Monday, October 31, 2016

A Sober Mind and a Response to Utah Mormons Can Support Trump

I’ve been writing a new future journal article on preemptive war and said that at the very least Moroni should be excused and rescued from the petty political debates of Latter Day Saints that rely upon a very selective and shallow reading of the scriptures that doesn’t properly examine the context of Moroni’s actions.   His actions are far more nuanced than the uninspiring proof texting he receives on so many dogmatic blogs and facebook posts. 

Dr. Wayne Walker discussed why Utah Mormons Can Support Trump. The post is one of many that uses rather shallow analysis and reading from the Book of Mormon and I thought it would be a good test case to compare what a substantive analysis looks like compared to one that is shoving the scriptures into a supporting a political candidate. [All quotes based on his article unless otherwise noted.]

“In Book of Mormon days, some of the Nephite military leaders were chosen because of their size and muscular power in battle.”

Several Book of Mormon leaders were based on size, but so were dissenters such as Coriantumr, who was a “large and mighty man” (Helaman 1:15). Other leaders possessed “austere and bloodthirsty” qualities (Mosiah 9:2). Mormon was chosen for his size, but the people choosing were apostate Nephites ripe for destruction.[1]  His qualification as prophet was based on his “sober” mind that was “quick to observe” (Mormon 1:2, 15).  Not to mention his lineage as a “pure descendant” likely helped his claim to leadership (3 Nephi 5:20). The custom of the Nephites was actually to choose a leader that had the spirit of prophecy (3 Nephi 3:21). In short then, being large of statue was an equivocal standard among others such as lineage that dissenters and apostates liked as much as the righteous, and the latter group had a custom of choosing prophets as military leaders.   

In reading Moroni’s epistle to Ammoron a reader can notice the former’s strength. He had strong words, compelling ideas, and he must have had a rhetorical effect on the reader. But even though Moroni showed powerful words there were limits to the effect. The intent of the letter was to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. Moroni was so bad that even though he wanted something from Ammoron he called him a child of hell and threatened genocide (Alma 54: 7, 12.) Then Moroni refused to exchange prisoners and had to instead embark on a daring and risky night mission (Alma 55:2, 16).  The mission was successful, but seemed to be needlessly complicated and risky because of Moroni’s counterproductive, “strong”, negotiating.

In summary, Trump isn’t physically strong and doesn’t possess rhetorical strength beyond shouting bumper stickers. Even if he did, it is a very limited strategy that will not produce the needed results.  Instead, it sounds dangerously close as though the author is justifying a strong man, or some kind of dictator like figure that can ram through whatever solutions he sees fit.  Given the gridlock we see, that is tempting, but a very dangerous road.

 “In this regard, the elite of American politics today are playing the same role as the king-men in the Book of Mormon.”

The author doesn’t present any evidence of this. He lists some names, a few of which I have read for over ten years, and I don’t see any evidence of their being king men. In fact, Trump’s nomination would point to the exact opposite.  Like Laman and Lemuel who were within close contact of Nephi for years but never managed to even try and kill him,[2] the Republican elites must be the worst conspiracy ever, as they obviously didn’t like Trump but nominated him anyway. To quote my old college professor, so many people dislike Trump there is no need for a conspiracy, all they people have to do is vote to get rid of him!  Moreover, its quite ridiculous for a man that lives in a giant gold plated tower whose dry cleaning bill is larger than many of his supporters yearly income is not a part of the elite.  This is a very shallow interpretation that seems to imply the author wants to execute those with whom he disagrees. He even started this section by saying:

“Those dissenters who became angry enemies who would not make the covenant were immediately put to death by Captain Moroni. Why? Those individuals were seen as a real threat to the Nephite government and the country’s freedom”

This sounds nice in theory. We like freedom and we want to fight for it. But who gets to decide who is a threat?  For example, those residents and hunters living near a remote Oregon compound might have felt threatened by an armed militia seizing a compound, even if they called themselves “free man.” The Greeks claimed to be fighting for freedom, but the helots of Sparta and slaves of Athens might have considered the Persian invaders as the ones fighting for (their) freedom.   According to the author’s logic, the armed militia led by the Bundy’s was a threat that should have been executed. Indeed,  Moroni executed the king men to strengthen the central government (Alma 51:20-22). The rebels in this case were Amalikciah and his followers.  

