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"Tradition?? The only good traditions are food traditions. The rest are repressive."

"There are two ways to think. The first is to trust to your ancestors, your religious leaders, or your charismatic professors. The second is to question, to challenge, to explore history for meanings, and to analyze issues. This latter is called Critical Thinking, and it is this that is the mission of my web site. "

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman  

August 2017

"Palace Intrigues" in Art and History.


Governing well is not easy, and governing well under a democracy is not the most efficient system. The ancient Greeks, such as Plato, tried to imagine how to set up a republic, speculating with his friends what running an ideal society should require. It is obvious that the most efficient system of government is a dictatorship; however, that efficiency is trumped when the dictator has a bad character. There are few "philosopher kings" in history; far more, even when beginning with good i more...

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Liberal or Illiberal Democracies, What Are They?


My vigilant husband has called my attention to my use of the term "Liberal Democracy." Many readers, even when college educated, are not familiar with that term. The word "liberal" suggests a political position, such as left-leaning. So in this column, and in future ones, when I use the term Liberal Democracy, I will spell out what it really means.

Liberal in this case means Liberty, or freedom. That freedom is provided by a division of power in the government (President, more...

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Populism Across the Globe



Angry people with grievances are making themselves felt around the world in elections. These are not the historically familiar revolutionaries demanding freedom or hungry mobs torching the palaces of their masters (French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions). Instead, these are people rejecting the values that shaped the modern Western world, liberal democracy (a system promoting liberty, but with checks and balances). "Power to the People" has a long and ugly history.

more...

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Russia?s New Global Aims


The Cold War is back, but it is a different Cold War because it is a different Russia. It is important to know who the Russians are and what has shaped their worldview, including their sometimes justified suspicion and hostility toward the US.

Some features of Russian government go back to their beginnings as a country in the 10th century. Their geography places them very far north, which means that food, particularly grain harvests, are uncertain. The country has experien more...

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America Has 250 Years of Consistent Foreign Policy


The majority of Americans, furious over the Assad regime using poison gas on his own Syrian people, expressed approval of President Trump?s attack on the Syrian airfield that launched the gas attack. When one sees such horrors, such as when American soldiers first entered the Nazi death camps, the desire for revenge is powerful. But knee-jerk revenge is not policy. What is American policy about assaults on helpless civilians? Do we have a consistent policy? Do we always react by punishin more...

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Closing the American Great Divide


Americans were the closest to being united by a common culture between 1941 and 1965. The post-World War II economy produced an enormous middle class, thanks to being the only country in the world not damaged or destroyed by the war. Manufacturing of everything was flourishing, as were exports and generous support with money and values to the recovery of our former customers and new allies. The only cloud on the horizon was the Cold War and the not small concern about nuclear holocaust s more...

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The Role of Language in Politics


A fascinating issue arose during our recent Presidential election campaign, and continues today. Many good, ordinary people fell in love with the candidate who "talked just like they do." News Hour on PBS found two Texas cafes, one in a small town, the other in Austin. The customers were all Texans, all who apparently loved their state and their country, but their answers to the reporter's questions seemed to come from two different worlds.

The customers in the small town more...

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Russia?s Short-term and Long-term Prognosis


If the thugs in ISIS were not so busy decapitating people, we might have been paying more attention to a longer-term hostile force, Russia. Russia has been an important target of Western attention since the 19th century, when this once backward, frozen backwater came to life and proceeded to conquer and colonize all the countries across Central Asia (the old Silk Route), ending on China?s border and the Pacific Ocean. They controlled 11 time zones and warranted watching.

more...

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December 2016

America?s History of Isolationism or Engagement.

November 11, 1918, was Armistice Day. On that date a century ago, World War I ended with a cease fire. The clear loser, Germany, collapsed in exhaustion after fighting on two fronts: France and Britain on one end and Russia on the other. The war was stalemated until the United States, very late in the war, entered on the side of France and Britain and won it. Although we do not make much of this holiday, it is still terribly important to the British and French, who lost a whole generation of yo more...

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Culture Matters Part 1


In August, I wrote several columns on how culture matters, both domestically and internationally. I have long doubted that the issue is as much racial differences as it is the practices and values of various cultures. Our recent election was a perfect demonstration of a cultural clash that shocked the world.

The US is going through the same conflict that we are seeing around the world: democratic institutions are losing the support that they have had for a long time. We kn more...

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It Can?t Happen Here?

e are just two weeks from the US Presidential election, far too late to change minds. However, many level-headed people around the country take comfort in the thought that American government is designed with so many checks and balances that nothing really drastic can happen. Others say that their "change agent," Donald Trump, will just shake up the government a little.

The saving grace in this country is that the president does not have dictatorial powers. No, he cannot single-h more...

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September 2016

Is There Global Rule of Law?


During President Obama?s recent visit to Asia, he spoke about Global Norms to students in Laos. He also said that America has been an enormous force for the good in the world, but that we often think that because of our size and clout, we do not need to know much about the rest of the world. Some people will be annoyed by this comment, but I think it is obvious. Only a steady ten percent of the American public has any interest in foreign policy, which is too bad, considering how importan more...

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Iraq War Revisited with Critical Thinking

A British report released a few weeks ago roundly castigated former Prime Minister Tony Blair for his misguided support of America's war to unseat Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Blair is as much condemned (and loathed) by the British left as former President George Bush is by the American left (and Donald Trump). Both leaders are accused of having "lied" about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. To defend both positions, it is true that these weapons were not found during the invasion. Bu more...

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Why the EU is not like the US: The BREXIT Surprise

European nationalism did not die when the EU was born. Climbing out of the ashes of Europe?s second massively destructive war in the 20th century, a group of educated idealists formed the first attempt at economic integration of the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s. This grew to integrating more European nations into an Economic Community from 1958-1992. The EC added more European countries to this community, which then became the European Union, an actual attempt to create a "Unit more...

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The Winter of Our Discontent?.

