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To Ease the Horror: U.S. Elections, World History and the Withering Promise of Life on Earth

Marlon Brando in Apocalypse now

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“The horror, the horror,” mumbles the Marlon Brando character in Apocalypse Now. Though merely cinematic, this sentiment exclaims a brutally truthful observation: While each individual death must remain an integral part of species survival – after all, the laws of biology are not reversible by human intention or intervention –  we need not actively hasten the process.  This corrosive process includes war, crime, terrorism, genocide and overall neglect.

               “Overall neglect?” This last term of indictment is plainly not “parallel” to the other four listed transgressions. It represents a sort of composite dereliction, one concerning evident disregard of both science (especially climate change) and human dignity (especially inequalities of human rights and material well-being). In Donald Trump’s United States, scientific neglect now extends to the microbial assaults of viral plague or Covid19.[1] Ominously, the cumulative impact of these fearful harms is plausibly synergistic.

               This is not just another handy linguistic label. It means, by definition, that an injurious systemic “whole” is tangibly greater than the sum of its “parts.”[2] From the standpoints of both American and global survival, therefore, such synergies could prove urgent and determinative.

               What next? Soon, if it may be assumed that we should all prefer survival to disappearance, certain basic questions must be raised. Above all, we should ask promptly and candidly,”How much more pain and suffering can this long- tormented planet endure?” And as a corollary query: At what point do the inhabitants of any so-called advanced democracy willingly accept a more serious citizen responsibility than simple vote casting. This vital but limited validation is now being offered only after various devastating agendas of existential harms have already been put into place.

               At some point, all citizens must do much more. At a minimum, they must finally own up to a fundamental citizen obligation; that is, to restore intellect, education and genuine thought to their always-deserved pride of place.[3]

               These are not silly questions. A democracy constructed upon the inherently shallow preferences of “mass” is always a contradiction in terms. The “mass man,” we may learn from twentieth-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses (1930), “learns only in his own flesh.”  In the similarly clarifying words of Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carl G. Jung’s The Undiscovered Self (1957), “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.”

               A timely and pertinent example of such corrupted “learning” is Donald Trump, an intentionally dissembling US president who has no use for science or any disciplined analytic thought. For him, among his other notable personal debilities, reading is extraneous to understanding and policy; that is, it represents an  altogether evident waste of time. In brief, whatever Trump needs to know about North Korea or China or Russia or the Corona virus can be gleaned more casually, effortlessly, from his own private feelings or “gut instincts.”

               Unsurprisingly, for the citizens of his substantially suffering and imperiled country, this manner of visceral calculation represents a prescription for  even greater national despair.

               There is more. To rise above mass[4] presents thesingle most important survival challenge before us all, a core obligation that comes before answering all other seemingly crucial questions about politics, technology, ideology, and education. In universities, where intellectual direction and fashion are now largely determined by numbing mimicry and a raw commerce – a condition now being exacerbated by viral “plague” –  our students will finally need to learn something  primal and incontestable: An individual’s personal success can make genuine sense only if the larger world itself has a foreseeable future.

               Ironically, this all too obvious conclusion has been conveniently pushed aside; perhaps it has never even been considered.

                Still, learning and survival are not necessarily all that complicated. This unhappy planet,  reflecting its myriad parts, faces stubbornly insidious problems. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” observed the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and “everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” No one can any longer reasonably doubt the applicability of these portentous lines to current human life. In this particular connection, the “rich” nations are often in the very same ambit of mortal vulnerability as the “poor.”

               Like Covid19, a nuclear war could just as easily snuff out the lives of a privileged few as the unfortunate many.[5]

                There is more. Today, expanding global deterioration and chaos is much more a palpable symptom of pathology than an actual disease. Virtually all world politics hides an inconspicuous truth. This is the ubiquitous and determined unwillingness of individuals to seek serious meaning and comfort within the authenticating margins of science and intellect.[6]

                In consequence, America’s upcoming presidential election, though indispensable to liberate the beleaguered nation from a crowd-based president,  a quintessential “mass man,” will have  little serious bearing on the basic issues of human survival. This is because even if we can rid ourselves of this one specific source of deterioration, the forces that led to his selection in the first place would still likely be in place.

               In the end, says Goethe, we depend upon creatures of our own making. Ultimately, what is needed to fix a broken planet must lie far beyond the fragmented unities and feuding tribes of  life on earth. Only when we are finally allowed to see ourselves as parts of a single species, an insight closely understood by Sigmund Freud,[7] can we humans credibly entertain any hopes for progress and survival.

