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Still Asking the Wrong Questions: A Perilous American Error



“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”-Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952)[1]

How did America get to this fragile place?

Often, history deserves pride of place. For Americans, much remains to be learned from the rise of European Nazism in the 1930s.[2]  German Philosopher Karl Jaspers captures the essence of such prospective learning in his classic work, Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952): No nation can ever fix its core problems in the realm of politics.

               There is more. Taken by themselves, no election outcomes, however well-intentioned or reliable, can compensate for a pervasively “unphilosophical spirit.”

               Supporting evidence abounds. Even now, Americans generally fail to look meaningfully behind the news. What matters most is not whether Donald Trump will run again (he won’t), but identifying the retrograde forces that created such a dissembling presidency in the first place. This is not “just” a question of narrow historical interest. It must now be asked systematically and dialectically[3] to avoid a second and more lethal American retreat into anti-Reason.

               Donald J. Trump, though conspicuously law-ignoring and anti-science, was never America’s underlying problem. This “original” problem has always been something less tangible. It is  a society and polity willing to abandon intellect and justice for imaginations of conspiracy and patriotism.[4] Now, to prepare capably for an otherwise portentous future, Americans must look more closely at the broader society from which this president was drawn.

                Ultimately, as we must learn, the problem is not that the “average American” knows too little about matters of national consequence. It is that he or she wants to know very little.[5] Until Americans can finally escape from such a limiting lack of vision, another Donald Trump (e.g. Ted Cruz; Ron DeSantis; Josh Hawley) will be pacing in “the wings.”[6]

               There is more. Americans generally exhibit expectations of human rationality, an always-problematic expectation that is bound to disappoint. After all, the “true world,” as we may learn from Albert Camus and certain other classical thinkers (e.g., Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard and Freud) is not predictably rational, and disorienting divergences between expectation and reality can often produce outcomes “worse” than simple irrationality.

               They can produce “the absurd.”

               In Albert Camus’ deft clarification (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942 (Fr.): “The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”[7] Human need is effectively immutable. But human silence, an expression of absurdity, is a matter of volition.

A nation celebrating “common sense” over erudition

               Elucidating explanations are inter-related. Americans have typically valued a “practical” education. It was not by mere happenstance that Donald J. Trump rose to power in a country so openly proud of its sweeping historical and cultural illiteracy.[8] The fact that this president never read anything himself – literally, never, ever – was not generally taken as a liability. On the contrary, even today, mass publics in the United States reserve few intellectual expectations for America’s national leaders.[9] Still worse, obvious intellectual debility is often enviable.

               Prima facie, it is taken as a presidential asset.[10]

               Though grotesque and cumulatively lethal, the assertion is indisputable.

               Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.”[11]

               Next time, the “silence of the world” may not be “unreasonable.”

                Once upon a time, when some still-calculable number of Americans sought to consider mind-challenging books and annoyingly complex ideas (these two activities are “force multiplying” and gainfully reciprocal), Ralph Waldo Emerson urged his fellow citizens to embrace “plain living and high thinking.”[12] Today, this earlier philosophic plea for personal and social equilibrium (one trait shapes the other) has been too-casually cast aside. We ought also to be forewarned that any such sensible plea would be widely ridiculed.

               Under the aegis of former US President Donald Trump, legions of citizens saw no problem with suffering an anti-education president. In part, such ominous indifference to intellect and science could be traced to this country’s unrelieved barrage of crude and voyeuristic distractions, many of which currently center on sadism, torture and mass murder. Matters were not helped by Trump’s continuously open encouragements of corrosive public discourse, encouragements laced with incoherent argument, baseless rancor and a very dreary profanity.

                Finally, it’s time for candor. Very early in his defiling presidency, Donald J. Trump promised, at one of his Goebbels-style “rallies,”[13] to protect a nonexistent Article of the US Constitution. But even then, his unhidden historical ignorance was glossed over as minor or unimportant.  Nonetheless, it did represent another humiliating symptom of a wider and more insidious national “pathology.”