Shakespeare?s Richard III (before he became king) mentioned "the winter of our discontent." That certainly describes much of today?s world, with a vague sort of discontent over bad governments, unjust laws, and looking for someone to blame for floods, fires, and famines. Many people complain, but prefer fantasy and demagoguery to sound policies. There are always those who seize the imagination of mobs because they promise them everything.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, more...

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Political Parties Are Not Permanent.

That the Republican Party is heading toward a demolition is no surprise by now. This is not the first time a major American political party fell apart. In the 19th century, between the 1830s and 1860, the Whig Party was the political rival to Jefferson?s Democratic Republican (Democrat) Party. The Whigs ran candidates every election, but elected only two to the presidency.

Political parties are not cast in stone; they change over time. The Jeffersonian Democrats began as an elite more...

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Anger is No Substitute for Thinking.


One of the most difficult things about popular democracy is that it requires thought. Not all voters, unfortunately, are capable of it. Throughout the history of our republic, chaotic events have often brought out the worst in us. Whipping Quakers for condemning slavery, witch burnings, the whiskey tax rebellion, lynchings, religious bigotry of all sorts, hatred of immigrants, and communist scares, have darkened our otherwise optimistic history.

We never took time at our more...

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Do You Really Want a Revolution?

Being angry is not the best reason for voting for a "revolution." One might not like aspects of the way our leaders are leading, but trashing the entire institution of governance under law will not achieve a brave new world. It never has.

Many of those with only vague historic knowledge talk boldly about having another American Revolution like the first one. Our founding, however, was not the result of a revolution, but of a revolt by people who wanted all British laws and protect more...

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October 2015

Afghan Problems


With so many urgent events around the world, Afghanistan is not one we wanted to see again. But its problems do not go away, nor can they with Pakistan next door. We are still there, 10,000 to remain, but with an essential task of trying to train a national defense force so that Afghanistan will not revert to its failed Muslim state position under the Taliban.

Training the Afghan army is much like rolling a rock up a hill. Not only are a majority of soldiers illiterate, b more...

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Whose Fault is the Immigrant Crisis?



Wouldn't you know that the moment any crisis occurs in the world that the usual commentators would blame the United States? Amy Goodman's recent column blamed the chaos in the Middle East on the US and Europeans sending arms to the region. Others, many on the political left, have blamed the crisis entirely on the disastrous aftermath of our Iraq invasion. However, I have not seen any of these critics pinning blame on the total failure of governance and religion in the Muslim Worl more...

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September 2015

Whose Fault is the Immigrant Crisis?


Wouldn't you know that the moment any crisis occurs in the world that the usual commentators would blame the United States? Amy Goodman's recent column blamed the chaos in the Middle East on the US and Europeans sending arms to the region. Others, many on the political left, have blamed the crisis entirely on the disastrous aftermath of our Iraq invasion. However, I have not seen any of these critics pinning blame on the total failure of governance and religion in the Muslim World itself more...

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Human Rights Widen In the West, Vanish Elsewhere.

On June 26, the United States extended its freedoms to one more group of fellow citizens, homosexuals, who now have the equality in marriage. Over many centuries before this, homosexual males were jailed, beaten, tortured, and scorned. Female homosexuals were forced into marriage, institutionalized, or shunned.

In Muslim societies, even today, homosexuality is technically forbidden but socially rampant, particularly practiced against boys by those responsible for them (including more...

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History Reveals Presidential Close Calls!


As a historian, I can be pretty dispassionate about reading things that are past and gone. Knowing that President Woodrow Wilson had a stroke and that his wife Edith secretly kept him hidden from October 1919 to April 1920 is certainly alarming, but nothing disastrous seems to have happened. This could not happen today, I hope.

The Cuban Missile Crisis, a weekend when the actions of individuals both in the White House----the cool head of Bobby Kennedy who advised his broth more...

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Defunding Israel but Blind to Islamophobia Ripoffs?

Only in the free Western world can such asymmetrical nonsense take place. Israel, the one western country unfortunately located in the middle of the Muslim world is the focus of accusations of Islamophobia and targeted with boycotts of its industries and products. How ironic. Israel is the one country where Arab citizens can vote, have the highest standard of living, and have any kind of future. Yet young stupid liberals in Europe and the US vent their spleen on Israel and turn a blind eye to th more...

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Defunding Israel but Blind to Islamophobia Ripoffs?


Only in the free Western world can such asymmetrical nonsense take place. Israel, the one western country unfortunately located in the middle of the Muslim world is the focus of accusations of Islamophobia and targeted with boycotts of its industries and products. How ironic. Israel is the one country where Arab citizens can vote, have the highest standard of living, and have any kind of future. Yet young stupid liberals in Europe and the US vent their spleen on Israel and turn a blind e more...

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The Candidates Are Missing the Right Answer About the Iraq War!


Watching all the candidates for the 2016 election dancing on a tightrope trying to answer the question about why they voted to go into Iraq in 2003 (or what lesson they should have learned from this "mistake") is painful and unnecessary. There is a simple answer to this dilemma that nobody seems to want to say. Yet this answer is being played out right under our noses.

It was not a mistake to remove a dangerous, murderous, unpredictable dictator such as Saddam Hussein! We more...

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The Nation-State Idea is Not Cast in Stone.


I remember trying to explain to my small children what a "country" is. They understood neighborhood because we could walk around those streets. They even understood city because we could drive around such a recognizable entity. It was a little more difficult to understand state and really difficult to understand country. When they were a little older, they played with geography puzzles and learned to recognize the states that made up "the United States" and later "the world" and eventual more...

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Understanding Foreign Policy is like Triple-Decker Chess

We are accustomed to thinking of relations with an ally, an enemy, or an interest when we consider a foreign policy relationship. This is part of our assumption that a nation has an independent identity that is like ours, "one nation, indivisible?" This is a convenient fiction, of course, as if a nation is a person, which it is not.

o Pakistan, India, Afghanistan. Some of our most troubling relationships are with countries with not only complex internal identities, but also equall more...

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Whose Fault Are the French Jihadi Murders?


