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The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Years Conflict with Iran

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Relations with Iran have challenged every U.S. administration since the 1979 revolution, and all U.S. presidents since Jimmy Carter have had to address the regime’s attempts to export its Islamist revolution abroad, its fierce opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process,

and its dogged nuclear quest. As President Barack Obama begins a second term in office, it would serve the president and those advising him well to truly understand the mindset of the revolutionary regime in order to avoid repeating past mistakes.

warThe task of untangling that history, facilitated by such books as Kenneth Pollack’s The Persian Puzzle[1] and Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin’s Eternal Iran,[2] has now received a major boost with David Crist’s excellent new title The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Years Conflict with Iran.[3] Based on twenty years of archival research and four hundred interviews, it is a serious contribution to our understanding of the turbulent relations between Washington and Tehran during the past three decades. Crist highlights both the immaturity of the revolutionary regime in Tehran and errors in judgment by Washington that have led to numerous missed opportunities to normalize relations over the years.

The book’s most important shortcoming, however, is its lack of primary source material in the Persian language. In most cases, this material would have reinforced Crist’s arguments, yet in a few important instances, this deficiency leads to questionable conclusions. In particular, his judgments about the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88)—the formative experience shaping the minds of the current crop of Iranian decision makers—would have greatly benefited from the use of such sources. Its proper understanding offers insights into the Islamic Republic’s strategy today that might help avert looming catastrophes.

The Iraqi Invasion

According to official Islamic Republic historiography, the war with Iraq began on August 22, 1980, when Iraqi forces conducted a surprise invasion of Iranian territory.[4] Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself made a point of stressing the element of surprise when addressing ambassadors of Islamic countries in October 1980: “The usurping government of Saddam attacked Iran from the sea, air, and on the ground without any excuse acceptable to the governments of the world and without prior information or warning of conquest.”[5]

285Notwithstanding Khomeini’s public pronouncement, he had been warned of an imminent Iraqi invasion well in advance. Crist perceptively cites a meeting on October 1979 between CIA officer George Cave and then-foreign minister Ebrahim Yazdi, in which such a warning was given.[6] Cave also instructed Yazdi to reactivate a signals intelligence collection station in Ilam to “find out what Iraq is up to,” but Yazdi dismissed the advice saying: “They wouldn’t dare!”[7]

Persian language primary source material reveals other early warnings ignored by the supreme leader. In a September 22, 1991 interview with the weekly Payam-e Enghelab, Ahmad Khomeini, son of the grand ayatollah, disclosed that Shapour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of the shah, had reached out to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris through his chief of staff. When denied an audience with Khomeini, Bakhtiar’s chief of staff met with Ahmad and warned him of suspicious movements by Iraqi forces detected by Iran’s military intelligence.[8] Ayatollah Khomeini dismissed Bakhtiar’s warnings as a scare tactic.

On June 15, 1980, Iran’s first post-revolutionary president, Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, sent a letter to Khomeini warning of suspicious movements of Iraqi forces.[9] A September 19, 1980 letter from the president is even more revealing:

I don’t know what happened at your residence last night and what the army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] discussed with you. But I find it necessary to report this: … One month ago I sent you the exact same commanders who passed you information about today’s conspiracy. Afterward you told me that you didn’t believe in such intelligence. Today the intelligence has been proven right, and there is a strong possibility of an extensive battle from the Turkish border to Pakistan.[10]

Why did Yazdi dismiss the CIA’s alert? Why did Khomeini ignore Bakhtiar’s, Bani-Sadr’s, and the army commanders’ reports on developments on the Iraqi side of the border? And why did the grand ayatollah isolate Iran diplomatically by continually threatening its neighbors with “export of the revolution” at a time when he was perfectly aware of the Iraqi threat?[11]

Crist correctly concludes that the Iraqi invasion provided Khomeini with an opportunity to consolidate his rule.[12] This is further confirmed by a 2008 interview in Persian between political scientist Sadeq Zibakalam and former Iranian president Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In the course of the conversation, Zibakalam told Rafsanjani: “My conclusion is that deep down, the imam [Khomeini] was happy about the war. He never said so directly, but deep down he thought that it was not us who wanted to attack the Baath regime of Iraq, but now that they have attacked us, we will pursue it [the war] to the very end.” To which Rafsanjani responded: “I agree with your view. But it is not true that it was deep in his [Khomeini’s] heart. He would also say that aloud. He did not hide it. … The war gave us a path to solve the regional problems and build our nation. We all said this, and the imam too was of this belief.”[13]