               On the surface, encouraging “diversity” is nice, fair, and most assuredly democratic. Indisputably, such encouragement always makes ethical, social, industrial, and political sense.  It is a good thing in itself. Nonetheless, it is not enough. What is also needed is a concurrent awareness of human oneness, of an undifferentiated species that finally acknowledges its core interrelatedness and interdependence.

               In principle, at least, well-intentioned emphases on diversity need not represent a contradiction of our overriding species singularity, but this would require an explicit and prior affirmation of diversity as an intermediate step toward an eventual human solidarity. To be sure, all of this is far too much to expect from the current inhabitants of planet earth. At the same time, human progress if generally incremental, and longer term visions must be built upon short-term improvements. “The visionary,” observes Federico Fellini, the Italian film director, “is the only realist.”

               There is more. In one form or another, tribal conflict has always driven world affairs. Without a clear sense of an outsider, of an enemy, of an inferior, of an “other,” most people will feel altogether lost. Still drawing our critical sense of self-worth from membership, in the state, or the faith, or the race -we humans still cannot satisfy even the most minimal requirements of coexistence.

               This incapacity is simply not tolerable or sustainable.

               Surprisingly, our species’ very considerable progress in technical and scientific realms has no recognizable counterpart in basic human relations. Sure, we can fly to the moon, take extraordinary pictures of Mars, and prepare to put cars on the rod without drivers, but we still can’t get beyond the sheer ecstasy of demeaning and slaughtering “others.” For now, as for millennia before, the greatest pleasure of civilization is still the “freedom” to  oppress hordes who allegedly don’t “belong.”  

                The veneer of civilization continues to be razor thin.[8]  To wit, substantial portions of humankind remain dedicated to sacrificial practices that are conveniently disguised as “revolution,” “national liberation,” or “national self-determination.” 

               Our entire system of international relations and international law[9]  is rooted in a deeply etched pattern of  “horror.” The sanitizing name that we assign to this endlessly recurring pattern is “history.” Perversely, within its seamless litany of grievous harms, it can sometimes seem “rational” to defile and destroy those who would have the temerity to express contrarian beliefs and affiliations.

               Such calculations of “rationality” need not be even marginally decent or moral, but that raises a separate issue entirely.

                The calculated destructiveness of human “tribes” has been most evident when one tribe encounters another that is seemingly seeking alternative paths to immortality. This becomes a fundamental problem in world politics because in this broadest possible realm of inter-communal activity, there can be no greater power than immortality. Though almost never deeply understood by statesmen or politicians, a presumptive power over death must represent the absolutely preeminent form of human capacity.

               Seeing requires distance. Up close and personal with leader-fed gibberish, entire civilizations glance greedily over mountains of fresh corpses, and announce, without apology, that “life is good.”  Set in motion by “herds” or “crowds” that flee serious analytic thought, our competitive mass societies continue to suck out the very marrow of human wisdom, reverence, and compassion. In essence, this is done in a desperately oblivious dash to outdo and outlive all others.[10] 

               In this frenzied adversarial rhythm, breathlessness is de rigueur. Accordingly, the cascading horror of life on earth creates a deafening noise, but it is still possible to listen for more transient sounds of grace and harmony.  To begin, however, we must first pay closer attention to our most intimate human dispositions of empathy and compassion. In any concluding analysis, these private feelings could prove more important to species survival than the comfortingly mysterious promises of individual immortality.[11]

               With regard to human durability, the citizens remain grievously unprepared.  From a survival standpoint, the critical time for politics is already over. To survive, together, all of us, as interlinked members  of one embracing species, must learn to rediscover a life that is detached from “tribal” manipulations. Today, in the United States,  these manipulations include variously contrived promises of  “greatness.

               Now, for Americans in particular, it is only in the midst of this suitably awakened human spirit that they may finally learn something beyond the suffocating clichés and defiling banalities of current presidential politics.

                Too many still turn away from  wisdom amid the persisting  triumph of pain, death, and decomposition. The spreading horror of life on earth can never be undone by improvingeconomics, by building larger missiles, by naively fashioning unenforceable international treaties, or even by standing steadfast for “democracy.” Inevitably, easing the horror requires all peoples to see themselves as inter-linked parts of an organic whole.

                Traditionally combative expressions of  belligerent nationalism can never be authentically patriotic. Even among the most evident antinomies of this world, any truly promising spirit of patriotism must first acknowledge (1) the core singularity or “oneness”[12] of our species[13] and (2) the corollary interdependence of all nation-states.[14] In the end, any serious and decent forms of national interest must affirm that all human beings are indissolubly interconnected.