After a horror such as the French-born Muslim assassinations of the editors and cartoonists of a national humor magazine who "insulted" Islam, everyone asks: whose fault was this? Were the French intelligence sources inadequate? Did the sarcastic humor of the French journal provoke sensitive Muslims? Were the killers not sufficiently loved by their mothers? The only question not overtly asked was: "Is there something about Islam that promotes murderous rage?" Even without asking this, Mu more...

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November 2014

Russia's Short-term and Long-term Prognosis

If the thugs in ISIS were not so busy decapitating people, we might have been paying more attention to a longer-term hostile force, Russia. Russia has been an important target of Western attention since the 19th century, when this once backward, frozen backwater came to life and proceeded to conquer and colonize all the countries across Central Asia (the old Silk Route), ending on China's border on the Pacific Ocean. They controlled 11 time zones and warranted watching.

Russia wa more...

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We Must Put the "Crises of the Moment" in Context.


Critics of President Obama have an easy job. They do not have to make the decisions that will impact long-term American wellbeing. That is his job, and like making sausage, it is not a pretty process. It involves heavy lifting and complex issues.

Two principles have governed American foreign policy for the past two centuries: first, make certain that no one power controls all of Europe or all of Asia. We would be standing alone if such a powerful enemy controlled all other more...

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Corruption Has Ancient Roots.

Political corruption is as old as civilization (the birth of city-states). It is a big issue in the dysfunction of the entire world today, but there are differences in the way different cultures regard it.

Political corruption is abuse of power by those in trusted authority: people that Plato in his imagined perfect society (The Republic) called ?the guardians.? He, like most great civilizations after ancient Greece, recognized that leadership has responsibility and that rule of more...

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September 2014

Conflicting Views of the President's Foreign Policy



Journalists often gang up on our presidents. Dwight Eisenhower was dismissed as an inarticulate golf-playing do-nothing by the political elites of his time. In reality, he adeptly handled the earlier years of the Cold War and set forth policies that saw us through a half century. Lyndon Johnson saddled himself with the Vietnam War and was reviled by journalists, academics, and the young, leaving office as a failure. Today, we realize what an astonishing president he was: an unlik more...

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Does Iraq Have a Future?


The blame game is going on about Iraq?s descent into regional warfare. This is a futile exercise unless changes of policy and real geopolitical insight go along with the blame.

The Bush administration is rightly blamed for involving the US in an invasion of the wrong country, using specious excuses. However, that invasion could have done the region good by just removing Saddam Hussein, a very dangerous opportunist who threatened the region. But real blame should fall on th more...

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Village Justice in India Doesn?t Belong in a Modern Country.


We hear all the time that India is the world?s largest democracy. Certainly by demographics, this is so, but by quality, they are not good enough. However, the good news is that India?s underbelly is no longer hidden; world press has caught up, and decent Middle Class urban Indians are outraged.

India continues to have too many published cases of gang rape and abuse of women. It is good that these are now in the open, but how many thousands more cases never make it to the more...

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Why Are We the World’s Policemen?

Cutting the defense budget in the foolish notion that we should not be the world’s policemen is biting us already. We saved the world from great horrors three times. We ended World War I, which was otherwise bogged down in the worst military slaughters since the American Civil War. Instead of building on this achievement, the American public just wanted to forget all about war and we went isolationist, thus permitting World War I to morph into a much worse World War II, which we could not avoi more...

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Turkey: How to Lose a Democracy

Once more, supporters of “democracy” in the Muslim world do not understand the issue. Majority rule, when there are no institutions to temper it (such as the courts or free press), does not provide a “liberal democracy.” Rather, it offers abuse of power or anarchy.

Turkey, the one seemingly genuine participatory republic, is teetering on the edge of losing it. The European Union, which rides herd on Turkey's evolution toward a European-style democracy, mistakenly regards more...

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December 2013

India and China Are Not in the Same League.


Much of our foreign policy, as well as that of Europe, has to do with the rising powers of India and China. These are two of the most populated countries in the world, and for the past few decades, they have been attempting to catch up with the developed world. China is doing better than India, and it may clarify our policies to understand why.

The late Shah of Iran once made the comment that backward countries must get their economies in line before political liberalizati more...

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Revisiting American and Global Culture Wars


George Will recently wrote a column about “When liberals became scolds.” He was certainly right about that, when considering such liberals as Amy Goodman and Media Benjamin (the notorious Code Pink). I have never heard either of these women say anything positive about our country. If one were to ask them, I am certain that they would say that they love this country so much that they want it to be better than it is. They seem to think of all their carping as loyal opposition.
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We Have Always Had Turncoats.


Why would a citizen of a country that serves them well opt for betrayal? Why would a US army psychiatrist value Militant Islam more than fellow soldiers he felt justified to murder? Why would Somali-American teenagers train to become suicide bombers, first abroad, but hoping to do so in their homeland?

The recent spate of terrorists who want to damage this country and as many of its residents as possible is not new; we need to remember this issue in the past, and how we de more...

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Democracy Has Strings Attached.


Democracy means “Rule by the people.” First devised by the ancient Athenians, native freeborn men of property could cast votes for issues of importance to their city. Discussions before the vote were carried out in the public marketplace, where all voters could assemble. Over time, however, the system become corrupted and some unfortunate decisions were made (such as going to war against fellow Greeks) that made the democracy collapse.

The Romans modified the Greek sys more...

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Whistle Blowing: One Size Doesn’t Fit All.


Snooping and its variations (government, industrial, commercial) is now a major issue fracturing the already fractured American psyche. This is the new great divide, one that is not clearly black or white, but is complicated by many shades of gray.

• Terrorism. The first divide is over the majority of us who believe that we are in a global war with the latest of totalitarian enemies, Islamism. A minority believe that this is not a war, but rather criminals best handled b more...

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September 2013

Moral Foreign Policy May Not Be Prudent Foreign Policy.


We Americans love our democracy. For all of our faults, most of us live in a society governed by rule of law, a society where we can walk the streets of our towns in safety, and where we are equal under the law regardless of gender and race. We are governed.

We do have an underbelly, however. Some of our inner cities house people for whom this is not so. Despite this, our imperfect society is a work in progress, because we do try to make the system better and the system do more...

