Errors by the party in power can get America into trouble; real catastrophes require consensus.
Rarely have both parties been as unanimous about a development overseas as they have in their shared enthusiasm for the so-called Arab Spring during the first months of 2011. Republicans vied with the Obama Administration in their zeal for the ouster of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak and in championing the subsequent NATO intervention against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Both parties saw themselves as having been vindicated by events. The Obama Administration saw its actions as proof that soft power in pursuit of humanitarian goals offered a new paradigm for foreign-policy success. And the Republican establishment saw a vindication of the Bush freedom agenda.
“Revolutions are sweeping the Middle East and everyone is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda,” Charles Krauthammer observed in February 2011. “Now that revolution has spread from Tunisia to Oman,” Krauthammer added, “the [Obama] administration is rushing to keep up with the new dispensation, repeating the fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine that Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom.” And William Kristol exulted, “Helping the Arab Spring through to fruition might contribute to an American Spring, one of renewed pride in our country and confidence in the cause of liberty.”
They were all wrong. Just two years later, the foreign-policy establishment has fractured in the face of a Syrian civil war that threatens to metastasize into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon and an economic collapse in Egypt that has brought the largest Arab country to the brink of state failure. Some Republican leaders, including Sen. John McCain and Weekly Standard editor Kristol, demand American military intervention to support Syria’s Sunni rebels. But Daniel Pipes, the dean of conservative Middle East analysts, wrote on April 11 that “Western governments should support the malign dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad,” because “Western powers should guide enemies to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing, so as to prolong their conflict.” If Assad appears to be winning, he added later, we should support the rebels. The respected strategist Edward Luttwak contends that America should “leave bad enough alone” in Syria and turn its attention away from the Middle East—to Asia. The Obama Administration meanwhile is waffling about what might constitute a “red line” for intervention and what form such intervention might take.
The once-happy bipartisan consensus has now shrunk to the common observation that all the available choices are bad. It could get much worse. Western efforts have failed to foster a unified leadership among the Syrian rebels, and jihadi extremists appear to be in control of the Free Syrian Army inside Syria. Syria’s war is “creating the conditions for a renewed conflict, dangerous and complex, to explode in Iraq. If Iraq is not shielded rapidly and properly, it will definitely slip into the Syrian quagmire,” warns Arab League Ambassador Nassif Hitti. Iraq leaders are talking of civil war and eventual partition. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, meanwhile, warned on May 1, “Syria has real friends in the region, and the world will not let Syria fall into the hands of America, Israel or takfiri [radical islamist] groups,” threatening in effect to turn the civil war into a regional conflict that has the potential to destabilize Turkey. And the gravest risk to the region remains the likelihood that “inherent weaknesses of state and society in Egypt reach a point where the country’s political, social and economic systems no longer function,” as Gamal Abuel Hassan wrote on May 28. Libya is fracturing, and the terrorists responsible for the September 2012 Benghazi attack are operating freely.
This is a tragic outcome, in the strict sense of the term, for it is hard to imagine how it could have turned out otherwise.
* * *
In January 2012, after the first hopes for Arab democracy had faded, former Bush Administration official Elliot Abrams insisted:
The neocons, democrats, and others who applauded the Arab uprisings were right, for what was the alternative? To applaud continued oppression? To instruct the rulers on better tactics, the way Iran is presumably lecturing (and arming) Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Such a stance would have made a mockery of American ideals, would have failed to keep these hated regimes in place for very long, and would have left behind a deep, almost ineradicable anti-Americanism.
The neoconservatives mistook a tubercular fever for the flush of youth in the Arab revolts, to be sure, but they read the national mood right—as did the Obama Administration.
There were dissenters, of course. Daniel Pipes warned against pushing Islamists toward elections, writing in 2005:
When politically adept totalitarians win power democratically, they do fix potholes and improve schools—but only as a means to transform their countries in accordance with their utopian visions. This generalization applies most clearly to the historical cases (Adolf Hitler in Germany after 1933, Salvador Allende in Chile after 1970) but it also appears valid for the current ones.
Henry Kissinger excoriated the Obama Administration for toppling Mubarak, arguing that no other force in Egypt could stabilize the country. Francis Fukuyama broke with his erstwhile neoconservative colleagues in 2004, after hearing Vice President Dick Cheney and columnist Charles Krauthammer announce the beginning of an American-led “unipolar era.” “All of these people around me were cheering wildly,” Fukuyama remembers. “All of my friends had taken leave of reality.”
It is a widespread misimpression (reinforced by conspiracy theorists seeking the malign influence of the “Israel Lobby”) that the neoconservative movement is in some way a Jewish thing. On the contrary, it is a distinctly American thing. As the born-again Methodist George W. Bush said in 2003, “Peoples of the Middle East share a high civilization, a religion of personal responsibility, and a need for freedom as deep as our own. It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty; it is pessimism and condescension, and we should have none of it.” The Catholic neoconservative and natural-law theorist Michael Novak put it just as passionately in his 2004 book The Universal Hunger for Liberty: “The hunger for liberty has only slowly been felt among Muslims. That hunger is universal, even when it is latent, for the preconditions for it slumber in every human breast.”
