from the aforementioned divestment is the Corps move to eliminate Armor (and all of its support Occupational Specialties) from the inventory, in addition to dramatically reducing the size and scope of its Field Artillery and Light attack Aviation. Further, the Force Design 2030 reduces the total number of Active Duty Infantry Battalions from 24 to 21, a reduction in heavy lift rotary wing and medium tilt-rotor units, and a realignment of the F-35 construct to array more squadrons with less overall aircraft against the Fleet Marine Force (FMF).

In exchange for the divestment of armor and heavy lift, the strategy opts for significant expansion to organic long-range rocket batteries (increased range over traditional artillery), an increase in Light-armored Reconnaissance, and doubling the commands dedicated to unmanned vehicle operations

The Corps is returning to Rifle Platoon Fire & Maneuver, depicted here (Marine Corps Training Command Manual B3J3817)

As mentioned in the opening, the unit who shoots first has a distinct advantage over those on the receiving/reactive end- “The hider-versus finder competition is real. Losing this competition has enormous and potentially catastrophic consequences” (Gen. Berger). A USMC Armored Company (which consists of fourteen 70-ton M1 Abrams tanks plus support elements) has little chance of keeping the element of surprise in a battle, especially compared to a highly mobile, harassing Rifle Company. Simply, armored vehicles and their organic/towed artillery will have trouble surviving the precision guided munitions strike platforms which have proliferated the battlespace during the GWOT era of conflict. In the video below, Turkish RPAs (supported by long range artillery) are shown absolutely shredding a fairly robust Syrian Armor column:

In the event that tensions in the South Pacific escalate beyond diplomacy or conventional force deterrence, the PLA forces pitched in reinforced positions on an island would have that distinct first-shot advantage over the USMC forces attempting to seize terrain in arrayed armor. This is particularly true in the event of hostile forces being supported by fixed artillery or combined arms- Main Battle Tanks are distinct, outstanding targets. And if the display by the Turkish combined arms arsenal was an impressive display of firepower, it should be understood that the PLA is decidedly more capable of concentrating precision fires than Turkey is.

While impressive, these brutes no longer have a place in the Corps (photo: Military Times)

The future Fleet Marine Force is on a path to return to its island-hopping, shock troop roots. It will require a leaner, more modular force capable of rapid transition from one objective to the next, and with the capacity to survive and thrive in the game of cat-and-mouse within the enemy WEZ of long-range precision munitions. In short, a Marine armor contingent with its own regimental headquarters is not the means by which the FMF will execute the vision set forth in the NDS.

In total, the change reflects a reduction of only (roughly) 100 pieces of heavy armor, several dozen helicopters and tilt-rotors, and about 70 pieces of long-range artillery. But when factoring in the personnel components, all of the assorted support units and logistics freed, the Force Design 2030 frees up billions of dollars from the Navy budget and enables a critical modernization and a capability which the Corps is sorely lacking- a UAV/counter-UAV capability. This emerging capacity will orient a lighter, more mobile Corps against enemy reliance on drone technology by “attrition of enemy and consuming of ISR resources”- taking a hard-learned page out of the GWOT lessons-learned binder.

The views are of the author, and do not reflect the views, position, or policy of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.

Challenging the Omnipotent Moral Busybodies

Chris Condon

This week, The Atlantic published a meandering, perplexingly long-winded article by Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule entitled “Beyond Originalism.” Part of a series called “The Battle for the Constitution,” the article lays out the case for a conservative alternative to originalism, the legal philosophy that has grown in popularity among conservatives since the 1970s. Like many conservatives, Vermeule does identify multiple points of contention in American society. However, he falls into the trap that drives so many into the arms of authoritarianism: the solutions he proposes are far worse than the issues he seeks to address. Not only are they ill-fitted to the task at hand, they are downright dangerous notions.

While Vermeule’s piece is framed as an argument for his “common good constitutionalism” over originalism as the appropriate conservatice judicial philosophy, he merely uses this as a vehicle to deliver a treatise on principles of government. In this context, originalism is analogous to the classical liberal tradition of American governance, while his new philosophy is a stand-in for a new brand of American governmental principles that pays less reverence to individual liberty in favor of promoting conservative moral principles and an ambiguous communal good. This is the foundation upon which his argument is built, that there is battle within conservatism: outdated past vs. utopian future.

The first form this argument takes is that against classical liberalism as a governing philosophy. While many admit that the founders were classically liberal and simply argue that the vision of the founders is insufficient in the modern world, Vermeule goes further in asserting that not even the founding generation believed classical liberalism was an appropriate theory of government. In prioritizing individual liberty above all else, classical liberalism does not allow rulers to enact measures for the common good that are perfectly appropriate in a civilized society, he argues. Property rights and freedom of speech, for example, are encumbrances that simply detract from the good of the community in terms of morality, health, and prosperity.

“Common good constitutionalism,” Vermeule argues, eliminates these tethers and allows government to better perform its function. Rather than the maximization of individual liberty, the chief mission of government is to rule the people well, which includes enacting measures for the common good even if the people oppose them (the author does not define what these may be, other than limiting the freedom of speech and other traditional rights). He argues that this sort of activity should not be limited to elected officials, but that the ambiguities of the Constitution and other written law allow judges to insert policies into documents that do not otherwise contain them by reading them into existence. The principles he hopes jurists will read into existence include:

“…respect for the authority of rule and of rulers; respect for the hierarchies needed for society to function; solidarity within and among families, social groups, and workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions; appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government and society; and a candid willingness to ‘legislate morality’ — indeed, a recognition that all legislation is necessarily founded on some substantive conception of morality, and that the promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority.”