Thanks to the Iraqi invasion of Iran, Khomeini was able to rally a fragmented nation around the revolutionary leadership and hoped to use the war to overthrow the Baath regime in Baghdad. The revolutionary leadership also used the war instrumentally, to keep the remnants of the shah’s army busy at the front and effectively out of politics. Finally, the invasion gave the Islamist regime the necessary excuse for suppressing popular demands for political freedoms by imposing a state of emergency. The war, indeed, proved a “divine blessing” for the regime—one actively sought and called for by Khomeini.[14]

Why the War Continued after 1982

On April 3, 1982, Saddam Hussein offered a cease-fire, which was dismissed by Tehran. Not long thereafter, on May 24, Iranian forces liberated the border city of Khorramshahr, ending Iraqi occupation of Iranian territory. Why then did the war continue?

According to Crist, a “divided Iranian leadership” debated its next steps in the war, but “[n]o one advocated accepting the cease-fire.” He claims that Ahmad Khomeini pressed for continuing the war on Iraqi soil, but then-president Ali Khamene’i, foreign minister Ali-Akbar Velayati, and Rafsanjani (then parliamentary speaker) were “less sanguine about invading Iraq proper.” Most importantly, he suggests that to some degree, Khomeini himself opposed an invasion of Iraq.[15]

Access to Persian language documents corroborates this. In his September 22, 1991 interview with Payam-e Enghelab, Ahmad Khomeini revealed,

The imam believed that it was better to end the war, but those responsible for the war said that we had to move toward Shatt al-Arab so that we could demand war reparations from Iraq. The imam did not agree with this line at all and used to say that if … one didn’t prevail in the war now, this war couldn’t be ended at all. We must continue this war to a certain point. Now that Khorramshahr had been liberated, it was the best time to end the war.[16]

Rafsanjani’s memoirs also stress Khomeini’s opposition, conveyed through his son on March 26, 1982, and at a meeting with military commanders on June 10, 1982.[17] According to Rafsanjani, three days after the liberation of Khorramshahr, the grand ayatollah argued against invasion before the Supreme Defense Council, stating that

(1) After invading Iraq, the Arab countries will support Baghdad more overtly and will display Arab extremism.

(2) The people of Iraq have not supported Saddam until now because he was on our soil. But should we invade Iraq, they will support him; we should strive not to drive the Iraqi people to oppose us.

(3) Should we invade Iraq, the Iraqi people will be harmed. Thus far, those Iraqis who have not fought have not been harmed.

(4) The world will present us as invaders and will subject us to propaganda pressure.[18]

If Grand Ayatollah Khomeini was so adamantly opposed to an invasion of Iraq, how and why did the war drag on for another six years? Who were the supporters of the continuation of the war?

Persian language primary source material shows that it was the Revolutionary Guards’ leaders who managed to persuade an unwilling grand ayatollah to continue the war. And in contrast to Crist’s view, they were supported in this position by Rafsanjani himself.

In his April 18, 1982 diary entry, Ayatollah Rafsanjani writes:

The country’s warlike atmosphere and the high expectations of the people, especially the combatants, are such that they ridicule such propositions [of peace negotiations] and do not consider immediate but conditional withdrawal enough and criticize those responsible for the war effort … [as to] why they don’t immediately enter Iraqi soil.[19]

Further, Khomeini withdrew his opposition since the “armed forces made solid military and technical arguments, and the imam, in a limited and conditional way, capitulated to their view.”[20]

In his memoirs and interviews, Rafsanjani has deftly avoided clarifying his own position concerning the continuation of the war after Khorramshahr, but Mohsen Rezaei, then-commander of the Revolutionary Guards, shed light on this in his own war memoirs:

Following the liberation of Khorramshahr, the imam said: “You stay at the border and fight here” … [but] Rafsanjani said that we should move beyond the international borders. Should we desire to end the war, we need to have something we can use in the [cease-fire] negotiations.[21]

Rezaei also claimed that Rafsanjani had urged the military to occupy Basra, to be used as a bargaining chip.[22]

Different proponents of continuing the war had their own motives for doing so, but the Revolutionary Guards had the strongest. When Rezaei was appointed commander on August 24, 1981, there were only “20 to 30,000 members of the Guards and the Basij [its closely allied paramilitary force].”[23] That number increased to a quarter of a million members by 1988 with the lion’s share of Iran’s military budget allocated to it. This development would not have been possible had it not been for the continuation of the war. The IRGC essentially sacrificed Iran’s national interest and hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives for the sake of its corporate and organizational expansion.