               The key question surfaces. What was this collective “disease,” one as virulent as Covid19? Above all, it was a presidential “victory” for “mass man.” “What the mob once learned to believe without reasons,” queries Friedrich Nietzsche in the Fourth Part of Zarathustra, “who could overthrow that with reasons?”

               Friedrich Nietzsche already understood. He had reflected (also in Zarathustra) that “When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne.”[14]  Disregarding the millions who “with reasons” still refused to renounce his glaringly debased presidency, Trump never argued that American history should warrant serious study. Unsurprisingly, such study could have helped undo the lethal sovereignty of “mass man.”

               Ironies abound. How many Americans who energetically champion “gun rights” today have ever paused to consider that the Founding Fathers never expected modern automatic weapons? How many adrenalized “patriots” can sincerely believe that the Founders would have wanted 350 million privately-held weapons with rapid-fire capabilities, including many in the hands of citizens living in varying stages of derangement?

               There is more. Could any argument for “Second Amendment Rights” be more plainly disingenuous than those putting unimaginable sentiments into the mouths of 18th century revolutionaries? Perhaps there is one. In the last year of his administration, Trump asserted at a Goebbels-style “rally” that, during the American Revolution, Washington ‘s army “took control of all national airports.” This was by the same president who had earlier urged use of American nuclear weapons against hurricanes.

               Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               What do Americans really know about their country’s cultural and intellectual beginnings? How many current citizens realize that their eighteenth-century Republic was the direct religious heir of John Calvin and a lineal philosophical descendant of both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes?[15] How many can appreciate that the fearful Hobbesian “state of nature” in Leviathan – a “state of war”[16] or “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes) – was deemed insufferable by the philosopher because therein “…the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.”

               How man have even heard of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke?

               Hobbes strongly cautioned against any social order that might (wittingly or unwittingly) create this “dreadful equality.” After all, following any such creation, “…the life of man (would necessarily be) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

               Ominously, for President Trump, going back to “nature,” both nationally and internationally, could represent only a positive or welcome development. More exactly, in his disjointed Realpolitik view of the world, “might makes right” could have become a core part of “making America great again.”  

Becoming a “crowd.”[17]

               This is not the first time in modern history that a “crowd” has loved to chant in belligerent chorus. For one worrisome example, we need only recall the ritual chants of Joseph Goebbels heard at the Nuremberg Rallies before the War. What Goebbels did instruct, with a shrill and perverse genius – a lesson seemingly well learned by Donald Trump – is that the bigger the lie, the more believable it can become.

               “Cobid19 will disappear by itself.” “Injections of household disinfectant should be considered as therapy.” At first, such phrases don’t seem to make any sense, but if a leader chants often enough against “crooked” opponents and “fixed” elections, fewer will expect to see any “crookedness” on the chanting side.

               Such “logic” makes no evident sense. It is contrary to every recognizable standard of correct reasoning.  Still, to the end, it continued to work well for former President Donald Trump.

               “Intellect rots the brain,” warned Goebbels.

               “I love the poorly educated,” intoned Donald Trump.

               Not much difference here. As malignant planners of very precisely calculated deceptions, both screamers were “on the same page.”

               During his tenure, Mr. Trump, with nary a hint of any painstaking analysis, blithely encouraged additional countries to acquire their own nuclear weapons (e.g., Japan and South Korea). At a minimum, the former president’s misconceived encouragement had been spawned by his unawareness that possession of nuclear weapons does not automatically create credible deterrence. In the language of nuclear strategic theory – a language with which this author has been quite intimate for over fifty years in Washington, Geneva and Jerusalem –[18] the relevant fallacy has a suggestive name.