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Syria: International Norms Have No Teeth without the US


We are starting to learn from our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that we can remove a bad leader but cannot replace him with good governance. We run into trouble when we do not temper our idealism with pragmatism, knowing when and how much to act in the face of evil. But perhaps we are beginning to be a bit more practical.

Because we love democracy and hate autocracy, we had hoped that the public clamor that got rid of autocrats in Egypt (and before that in Iran) wo more...

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Darwin Awards: People Who Should Not Be Part of the Gene Pool

Periodically, I assemble items from around the world in which people make decisions that warrant removal from the gene pool.

•Banning Female Farting in Indonesia

No, this was not a joke. I checked. An Islamic city council in Aceh, Indonesia, has banned female citizens from passing gas loudly. The city’s mayor explained that farting aloud violates the Islamic values of modesty---not all farting, of course, just female farting. The mayor said that farting loud (s more...

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Egypt's Democracy is Mission Impossible

Editor:
San Francisco Chronicle
August 16, 2013


President Obama has condemned the violence between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood's supporters in the streets. He has said that America expects the Egyptians to:

o stop the violence;
o resolve their differences by being inclusive of all parties; and
o respect ethnic, religious, and gender human rights.

How can the Muslim Brotherhood respec more...

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Egypt’s Problems Go Beyond Morsi.


With all the hand wringing about Egypt’s army abruptly removing an elected president, more serious problems are not getting much attention.

The US had hoped that supporting the (unwelcome) outcome of an election would encourage the Muslim Brotherhood to learn how to govern. However, the Muslim Brotherhood abhors everything that liberal democracy values and they had resurrected the fear of “one man, one vote, one time.”

We Americans often assume that an more...

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Snowden No Hero

For anybody still naive enough to think that Edward Snowden is a classic whistle-blower, please note his choice of refuge: Russia.

He now seeks asylum in a country where scores of journalists have been murdered or jailed for practicing their trade. That country's leader, Vladimir Putin, has told Snowden that he will be weldome if he agrees to keep his mouth shut.

Rather than demonstrate his principles by facing prosecution for not only stealing but leaking his count more...

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Russia is an Enigma Wrapped in a Mystery

Russia never fails to fascinate us. The very scary Cold War has been over for several decades, after a fifty-year period in which the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a conflict that could have ended in nuclear holocaust. But real friendship has not replaced the hostility either. We have a cold peace.

Nations have long histories. Russia has been shaped by its geography It occupies a huge expanse of the Eurasian plains, from Eastern Europe all the way to the Pacific. I more...

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In Defense of Dead White Men

The youth and women’s revolutions of mid 1980s, attacked western civilization, particularly the traditional educational focus on the great figures of Western history. It became chic to call all of our progenitors, the likes of Shakespeare, Socrates, and our Founding Fathers, “Dead White Males.” Academic institutions and the popular media hastened to get on board, deeming Western Civilization overblown in importance (at least) and deserving of obliteration (at best).

The fem more...

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The Chechens Are a Model of Dysfunction.

Some of us who are geographically impaired have been confusing the Chechens with the Czechs. All they have in common was that both suffered under the rule of the Soviet Union. The Czechs (the former Czechoslovakia) were under Soviet rule from the end of World War II until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The Chechens, however, have been ground under the Russian Empire's heel from 1830, next under Soviet rule (1917), and once again under Russia (1989). They are not a happy people in the best of more...

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How Much Freedom is Too Much?


Years ago, there was a government publicity campaign that ran full-page pictures of the American flag with the caption: “Freedom Isn’t Free.” Because this ad was run during the time of the Bush Administration, it did not sit well with many liberals; but it did with me, a card-carrying feminist.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who takes on cultural issues that most avoid, recently commented on the public support for gay marriage---not as a new freedom, but more...

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Do We have an Empathy Deficit?


One of the key attributes of the truly civilized is empathy: being able to comprehend the feelings of others around us. Most babies have this attribute, showing great distress when in a room with a baby who is crying. Some animals have this as well, most apparent in good dogs who are very gentle with a human baby or who befriend an animal of another species. I recall seeing a clip on television about a young dog who befriended a fawn, the two playing together with great delight.
< more...

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Time for the “Democracy Project” to go!


It is very painful to retire a foreign policy initiative that has been with us since Woodrow Wilson in 1918. Americans have long believed that democracy is exactly what benighted cultures around the world want. We assume that if tyranny could be removed, long suffering people would want to vote for good people to govern them. We assume, wrongly, that everybody wants freedom.

President Wilson promoted World War I as a crusade to make the world safe for democracy. By the end more...

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Both American Political Parties Have Serious Blindspots.

“Liberals” or “Progressives” care for the weak, persecuted, and downtrodden. Liberals see the world as inevitably progressing, step by step, from a harsh and violent past to a future that they believe will be civilized and caring.

Traditional Conservatives believe that without governance, people are violent, destructive, and dangerous. Their ideology rejects changing something that is working for something that they see as “cloud cuckoo.” They worry about too much unn more...

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Foreign Policy: When Is Humanitarian Intervention in our Interest?

Most American voters don’t care about American foreign policy until something comes to bite them. But every so often, specific groups get involved in seeking intervention for their particular ethnic interests: Armenians wanting condemnation for Turkey who committed a genocide about which, for almost a century now, Turks have refuse to recognize or apologize.

Sometimes groups want to affect American law, such as those with hysterical fear of Chinese immigration, based on a notio more...

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The Urban-Rural Conflict is Central to Today's Global Dysfunction.


Civilization began with the rise of cities (civilization means city building), some 5,000 years ago. To have such institutions as irrigation systems, professional armies, specialized priesthood, and professional artisans, population concentration is essential. Villages cannot produce such specialization.

Cities have always appealed to the ambitious, who love the colorful energy of city life, and refugees from the no-longer viable countryside. Successful cities attract tale more...

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December 2012

Peace On Earth Is a Real Challenge.

American foreign policy has almost always been bipartisan. Responsible Democrats and Republicans faced the contentious Cold War together for half a century, successfully, as the outcome illustrated. But foreign policy is always the most difficult of issues for the American public to fully understand. It is difficult to deal with countries that we really cannot like, but must deal with anyway.

o Europe. Despite the efforts of elite Europeans to create something like a United State more...