               From the standpoint of  rapidly converging planetary dangers,[15] we can learn ways to ease the “horror,” but only if we can first learn to reject unworthy national leaders.

               Resoundingly.


[1] Not only Trump himself, but his many servile imitators, have magnified the harms of Covid19..An obvious example is Florida Governor Ron Di Santis, who has so wittingly abandoned science in favor of a presumptively more palatable political gibberish. For this inexcusable leadership abandonment, many in Florida are now paying with their lives.

[2] See, by this author, at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School:  https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/  See also, by Professor Beres, at Modern War Institute, West Point:  https://mwi.usma.edu/threat-convergence-adversarial-whole-greater-sum-parts/

[3] Back in the 17th century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked prophetically, in his justly-celebrated Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought….It is upon this that we must depend….Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics, Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing from Descartes – strives to define a comprehensive theory of learning and knowledge.

[4] The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would prefer the term “herd;” Sigmund Freud, a Nietzschean-derivative “horde;” and Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard a “crowd.” In essence, all these terms have the same conceptual referent; that is, a coming-together of individuals that is easily manipulable by political  leaderships, and that represents a subversion of once-latent potentialities for excellence and progress. Famously, Kierkegaard sums up the problem with this succinct declaration: “The crowd is untruth.”

[5] For informed assessments of nuclear war consequences by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd. ed., 2018);   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 MA:  Lexington Books, 1983);  Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington MA;  Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, ed.,  Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[6]  In terms of Jose Ortega y’ Gasset’s 20th century classic, The Revolt of the Masses (1930): “The mass does not wish to share life with those who are not of it. It has a deadly hatred of all that is not itself.”

[7] Sigmund Freud 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 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.

[8] Fyodor Dostoyevsky comments about such aspects of civilization: “What is it in us that is mellowed by civilization? All it does, I’d say, is to develop in man a capacity to feel a greater variety of sensations. And nothing, absolutely nothing else. And through this development, man will yet learn how to enjoy bloodshed. Why, it has already happened….Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty.” See: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground 108 (Andrew R. MacAndrew, trans., New American Library, 1961)(1862).

[9] One must also remember here that pertinent obligations of international law are also generally obligations of US law. In the precise words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).Moreover, the specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[10] See, on this point,  Ernest Becker, Escape From Evil (New York: The Free Press, 1975). In a similar vein, says Otto Rank in his Will Therapy and Reality: “The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the Sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.”

[11] Says the twentieth-century German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952); “There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason but for mystery – not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational….”

[12] Apropos of such unassailable “oneness,”  we may learn from Epictetus, the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher, “You are a citizen of the universe.” A still-broader idea of human singularity followed the death of Alexander in 322 BCE; with it came a coinciding doctrine of “universality” or interconnectedness. By the Middle Ages, this political and social doctrine had fused with the notion of a respublica Christiana, a worldwide Christian commonwealth, and Thomas, John of Salisbury and Dante were looking upon Europe as a single and unified Christian community. Below the level of God and his heavenly host, all the realm of humanity was to be considered as one. This is because all the world had been created for the same single and incontestable purpose; that is, to provide secular background for the necessary drama of human salvation. Here, only in its relationship to the universe itself, was the world considered as a part rather than a whole. Says Dante in De Monarchia: “The whole human race is a whole with reference to certain parts, and, with reference to another whole, it is a part. For it is a whole with reference to particular kingdoms and nations, as we have shown; and it is a part with reference to the whole universe, which is evident without argument.” Today, the idea of human oneness can and should be fully

justified/explained in more purely historical/philosophic terms of human understanding.

[13] Says the Talmud: “The earth from which the first man was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.”

[14] “The existence of ‘system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” says French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man, “no  matter whom….Each element of the cosmos is positively woven from all the others….”

[15] To the extent that such dangers may be genuinely apocalyptic, the underlying idea of apocalypse seems to have been born in ancient Iran (Persia), specifically, with the Manichaeism of the Zoroastrians. At least one of these documents, The War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, found in a Qumran cave, is a comprehensive description of Jewish military tactics and regulations at the end of the Second Commonwealth. The “Sons of Light” were expected to prevail in battle against the “Sons of Darkness” before the “end of days,” and the later fight at Masada was widely interpreted as an apocalyptic struggle between a saintly few and the many wicked.

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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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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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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Indictment of Trump associate threatens UAE lobbying success

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This month’s indictment of a billionaire, one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the United Arab Emirates highlights the successes and pitfalls of a high-stakes Emirati effort to influence US policy.