By contrast, Israelis were overwhelmingly pessimistic about the outcome of the Arab revolts and aghast at the celerity with which Washington dumped Mubarak. “The message to the Middle East is that it doesn’t pay to be an American ally,” a former Israeli intelligence chief told me in 2012. Although the prominent Soviet refusenik-turned-Israeli-politician Natan Sharansky believed in a universal desire for democracy, the vast majority of Israeli opinion thought the idea mad. As Joshua Muravchik wrote in 2011, the Arab Spring:
precipitated a sharp split between neoconservatives and hard-headed Israeli analysts who had long been their allies and friends. While neocons saw democratization as a balm to soothe the fevered brow of the Arab world, Israeli strategists (with the notable exception of Natan Sharansky) thought this utterly naive. Their message in essence was this: you do not know the Arabs as we do. Difﬁcult as their governments are to deal with, they are more reasonable than their populations. Democratization of the Arab world would lead to radicalization, which would be a bane to you and us.
The Israelis are accustomed to living with long-term uncertainty; Americans want movies with happy endings. The alternative to the Bush Freedom Agenda or Obama’s proposed reconciliation with the Muslim world would have been ugly: the strategic equivalent of a controlled burn in a forest fire, as Daniel Pipes proposed—prolonging conflict, at frightful human cost, as the Reagan Administration did during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. It was one thing to entice prospective enemies into a war of attrition in the dark corners of the Cold War, though, and quite another to do so under the klieg lights. The strategy might have been correct on paper, but Americans are not typically in the market for pessimism.
The American public fell in love with the young democracy activists who floated across the surface of the Arab revolts like benzene bubbles on the Nile. More precisely, Americans fell in love with their own image, in the persons of hip young Egyptians who reminded them of Americans. Conservatives and liberals alike competed to lionize Google sales manager Wael Ghonim. Caroline Kennedy gave him the JFK Profiles in Courage Award in May 2011. He made Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. The conservative Lebanese scholar Fouad Ajami kvelled in the Wall Street Journal:
No turbaned ayatollah had stepped forth to summon the crowd. This was not Iran in 1979. A young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, had energized this protest when it might have lost heart, when it could have succumbed to the belief that this regime and its leader were a big, immovable object. Mr. Ghonim was a man of the modern world. He was not driven by piety. The condition of his country—the abject poverty, the crony economy of plunder and corruption, the cruelties and slights handed out to Egyptians in all walks of life by a police state that the people had outgrown and despaired of—had given this young man and others like him their historical warrant.
Republican hawks advocated the furtherance of the Arab Spring by force of arms, starting with Libya. On Feb. 25, 2011, a month after Mubarak’s fall, Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative garnered 45 signatures of past officials and public intellectuals “urging President Obama, in conjunction with NATO allies, to take action to end the violence being propagated by the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi.” Three weeks later a NATO force led by the United States intervened. By September, the Qaddafi regime was beaten, and Robert Kagan lauded President Obama in the Weekly Standard: “By intervening, with force, the NATO alliance not only saved the people of Libya and kept alive the momentum of the Arab Spring … the end of Qaddafi’s rule is a great accomplishment for the Obama administration and for the president personally. Furthermore, the president deserves credit because his decision was unpopular and politically risky.” A month later the victorious rebels put the cadavers of Qaddafi and his son on public view.
The national consensus behind the Arab Spring peaked with the Libyan venture. Elliot Abrams was in a sense right: To intimate that democracy might not apply to Arabs seems to violate America’s first principle, that people of all background have the same opportunity for success—in the United States. It seems un-American to think differently. Isn’t America a multi-ethnic melting pot where all religions and ethnicities have learned to get along? That is a fallacy of composition, to be sure: Americans are brands plucked out of the fire of failed cultures, the few who fled the tragic failings of their own culture to make a fresh start. The only tragic thing about America is the incapacity of Americans to comprehend the tragedy of other peoples. To pronounce judgment on other cultures as unfit for modernity, as Abrams wrote, seems “a mockery of American ideals.”
The neoconservatives triumphantly tracked the progress of what they imagined was Arab democracy. After Iraq’s March 2005 elections, Max Boot wrote:
In 2003, more than a month before the invasion of Iraq, I wrote in the Weekly Standard that the forthcoming fall of Baghdad “may turn out to be one of those hinge moments in history—events like the storming of the Bastille or the fall of the Berlin Wall—after which everything is different. If the occupation goes well (admittedly a big if), it may mark the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better.” Well, who’s the simpleton now? Those who dreamed of spreading democracy to the Arabs or those who denied that it could ever happen?
Similarly, in April 2011, Kristol wrote:
The Arab winter is over. The men and women of the Greater Middle East are no longer satisfied by “a little life.” Now it’s of course possible that this will turn out to be a false spring. But surely it’s not beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to help reformers in the Arab world achieve mostly successful outcomes. … And who knows? Helping the Arab Spring through to fruition might contribute to an American Spring, one of renewed pride in our country and confidence in the cause of liberty.
Writing in the Weekly Standard in September of that year, Robert Kagan was so confident of the march of democracy that he proposed to throw the Jordanian monarchy under the bus after Mubarak, despite Jordan’s longstanding alliance with the United States.
Even when Islamists trampled the democrats in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, the foreign-policy consensus held strong. The Obama Administration courted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, while Republican sages argued that Islamist rule, while suboptimal, nonetheless represented progress on the road to democracy. Joshua Muravchik pooh-poohed the risks of the Muslim Brotherhood role in a September 2011 essay: “[I]t seems unlikely that the Egyptians, aroused as they are and having lived through the Nasser experience, would succumb to a new despotism. The most likely force to impose it, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been having trouble keeping its own members in line, much less the rest of the country.” Muravchik wrote:
Perhaps the most important of the region’s hopeful signs is the rebellion in Syria. Who would have thought that Syrians, of all peoples, would have earned the world’s admiration? Yet it is hard to think of many cases in which nonviolent protestors have exposed themselves to shoot-to-kill security forces for months on end without being cowed into surrender. If these brave people persevere and drive the Assad dynasty from power, that itself would go far toward making the Arab Spring a net beneﬁt for the region and the world.