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Peace On Earth Is a Real Challenge.

American foreign policy has almost always been bipartisan. Responsible Democrats and Republicans faced the contentious Cold War together for half a century, successfully, as the outcome illustrated. But foreign policy is always the most difficult of issues for the American public to fully understand. It is difficult to deal with countries that we really cannot like, but must deal with anyway.

o Europe. Despite the efforts of elite Europeans to create something like a United State more...

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The Real Benghazi Problem Is Not Being Addressed.

What happened or did not happen when our consulate in Benghazi was attacked has become a contentious and partisan issue. This horrible attack on a diplomatic urban outpost is not the first in our dealings with the Muslim world. The international standards that foreign diplomats must be protected by the host country have been violated a number of times since the 19th century, not only for American but also to British diplomats, and only in Muslim countries.

The British Embassy was more...

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The President and Challenger Tangle on Foreign Policy


We have just had a debate between President Obama and Governor Romney on Foreign Policy. Since only about 10 percent of the public understands or even cares about foreign policy, it is difficult to assess how this will affect the election. But since I am a foreign policy wonk, I do care.

When President Obama had his first security briefing when he was sworn into office, his hair began to turn to gray. Presidents learn things then that they really couldn’t know while they more...

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September 2012

Are Israel and the US Really Locking Horns Over Iran?


Foreign policy issues should not be a factor in election campaigns; we need to tell the world that we are united on issues beyond domestic politics. However, it is too difficult for presidential campaigns to resist stirring things up. Mitt Romney did this in unwise remarks about US policy during the orchestrated riots in Libya and Egypt.

Today, a hot issue is Iran, which has lied, cheated, and continued to work toward producing a nuclear capability that frightens its nei more...

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The Fog of War is Nothing to the Fog of the Muslim World.

The Arab Spring came and quickly left, followed by what we call “young democracies,” the results of “elections.” Why did we think that these elections would produce the modern, western values of tolerant and participatory governance? In every political revolution, intellectuals do the first heavy lifting, only to be replaced (and killed) by something akin to totalitarianism. Every revolution “eats its children,” and this was so in Iran, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, and will be when the o more...

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Wikileaks Is In Terminal Decline


The most consequential Anarchist attack on the Western world may be in meltdown. The Anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were responsible for the assassination of a number of world leaders, the last of which led to World War I. This movement hoped to destroy the established governments of the day so that a “new and better” world could emerge. Their mission did not spell out what kind of better world that would be, but these ideologues believed, with little evidence, more...

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Egypt Has Post-Election Blues.


A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture on Egypt’s “Arab Spring” and their recent round of elections. The speaker was optimistic about this process, and noted a number of “accomplishments” that Egyptians should regard with pride:

• A tyrannical dictator removed
• A relatively free and fair election held
• A member of the Muslim Brotherhood elected (Accomplishment?)
• The military promise to yield to civilian rule
• Treaty more...

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Does Equality Mean “The Same?”


“All Men are created equal,” said Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. We Americans, who are the first to try to live by this idea, have had nothing but trouble with it. The very idea is fraught with problems. If it means that God has created all men (never mind women or slaves) equally, how can we explain babies born with dreadful defects that prevent them from ever being “equal” to the able bodied? And if we look around at the distribution of mental, p more...

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The “War Against Women” Rages On


Modern social values for women had a brief, uneven life in the Middle East, and are now in meltdown as Islamist parliaments take power.

Countries that have revolted against dictatorships (with a modicum of modern law) are now seeing the results of their “democratic” elections. When largely ignorant populations vote, they vote for what they know: in this case, Islam. Traditional Islam would not be the problem, but its radical versions are. The first issue to come under more...

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Can We Rescue Our Democracy?


Sometimes transformations take place under the radar. We do not see that a real change has happened until the tipping point suddenly makes it apparent. We are living at such a time now. Our Democracy is at a low ebb-but there is light out there.

Participatory government (democracy or republic) has always been difficult by its very nature. To function at its optimum, there must be a good constitution that sets forth rules, elected officials who believe in a process charact more...

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Now the Pentagon is Being Muzzled for Being “Critical of Islam.”


The Pentagon is where military preparedness is fostered. In our system of government, the military is subordinated to civilian control, which is as it should be. They are not, as in so many countries, our bosses who maintain that position through fear. However, there are factions in this country that would like to see the military defanged, and, if possible, disbanded.

How convenient it would be for Anarchists, Islamists, and any nation states that would like to see us ren more...

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Sometimes Inaction Against Bad Guys Has Dangerous Consequences.


The most difficult political-military situation a nation must face is when to take action against a threat. Too much force can be overkill. However, if a great power hesitates, this can be perceived as weakness, or can give an enemy an exaggerated belief in his own power.

The United States has always tried to avoid looking like a bully (even when we are one), unlike such powers as Russia, which has never worried about being a bully and even uses this perception to get its more...

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The European Uprisings of 1848 Reverberate in Today’s Arab Spring

Americans are accustomed to thinking that our 1776 revolution was the model for all others. This may account for the wacky optimism of Western journalists cheering on the street demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. They assumed these demonstrations would truly give rise to American style democracy. They now see that this is not so.

Those of us who were less enthusiastic can justify our pessimism by noting what’s going on in Libya (revenge and lawlessness) and in Syria, more...

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There Are No Easy Answers for US Policy in Syria

It is distressing to see Syrian people-ordinary civilians-hunkering down in bunkers without sufficient food, water, or medicine. Syrians look at us on screen and wonder why nobody is helping them. Why are we not?

Arab dictatorships have similarities. Syria has been run by a father and son, the Assads, for the past half century. Tunisia, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt were others. They all began as secular dictatorships; Islam did not have the pride of place it enjoyed in the past.
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More Electoral Fraud in Egypt? What a Surprise.


In our enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and its promise of democracy, we now watch elections and parliaments in Egypt and Tunisia with some concern. How did we get so much wrong?