The indictment of businessman Thomas  J. Barrack, who maintained close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed while serving as an influential advisor in 2016 to then-presidential candidate Trump and chair of Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee once he won the 2016 election, puts at risk the UAE’s relationship with the Biden administration.

It also threatens to reduce the UAE’s return on a massive investment in lobbying and public relations that made it a darling in Washington during the last four years.

A 2019 study concluded that Emirati clients hired 20 US lobbying firms to do their bidding at a cost of US$20 million, including US$600,000 in election campaign contributions — one of the largest, if not the largest expenditure by a single state on Washington lobbying and influence peddling.

The indictment further raises the question of why the Biden administration was willing to allow legal proceedings to put at risk its relationship with one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, one that last year opened the door to recognition of Israel by Arab and Muslim-majority states.

The UAE lobbying effort sought to position the Emirates, and at its behest, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed’s counterpart, Mohammed bin Salman, at the heart of US policy, ensure that Emirati and Saudi interests were protected, and shield the two autocrats from criticism of various of their policies and abuse of human rights.

Interestingly, UAE lobbying in the United States, in contrast to France and Austria, failed to persuade the Trump administration to embrace one of the Emirates’ core policy objectives: a US crackdown on political Islam with a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed views political Islam and the Brotherhood that embraces the principle of elections as an existential threat to the survival of his regime.

In one instance cited in the indictment, Mr. Barrack’s two co-defendants, a UAE national resident in the United States, Rashid Al-Malik, and Matthew Grimes, a Barrack employee, discussed days after Mr. Trump’s inauguration the possibility of persuading the new administration to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a designated foreign terrorist organization. “This will be a huge win. If we can list them. And they deserved to be,” Mr. Al-Malik texted Mr. Grimes on 23 January 2017.

The unsuccessful push for designating the Brotherhood came three months after Mr. Barrack identified the two Prince Mohammeds in an op-ed in Fortune magazine as members of a new generation of “brilliant young leaders.” The billionaire argued that “American foreign policy must persuade these bold visionaries to lean West rather than East… By supporting their anti-terrorism platforms abroad, America enhances its anti-terrorism policies at home.”

Mr. Barrack further sought to persuade America’s new policymakers, in line with Emirati thinking, that the threat posed by political Islam emanated not only from Iran’s clerical regime and its asymmetric defence and security policies but also from the Brotherhood and Tukey’s Islamist government. He echoed Emirati promotion of Saudi Arabia after the rise of Mohammed bin Salman as the most effective bulwark against political Islam.

“It is impossible for the US to move against any hostile Islamic group anywhere in the world without Saudi support…. The confused notion that Saudi Arabia is synonymous with radical Islam is falsely based on the Western notion that ‘one size fits all,’ Mr. Barrack asserted.

The Trump administration’s refusal to exempt the Brotherhood from its embrace of Emirati policy was the likely result of differences within both the US government and the Muslim world. Analysts suggest that some in the administration feared that designating the Brotherhood would empower the more rabidly Islamophobic elements in Mr. Trump’s support base.

Administration officials also recognized that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt constituted a minority, albeit a powerful minority, in the Muslim world that was on the warpath against the Brotherhood.

Elsewhere, Brotherhood affiliates were part of the political structure by either participating in government or constituting part of the legal opposition in countries like Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Indonesia.

The affiliates have at times supported US policies or worked closely with US allies like in the case of Yemen’s Al Islah that is aligned with Saudi-backed forces.

In contrast to UAE efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood is crushed at the risk of fueling Islamophobia, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of, if not the world’s largest Muslim organization which shares the Emirates’ rejection of political Islam and the Brotherhood, has opted to fight the Brotherhood’s local Indonesian affiliate politically within a democratic framework rather than by resorting to coercive tactics.

Nahdlatul Ulama prides itself on having significantly diminished the prospects of Indonesia’s Brotherhood affiliate, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), since the 2009 presidential election. The group at the time successfully drove a wedge between then-President Susilo Yudhoyono, and the PKS, his coalition partner since the 2004 election that brought him to power. In doing so, it persuaded Mr. Yudhoyono to reject a PKS candidate as vice president in the second term of his presidency.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s manoeuvring included the publication of a book asserting that the PKS had not shed its links to militancy. The party has since failed to win even half of its peak 38 seats in parliament garnered in the 2004 election.

“Publication of ‘The Illusion of an Islamic State: The Expansion of Transnational Islamist Movements to Indonesia’ had a considerable impact on domestic policy. It primarily contributed to neutralizing one candidate’s bid for vice president in the 2009 national election campaign, who had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said militancy expert Magnus Ranstorp.

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