               It is called the “porcupine theory.”[19]

               Here, violators of strategic logic falsely equate nuclear weapons states with porcupines, assuming that because porcupines (presumably) leave each other alone in the forest, so too would nuclear weapon states steer clear of each other in world politics.[20] One problem with such metaphoric thinking concerns prospects of inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. Another concerns an always-present risk of decisional irrationality.[21]

The problem of simplifications

               In the end, America’s presidential selections are too often shaped by primal disfigurements. Many of this country’s cumulative political ambitions remain integrally bound up with embarrassing simplifications and stupefying clichés. The elaborately welcomed appearance of Duck Dynasty as principal “speaker” before Mr. Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention already represented the reductio ad absurdum of a declining civilization.

               Yet, it was not generally criticized.

               Why not? Because it was fully consistent – without causing tangible electoral disadvantage – with Donald Trump’s terminally proud aversion to refinement, syntax, intellect, law, and learning in any conceivable form[22] At deeper levels,  it was expressive of America’s more general celebration of low-level and degrading public entertainments. For this former president, there was more instructional value in Roseanne than in Shakespeare.

               For millions of Trump’s fellow citizens, that demeaning preference was no cause for criticism.

                Among many others, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his generation of American Transcendentalists would have winced. Our earliest presidents, after all, were individuals of meaningful accomplishment and at least some 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 the country’s president with all modern conveniences could produce in several contiguous lifetimes. Thomas Jefferson did not arrive at his presidency with a well-honed expertise in casino gambling or financial manipulations but with an elevating background in agriculture, architecture, science and philosophy.

               “One must never seek the higher man,” warned philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Zarathustra, “at the marketplace.” Years ago, it seems, America still stood for something more than buying, selling and an abundantly raw commerce. Years ago, America’s national debates did not center on killing and the right to arm oneself with military-style assault weapons. It may be that this country has never been ready to embrace Plato’s “Philosopher King,”[23] but there were discernible times in America’s national past that its philosophical debates sounded more like a mind-expanding university seminar than a self-defense course on tactical weapons.

               Americans remember their earlier presidents not for their transient commercial successes in a frenetic marketplace of goods screaming to be bought or sold, but for their historically auspicious presence in a mind-focused marketplace of ideas. For these increasingly-enviable presidents, it was more important to build a leadership legacy upon wisdom and learning than to show off shallow symbols of personal wealth. Donald Trump did not create “conspicuous consumption,” but neither did his electoral defeat put an end to such patterns.

The wider background

                The full horror of the Trump presidency – a horror still cheerfully accepted as “progress” by millions – began with the intellectually unambitious American citizen, that is, with the insistently flawed “microcosm.” The American electorate can never rise any higher than the amalgamated capacities of its members. Now, by virtue of “synergy,” the whole of the American polity has become more despoiled than the aggregate sum of its “parts.”

                Ultimately, for better or for worse, every democracy must come to represent the sum total of its constituent “souls,” those still-hopeful citizens who would seek some sort or other of personal “redemption.”[24] In today’s deeply fractionated American republic, however, We the people – more and more desperate for a seemingly last chance to “fit in” and/or “get ahead” –   inhabit a vast wasteland of lost human and intellectual opportunity. Within this desiccated society of cheap and abysmal entertainments, of political leaders without a scintilla of courage or any hint of integrity,[25] millions of “hollow men” (and women) remain chained to exhausting cycles of unsatisfying work.

               Manifold ironies are wrapped together here. While generally unrecognized, this de facto servitude is sometimes felt by the very very rich as well as the very very poor. This reflects a paradoxical “artifact” of American privilege, one that is based upon entire lifetimes spent on empty personal goals and sterile forms of accumulation.

                Given what most Americans are familiar with in their own daily lives, the country’s most spirited national debates continue to be about guns and killing, and not about history, literature, music, art, philosophy, or beauty.[26] Within this vast and predatory nether-world, huge segments of a nation’s unhappy population cheerlessly drown themselves in oceans of alcohol and drugs. Incrementally, this submersion, relentless and intractable, is becoming deep enough to swallow up entire centuries of national achievement and a once-sacred poetry.