We can take the use of government power even further.  The people of Ammon gave a “large portion” (Alma 43:14) of their substance to the Nephites, so it is not unrealistic to suggest that other groups of people also had a “large portion” taken from them, and that they were less than thrilled with the confiscatory measures of the government. The government would naturally find rival elites with surplus goods and conspicuous consumption of them (Alma 30:27) very attractive ways to fund the war effort.  Alma 46:4 said that many of these dissidents were the lower judges who professed nobility.  From the point of view of the Nephite rulers then, they have a chance to strengthen their own position as elites in society by harming their internal rivals while at the same time funding a war against their external enemies (Alma 46:4). Keep in mind that many of these nobles were imprisoned and killed during the great war. Their lands would have been confiscated by officials and then redistributed as a reward for support or to further strengthen the elites holding power. To summarize, if we accept the idea that Nephite elites might have acted in their own self-interest, and might have caused their own problems, the text suggests that they strengthened their own position, rewarded followers, harmed their rivals, and defeated external enemies, and did all of this in the name of the common people, their wives, their families and their liberty!![3] There is a certain irony in raising a standard of freedom, but then forcing people at sword point to support that freedom (Alma 51:20).

“Moreover, Trump clearly won the vast majority of voters in the Republican primary.   The Book of Mormon is clear that there is something powerful about the voice of the majority.”

I would dispute the fact that Trump had the vast majority of votes. The author may be referring to the fact that Trump accumulated more votes than any other candidate in history, but since the population is higher than ever before that is a useless statistic. This nomination process went on longer than any other in modern history because he had such comparatively little support among Republicans to the point that there was discussion of a convention fight. 

Having a majority rule doesn’t mean the rest of the people must abandon their freedom.  Again, I cite the irony of Moroni forcing people to support freedom. You can call it free, but the government obviously exercised compulsive power over its subjects.  I would ask the author if he is so willing to concede to the majority if Hillary wins.  The foundations of American democracy, the freedom to vote for what you think is right, and the responsibility to avoid trampling the rights of minorities are enshrined in the Constitution, explained by Madison in the Federalist papers, and not waived because of a shallow reading from the BoM. 

“Unless those “dissenters” repent, the wrong candidate”

Its not a sin to support Hillary Clinton. I personally think she is a deeply flawed candidate, but I recognize the freedom of others to make decisions that I think are foolish. If the author were to really follow the Book of Mormon he would indefinitely detain political prisoners before executing them (Alma 51:19; Alma 62:4).

“Today, as in Book of Mormon days, building walls to keep the undocumented and often criminal enemy out is seen as effective”

Building walls was a military tactic used during a war. The Nephites actually did very little to control immigration in the way the author is suggesting. Helaman 3:3, 6:6 and 3 Nephi 7:13 all refer to unchecked immigration, and I could show more examples where Nephites and Lamanites crossed borders without walls. One man, Samuel the Lamanite, used the walls to preach, not to impede his movement.   The analogy is wholly inappropriate.  

“How much independent policy thinking will someone like that be able to bring to the office? Not much. So in other words, Evan is another politician imbued with spirit and money of the elitists, the modern day “king-men.””

Another shallow comparison used to denigrate. As I discussed at the recent FAIR conference: [The discussion of robbers in history led] to the use of words that were far more emotional than accurate. We see the potency of words today as well. Policy makers debated over whether to call anti-American forces in Iraq “insurgents” or “terrorists.” (In truth it was a complex mixture of both.) Many Americans felt a great deal of frustration when the sectarian conflict in Iraq was labeled the demoralizing term “civil war.” It explains why the surge led by General Petraeus was labeled an escalation by some critics who were trying to invoke the ghoul of Vietnam. A blockade during the Cuban Missile crisis would have been an act of war, but a quarantine of the island prescribed the same action without the accompanying baggage. In the prelude to the Bosnia deployment, each side for and against it, avoided the term “genocide” to evade the treaty obligations associated with it.
Most people who accused the Bundys of terrorism do so utterly unware of the long history of using words as weapons. I certainly disagree with their actions, but I was even more bothered by the casual use of emotional charged words based upon political inclinations more than clinical definitions…I hope we can use terms that are clinically precise and avoid needless bomb throwing when discussing sensitive issues, like actual bomb throwing.