But the democracy enthusiasts missed a crucial feature of the Arab Spring: The toppling of Hosni Mubarak and the uprising against Syria’s Basher Assad occurred after the non-oil-producing Arab countries had lurched into a dangerous economic decline. Egypt, dependent on imports for half its caloric consumption, faced a sharp rise in food prices while the prices of cotton and other exports languished. Asia’s insatiable demand for feed grains had priced the Arab poor out of the market: Chinese pigs were fed before Egyptian peasants, whose labor was practically worthless. Almost half of Egyptians are functionally illiterate, and its university graduates are unqualified for the global market (unlike Tunisians, who staff the help desks of French software firms). Out of cash, Egypt faces chronic food and fuel shortages and presently is on life support through emergency loans from its neighbors. The insoluble economic crisis makes any form of political stabilization unlikely.
Syria’s economic position is, if possible, even worse. Yemen is not only out of money, but nearly out of water. Large portions of the Arab world have languished so long in backwardness that they are beyond repair. After the dust of the popular revolts dissipated, we are left with banana republics, but without the bananas.
It is a salutary exercise to consider the views we hold with impassioned conviction and ask: “What would it imply if we are wrong?” Neoconservatives of all stripes believed with perfect faith that the desire for liberty is a universal human impulse, requiring only the right institutions to reinforce it. The Obama Administration believed that all cultures have equal validity and that—as Obama said early in his presidency—that he thinks of American exceptionalism the same way that the Greeks think about Greek exceptionalism. In both cases, Republicans and Democrats believe that there is nothing inherently unique about America—except that this country was the first to create the political framework that corresponds to the true nature of every human being.
Kristol’s 2011 assessment of the Arab Spring was erroneous, but he was right to link America’s state of being to events in the Middle East. We stumbled by national consensus into a strategic morass, from which there is no apparent exit, in the naïve belief that under every burka was a prospective American ready to emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis.
But if large parts of the Muslim world reject what seemed to be an historic opportunity to create democratic governments and instead dissolve into a chaotic regime of permanent warfare, we might conclude that there really is something different about America—that our democracy is the product of a unique set of precedents, the melding of the idea of covenant brought here by radical Protestants, the traditions of Anglo-Saxon democracy, and the far-reaching wisdom of our founders. To present-day Americans, that is an unnerving thought. We do not wish upon ourselves that sort of responsibility. We eschew our debts to deep traditions. We want to reinvent ourselves at will, to shop for new identities, to play at the cultural cutting-edge.
What these events might teach us, rather, is that America really is exceptional and that there is no contradiction in cultivating our democracy at home while acting elsewhere in tough-minded pursuit of our security interests.
AMLO’s Failed State
Mexico’s challenges since transitioning from the hegemonic rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) 19 years ago have remained numerous and elusive: rampant corruption; constant violation of human rights; spiralling violence; impunity; ineffective rule of law and the inability of the state to protect basic rights of its citizens. Drug violence, in particular, has undergone a rapid and intense process of diversification and popularisation while the ability of the state to deter anti-systemic forces has remained critically low. Over the last decade, the criminal field has become increasingly complex, fractured and multi-polar making it almost impossible for the authorities to respond effectively.
On the 17th of October 2019 after a shambolic operation that led to the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, son of drug Lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, El Chapo, criminal organisations loyal to the Cartel of Sinaloa effectively sieged the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa overpowering the capacity of the army and rendering the current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) security policy obsolete, just 9 months into his presidential term. The government was left with no choice but to release the prisoner in an attempt to stop the violence that had terrorised Culiacán for 6 hours.
The Cartel of Sinaloa´s victory in subduing the government is a remarkable humiliation for the current administration and exposed the utter lack of capacity of the state to quell violence across the country. It could also set a dangerous precedent: the state as captive of anti-systemic forces. This is the second even of such nature during AMLO’s presidency, just last month after protests of striking teachers spread all over the country, the president blindly agreed to all the demands of the teachers’ union. Both of these events send the dangerous message to criminal organisations and anti-state forces that the only thing needed is to commit wholesale violence in any given city and the government will agree to meet their demands.
AMLO instead of pursuing a full-on military strategy like his predecessors to try to limit the growth and scope of violence, has decided to follow a pacification security strategy that focuses on trying to resolve the social roots of insecurity. He has placed poverty as the main reason why Mexican youngsters are joining criminal organisations. He is basing his strategy on a serious misconception: Poverty causes violence. Violence is a symptom of poverty not the cause. It is easy to blur the correlation between the two, and much easier to sustain the myth that continues to plague the poor to justify a simplistic approach to violence: If people are violent, it’s usually because they are poor, because when you are poor, your opportunities to escape poverty are exceptionally limited so you need to resort to violence; therefore people who have money, will not be violent: The massive corruption that undermines political institutions in Mexico is not committed by the poor. Drug Lords are not poor either.
It is true that Mexico’s crisis manifests itself in violence, however its real roots are the widespread corruption, the weakness of the state and its institutions, and the lack of vision of incumbent administrations to place the interest of the country ahead of their own particular electoral interests. This makes any attempt to solve the endemic problems of Mexico subject to the whims of those in power. Culiacán only showed that the government can be easily outgunned, outsmarted and outmanned; it also inflicted a major blow to AMLO’s pacification strategy he defends.
