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Donald Trump’s War on Truth and Justice: Crude, Unprecedented and Still Accelerating

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“To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”[1]Plato, The Republic

For US President Donald J. Trump, policy making by imposed chaos has become normal. Again and again, we see that this president’s decisions are founded upon manipulation and contrivance; inevitably, his choices(both conspicuous and inconspicuous) injure American interests and ideals….and at the same time. Should they be left insufficiently opposed, such injuries will impair the most rudimentary expectations of American national security and international justice.

There is more. These markedly grave impairments continue on several intersecting (and sometimes synergistic) levels.[2] Most ominously, there have been satellite images confirming that North Korea is moving ahead aggressively with its ballistic missile program. As corollary, we may now also learn, prima facie, that Mr. Trump’s earlier reassurances about “peace” with North Korea were not merely silly fabrications, but also deliberate falsifications. Prospectively, there are corresponding nuclear consequences for America’s close allies in South Korea and Japan, some of them potentially existential.[3]

“We fellin love,” said Trump after first meeting Kim Jung Un in Singapore a few years back. But by the most basic standards of prudent policy-making, any such alleged “romance” must remain beside the point. In any event, as the recent and recurrent missile tests by Pyongyang reveal, Trump’s declared love is glaringly unrequited.

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers.  “I believe because it is absurd.” With great deliberateness, systematically, this president studiously avoids any knowledge-based judgments. Another recent example is Trump’s blaming of California “mismanagement” for the raging wildfires in that state (“They should have raked….”). The president also abrogated this country’s legal obligations under the INF treaty, a destabilizing termination that has already shattered codified American promises at international and domestic legal levels, This is apt to be followed by US rejection of New Start treaty obligations.[4]

 Of course, even before launching this particular presidential assault on legal order, international law and national law, Trump formally withdrew the United States from the July 2015 Iran deal (the JCPOA), a multilateral agreement that the UN’s IAEA had several-times reaffirmed was being respected by Tehran.

There are, to be sure, all-too-many additional examples of US President Trump undermining America’s indispensable legal and moral obligations. All of these examples, some of them plausibly irrational,[5]reflect the unsupportable core assumption that “attitude, not preparation” is what matters in diplomatic negotiations. For some unimaginable reason, moreover, Jared and Ivanka (the president’s “hidden geniuses” according to Trump’s previous UN ambassador) have not yet been able to fashion an impressively coherent plan to save the Middle East.[6]

What a surprise. Naturally, we are routinely advised, the failure must be someone else’s fault. Perhaps Hillary. Using Trump “logic,” that conclusion would seem to be a frequent and generally applicable remedy.

There is more. A self-declared “very stable genius,” US President Donald Trump still wages a bewildering war against his own intelligence agencies and national legal institutions. What remains detached from any competent national assessment is Trump’s underlying abhorrence of intellect and learning. Should anyone doubt this perilous loathing, one need just “tune in” to the latest presidential “rally.”

“I love the poorly educated,” intones Trump to his assembled acolytes.

“Intellect rots the brain,” said Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

Not much erudition here; just a cultivated incoherence.

Donald Trump is no scholar. To be fair, no one should ever have expected anything else. But this president is notoriously weak on most vital matters of law and justice, so much so that he believes manipulating US foreign aid to injure his domestic political foes is altogether reasonable and permissible, whatever the deleterious effects upon another state’s most vulnerable populations. A conspicuous case in point is the extortion-like leverage seemingly exerted against an already-fragile Ukraine.

Unsurprisingly, this particular Trump dereliction was intended to benefit not only the American president himself, but also his regularly and strangely venerated Cold War II “rival,” Vladimir Putin.[7]

Though not generally known, international law remains an integral part of the law of the United States. Inter alia, among other authoritative sources, it says this explicitly in the Constitution, the very same document that Mr. Trump’s supporters are fond of citing in their recurrent reverential references to “gun rights.” Various express codifications can be discovered at Article 6 (the “Supremacy Clause”) and at certain corresponding U.S. Supreme Court decisions (see particularly the Paquete Habana, 1900 and Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic, 1981).

There is more. Article 6 of the US Constitution clarifies that “…all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land….” The United States is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which contains (at Article 33) the basic principle of non-refoulement:  “No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Nonetheless, from the beginning, under Donald Trump’s fitfully-released and often self-contradictory executive orders, impermissible expulsions and returns have become “official” policies of the United States. Earlier, “ground-zero” for such evident presidential manipulations had been the refugee “caravan” and its alleged “invasion.” At that time, Trump not only ignored Russian-Iranian-Syrian war crimes, but openly praised the principal architect of these derelictions, Vladimir Putin.

There is more. Most recently, against the wishes of his most senior military, Trump issued pardons for certain US soldiers accused of egregious war crimes. Among other derelictions, these pardons undermined the peremptory expectations of the laws of war or humanitarian international law. By definition, therefore, they also represented stark violations of duly “incorporated” US law.