First, we never talked about “liberal” democracy, the system used in the West that provides checks and balances and protects against abuse of power. We just talked about elections, and they have indeed had those.

All Egyptian players have a stake in the outcome. The military esta more...

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Denial is not a river in Egypt.


Although this headline is a joke, the facts on the ground are not. Fareed Zakaria, usually a sound commentator on world affairs, chastised the pessimists who see no democracy for the Arab Spring. He noted how slowly the revolutions of America and France bore fruit. However, liberal democracy only comes from countries with a 2500-year-old western heritage—or those that have adopted these values (Japan, South Korea). Whatever fruit Egypt will bear will not be liberal democracy, no matter more...

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How Is Citizenship Determined Around the World?

There are many ways of acquiring citizenship in the modern world. This concept, being a citizen of a country, is relatively new; in the past, in nation states with a king, one was a subject—and that usually depended upon birth. Refugees could and did come to some: many Continental Europeans fled to England, escaping the persecution of revolutions. In those days (late 18th century), they were permitted to remain as subjects. Voting rights was a much later proposition.

Today, mo more...

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Time to Revisit the Abused “L” Word, “L” for “Liberal.”


The term “liberal” has become a very bad word in some circles. Many conservatives today do not see Liberal as just another political viewpoint, but as an evil philosophy. Simultaneously, many who call themselves “liberal” today seem to have forgotten what liberal really means. We all need to revisit this important concept.

“Liberal” derives from the mid-19th century concern with “liberty.” The British liberals stood for freeing much the economy from govern more...

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What Is America’s “Worldview?”


How we vote, behave, and think is based on our view of the world. Whether consciously or not, we all have beliefs about human nature, and these views shape us. These worldviews are the product of our various religions and the experiences of our European, Asian, or African ancestors. They fall into the following categories:

• Man is basically evil (sinful), and must be restrained by firm governance;
• Man is born innocent and good, and learns evil from society; more...

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Democracy Can Have a Dark Underbelly


As much as I love democracy, Western Liberal Democracy, this institution has a dark side. There are problems with our own American democracy; even more troubling are democracies such as that of Russia, and worse, democracy in the Muslim world. Why is democracy so under assault?

Liberal Democracy is a system in which people do have choices, but there are also rules that keep the “people’s will” from becoming tyranny. Voting is the last step of building a democracy, w more...

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What Happens When People Suddenly Have Choices?


The very notion that people have choices in their lives is so new that much of world is still reeling from this idea. For the millennia since the emergence of homo sapiens, choices have been limited. Survival depended upon families, tribes, and later kingdoms, where individual choice was inconceivable, except for the leader, whether father, clan chief, or king. Bad decisions could bring disaster on them all, and leaders were always challenged by others who would then make decisions. Dict more...

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Arab Spring Is a Conflict between Religion and Nationalism.


The enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and its birth of democracy in the Middle East gives me heartburn. What we hoped is not what we got. Now, as disillusion sets in, not only ours, but also that of the young demonstrators (particularly young women) who shed their own blood in Tahrir Square and Tunisia, we need to see what the optimists missed.

We have again mistaken voting for democracy. Although people who have never had choices love to vote, they really do not like choices more...

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December 2011

US Law is Wrestling with Complexities of Antiterrorism

n Boston, a trial is underway. Prosecutors say that Tarek Mahanna, a 29-year-old US-born Egyptian, is a terrorist. His attorneys claim he was merely exercising First Amendment rights. The outcome of the trial will have important legal implications.

Under American law, the police cannot arrest someone for what he thinks or says, but only after a crime has been committed. This, unfortunately, is why so many battered women who depend on a restraining order to keep a batterer at bay more...

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TV Humor and Soaps Are Potent Tools For Democracy.


One of the most devastating tools against tyranny is humor. Dictators cannot stand being laughed at; they work hard at being feared. On a bitter cold New Year’s Eve of 1989, the long-time dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, summoned his people to the square below his palace to deliver a speech. The crowd shuffled and seethed with anger over their short rations, lack of fuel, and daily insults while Ceausescu and his nasty wife lived in an obscenely lavish palace. As he continued to more...

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Power to the People! Round Up the Usual Suspects!


Whenever you hear “Power to the People,” check youry wallet. At college, I remember the silly panty raids of an earlier generation who just let off steam and did something mildly outrageous. Today's “People Power” is not as innocent.

Democracy today is not having a good run. Although citizens vote for their representatives and leaders, many feel somehow disenfranchised. The problem is almost universal, except for Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland, in more...

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Community: Is Letting the Penniless Sick Die an Option?

Humans do not do well without community. Even religious hermits could not have survived without food and the support of community.

We are not flock animals, guided only by instinct; we are willful individuals with a range of choices in our behavior. Community, however, requires control of behaviors. We learn these rules, which are rewarded or punished by our leadership.

In the simpler culture of family and clans, authority was usually accorded to the strongest memb more...

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August 2011

Does Free Speech Include Hacking and Mayhem?


We do not say often enough that freedom without responsibility is anarchy. This is exactly what we are witnessing in Europe and closer to home: the controversy about our Bay Area Rapid transit system, BART, pulling the plug on cell phones to preempt a dangerous riot.

A few weeks ago, BART security officers shot a transient who had advanced threateningly on them. Whether their action was warranted or not belongs in the realm of law enforcement investigation, not on mob rule more...

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All the News That’s Fit To Print?

We treasure our freedom of speech, which is the very first amendment in our constitution. We consider the press to be an arm of our democracy, with its primary responsibility to be the watchdog over government power and its possible abuse. When investigative journalism works as it should, we all benefit from governance in which officials cannot get away with corruption for long. Not all get caught, but enough do to serve as a warning to the rest.

Look at Afghanistan, where the gov more...

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Some People Choose Bad Bedfellows for Their Summer Vacation

It may become a Rite of Summer: dedicated dissidents trying to break Israel's blockade of Gaza with a flotilla of ships. Gazans themselves are not asking for such aid, claiming that they are not lacking daily necessities, so that is not the issue. Egypt has opened their port near Gaza to permit all legitimate aid to be brought in. Israel has never cut off humanitarian aid, and for the past year have been permitting more material to enter Gaza.