Apart from this, Khomeini’s acquiescence in the IRGC’s demands for continuing the war after Khorramshahr’s liberation illustrates the clerics’ dependence on the IRGC to suppress domestic opposition. Beyond its historical relevance, this mechanism may also in part explain Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i’s position on the nuclear crisis today.

Why the War Ended

In The Twilight War, Crist echoes the widely held belief that the accidental and tragic July 3, 1988 downing of Iran Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes convinced the Iranian leadership to end the war with Iraq.[24] Yet while Khomeini’s July 20, 1988 acceptance of the cease-fire agreement happened in the immediate wake of the civilian airliner tragedy,[25] Persian primary source material reveals that the decision had been maturing for quite some time prior to the incident.

On June 3, 1988, Rafsanjani was appointed commander-in-chief. In his account, Ayatollah Abd al-Karim Mousavi Ardebili, the judiciary’s chief, President Khamene’i, Ahmad Khomeini, and Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi had all concluded by June 1988 that “they [the West in general and the United States in particular] will not allow us to win in the war.”[26] A number of Revolutionary Guards commanders endorsed this view, and on June 10, 1988, Ali Shamkhani, then-Revolutionary Guards ground forces commander, urged Rafsanjani to end the war.[27]

On June 16, Rafsanjani met with Khamene’i, Mousavi, and Ahmad Khomeini and concluded that Iran would either have to mobilize all the resources of the state for the war effort or end the conflict. Despite their passing this on to the grand ayatollah, Khomeini still opted for total war. However, barely a month later, on July 14—eleven days after the downing of the Iranian airliner—Khomeini decided to end the war.[28] Yet rather than being impelled by the civilian disaster, this decision was based on a letter Khomeini had received from Rezaei in which the Revolutionary Guards commander confessed there would be no victory in the next five years unless almost unlimited resources were to be directed to the IRGC and the military and unless Tehran developed a nuclear bomb and managed to force the United States to leave the Persian Gulf.[29] Since none of these options seemed realistic, Khomeini chose to drink from the poisoned chalice and end the war with Iraq. Thus, the IRGC had the final say in both continuation of the war after 1982 and its end in 1988.

Conclusions

Iranian archives remain closed to scholars, and few individuals involved in the shaping or execution of Tehran’s policies are willing to risk their lives giving interviews. Outside of Western intelligence experts with access to classified documents, there is little that academics or nongovernment analysts can rely on for accurate information. In spite of the lack of Persian source material, Crist’s Twilight War is among the best works we have.

What is most sobering is that twenty-four years after the end of the war with Iraq, the leadership of the Islamic Republic faces many of the same challenges seen during that conflict. The regime in Tehran combines an incredible degree of unpreparedness for conflict with the greatest degree of provocation against regional countries and great powers alike. Threats to annihilate Israel, rivalry with Sunni Arab states, systematic provocations against the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with its clandestine nuclear program, have left Tehran largely isolated and friendless in a dangerous world. The regime hopes to rally a fragmented nation around the flag by maintaining Iran in a permanent state of crisis, just as it did during the Iran-Iraq war. Yet in the midst of the crisis, political factions, in particular the Revolutionary Guards, sacrifice the welfare of the Iranian nation on the altar of their own narrow interests, following the exact path as in the 1980s.

In the meantime, the Iranian regime’s occasional offers of rapprochement, such as the much debated May 4, 2003 fax to the U.S. State Department,[30] carry little weight in reality. Civilian leaders may have sounded out Washington at a time when the U.S. military surrounded Iran, but were the officers of the Revolutionary Guards on the same page? Even if they were, would Tehran have honored its obligations once the vulnerabilities of the U.S. positions in Afghanistan and Iraq had become apparent? On the whole, one cannot help but think that the fundamental obstacle between the two states is the nature of the regime in Tehran. Absent external enemies, how else can Iranian leaders legitimize their repression of internal opposition?

The balance between bellicosity and faux rapprochement is delicate. One day Tehran will cross the red lines of Washington and its allies thereby igniting a disastrous war, which is likely to prove another poisoned chalice waiting for Iranian leaders to drink.

Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

[1] Random House, 2005.
[2] Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
[3] New York, Penguin, 2012.
[4]Aghaz-e Jang-e Tahmili-ye Eragh Alayh-e Iran Va Hafteh-ye Defa’-e Moghaddas,” Markaz-e Asnad-e Enghelab-e Eslami website, Tehran, accessed Sept. 13, 2010.
[5] Moassesseh-ye Tanzim Va Nashr-e Asar-e Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, CD-ROM, Tehran, vol. 13, p. 276.
[6] “Toward an International History of the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988: A Critical Oral History Workshop,” Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., July 19, 2004; David Crist, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Years Conflict with Iran (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 87.
[7] Crist, The Twilight War, p. 87.
[8] Moassesseh-ye Tanzim Va Nashr-e Asar-e Emam Khomeini, Majmou-eh-ye Asar-e Yadegar-e Emam—Hojjat al-Eslam va Al-Moslemin Hajj Seyyed Ahmad Khomeini (N.P., 1996), p. 715.
[9] Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, Nameh-ha Az Agha-ye Bani-Sadr Be Agha-ye Khomeini va Digaran (Frankfurt Am Main: Enghelab-e Eslami Zeitung, 2006), p. 55.
[10] Ibid., p. 156.
[11] See Khomeini’s Dec. 17, 1979 interview quoted in Moassesseh-ye Tanzim Va Nashr-e Asar-e Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, vol. 11, p. 290; idem, Dec. 19, 1979 interview quoted in Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, vol. 11, p. 336; idem, Jan. 5, 1980 interview with Time quoted in Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, vol. 12, p. 37; idem, Mar. 21, 1980 new year address quoted in Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, vol. 12, p. 202.
[12] Crist, The Twilight War, p. 89.
[13] Sadeq Zibakalam and Fereshteh Sadat Ettefaghfar, Hashemi Bedoun-e Routoush (Tehran: Rowzaneh, 2008), p. 277.
[14] Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami, Gozari Bar Do Sal Jang (N.P.: Daftar-e Siasi-ye Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami, n.d.), p. 21.
[15] Crist, The Twilight War, p. 94.
[16] Khomeini, Majmou-eh-ye Asar-e Yadegar-e Emam, pp. 716-17. The same claim was also made in the memoirs of Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khaterat-e Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri (Los Angeles: Ketab Corp., 2001), p. 330.
[17] Fatemeh Hashemi, ed., Pas Az Bohran. Karnameh va Khaterat-e Hashemi Rafsanjani Sal-e 61, (Tehran: Daftar-e Nashr-e Ma’aref-e Enghelab, 2000), pp. 40, 137.
[18] Zibakalam and Ettefaghfar, Hashemi Bedoun-e Routoush, pp. 285-6.
[19] Hashemi, Pas Az Bohran. Karnameh, pp. 68-9.
[20] Zibakalam and Sadat Ettefaghfar, Hashemi Bedoun-e Routoush, p. 286.
[21] Mohsen Rezaei Mir-Qaed, Jang Be Revayat-e Farmandeh, Pezhman Pourjabbari, ed. (Tehran: Bonyad-e Hefz-e Asar va Nashr-e Arzesh-ha-ye Defae-e Moqaddas, 2012), pp. 140-1.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid., p. 42.
[24] Crist, The Twilight War, pp. 370-1.
[25] Moassesseh-ye Tanzim Va Nashr-e Asar-e Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye Hazrat-e Emam Khomeini, vol. 21, p. 95.
[26] Rezaei, Jang Be Revayat-e Farmandeh, p. 289.
[27] Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Payan-e Defae—Aghaz-e Bazsazi, Ali-Reza Hashemi, ed. (Tehran: Daftar-e Nashr-e Maaref-e Enqelab, 2012), p. 163.
[28] Ibid., pp. 171-2, 210.
[29] Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khaterat-e Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, pp. 571-2.
[30] Crist, The Twilight War, p. 476.

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AMLO’s Failed State

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza

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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 thearrest 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. His 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 toplague 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 underminespolitical institutions inMexico 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 prevent 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 only 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.

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When Democracy Becomes the Problem: Why So Many Millions Still Support Donald Trump

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“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.[1]

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.”

Ever yearning.

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.[2]

“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.”[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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?

Hardly.

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,[6] 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.


[1] 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/

[2] 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).

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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/

[6] 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.

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A self-inflicted wound: Trump surrenders the West’s moral high ground

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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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.”

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