Speaking of being clinically precise, I believe McMullin is one of the only serious candidates in this race. For example, I’ve written about his reasonable and excellent China policy for the Salt Lake Tribune.[4] I don’t see much from the author connecting him to being elitist, except for name dropping people on the same ideological spectrum as him.  As I said before the last time I was accused of being a country club elitist, the only country club I’ve ever entered was that time I was a dish washer in college.

“It is time for Glenn Beck, Mitt Romney and the Deseret News editors to swallow their pride”

 It would actually be easier for many people to vote for Trump. Never Trump people are called all sorts of names, including king men elitists in this post. But the members of the Never Trump have to follow their conscience, and they can’t vote for a man with serious moral flaws.  Calling people elite might work for those with lots of anger towards elites and would rather think with their hearts, but it doesn’t mean you’ve thoroughly analyzed and assessed a person’s position.  


A strong stigma can be created based on a narrow interpretation of a couple of verses, and an almost demonic dislike for a position bred from a dogmatic devotion to political planks more than a substantive and nuanced interpretation of the scriptures.  Given the lives at stake it’s important the Latter Day Saints have all the tools for judging political candidates. That comes from intensive study and a nuanced interpretation of verses that challenge and broaden our understanding. 

[Thank you for reading. I work as a freelance writer. If you find value in this work please consider donating using the small pay pal buttons below.)
[1] h/t Mark Wright on facebook.
[2] See Grant Hardy’s argument about them in Understanding the Book of Mormon.
[3] From my new book, “Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon” forthcoming. For a review of my methodology please see the bottom half of this post;
[4] I meant to do a post announcing this, so surprise! It feels good to get published, and it was extra good to publish something that was deleted on another site by an overzealous moderator.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Put on your Korihor Caps: Why Reassessing the Book of Mormon (even its Villains), is Righteous!

The Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, recently published an article by Duance Boyce. His article called “Reclaiming Jacob” is a rebuttal to Adam Miller’s arguments about Jacob. In essence, Miller reassessed the verses to show how Jacob debated doctrine about Christ instead of being Christlike, and talked about love and not showing it. There is some suggestion that Jacob was hard to find, and did not minister to the fallen Sherem.  The latter is shown to care about the law and be similar to Laman and Lemuel in trying to protect received Jewish tradition against what might have seemed like corrupting visions from Jacob.  There is a great deal more to his original argument and the rebuttal. I’m writing a rebuttal to Boyce, but overall I highly recommend you read it.

I’m commenting because some of the Facebook chatter has been incredibly disconcerting. The first comment suggested that Miller was moving beyond reassessing to “manufacturing fault out of thin air.” The next comment was almost word for word what I expected people to say in response to my work. The person said that “Miller not only suggests we've all misread Jacob 7, but that is was mis-written in the first place. This is not even a remotely faithful perspective and it makes me wonder if Miller might see shades of himself in the Sherem of Jacob 7.”  

Declaring a line of inquiry unfaithful and calling him Sherem is incredibly dogmatic and insulting.  The tone then became one of derision and mockery, with the final critic also judging Miller’s spiritual state for making his arguments.[1] (He doesn't want to "ascribe any bad intentions," he just compares Miller to Jacob's learned targets who forgot God[2 Nephi 9:28].) Since I have a whole book that essentially uses the same methodology as Miller, I felt personally attacked by this thread and disturbed by the casual and jocular way they questioned somebody's faith and approach. Instead of spending my birthday receiving insults, I decided to let it rest, but then realized I should comment now if I'm to be of any value in the discussion. Luckily, I have a whole manuscript that uses and shows the value of this methodology.  In the introduction I make the case as to why this methodology is appropriate and why a nuanced reassessment of both heroes and villains in the text CAN help us understand the scriptures, place them in history, and bring new insight that can help us apply the scriptures and lead better lives. Here are the most relevant passages:

Evil Gangs and Starving Widows: Reassessing the Book of Mormon:

Reading the text with modern and western eyes, and reading based upon the assumptions we’ve grown up with, will influence the way we understand the scriptures a great deal.  If the Book of Mormon is a historical account of real people, then their decisions should reveal the same bias, weaknesses, blind spots, and disputes as other historical events, and upon closer examination, we do see that. 