According to Juliane Von Mittelstae more...

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Heavy Lies the Saudi Head That Wears the Crown.

Although the King of Saudi Arabia does not wear a crown, his head is heavy. His country has problems that may bode ill for the survival of the Saudi royals.

I have written before about cultures that embrace patterns that do not have long survival value. Arabia has many such patterns, starting with the unyielding form of Islam that was part of the deal that won the country’s rule for the Ibn Sauds. Nothing is more at war with the currents of modernity than Salafi Islam (Wahhabi more...

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Some Democracies Are Not Wonderful.


I recently heard an idealist complaining that President Obama was not enthusiastically supporting the “democracy movement” in the Arab world. He could not understand why we were intervening (tepidly) in Libya, but not in Yemen or Syria. To this idealist, democracy is something we profess to promote—so why aren’t we?

The trouble with this view is that there are two kinds of democracy: liberal and illiberal. Liberal democracy has imbedded in it a number of essenti more...

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There Are Consequences For Lying


Brain scientists tell us that when brains are scanned to see which areas light up, brains scan differently when told a known lie or truth. Even without brain scans, it should be obvious that those who live where truthfulness is promoted live in a community of trust. Those who are accustomed to living in a culture where lying is part of survival are resigned to it, but not happy.

Trust and truth go hand in hand. As children, we either learn to trust our parents and their tr more...

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After Arab Spring, Then What?


I was in College (UCLA) during Prague Spring, the peaceful demonstrations by the Czechs against their Soviet occupation. We cheered them on—and then saw how the Russians dealt with it—tanks and executions. The West looked the other way and the rebellion was crushed.

Now we have seen another round of “springs,” this time roiling the Muslim Arab world. Iran (non-Arab) was the first to stage such youth-based protests against their fraudulent election in 2009. It was more...

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In a Democracy, Some Decisions Are Agonizing.


For most of human existence, leaders and priests made decisions and ordinary people either obeyed or suffered the consequences. For almost everyone, tradition left a very small range of independent decisions.

Today, certainly in the developed world, we all have to confront decisions every day, and for our elected leaders, the process is often difficult. The following is a small list of terrible decisions facing both democracies and autocracies today.

• T more...

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Is Peace Breaking Out in the Middle East?


We keep hearing that peace in the Middle East only requires a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. The outbreak of what is being called “the Arab Spring” has proven this notion wrong. None of the Muslim countries currently in ferment give a hoot about the Palestinians and Israelis; they want to get out from under dictatorial regimes that have held them in thrall for decades

They want “freedom” and “dignity.” modernity, prosperity, and the decent li more...

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Why Is There Hysteria Over Radical Islam Hearings?


Congressman Peter King's hearings on the alarming radicalization of young Muslims has met a firestorm of criticism. I would agree with some critics that these hearings should explore all domestic terrorism rather than just Islamist, including domestic fascist and armed racist cults. However, we cannot pretend that there is no Muslim problem.

Two important Muslim witnesses at the hearings include Dr. Zhudi Jasser and Asra Nomani. Jasser is founder of the American Islamic more...

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Tyrants have a long history.


Shakespeare said “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown” Henry IV, Part Two. Throughout most of human history, kings ruled. They were thought to be annointed by God (or the gods), and were to be obeyed by all their subjects. But in some of the more advanced societies, kings were not all-powerful; there were exceptions.

Chinese culture demanded obedience to a king unless the king’s “mandate of heaven” was revoked. People could recognize that heaven no longer ble more...

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Iran Is Closer To Imploding

Although Iran is an Islamic dictatorship that controls its news, certain things are leaking out. The revolts in the Arab world are making them very nervous.

• Disloyal Opposition. The opposition leaders during the disputed 2009 presidential election did not mean to undo the Islamic Revolution. The millions who voted for the opposition just wanted a better and less pious president. However, after the government set goons on the peaceful demonstrators in the streets, the world wi more...

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Why Egypt and Not Iran?

We have just witnessed a modern popular change of government---a revolution of sorts. Most Egyptians appear to have agreed on one thing: to end of the rule of Hosni Mubarak. Tunisians in the streets rid themselves of their long-time dictator a couple of weeks earlier. Everybody in the Middle East is watching and waiting to see which other autocracies crumble. Iranians are watching too---their Islamic dictatorship with alarm and the public with bitterness that their 2009 attempt failed.
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How Goes Democracy Around the World?

Democracy Project. The United States has long had a “democracy project.” After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson tried to establish an organization that would midwife newly freed colonies into democracies. He was instrumental in establishing the first “World Government,” the League of Nations, but a key Senator prevented the US from joining. That organization without us had even less teeth than today's United Nations.

At the end of World War II, the US has once more p more...

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Can “Power to the People” Get Egyptians Democracy?


Reporters standing amidst the throngs in Independence Square in Cairo seem to be carried away by the excitement of this demonstration of popular will. I do not share their enthusiasm; I fear human beings in mobs. Nice, ordinary people can be transformed by group-think (and a handful of manipulators) into deadly and destructive monsters. It takes only moments to go from a peaceful demonstration to organized burning, looting, and murder. But so far, this “revolution” has been remarkab more...

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Tunisia Is Not the Model For Other Arab World “Revolutions”

Tunisia, one of the more stable dictatorships in the Arab world, has erupted into what looks like a revolution. While this may remind us of the failed revolution last summer in Iran, the Tunisian dictator and his wife have left the country after a 23-year run. In Iran, the dictators are still there—barely holding on.

What makes this particular revolution significant is that it is not happening in a vacuum. Tunisia is a small country (10.6 million) in North Africa, close to south more...

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Why Do We Hate Government?

Democrats and Republicans have different ideas (in theory) of what government should do. Both believe that, as our founding father James Madison noted, if men were angels, they would need no government. But since they are not, they need government to control the unangelic among us---and government needs to control itself as well. Government is not given a free hand to rule. In our system, we have multiple checks and balances so that no one sector of government can become a dictatorship of unlimi more...