Still, despite his serious violations of US and international law, Trump is not the genuinely underlying “pathology.” Rather, his law and government-violating presidency is“merely” the symptom of a much wider and more deeply systemic disorder. This disorder is an insistently anti-intellectual American society,[8] one that frowns upon virtually any original expressions of logical explanation or independent thought.[9]

                When the infant children of desperate refugees were being housed in cages, this president, tanned and bemused, journeyed to Florida or New Jersey foryet another round of golf. Significantly, though generally unknown to Americans, the due process clauses of the US Constitution protect all “persons,” and not just “citizens.”[10] Jurisprudentially, this authoritative scope of competence – one drawn from fully invariant Natural Law or Higher Law bases of the American Republic – is “beyond legal question.”[11]

                In life and law, truth is exculpatory. Derivatively, we are not witnessing a normal and law-abiding American presidency. Accordingly, we must now finally inquire:”Is this an excusable and remediable legal deformation, or is it rather an execrable dress rehearsal for astill-widening chaos”?[12]

                It’s high time for candor. What Donald Trump values most in both national and international politics is chaos.  A deeply troubling affection, it is impossible to reconcile such curious affections with even the most rudimentary legal expectations of US government or law.

At very basic levels of explanation, Trump’s feverishly loyal supporters, who still number in the tens of millions, yearn for the tangible warmth of “belonging, ” of being part of a perpetually shrill and shrieking crowd, of enjoying the numbingly false pleasures bestowed by deceptively simplistic explanations. Always, after all, complexity is anathema to those who loathe serious thought. It is excruciatingly daunting for those who would reject intelligence and intellect in virtually any form, whether by offering loud belligerent chants or more cautiously, softly, almost sotto voce.[13]

“Intellect rots the brain,” cautioned Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at the 1935 Nuremberg rallies.

“I love the poorly educated,” offered candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential campaign.

These crude sentiments are not altogether dissimilar. Palpably, though many years apart, they still resonate warmly with each other, across the years. Inter alia, both display a species of “truth” that corrupts absolutely any hint of history or science.

This truth is “literally nothing but the shadows of images.”


[1]Plato’s theory, offered in the fourth century B.C.E, seeks to explain politics as an unstable realm of sense and matter, an arena formed and sustained by half-truths and distorted perceptions.  In contrast to the stable realm of immaterial Forms, from which all genuine knowledge must be derived, the political realm is dominated by the uncertainties of the sensible world.  At the basis of this political theory is a physical-mental analogy that establishes a correlation between the head, the heart and the abdomen, and the virtues of intelligence, courage and moderation. 

[2] On these levels, the “whole” of such Trump-induced impairments will exceed the simple sum of its “parts.” In other words, the cumulative impact of these presidential impairments will actually be far worse than what first meets the eye.

[3] For authoritative early accounts by this author of nuclear war effects, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[4] See Louis René Beres, “Nuclear Treaty Abrogation Imperils Global Security,” Yale Global Online November 1, 2018  https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/nuclear-treaty-abrogation-imperils-global-security

[5]Recalling the 20th-century German philosopher, Karl Jaspers: “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.” This insight can be found in Jaspers’ “Historical Reflections” on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

[6] The Middle East is not the only task placed upon Jared Kushner by his father-in-law. He has also been given a lead role in fashioning US trade policy, reorganizing thegovernment of the United States, reforming the entire American criminal justice system and overseeing construction of the border wall.

[7]Acknowledging the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting the world system to become increasingly bipolar. For early conceptual writings by this author on the global security implications of any such expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[8]Along these lines, 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.

[9] See pertinent essay by this writer at The Daily Princetonian:http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education

[10] The founding fathers of the United States – believing firmly in natural law and natural rights – held that the human rights expectations of the Declaration of Independence must apply to all peoples, for all time, and can never be properly reserved solely to Americans.

[11] Under international law, the idea of a Higher Law – drawn originally from the ancient Greeks and ancient Hebrews – is contained, inter alia, within the principle of jus cogens or peremptory norms. In the language of pertinent Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969: “A peremptory norm of general international law….is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of States as a whole, as a norm from which no derogation is permitted, and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.”

[12] Although composed in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan still offers an illuminating vision of chaos in world politics. Says the English philosopher in Chapter XIII, “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery:” During chaos, a condition which Hobbes identifies as a “time of War,” it is a time “…where every man is Enemy to every man… and where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” At the time of writing, Hobbes believed that the condition of “nature” in world politics was less chaotic than that same condition existing among individual human beings -because of what he called the “dreadful equality” of individual men in nature being able to kill others – but this once-relevant differentiation has effectively disappeared with the global spread of nuclear weapons.

[13] “Reason,” warns the philosopher Karl Jaspers, “is confronted again and again with the fact of a mass of believers who have lost all ability to listen, who can absorb no logical argument, and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd….” (See: Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time, Archon Books, 1971, p. 78).

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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