President of the American Historical Association James Grossman pointed out that “learning history means engaging with aspects of the past that are troubling, as well as those that are heroic… critics are unhappy, perhaps, that a once comforting story has become, in the hands of scholars, more complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling.”[2]

The Book of Mormon is an inspiring book of scripture that has converted millions.  Yet with a critical revisionist eye we might see behaviors of the Nephites that are more complex, unsettling, provocative, and ultimately compelling.  It helps us reassess and revaluate past ideas and event in the light of new interpretations or data. 

This kind of history can, and should, be used to illuminate Mormon history and the Book of Mormon as well. Dallin H Oaks said:

We’re emerging from a period of history writing within the Church [of] adoring history that doesn’t deal with anything unfavorable, and we’re coming into a ‘warts and all’ kind of history.  Perhaps our writing of history is behind the times, but I believe that there is a purpose in all things- there may have been a time when Church members could not have been as well prepared for that kind of historical writing as they are now. [3]

In addition to modern precedent, the ancient historians within the Book of Mormon criticized their people fairly often. Lehi’s preaching angered the people of Jerusalem to such an extent that they sought to kill him (1 Nephi 1:20). Nephi faced the same treatment from his brothers (1 Nephi 7:16).  Alma recorded how the pride of church members became a ”great stumbling block” to those that weren’t in the church (Alma 4:19).  The Nephites became so wicked that Samuel the Lamanite preached to them (Helaman 13-15), and the Book of Mormon recorded how the people set Nephi’s execution date (3 Nephi 1.)  My book simply attempts to tease out additional and often unstated details within the text to reveal an even greater understanding of it.    

Another useful way to view revisionist study is by considering the three levels of history introduced by Davis Bitton and others.[4] The first level is “A” level history. This is a fairly simplistic but useful category of history. All the major characters wear white hats as virtuous and noble members of the church (or founders of the Republic). Occasionally members might make mistakes but leaders seldom, if ever do.[5] Nothing is suppressed but the history has an appealing simplicity with no controversies to complicate matters. I sometimes call this Disneyland level history because of its pleasant nature and ability to be communicated in simple terms.   “B” level history is the exact opposite of the first level.  All of the good guys turn into bad guys, their motives are invariably sinister, and everything is meant to seem chaotic but ultimately the major players and events are just as simplistic as “A” level history.  This is the history most often produced by vociferous opponents of the church. The problem with level “B” is that there are many facts and ideas in this level which are true, but might trouble a member who has never heard them before or hears them out of context.  This is the level in which members are lost if they don’t move to level “C.” This last level is when members understand their leaders are most often sincere and good people working in sometimes tragic and mistaken fashion through a fallen world.  With a proper incorporation of their faults it doesn’t diminish leaders but brings an additional appreciation of them.  The “C” level brings an appreciation of the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants where the Lord says that he gives commandments to his servants “in their weakness” and that “inasmuch as [my servants] err it might be made known” (D&C1:24-25). It brings additional understanding to the statement that the Lord is collectively pleased with His church but not with the individuals in it (D&C 1:30).  This level brings an appreciation of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young struggling through mortal life and leadership and helps us understand that history is complicated.  It also helps us appreciate the decisions they made, and like any history, gives us additional tools to assess and respond to problems that we currently face. Above all, it enriches the scriptures for us by providing a vastly deeper and meaningful context for the events beyond having super heroes on one side and comic book arch-villains on the other. 

This level brings an appreciation to the many complaints of Mormon (Title Page, Ether 12:25-26) and Nephi (1 Nephi 19:6) that complained of their weaknesses. Even though the verses mentioned above are well known in the church, few people have examined the “C” level history of the Book of Mormon.  Members of the church feel the text is faith promoting and spiritually transformative in their lives. I share that appreciation of the text.  Critics of the church rarely feel the need to analyze the history presented within the text itself, outside of stale criticisms of supposedly disqualifying anachronisms.  Many Mormon scholars themselves are increasingly moving away from viewing the text as historical, but wish to study the text’s 19th century milieu or use it to advance social justice or peace studies.[6] Those can be valuable, but a historical study that rethinks and reassesses our understanding of the historical events described in the Book of Mormon will help bring an additional understanding and appreciation for the complexity of the events and people described in the text.  And it is the aim of this book to provide a richer and more nuanced understanding of those leaders within Book of Mormon. Just as the mature faith of members are beginning to develop for the flawed, loved, complex, sometimes grossly mistaken, but still inspired 19th century leaders. 