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Arab Spring Is a Conflict between Religion and Nationalism.

The enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and its birth of democracy in the Middle East gives me heartburn. What we hoped is not what we got. Now, as disillusion sets in, not only ours, but also that of the young demonstrators (particularly young women) who shed their own blood in Tahrir Square and Tunisia, we need to see what the optimists missed.

We have again mistaken voting for democracy. Although people who have never had choices love to vote, they really do not like choices that th more...

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December 2010

How Fragile is Civilization and How Thoughtless is Anarchy!


We in the developed world live in a civilization that would make our ancestors giddy. We have rule of law, participatory government, literacy, property rights and contracts, and live with possessions never dreamed of by the most lavish emperors of the past. But the most important thing that characterizes our civilization is a culture of trust. We trust that we do not have to fear our neighbors, that the market always has food, that there is a system of law enforcement that works quite we more...

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What is National Security?


The first duty of a government is to keep its citizens (or subjects) safe. Safe from what? We live in such relative safety that most of us have forgotten what the world was like for our ancestors—and what it is like for too many people around the globe today.

Many governments in history that kept their subjects safe were dictatorial and monstrous. Yet the devil they knew (the local tax collector or executioner) were better than the other devil they remembered all too we more...

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Take Another Look at Tony Blair—Who Maybe Got It Right.

History does not necessarily validate contemporary assessments of famous politicians. Tony Blair, one of the most popular British Prime Ministers ever, left office under a cloud of opprobrium, not only by his own countrymen, but American progressives as well. He was condemned for having supported the war in Iraq (the 2003 war) and was dubbed “George Bush’s Poodle.” This is a sad end to what was a dazzling career—but maybe it is not the last word.

In Philadelphia (September more...

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September 2010

A Venetian Tradition Bites the Dust—a Woman Gondolier!


On 9/11, our country was attacked by a sect particularly offended by the equality of men and women (an abomination in suicide/murderer Atta’s eyes). It is appropriate, then, to celebrate one of the most amazing revolutions in history—that women are not property but are persons. This revolution still horrifies many of the world’s more benighted cultures, as we know from their words and actions. See Time Magazine’s August 9 cover showing a young Afghan woman whose nose and ears wer more...

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Religious Toleration Has Never Been Absolute.


The First Amendment of the US Constitution requires: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

There is no quarrel that Americans have the right to have their own religion (and that the government will not select an official one) and that they ma more...

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Laina At the Movies, August, 2010

FAREWELL. I am recommending a movie that you might only be able to get on Netflix because it has come and will go with little notice. The reason to notice it is that not only is this a true story, but an important piece of Cold War history that we all need to understand.

The film is set in April, 1981, at a time that the US and USSR came the closest to outright conflict since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ronald Reagan was president, and Francois Mitterrand had just been elected to more...

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Does Enlightened Self-Interest Rule the World?


Our founding fathers were influenced by the European Enlightenment, a movement reacting to two centuries of Catholic/Protestant religious wars, which ultimately disgusted intellectuals. Religion was the glue that had held Europe together from the fall of Rome to the end of the religious wars. But in its absence, what would be the new glue?

Jefferson took apart his Bible, discarded the “superstitious parts,” and rebound the remaining slim volume. He liked the moral tea more...

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What Are The Good Old Days?

In final exams given to my World History classes, the last question was: “If you had a time machine, which culture in the past would you choose to live in—and why would you choose it?” Then came part 2: “ If you had to gamble on being female rather than male, slave rather than upper class, would you still choose that culture?”

They all got it. The good old days were not good for everyone, and those cultures that had the largest number of unfortunate people were the ver more...

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Annual Darwin Awards?


Darwin Awards usually refer to those whose decisions are so stupid that they remove themselves from the gene pool by dying. My annual survey uses a slightly different definition: those whose decisions are so flawed that the consequences of their actions reduce the global IQ.

Religious Wisdom. A senior Iranian cleric, the ever dazzling Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, who leads Friday prayers at Tehran University, knows whom to blame when Tehran has a huge earthquake. This cit more...

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What Makes President Karzai Tick?



One of the most difficult issues for foreign policy is to understand the default nature of a culture. By this, I mean, what are the normal values that people in a particular culture have, values inculcated by parents, community, and history? Human beings are certainly capable of sometimes radical change under the right circumstances—but over the long haul, we all revert to what feels natural and right.

Americans are always taken aback when a person from another c more...

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Tea Party Buffs and the Far Left are Buddies.



Recently, I heard an interview with ultra-conservative former congressman Dick Armey. He apparently thinks that Social Security, Medicare, and other social services should be voluntary, which would, of course, gut them. But the real surprise came when he was asked if there is anybody on the left that he admires and he named Ron Dellums, a former congressman and current mayor of Oakland. Dellums is about as far on the political left (and ineffectual) as one can get. Why should Arm more...

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October 2009

Can Too Much Freedom Destroy Democracy?


We have just gone through a summer of obnoxious free speech—which the First Amendment of our Constitution is designed to protect. But there is one caveat in our protection of free speech: it must not pose a public danger (rousing a mob to violence, encouraging assassination of public officials, or falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater).

I would say we are getting close to that caveat—and have been teetering on this brink for some time.

The more...

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July 2009

The Iranian Revolution May Be In Phase Two


It is not easy to track the progress of the current Iranian Revolution, considering the blocking efforts of the Islamic Revolutionary government. However, people still come and go, and once out of Iran, talk. This includes analysts—several of the best of them, Iranian-born (Karim Sadjatpour and Trita Parsi), have been in Iran recently and have many contacts there.

President Obama correctly noted that “the dust has not settled” in the aftermath of the contentious (and more...

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September 2001

Janus Blindsided: The Islamic Revolution


Comparative Civilizations Review, No. 45, Fall 2001

I. Introduction
The Islamic Revolution of Iran has had spillover effect throughout the Middle East and the world. In the intervening two decades since that cataclysm, many scholars have attempted to analyze the causes and to speculate why a modernizing revolution turned into a backward march. Although scholars generally agree on the basic events of the monarchy's collapse, there is no agreement on the causes and more...

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