Reality is that the Mexican state is failing in at least 6 of its basic functions: It is unable to guarantee internal security; it has been unable to protect the rights of its citizens; it has been ineffective in ensuring the respect of the rule of law and the administration of justice; it has failed in the promotion of the policies aimed at the betterment of the welfare of its population; it has not maintained a stable economy that would translate into improved living standards for its citizens; and the state has failed to act as the exclusive holder of the monopoly of force.
There are only 2 ways in which the current spiral of violence in Mexico can stop: Go back to the narcopeace that the country enjoyed during much of the rule of the PRI hegemonic party. This will happen when one or two criminal organisations become powerful enough to establish enough deterrence to monopolise the drug market and are able to prevent its further fragmentation. The second option is if the state somehow is able to systematically build up enough deterrence capacity to align anti-systemic forces with the government. This is however hampered by the prevalence of weak institutions and a lack of commitment to a deep state reform. This would also require more than a pseudo-leftist leader waving the flag of modernisation and change, but whose policies are dangerously steeped in a strong nationalist rhetoric that echoes the hegemonic PRI party of the 1970s.
Therefore, the most likely outcome is that AMLO, like its predecessors, will most likely disappoint. Current enthusiasm for the current administration has led to the denial of the new president’s very obvious shortcomings. Mexico has prioritised cheerleading of a messiah candidate over the slow but vital work of institution-building and state reform that is the only answer to decades of disappointment.
When Democracy Becomes the Problem: Why So Many Millions Still Support Donald Trump
“Who is to decide which is the grimmer sight: withered hearts, or empty skulls?” -Honoré de Balzac
For understanding the context of social life, Honoré de Balzac was a master. Minutely analytic in his scrutiny of society, he delicately lay bare every stratum of culture with the precision of an archeologist. Brushing the “dirt” from every “artifact,” his books combined (as Victor Hugo remarked at his funeral) “observation and imagination.”
It was an ideal but too-rare combination. Still, desperately, America needs another Balzac today. Despite so much apt criticism of an incoherent US presidency, millions of Americans continue to regard Donald Trump as an acceptable or even exemplary leader.
How can this be happening in a presumptively informed and democratic American society? In response, we could very easily throw up our hands and exclaim (together with ancient philosopher Tertullian), Credo quia absurdum, “I believe because it is absurd.” For a more serious response, however, we should first examine the wider American society from which this relentlessly conning president was drawn.
To fruitfully extend the illuminating Balzac metaphor, it is high time to “brush the dirt” from all still-revealing “artifacts.”
What might we expect to discover? At a minimum, the results of any such examination should be decipherable and straightforward. If properly executed (that is, if carried out with proper attention to the long-settled criteria of scientific investigation), we could quickly discover that Americans all-too-frequently abhor any genuine learning. Although this nation surely does place a very high value on every manner of “practical” achievement (e.g., smart phones, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, self-driving cars, automatic guns, etc., etc.), it is only because these diverse products are expected to enhance the banal circumstances of American “mass.”
In essence, before learning and intellect can ever be valued for themselves in the United States – a condition which is so clearly required for proper governance – Americans will first need to think far beyond glittering and distracting technologies.
What else might be learned from a “Balzac-like” assessment of dissembling US presidential moments? In some respects, the “Trump Phenomenon” is not utterly unique. Although less rancorous, cantankerous and blatantly foolish, more than a few incapable and dishonest US presidents have been endured during America’s endlessly acrimonious past. At the same time, especially because his own conspicuous debilities are coupled with a “nuclear button,” Donald Trump is more tangibly dangerous than any one of his injurious predecessors.
Vastly more dangerous.
Soon, however, we must return to deeper explanations. In all likelihood, almost by definition, a contemporary Balzac would look more closely at the broader society from which this American president was drawn and from which he was catapulted to nuclear command authority. Here, soberly, all must finally confront a cheerlessly trivialized social order, a generally dumbed-down amalgam of individual citizen souls yearning to “follow the crowd.”
Even in this pervasively anti-thought society, the core problem is not that the “average American” knows too little about matters of consequence.
Rather, it’s that he or she wants to know very little.
Incontestably, these same limiting traits are characteristic of Donald J. Trump. Expressed in more axiomatic mathematical terms, one is the inevitable reciprocal of the other.
Not by happenstance did Trump rise to power in a country so flagrantly proud of its historical and cultural illiteracy. The fact that this US president never reads anything – literally, never, ever – is not widely taken by Americans as a significant liability. On the contrary, the obliging American mass reserves notably few intellectual expectations for its leaders. Indeed, for many voters, ostentatiously, any obvious intellectual disinterestedness is taken as an enviable presidential asset.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher. Once upon a time, when some calculable number of Americans still sought to read challenging books and consider variously complex ideas, Ralph Waldo Emerson urged his fellow citizens to embrace “plain living and high thinking.” Today, this earlier American plea for improved personal and social equilibrium has been casually cast aside. If it were more widely recognized, Americans would then be “assured” that any well-reasoned pleas for consequential reform should only be ridiculed.