As a result of moving to “C” level history I’ve had to challenge my assumptions about the text. The best example of this methodology comes from the FARMS volume, Rediscovering the Book of Mormon. Literature scholar Grant Hardy discussed Mormon’s role as editor and how that affected Mormon’s conduct as a historian.[7] Mormon as a historian wrote that the Lamanites attacked the city of Ammonihah in Alma 16. It reported that the Lamanites destroyed the city, kidnapped its inhabitants, and after many battles and kidnapping some people from the city of Noah the Nephites defeated them.  The readers never know what happened to the innocent bystanders kidnapped from the city of Noah.  As Hardy argued, using the “C” level history that accounts for the bias of writers, that Nephite history didn’t support the narrative that good people are saved and bad people suffer. As a result the information about the kidnapped residents of Noah wasn’t included in the story.  When Mormon discussed the region again most of the history was left out except for the spiritual cause of that region’s destruction (Alma 49:9.)

Readers can see Mormon’s spiritual purpose (which form a bias) in Hardy’s example; and ancient writers had more biases as well.   They wrote ethno centric accounts that often reported the prejudices of other people. In secular histories, Herodotus recorded that the Persians seemed weak and effeminate for example. Writer’s like Enos also displayed a tendency to denigrate others when he described the Lamanites as “wild, ferocious and blood thirsty” people full of “filthiness” (Enos 1:20.) Other writers showed different bias. Julius Caesar wrote military histories like the Gallic Wars for popular consumption and adulation. As a result he often praised individual Centurions for their bravery in battle, but side stepped his own poor strategic choices that necessitated battle in the first place.  Historians like Thuycides wrote to explore the role of justice, power, and virtue in political and military actions.  Chinese dynastic chroniclers wrote the history of the previous dynasty and particularly how the bad last emperor forfeited the right to rule.  Many Medieval European historians focused on ecclesiastical history and the role of God in directing man’s destiny and the rise of the church. While many Latter Day Saints would identify with that, the Venerable Bede and others often wrote from a Roman centered viewpoint and were hardly fair towards the indigenous tribes they encountered. (Though ironically, the paucity of written sources from these cultures means that the historians owe the bulk of their information about minority cultures to the ethno centric accounts of their imperialistic visitors.)

In any case, the role of the historian as dispassionate, rational, objective observer of history is a rather late phenomenon that doesn’t reflect how Mormon wrote his record.  If we read the account as though Mormon were objective, or a member of the modern church, we miss crucial details in the text.  The bias that an author has reflects in his writing like finger prints.  When we see these fingerprints, we might reasonably ask what bias is reflected, and how recognizing that bias would modify our understanding of the text. 

[My] book is the product of that searching.   It provides counter arguments that offer alternative explanations and even provide some defenses for typical villains like Amalickiah and Giddianhi, and I question the motives of many Nephite leaders such as Gideon, Moroni, and Lachoneus.  This is a radical reinterpretation of the text which might make it sometimes seem like I’m shooting Bambi’s mother.  But these arguments are designed to bring us to that “C” level of history, where the good guys do not ride in on white horses, the bad guys on black horses, and instead every person acts with the complexity, ambiguity, and self interest that we would expect from history, and which might get glossed over in pursuit of the text’s spiritual purpose, or Sunday school lessons and personal readings that fly by too quickly.  These leaders, like the 19th century church leaders, tried to arrive at the best solutions, but often failed, acted out of self-interest, or created unintended side effects. Their failures can in many cases help them become better people, even as they help us gain an appreciation for fully fleshed out and imperfect people.