               At its core, America’s “opiate addiction problem” is not about drugs per se. It is about rampant individual unhappiness and irremediable social despair. Now, moreover, the tangible residue of this problem can be found scattered as toxic litter over thousands of America’s beaches and playgrounds. In the end, this litter will instruct as the squalid symbol of a larger social disintegration, of a society that is now expansively complicit in its own unheroic demise.

                Small wonder that so many millions of Americans cling so 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,[27] these virtually connected millions are visibly frantic to claim some still-recognizable membership in the leveling public mass. Earlier, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had foreseen and understood this omnivorous mass, long before the “rise” of social media.

               “The crowd,” opined the prophetic 19th century thinker, “is untruth.”

               Later, in the twentieth century, and in a portentously similar insight, Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’Gasset foresaw the perilous consequences of “mass,” a term 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 former president remains able to claim the enthusiastic support of millions. While seeking such support, there was never any compelling reason for Mr. Trump to bother reconciling his so-called policies with any verifiable facts. In this pernicious presidency, hypocrisy was always unhidden and undisguised.

               At the end of his criminalized presidency,[28] Donald J. Trump called openly for armed insurrection against the United States. Nonetheless, rather than generate a reaction of nation-wide horror and disbelief, this once-incomprehensible call elicited far-reaching exclamations of support. When these many millions of Americans stood proudly against the US Constitution and against the rule of law – allegedly as “patriots”- the extant political system provided no viable mechanisms of remediation.[29] Though flagrantly beyond the pale, such destabilizing citizen behavior is sometime apt to be repeated or even accelerated, especially as long as a major US political party (the party of President Donald Trump) chooses to remain a witting “co-conspirator.”

Looking ahead: “a world in stupor lies”[30]

                For the moment, at least, Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and airless “crowd” or “herd” or “mass.”  Disclaiming any residual interior life, “We the People” proceed tentatively, and in almost every palpable sphere, at the lowest common denominator. Expressed in more easily grasped terms, even America’s vaunted “freedom” is becoming a contrivance.

                The simplifying American context offers a regrettable but ubiquitous solvent, a caustic solution dissolving almost everything of intellectual or analytic consequence. In education, the once revered Western Canon of literature, art and music has been replaced by more generalized emphases on “branding.” Already, apart from their pervasive drunkenness and enthusiastically tasteless entertainments, the once-sacred spaces of higher education have been transformed into a steadily rusting pipeline to ritualistic jobs and utterly numbing vocations.

               Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism – an avoidance not to be taken for granted –  the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned.[31] 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 all societies, as Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists also recognized, the scrupulous care of each individual”soul” is what is most important. There can be a “better”American soul,[32] and also an improved American politics,but not until we are first able to acknowledge a more starkly prior obligation. This obligation references a national responsibility to overcome the always-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 was “merely” the most debilitating symptom of a much deeper American pathology, one that has yet to be conquered. In the United States, the most genuinely underlying disease remains a sweeping national unwillingness to think seriously. Left unchallenged, such reluctance could eventually transform the floundering nation into the lacquered corpse of a once-promising American Civilization.

                The ill-founded Trump presidency did notend with a catastrophic nuclear war, but even that “happy ending” represents just a temporary reprieve. Accordingly, unless citizens begin to work much harder at halting American society’s steep indifference to intellect, reason and law, they will have to face precisely the ominous kinds of metamorphoses Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously termed a “sickness unto death.” For those Americans who can still understand more than the empty witticisms stitched into red baseball caps, the truest work should begin not with politics directly (all politics are ultimately just reflection, or “epiphenomenal”)[33], but with a deliberate and purposeful fixing of private “selves.”[34]

               The American democracy, as we may yet learn from Thomas Jefferson, was never expected to flourish without an informed citizenry. Once this unassailable reasoning is properly understood and accepted, a still-imperiled nation could better guard itself against another grievously unfit president. The next time we are faced with an aspiring American dictatorship of empty slogans and tawdry deeds, a barbarous insurrection might quickly become more significantly destructive.