Under the aegis of President Trump’s continuously “rotating” senior appointees, matters will only get worse. Nonetheless, growing legions of US citizens acknowledge no real problem with their overtly anti-education president, even one whose proposed “solution” to gun violence in the schools is to randomly arm teachers (because they are “more loving” than police) and to “fight back” with still more guns. In part, at least, such an ominous indifference to intellect and science can be traced to America’s unrelieved barrage of crude and voyeuristic entertainments, many of which center on sadism, torture, murder and (these days especially) a cheerlessly corrosive public discourse.
Always, in the Trump Era, this discourse is laced with utterly baseless rancor and with conspicuously dreary profanity.
Always, in this American White House, science and reason represent merely an annoying impediment to free-floating human hostilities.
It’s time for candor. Earlier, Donald Trump had promised, at one of his more hideous Goebbels-style “rallies,” to protect a nonexistent Article of the US Constitution. Even then, however, his unhidden historical ignorance was glossed over by supporters as unimportant. Still, it represented another humiliating Trumpian symptom of America’s much wider and more deeply insidious national “pathology.” While his followers were generally correct that this president was entirely willing to “speak his mind,” they seem untroubled by the too-obvious corollary.
There was no underlying mind for him to speak.
“What the mob once learned to believe without reasons,” queries Friedrich Nietzsche in the Fourth Part of his Zarathustra, “who could overthrow that with reasons?”
Nietzsche, as usual, had understood splendidly, deeply. He reflected (also in Zarathustra) that “When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne.” Disregarding the millions who (“with reasons”) still refuse to renounce a glaringly unhinged presidency, Donald Trump never ever attempts to understand that American history deserves its proper pride of place.
This is because the American president is himself utterly ignorant of America’s history and founding principles.
How many Americans who energetically champion “gun rights” have paused to consider that the Founding Fathers were not expecting automatic weapons? How many can sincerely believe that the Founders would have wanted 350 million privately-held weapons, including huge private arsenals that can kill hundreds in minutes and are sometimes in the hands of citizens living with variously advanced stages of dementia?
Could any argument for “Second Amendment Rights” be more starkly disingenuous than those that put literally unimaginable sentiments into the mouths of 18th century revolutionaries?
Can anyone reserve a legitimate intellectual right to believe that the Second Amendment embraces originally-inconceivable sorts of firearm? How many “educated” Americans bother to learn that their early eighteenth-century Republic was the direct religious heir of John Calvin and the lineal philosophical descendant of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes? How many can appreciate that the fearful Hobbesian “state of nature” described in Leviathan – a “state of war” or “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes) – was deemed insufferable by the seventeenth-century English philosopher because there “…the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.”
Hobbes strongly cautioned against any social order that might wittingly or unwittingly create this “dreadful equality.” After all, following such creation, “…the life of man (would necessarily be) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Evidently lost on this president, too, is the ongoing relevance of Hobbesian thinking to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Why else would Trump be actively undermining the already-fragile nuclear arms control regime, even to the extent of abrogating critical US treaties with Russia?
One still-whispered explanation is that this US president is a real-life “Manchurian Candidate,” but a more plausible answer is that he has no intellectual grasp of how best to support American survival in the steadily nuclearizing state-of-nature.
None at all.
For Trump, going back to “nature,” both nationally and internationally, could represent a positive or welcome development. More exactly, in this president’s alarmingly disjointed views of the world, (ones wherein “might makes right”) regression could sometime become an agreeable part of “making America great again.”
Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”
There is more. This is hardly the first time in modern history that a “crowd” has loved to chant gibberish in belligerent chorus. For a particularly worrisome example, we need only recall the ritual cries of Joseph Goebbels at the Nuremberg Rallies before the War. What Goebbels did expertly instruct, with a shrill and perverse genius – an instruction now capably learned by Donald Trump – is that the bigger the lie, the more believable it can become. At first, the lie doesn’t seem to make any sense. But if one leads chants often enough against some “crooked” opponent or another, fewer will expect to find any “crookedness” on the chanting side.
Such devious “logic” makes no discernible sense. Still, it continues to work well for US President Donald Trump. Absurdly well.
“Intellect rots the brain,” warned Goebbels.
“I love the poorly educated,” echoed candidate Donald Trump in 2016.
Not much calculable difference here. Both Goebbels and Trump were effectively on the same page.
In the past, Mr. Trump, with nary a hint of painstaking analysis, blithely encouraged more countries to acquire their own nuclear weapons (e.g., Japan and South Korea). Immediately, this incomprehensible urging should have signaled a too-willing incapacity to figure out certain complex strategic problems. At a minimum, the president’s earlier encouragements were spawned by his apparent unawareness that possession of nuclear weapons does not ipso facto create credible nuclear deterrence postures.
Not at all.
In the pertinent language of nuclear strategic theory – a language with which I have personally been intimate for over fifty years – in Princeton, Washington and Jerusalem – the Trump fallacy has a specific name.
It is referenced by specialists as the “porcupine theory.”
This prickly metaphor obtains because these violators of strategic logic falsely equate nuclear weapons states with porcupines, presuming that just as the quill-endowed critters will leave each other alone in the forest, so too would nuclear weapon states steer clear of each other in the unsteady interstices of anarchic world politics.
In the end, US presidential selections are too often shaped by primal disfigurements. Many of America’s cumulative political ambitions remain integrally bound up with distressingly embarrassing simplifications and with resoundingly stupefying clichés. The elaborately welcomed appearance of Duck Dynasty as a principal “speaker” before Mr. Trump’s Republican National Convention should already have represented the reductio ad absurdum of a declining civilization.
Yet, it was not generally criticized. Not at all.