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[1] Here are the comments in full:
Matthew Roper: What evidence is there in the text for Jacob's unrighteous behavior? And if Welch is correct, Sherem's accusations would have been a capital offense if proven. A healthy skepticism of sources noting possible bias is one thing. Manufacturing fault out of thin air is another.
Michael Davidson: This is an effective rebuttal. In very simple terms, Miller not only suggests we've all misread Jacob 7, but that is was mis-written in the first place. This is not even a remotely faithful perspective and it makes me wonder if Miller might see shades of himself in the Sherem of Jacob 7.
Gregory L Smith: Well, when you can create what should have been written out of thin air and starshine, of COURSE everyone else has "misread" it.
Tracy Hall Jr.: Would this be a good place to publicize my Kickstarter campaign to rehabilitate Korihor? :)
Andrew Sargent: I've yet to read Miller and not come away feeling that much "looking beyond the mark, and stumbling because of it" has taken place with him.
I won't ascribe to him bad intentions, only a reminder it seems that ironically another warning from Jacob is applicable, namely that we need to be careful as we become learned, to not think we are wise, and therefore can insert our thoughts and ideas and set aside what God has already given us.
[2] James R. Grossman, “The History Wars,” New York Times, September 1st, 2014. (Accessed September 2nd, 2014.)
[3] Dallin H. Oaks, “Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from the PBS Documentary”, (July 20th, 2007) (Accessed August 31st, 2014.)
[4] Davis Bitton, “I don’t have a testimony of the history of the church” 2004 FAIR Conference  Sandy Utah.  Daniel Peterson, “Reflecting on Gospel Scholarship with Abu Al Walid and Abu Hamid, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Sripture 3 (2013) v-xxxii. 
[5] Peterson, Reflecting on Gospel Scholarship, xxvii-xxviii.
[6] Grant Hardy, “The Book of Mormon and Social Justice,” Meridian Magazine (March 21st, 2011) (Accessed August 31st, 2014.) Joshua Madsen, A Non Violent Reading of the Book of Mormon (Greg Kofford Books, forthcoming.)
[7] Grant Hardy, “Mormon As Editor” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon John Sorenson, Melving Thorne eds. (Salt Lake City: FARMS, 1991)15-28.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

More Aggressive than China and Russia?

[This is a response I posted over at the Millennial Star. I know I'm really busy, and you must be wondering why I can't leave it alone, but I thought this was a good chance to get a four for one post. First, I get to post my research there. Frankly, those guys could use some experience with facts and research. Second, I also get to do another blog post here. I write so much in a given day I often just don't have the time for one more item.  Third, I get to tell you about some of the secular research I'm doing.  Fourth, taking a great deal of information and creating a coherent and convincing argument out of it is a very important skill. It never hurts to get one more chance to practice it.  Thanks for reading. I hope you vote for the best person that you think represents your interests. Its a comment post on a blog so please forgive any typos.] 

I recently started a couple of new positions. I cover the East Asian and Pacific military matters for Strategy and Tactics magazine.  It’s been a nice side gig to my teaching and it’s much more fun to talk about the type 53 Frigate than explaining the syllabus over and over again. I also started a research internship at the Hudson Institute. This one focuses on Russia, not my specialty in China, but its been really interesting. I bring this up because I regularly produce policy type article and read a million bits of information a week regarding these powers.  When you said that McMullin is more aggressive than China and Russia I was very glad I wasn’t drinking anything or I would have done a spit take.  I went back to my saved articles and research I’ve written and these are a brief summary of the last few months of behavior for China and Russia:

China thumbed its nose at the world court ruling regarding against them Scarborough shoal in the Spartly Islands.  As a response they’ve placed even more weapons systems and missiles on the island even though it was ruled as part of the Phillipine’s exclusive economic zone.

They’ve developed the YJ12 carrier killing missile. These are missiles specifically designed to as part of their A2 AD strategy as they hope to overwhelm the Aegis defenses surrounding carriers.