In refuting the author’s argument, it is first appropriate to question whether any of it can be defined as conservative. In modern American parlance, conservatism refers to the movement popularized by Barry Goldwater in the late 1960s that emphasizes social tradition, economic liberty, and the restriction of government power. At best, Vermeule’s argument embraces only the first, actively rejecting the last two as improper inclusions in any scheme of good governance. Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, or any other American conservative figure for the last 100 years would recoil from Vermeule’s proposals. Vastly expanding government and using its power to effectively control the citizenry has no place in the American conservative movement.

While the term fascism is thrown around far too much in our political discourse, it is difficult to find another term to describe what the author of this article proposes. While the traditional American vision of government’s role is to protect the rights and liberties of the individual, Vermeule proposes the effective elimination of the individual as a unit of society. Instead, he believes that government should prioritize the good of the community and of insular groups over the good of the individual. In this sense, he embraces a theory that characterizes the authoritarian regimes of the 20th century: the power of the state reigns supreme. While it would be fair to liken his approach to any number of communist regimes, his promotion of the enforcement of traditional morality (he repeatedly decries “sexual liberties” and uplifts the “traditional family”) smacks more of the Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini regimes.

In truth, this article is a perfect illustration of that danger of straying from a text and history-based reading of the Constitution. When we allow officials to read policies into existence that have no textual basis, there are no protections of liberty. While Vermeule thinks such protections are simply a hindrance, the vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum — living and dead — would rather live in abject squalor than allow government to take control of every aspect of life: economic, social, and otherwise. While it would be tragic to allow elected officials to enact these suggestions, it is even more outlandish to assert that judges should be able to create these policies out of thin air. Without written law, we are no better than the steppe tribes of the Golden Horde, subject to the whims of whatever prince grips the scepter of power at any given moment. This is the entire purpose of our Constitution and the American system of government overall, which Vermeule — a Harvard Law professor — seems to have missed.

C.S. Lewis, best known for his authorship of the Chronicles of Narnia series, was also fond of political philosophy. Perhaps the quote that best summarizes Lewis’ outlook is the following: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.” In truth, Adrian Vermeule is little more than such a moral busybody; those like him believe that their philosophy is so infallible that it is immoral not to enforce it as law. The foundational guarantee of American government is that liberty is inborn, that individuals should be free to live so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. In asserting the exact opposite, Vermeule insults the founders and the momentous progress our society has made to live up to their loftiest aspirations.

News You May Have Missed

Chinese Province Bans Consumption of Cats and Dogs

Wyatt Newsome

Shenzhen, a southeastern Chinese province near Hong Kong, has made the unprecedented move of banning consumption and sale of dog and cat meat. The decision follows the suspicion that the sale of wild meat at the Huanan Seafood Market was a key factor in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. The market was featured in international media for unsanitary practices surrounding the preparation of meat and for the sale of exotic animals such as badgers, cats, and porcupines; however, many now presume that the virus originated elsewhere and spread at the market due to the high volume of human traffic. While not consumed across the entire nation, cat meat is most popular in southeastern china, where animal rights activists have previously staged large and effective protests against the practice.

Hungary Adopts Emergency Plan Giving Orban Unlimited Powers

Wyatt Newsome

On Monday, the Hungarian parliament narrowly reached a supermajority to pass a bill giving extensive powers to the executive government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the bill did not specify an expiration date, which activists across Europe have expressed great concerns over. The measure allows Prime Minister Viktor Orban to have unchecked power and authorizes jail sentences for anyone deemed to be found hindering the combat of the virus or spreading misinformation. Activists and political scientists have warned of Hungary’s slide towards authoritarianism for years, citing increasingly unfair elections and attacks on the free press. Many have deemed the recent measure as “the end of democracy in Hungary”, with the European Union issuing a statement expressing “[concerns] about the risk of violations of the principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights arising from the adoption of certain emergency measures” (a statement to which Hungary ironically signed onto).

Engineer Intentionally Crashes Train Near Hospital Ship Mercy, Believing In Weird Coronavirus Conspiracy, Feds Say

Aida Olivas

On March 31, 2020, a train engineer derailed a train in the direction of the hospital ship, USNS Mercy, in California. A nearby police officer who was on highway patrol witnessed the derailment and followed and detained the suspect once he jumped off the train and began running. The train narrowly missed hitting 3 occupied cars and finally stopped around 800 feet away from Mercy. The conductor and suspect, now identified as Eduardo Moreno, when asked for the reason behind his actions provided a conspiracy theory about the hospital ship’s “true purpose”, believing it to be a cover for another “covid-19 purpose or a government takeover”. Claiming no one had persuaded him into committing the derailment and that he had not been previously planning it, the supposed spontaneous act resulted in no injuries. Moreno says the idea came to him as he thought about the pandemic and formed the conspiracy theory about the government “segregating people”, thus, wanting to bring world attention to it. Moreno was recorded on security cameras lighting a flare and making an obscene gesture to the cameras before crashing through the concrete barriers at full speed.

States Overwhelmed By Previously Unimaginable Layoff Numbers

Aida Olivas

As more and more people lose their jobs throughout the country and it begins reaching similar levels to the Great Depression, unemployment claims have continued to skyrocket. In several states, the unemployment insurance system has been failing as countless people seeking benefits overload it. Some report having to call around 800 times or waiting on the line for hours before the call is able to connect to a live person. Others who have chosen to fill out their applications online have noted frequent site crashes, being unable to log into the state’s unemployment website, and not being declared eligible for benefits due to the state not updating their unemployment website to include the new CARES Act. This has resulted in certain people purposefully not completing the entirety of their applications in an effort to simply submit it and begin the process despite knowing their information will be flagged for a more critical review. In addition, those who have filed unemployment claims must now wait longer than the standard 21 days to receive the first week of their benefit payments due to the increasing amount of applications.

The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.



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