But it was consistent – and without causing any electoral disadvantage – with Donald Trump’s terminally proud aversion to refinement, syntax, intellect and meaningful learning. At even much deeper levels, it was expressive of America’s general celebration of low-level and degrading public distractions. For this US president, whose crude sentiments were unhidden, there was more palpable instructional value in television’s Roseanne than in Homer or Shakespeare.
Shouldn’t this illiterate judgment have been a sufficiently worrisome “early warning”?
Accordingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his learned generation of American Transcendentalists would have done more than winced. America’s earliest presidents, after all, were individuals of recognizable accomplishment and original thought.
In July 1776, over one short Philadelphia weekend
of dreadful heat and no modern conveniences, a then-future American president composed more
infinitely valuable prose than America’s current president (with all modern
conveniences at his ready disposal) could produce in several contiguous lifetimes.
Thomas Jefferson did not arrive at his presidency with a well-honed expertise
in “branding,” but instead with the much more appropriate
understanding that an American
“brand” should be based upon certain authentic qualities of accomplishment. These traits are inherently true, honorable and correspondingly valuable.
“One must never seek the higher man,” warned philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Zarathustra, “at the marketplace.” Years ago, America still stood for something more than buying, selling and grievously raw commerce. Years ago, the country’s national debates did not yet center on mass killing and the right to arm oneself with military-style assault weapons.
It may well be that America has never been quite ready for Plato’s “Philosopher King,” but there were at least some recallable times in its national past that philosophical debates would sound more like a mind-expanding university seminar than a self-defense course on tactical weapons.
Assuredly, American s remember their earlier presidents not for their transient commercial successes in the frenetic marketplace of goods for sale and purchase, but for their auspicious presence in an enlightening marketplace of ideas. For these still-enviable presidents, it was much more important to build a leadership legacy upon wisdom and learning than on the incessantly demeaning symbols of conspicuous consumption.
It’s not complicated. The full horror of the Trump presidency – a horror still energetically accepted by millions – begins with the intellectually unambitious American citizen; with the insistently flawed individual “microcosm.” The American electorate, the macrocosm, can never rise any higher than the amalgamated capacities of its separate members. As Nietzsche could easily have predicted, the whole of the American polity is more starkly despoiled than the aggregate sum of its component “parts.”
Ultimately, for better or for worse, every democracy comes to represent the sum total of its constituent “souls,” that is, those still-hopeful citizens who would seek some sort or other of personal “redemption.” In the deeply fractionated American republic, however, We the people – more and more desperate for a seemingly last chance to “fit in” and to “get ahead” – inhabit a vast wasteland of lost human and intellectual opportunity. Within this desiccated amalgam of cheap pleasures and abysmal entertainments, of political leaders without even a scintilla of courage or integrity, millions of “hollow men” and women remain chained to exhausting cycles of meaningless and repetitive work.
There are manifold ironies here. While generally unrecognized, this de facto servitude is sometimes felt in the United States by the very very rich as well as by the very very poor. This paradoxical “artifact” of American privilege is based upon entire lifetimes spent on grimly sterile forms of pointless personal accumulation.
Now, our most spirited national debates continue to be about guns and killing not about history, literature, music, art, philosophy, or beauty. Within this vast and predatory nether world, huge segments of our unhappy population drown themselves ritually in vast oceans of alcohol and drugs. Whether incremental or sudden, this intractable submersion is now becoming deep enough to swallow up whole centuries of national achievement and entire millennia of a once-sacred poetry.
At its core, the American “opiate addiction problem” is not fundamentally about drugs. It is, rather, the symptom of rampant individual unhappiness and an intractable social despair. The most tangible residue of this unrelieved problem can be found scattered as toxic litter over thousands of America’s beaches and playgrounds. In the end, this litter can be taken as the materially squalid overflow of a nation’s much larger social disintegration.
This coming-apart is destroying a US society that has become complicit in its own manifestly unheroic demise.
Small wonder that so many millions of Americans cling desperately to their smart phones and related electronic devices. Filled with a deepening and ultimate horror of ever having to be left alone with themselves, these virtually connected millions are visibly frantic to claim some recognizable membership in the public mass. Earlier, in the 19th century, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had already foreseen this omnivorous mass, even before the rise of social media.
“The crowd,” opined the prophetic Danish thinker, “is untruth.”
Later, in the twentieth century, in a portentously similar insight, Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’ Gassett foresaw the uniquely perilous consequences of “mass,” a term also resembling Sigmund Freud’s “horde” and quite nearly identical to Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung’s “mass.”
Whether one speaks of a “crowd,” “horde,” or mass,” the selected noun can speak volumes about how a non-reading and non- writing President Donald Trump remains able to claim the enthusiastic support of millions. In brief, while seeking such support, there is never any compelling reason for Mr. Trump to bother reconciling his policies with verifiable facts. In proudly announcing his “Made in America Week” some time back, this president took no pains to justify that his own family businesses were continuing to rely heavily on foreign-made goods and workers.
Always, in this gravely pernicious presidency, hypocrisy is undisguised.
Is this a sign of virtue?
Although virtually all respectable academic economists are convinced that Trump-generated tariffs will have deleterious effects on each American’s individual family pocketbook, this president continues to plan for some sort of “victory” in his indecipherable trade wars.
Conceptually, for this president, it’s not a difficult reconciliation to make. In any such calculations, full speed ahead, facts and logic be damned.