               Could there possibly be any more important sort of national awareness?[35] Evidence abounds that millions of Americans remain comfortably submerged in a common and recalcitrant unconsciousness, a stultifying paralysis that may make plausible every kind of authoritarian rule. To suitably combat this expressly an-democratic and anti-American inclination, responsible citizens will need to do much more than simply prepare to vote. The “enemy,” as foreseen by philosopher Karl Jaspers, is never merely a particular political leader, however malignant and dishonest.

                America’s true enemy is a pervasively “unphilosophical spirit,” one that desperately “wants to know nothing of truth.” There is no imaginable path to coexistence with such a primal adversary. We can’t live with such a perilous spirit indefinitely. To assume anything else means we are still asking the wrong questions.

[1]Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarks prophetically in 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 contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing additionally from Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge. And early in the 20th century, Guillaume Apollinaire observed: “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” See: “The New Spirit and the Poets” (1917). See also, by this author, Louis René Beres

[2]This writer, Louis René Beres, came to the United States as a post-Holocaust refugee from Switzerland, in April 1947. He arrived, together with his parents, on liberty ship SS Marine Falcon, sailing to New York City from the French port of Le Havre.

[3] Dialectical thinking originated in Fifth Century BCE Athens, as Zeno, author of the Paradoxes, had been acknowledged by Aristotle as its inventor. In the middle dialogues of Plato, dialectic emerges as the supreme form of philosophic/analytic method. The dialectician, says Plato, is the special one who knows how to ask and then answer vital questions.

[4] During the “Trump Era,” such abandonment led to major crimes against international as well as national law. Concerning violations of Nuremberg-category rules, see (by former Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz:)

[5] Recall, in this connection, Bertrand Russell’s timeless warning in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death.”

[6]The mass man or woman is a primitive and universal being, one who has “slipped back,” in the words of 20th century Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y’ Gusset, “through the wings, on to the age-old stage of civilization.” This meaning of Ortega’s “mass man” is essentially the same as C. J. Jung’s “mass man” and Soren Kierkegaard’s “crowd person.”

[7]See also, by this author, Louis René Beres at Horasis (Zurich):

[8] On America’s long and injurious history of anti-intellectualism, see,  by this author, Louis René Beres:

[9]This may be due in part to diminishing impacts of higher education.

[10]America’s Founding Fathers, however, were often genuine intellectuals, In the words of distinguished historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning who used their wide reading in history politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s magisterial Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1964), p. 145.

[11]As literary genre, the “theatre of the absurd” is highlighted by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Adamov and Jean Genet. One can discover pertinent intellectual roots in the earlier writings (and paintings) of Surrealism, Zurich Dada and – especially for Albert Camus – Franz Kafka. The core problem here is not that absurdity is per se murderous or problematic, but that it can produce such harms if first allowed to become “malignant.”

[12]See Emerson’s classic essay, “Self Reliance” (1841).

[13]See by this author, Louis René Beres:

[14]See, by this author at Yale Global, on “Courage: A Reading List,” Louis René Beres:

[15] The idea of Natural Law/Higher was integral to philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, and therefore to the creation of US domestic law. Natural Law also figured importantly at the post-world War II Nuremberg Trials. In his opening statement to the International Military Tribunal, US Chief Prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson commented: “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.” William Blackstone’s Commentaries, the starting point of all US law, recognize and reaffirm that all law “results from those principles of natural justice, in which all the learned of every nation agree….” See William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, adapted by Robert Malcolm Kerr (Boston; Beacon Press, 1962), Book IV, “Of Public Wrongs,” p. 62 (Chapter V., “Of Offenses Against the Law of Nations.”) The first volume of Blackstone’s Commentaries appeared in 1765, the fourth in 1769. An American edition of the full work was printed in Philadelphia in 1771-72