In the last 60 years the Chinese have fought offensive wars against every one of their neighbors, on their opponent’s territory.  Immediately after winning the Chinese civil war Mao launched a sneak attack in Korea. (Granted McArthur was nearing Chinese territory but you’ll notice a pattern shortly.)  A few years later Mao seized islands owned by Taiwan. Further operations were curtailed by the timely intervention of American forces in the Taiwan Strait.  They preemptively attacked India to readjust the border in 1962. And they preemptively seized islands in the Assuri river skirmish with Russia in 1969. Its not without notice that China and Russia recently practiced an island seizing exercise near Vietnam. This is where they fought their last offensive war in 1979, and a preemptive seizure of territory is one of the Chinese hallmarks since 1949. Its pure Chinese propaganda and insecurity dating back thousands of years to state they are in the sights of greedy foreigners. 
Immediately after losing the court case they used their new advanced weapons systems in the East China Sea. Near the disputed Senkaku islands they practiced locating and sinking a ship as an obvious message to Japan, which approved of the ruling.  Japan has had to launch their fighter planes over 200 times this year in response to Chinese provocation.  Japanese fisherman, operating legally in international waters or in their EEZ, have been harassed by Chinese naval vessels.

They’ve illegally built up islands and placed advanced radar systems, anti-air batteries, shipping docks that can handle blue water ships, submarine bases, and large runways that can support their advanced fighters (which are being built using stolen technology from the F 22 and F 35.)  Keep in mind they are doing this in the Spratlys and other islands in the South China Sea that are vigorously disputed. (Its true that other nations have done so as well, but not to the extent that China has and definitely not with the same degree of militarization.)

When the US operates Freedom of seas operations they harass our naval forces and follow them at an unsafe distance. Because the islands are disputed, the US performs these operations to reaffirm the importance of international law. These are incredibly important operations because they prevent the de facto recognition of this territory as China’s.  If international law is disregarded it will be a free for all in this region where disputes are settled by force. If China aggressively controls this territory they can easily cut off a great deal of vital shipping in the region. You mentioned them as trading partners, but its incredibly difficult to trade when captains are worried about being seized in what should be international waters.

That’s why McMullin says he will stand for the rights to sail in international waters.  He is not “picking a fight with China,” (though these Freedom of the Seas operations do have some danger),  but simply reasserting basic rights of international law that the China is actively threatening. China has threatened every one of its neighbor, aggressively maneuvers near them, and actively builds bases in disputed territory that can project force.  Your argument seems based on general disdain for the American military power and some foreign policy positions, as well as libertarian articles of faith, not based on a sound knowledge of the region. As somebody who regularly studies the region McMullin is only proposing appropriate steps to stop Chinese aggression through the assertion of international law.

Moving on to Russia:
Russia has started shipping advanced military equipment to India. They are also holding joint exercises with Pakistan. They have shipped attack helicopters to that state. (Symbolically enough Pakistan is using those helicopters to replace the American Cobras they have.)  Russia has refused to implement the Minsk accords. This is a peace plan to help end the conflict in Ukraine.  They use paramilitary tactics to undermine the nation states on their border. They have attack hospitals and relief convoys in Syria. Modernization in Russian military has resulted in new forms of warfare and rapidly changing environment cyber, electronic warfare, and anti-access/area-denial capabilities. They’ve annexed territory from their neighbors. They cut off gas shipments to their neighbors.  Much of Eastern Europe (many of which are close allies), now lie within range of their missiles systems. The consensus view of the Warsaw NATO summit is that Russia is now a competitive threat. In fact, Russia is using China as a chief trading partner and there is a significant concern of their forming a new anti-Western axis.

Russia uses Chinese companies to avoid US sanctions, which is likely why McMullin is trying to strengthen them. Russia is actively increasingly its influence through various soft and hard power methods and they are incredibly assertive in gaining hegemony in the region. They don’t hesitate to use a combination of military, paramilitary, and cyber military forces to undermine and frankly conquer their neighbors.  We have treaty obligations that have been the foundation of safety and security in Europe since World War II.  You can make an argument about the wisdom of these treaties compared to the wish of the Founding Fathers, (and that’s one of several reasons why libertarians remind me of isolationists), but that argument is 60 years too late. We have these obligations, and McMullin is stating that we will make a modest commitment to our allies by treaty, as suggested by the recent summit, in the face of blatant Russian aggression.

This post is already pretty long, and there are many more points I could point out. (For example, China manipulates their finances so they don’t appear to spend as much money on the military.)  McMullin isn’t an immoral war monger because he wants to reassert international law and support America’s treaty obligations. I’m writing in for McMullin.   

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