For the moment, at least, we Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and airless “crowd” or “herd” or “mass.” Disclaiming any residual interior life, we proceed tentatively, and in almost every palpable sphere, at the lowest common denominator. Expressed in more annoyingly recognizable terms, even our vaunted American “freedom” is becoming a contrivance.
Once again, it’s time for candor. Our simplifying American context offers a regrettable but ubiquitous “solvent.” This caustic solution dissolves almost everything substantial of intellectual or analytic consequence. In education, the once revered Western Canon of literature and art has already been replaced by more generalized emphases on “branding.” Already, apart from their pervasive drunkenness and enthusiastically tasteless entertainments, our once-sacred spaces of higher education have been transformed into a steadily rusting pipeline to ritualistic jobs and sterile vocations.
Soon, even if we should manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism – an avoidance not to be taken for granted in the rapidly unraveling Trump Era – the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps, we will finally understand that the circumstances that could send the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the disintegrating works of forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.
In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired thoughtfully about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This earlier American president had answered “yes,” but only if we first refused to stoop to join the threatening and synthetic “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, as Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty demise of broken machinery, more hideous even than the unstoppable decompositions of each person.
In all societies, as Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists had also recognized, the scrupulous care of each individual”soul” is most important. There can be a “better”American soul, and also an improved American politics,but not until we are first able to acknowledge a more prior obligation. This is a far-reaching national responsibility to overcome the staggering barriers of a Kierkegaardian “crowd” culture, and to embrace once again the liberating imperatives of Emersonian “high thinking.”
In the end, the Donald Trump presidency is “merely” the most debilitating symptom of a much deeper American pathology. In this country, the underlying disease is rather a far-reaching national unwillingness to think seriously. Left unchallenged at this rudimentary level, such reluctance could eventually transform us into the finely-lacquered corpse of a once-promising American Civilization.
Naturally, if this president should ever authorize the use of American nuclear weapons, such transformation could become instantaneous.
More than likely, the Trump presidency will notend with the bang of a catastrophic nuclear war, but even that “happy ending” could represent little more than a temporary reprieve. Accordingly, unless Americans begin to work much harder at halting their society’s steep indifference to both intellect and reason, we will recurrently have to face the ominous kinds of metamorphoses that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once famously termed a “sickness unto death.” As Americans who can still understand more than the embarrassingly empty witticisms stitched into red baseball caps, the truest work should begin not with politics directly (all politics are ultimately just reflection), but with very deliberate and purposeful fixing of their private “selves.”
The American democracy, as we may yet learn from Thomas Jefferson, a US president of true intellectual accomplishment, was never expected to flourish without an informed citizenry. Once this is finally understood and accepted, an imperiled nation could more properly guard itself against another patently unfit American president. It follows that there could not possibly be any more important “brand” of national awareness.
Recalling classic French author Honoré Balzac, “withered hearts” and “empty skulls” need not be mutually exclusive. Rather, most notably in the scarcely hidden case of a now- deteriorating American polity, the first can flow lethally and directly from the second. Moreover, the impacted ambit of corollary suffering could quickly extend far beyond US borders to other and distant countries, and include major wars or genocide.
Such would be a plausible legacy of a
declining American democracy increasingly detached from reason and learning.
 There are many compelling components to any such allegation, but the most serious of these concerns an American president’s authority and capacity to initiate nuclear war. In this connection, several recent articles by the author expressly deal with this overriding concern. See, for example, Louis René Beres, http://www.jurist.org/forum/2017/08/louis-rene-beres-trump-nuclear.php See also: https://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2016-05-11/possible-trump-presidency-showcases-fatal-flaw-in-nuclear-command-safeguard. Professor Beres is the author of twelve published books dealing with nuclear command decisions, including Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980), and, in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: https://thebulletin.org/2016/08/what-if-you-dont-trust-the-judgment-of-the-president-whose-finger-is-over-the-nuclear-button/
 At the July 4 2019 celebration in Washington, this president promised “brand new Sherman tanks” and instructed that in the 18th century the Revolutionary War army had “taken control of all national airports.” (No Sherman tanks have been built in the last seventy years).
 A somewhat analogous fallacy in domestic politics is revealed in the recommending of easy private access to guns, and, correspondingly, of arming teachers to deter school shootings. To be sure, it makes little sense to argue (as does Donald Trump) that a determined and deeply disturbed individual with access to multiple firearms would be best deterred by a “loving teacher” with a handgun concealed in her/his desk drawer or pocketbook. It is also worth noting that in several thousand years of western philosophy, a key hallmark of a civilized society has been the “centralized force monopoly of the community,” not the “every man for himself” vigilante system now seemingly favored by a sitting American president.
 One of this writer’s first scholarly assessments of the “porcupine” fallacy was published in Parameters: The Journal of the US Army War College (Department of Defense) in September 1979. See; Louis René Beres, “The Porcupine Theory of Nuclear Proliferation: Shortening the Quills,” Parameters, Vol. IX, No. 3, September 1979, pp. 31-37. More recently, see also Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 2nd edition 2018.
 On US President Donald Trump’s ideas of art and beauty, see: Louis René Beres at Oxford University Press: https://blog.oup.com/2017/09/aesthetics-politics-donald-trump-beauty/https://blog.oup.com/2017/09/aesthetics-politics-donald-trump-beauty/
 However ironic, Sigmund Freud had maintained a general antipathy to all things American. In essence, he most objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism,” and its seemingly corollary commitment to a disturbingly crude form of materialism. America, thought Freud, was very evidently “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.