[16] Under authoritative international law, which is generally part of US law, the question of whether or not a “state of war” exists between states is too often ambiguous. Traditionally, it was held that a formal declaration of war was necessary before any true state of war could be said to exist. Hugo Grotius divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not. (See Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace, Bk. III, Chs. III, IV, and XI.) By the start of the twentieth century, the position that war can obtain only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties was codified by Hague Convention III. This treaty stipulated, inter alia, that hostilities must never commence without a “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.) Currently, formal declarations of war could be tantamount to admissions of international criminality because of the express criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law. It could, therefore, represent a jurisprudential absurdity to tie any true state of war to prior declarations of belligerency. It follows, further, that a state of war may exist without any formal declarations, but only if there should exist an actual armed conflict between two or more states, and/or at least one of these affected states considers itself “at war.”

[17]Says Soren Kierkegaard in “Point of View, `That Individual,’ “It is in every man’s power to become what he is, an individual. From becoming an individual, no one, no one at all, is excluded, except he who excludes himself by becoming a crowd.” Later, the Danish philosopher adds: “The most ruinous evasion of all is to be hidden in the crowd in an attempt to escape God’s supervision of him as an individual….” Significantly, though religion-based on its face, this argument stands just as formidably on secular moral foundations.

[18]For several years, Professor Beres was a regular contributor to BESA (Israel);Israel Defense (Tel Aviv) and Chair of “Project Daniel” (Jerusalem, PM Sharon): See, Louis René Beres,;; and

[19] A somewhat analogous fallacy in domestic politics is revealed in easy private access to guns and in arming teachers to deter school shootings. It makes little sense to argue (as did Donald Trump) that a disturbed individual with access to firearms would best be deterred by a “loving teacher” with a concealed handgun. Also worth noting is that in several thousand years of western philosophy, a hallmark of a civilized society has been “the centralized force monopoly of the community,” not an “every man for himself” vigilante system favored by former US President Donald Trump.

[20] 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 Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 2nd edition 2018.

[21]Recalling 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 complex insight can be found in Jaspers’ “Historical Reflections” on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

[22] Former President Trump never showed awareness that international law is an integral part of the law of the United States. Recalling the precise words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination.  For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.”  See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900).  See also:  The Lola, 175 U.S. 677 (1900); Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (per curiam) (Edwards, J. concurring) (dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1003 (1985) (“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.'”).

[23]See, by this author: Louis René Beres,  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 myriad uncertainties of the sensible world. At the basis of Plato’s political theory is a physical-mental analogy establishing a correlation between head, heart and abdomen and the human virtues of intelligence, courage and moderation. 

[24]See C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (1957).

[25]See, for example:

[26]See, by this author, Louis René Beres, at Oxford University Press:

[27]See by this author, Louis René Beres, at Princetonian (Princeton University) (2011):

[28] See:

[29]See, by this author, at Princetonian (Princeton University): Louis René Beres,

[30] See by the poet W.H. Auden: “Defenseless under the night, a world in stupor lies.”

[31] See, by this author, Louis René Beres:; reprinted from Yale Global Online (Yale University).

[32] However ironic, Sigmund Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. In essence, he most strenuously objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism” and its seemingly corollary commitment to crude forms of materialism. America, thought Freud, was “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

[33] Within this reflective activity, each citizen minimizes himself/herself into a quantité négligeable, an irrelevant being.

[34]“The self is sacred,” opines Ralph Waldo Emerson in several of his most classic essays.

[35]“Man cannot receive an answer,” warns philosopher Paul Tillich in Existence and the Christ (1951) “to a question he has not asked.”

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



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



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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Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy



Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.

The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.

Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.

Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.

Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.

The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.

The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.

The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.

At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.

For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.

From our partner RIAC

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