A self-inflicted wound: Trump surrenders the West’s moral high ground
For the better part of a century, the United States could claim the moral high ground despite allegations of hypocrisy because its policies continuously contradicted its proclaimed propagation of democracy and human rights. Under President Donald J. Trump, the US has lost that moral high ground.
This week’s US sanctioning of 28 Chinese government entities and companies for their involvement in China’s brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang, the first such measure by any country since the crackdown began, is a case in point.
So is the imposition of visa restrictions on Chinese officials suspected of being involved in the detention and human rights abuses of millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.
The irony is that the Trump administration has for the first time elevated human rights to a US foreign policy goal in export control policy despite its overall lack of concern for such rights.
The sanctions should put the Muslim world, always the first to ring the alarm bell when Muslims rights are trampled upon, on the spot.
It probably won’t even though Muslim nations are out on a limb, having remained conspicuously silent in a bid not to damage relations with China, and in some cases even having endorsed the Chinese campaign, the most frontal assault on Islam in recent history.
This week’s seeming endorsement by Mr. Trump of Turkey’s military offensive against Syrian Kurds, who backed by the United States, fought the Islamic State and were guarding its captured fighters and their families drove the final nail into the coffin of US moral claims.
The endorsement came on the back of Mr. Trump’s transactional approach towards foreign policy and relations with America’s allies, his hesitancy to respond robustly to last month’s missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, his refusal to ensure Saudi transparency on the killing a year ago of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his perceived empathy for illiberals and authoritarians symbolized by his reference to Egyptian field marshal-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as “my favourite dictator.”
Rejecting Saudi and Egyptian criticism of his intervention in Syria, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave the United States and Mr. Trump a blunt preview of what they can expect next time they come calling, whether it is for support of their holding China to account for its actions in Xinjiang, issues of religious freedom that are dear to the Trump administration’s heart, or specific infractions on human rights that the US opportunistically wishes to emphasize.
“Let me start with Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Erdogan said in blistering remarks to members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP). “Look in the mirror first. Who brought Yemen to this state? Did tens of thousands of people not die in Yemen?” he asked, referring to the kingdom’s disastrous military intervention in Yemen’s ruinous civil war.
Addressing Mr. Al-Sisi, Mr. Erdogan charged: “Egypt, you can’t talk at all. You are a country with a democracy killer.” The Turkish leader asserted that Mr. Al-Sisi had “held a meeting with some others and condemned the (Turkish) operation – so what if you do?”
The fact that the United States is likely to encounter similar responses, even if they are less belligerent in tone, as well as the fact that Mr. Trump’s sanctioning of Chinese entities is unlikely to shame the Muslim world into action, signals a far more fundamental paradigm shift: the loss of the US and Western moral high ground that gave them an undisputed advantage in the battle of ideas, a key battleground in the struggle to shape a new world order.
China, Russia, Middle Eastern autocrats and other authoritarians and illiberals have no credible response to notions of personal and political freedom, human rights and the rule of law.
As a result, they countered the ideational appeal of greater freedoms by going through the motions. They often maintained or erected democratic facades and payed lip service to democratic concepts while cloaking their repression in terms employed by the West like the fight against terrorism.
By surrendering the West’s ideological edge, Mr. Trump reduced the shaping of the new world order to a competition in which the power with the deeper pockets had the upper hand.
Former US national security advisor John Bolton admitted as much when he identified in late 2018 Africa as a new battleground and unveiled a new strategy focused on commercial ties, counterterrorism, and better-targeted U.S. foreign aid.
Said international affairs scholar Keren Yarhi-Milo: “The United States has already paid a significant price for Trump’s behaviour: the president is no longer considered the ultimate voice on foreign policy. Foreign leaders are turning elsewhere to gauge American intentions… With Trump’s reputation compromised, the price tag on U.S. deterrence, coercion, and reassurance has risen, along with the probability of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation.”
Mandarin Oriental Announces Luxury Hotel in Nanjing
Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group has announced that it will manage a luxury hotel in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province...
Will CPEC be a Factual Game Changer?
Pakistan’s economy is shrinking, and shrink economy always needs reforms, reforms either political, social or economic can be an upright...
What they say about first impressions
In my family, the men are in a league of their own. They are authoritative, speak their mind, they’re elders...
Four Regional Development Banks Launch Joint Report on Livable Cities
Rapid urbanization has provided most cities in the world with opportunities to provide more sustainable, vibrant, and prosperous centers for...
Indonesia’s new electric car may disrupt its relations with Japan
Authors: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, Dimas Permadi, and Ramadha Valentine President Joko Widodo has recently signed a presidential regulation on electric...
OECD and European Commission join forces to further support structural reforms in European countries
The OECD and the European Commission’s Structural Reform Support Service (SRSS) sealed a new agreement today in Paris that will...
Turkey and the time bomb in Syria
The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape...
Americas3 days ago
When Democracy Becomes the Problem: Why So Many Millions Still Support Donald Trump
Intelligence3 days ago
Strategy of Cyber Defense Structure in Political Theories
Newsdesk3 days ago
World Economic Forum 50th Annual Meeting in Davos: Defining Stakeholder Capitalism
Science & Technology2 days ago
US Blacklist of Chinese Surveillance Companies Creates Supply Chain Confusion
Europe2 days ago
The return of a “political wunderkind”: Results of parliamentary elections in Austria
Economy1 day ago
Modi’s India a flawed partner for post-Brexit Britain
Defense2 days ago
Revitalising the Quad
Economy2 days ago
A more effective labour market approach to fighting poverty