Straight talk on American Education.



The cost of sending your kid to a university has gone up by 8 percent in the middle of the next-best-thing to “The Great Depression” that my folks lived through. President Obama—God bless his pointy little head—has offered a plan to help some of the worst off. His Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has been hard at work on a plan to replace the much-despised “No Child Left Behind” with “Well, Some Children Will Be Left Behind.” (At least it falls in the tradition of what American schools have been doing for two hundred years.) Asian countries have been gaining on American educational achievement like alligators fed on a mix of steroids and speed. Americans are desperate for better and more cost-effective schools.

I’ve taught at a little college for almost twenty years and at an Enormous State University for half a dozen years before that, so I’ve got a pretty good idea of what high-school graduates bring with them to college (aside from enormous bongs and that idiot dub-step music). I’ve got two boys aged twenty (graduated from a public school in the suburbs and attending a private college in the farther suburbs) and seventeen (who may graduate from an elite private school—unless he does one more thing to piss-off the headmaster), so I’ve got some idea of what kids are capable. Here’s my plan.

Close a bunch of the lesser universities and colleges, public and private. On the one hand, this will increase the competition among students to get in to colleges. There won’t be “safety schools.” There will just be clerking at Wawa or being the assistant manager for deep-fried products on the swing-shift at McDonald’s. You’ll end up looking like Jabba the Hutt and you’ll never get a member of the opposite sex to look at you. So, get good grades in high-school or Darwinism will take care of the rest. On the other hand, this will stop the facilities arms race that began in the Seventies. I spent six weeks in a Harvard dorm one summer a few years ago. No air-conditioning, buy your own fan; drizzle of lukewarm water from the shower, no matter how far you had run; took five minutes to get the badly-cut key to turn in the door lock; Army noodles with ketchup in the dining hall every night; did you want them with fish balls, pork balls, or tofu balls? Gym is crowded? Go for a run and do some push-ups. Library is crowded? Read your textbook in your room. Classroom is crowded? Get there early or stand at the back. Long line outside the professor’s office? Bring a book—or chat with the others about Darwin.

Fix the public schools. On the one hand, “Waiting for Superman” was right up to a point, but then confused the little bit—teachers’ unions are bad–with the larger whole of the problem—the schools are a mess. You have to be smart, committed, and know your subject to teach. Nothing more. Teach for America is right: smart kids who know a lot about their subject do better than ordinary teachers. Socrates didn’t have an Education degree. In fact, nobody had an Education degree before the end of the 19th century. Education schools didn’t exist. How did we ever manage to progress? On the other hand, stop using the schools as the vehicle for delivering useful public services. Self-esteem, psychological disorders, poor nutrition in the home, bullying, obesity, and sports-band-ceramics for that matter, are not central to the educational mission. Focus! (NB: That doesn’t mean some other agency can’t deliver those services.)

At the root of all our educational problems is the family. Turn off the “social media” (including the television). It turns kids’ brains to applesauce. Take your kids to the public library. Library is closed? This is worth burning buses over. Most of all, read to your kids. Nothing is more important. Except, maybe them seeing you read too.

Technology? Remember, Bill Gates didn’t have a computer in his house or school when he was growing up. Imagination and ambition come from somewhere else.


The End of the University as We Know It.

A letter that the New York Times did not publish.


To the Editor,

Thank you for publishing the wonderfully stimulating and utterly wrong-headed essay by X    X.  Professor X writes from the perspective glimpsed from the balcony of the ivory tower and, as so often happens, his view is distorted.  (Try shooting a gun downhill sometime: one tends to aim too high and miss the target.)  My own perspective on the problems of American education–seen from closer to–or even under–ground level–is as follows.

First, the essential problem is to fix public education.  There is no reason so many people should be going to college after high school.  The reason they do so is because college has become two years of remedial high school and two years of post-industrial arts classes.  Schools are failing to prepare students for life in any of its forms, so college has become a form of educational Spackle.  This situation can be remedied.  The remedy would entail getting rid of schools of Education and teacher certification.  I have one son in a public school, generally bored out of his mind; I have another son in a boarding school, deeply engaged by all that his teachers place before him.  Many of the teachers in the public school are time-servers waiting on retirement.  None of the teachers in the boarding school have ever taken a class in an Education program.  Education courses are a waste of time which deprives their students of exposure to real knowledge in other disciplines.  Teach for America is the “dirty secret” to which Professor Taylor should attend.

It would also entail doing away with the system of funding public education through local property taxes.  This is a formula for disaster for any children attending public schools in depressed urban or rural areas.  Parents in upper middle class areas already load enough cultural advantages on their children.  The outbreak of swine flu among the students of a Catholic prep school in New York who had spent their Spring Break in Cancun is eloquent testimony to the inequalities of experience which parents can provide. Why make it much worse by relying on local property taxes as the basis for school funding?  States–or the federal government–should equalize per capita school spending.

Second, the follow-on problem is to fix post-secondary education at its various levels.  On the one hand, this would involve forcing a great many minor colleges into bankruptcy.  The Baby Boom led to the expansion of many institutions of American life as the mouse passed through the belly of the snake.  The result was an overbuilding of capacity in many areas.  While retirement homes and Kevorkiums are on the horizon as investment opportunities, colleges and universities are struggling to survive by recruiting from a shrunken pool of students.  The educational arms race has turned colleges toward creating a country club environment in order to attract students.  It also compels them to keep marginal students by supplying support services.  Support staffs at colleges and universities have grown far faster than have full-time faculty teaching substantive knowledge and intellectual skills.  If many colleges were driven out of existence, then the remainder could afford to become pickier about which students they admitted while reducing unnecessary and costly amenities.  The schools would be compelled to do their job properly so that high school graduates would have a better chance of finding work or getting in to a college.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for closing down many marginal graduate programs in the liberal arts.  Only a handful of elite schools–Columbia University among them–have any prospect of seeing the graduates of their Ph.D. programs find rewarding and useful employment.  Many other graduate programs exist to provide the professional certification needed for promotion in various bureaucracies (Education, Psychology, Social Work).  Between these heights lies a morass of graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences which exist for the convenience of the tenured faculty in minor institutions.  By running graduate programs these scholars get teaching assistants to grade the masses of semi-literate work generated by open-admissions policies, and they get students for graduate courses which are so much more interesting than is instructing freshmen on the differences between this and that, and that and which.

How are the interests of the republic advanced by any of this nonsense?


Some questions about the origins of the First World War.

There is one question above all others to which historians return again and again. Could this catastrophe have been avoided? In trying to answer that question, historians have tried to tackle smaller chunks of it. Here is a sampling of the questions that historians have asked.


Did the monarchical governments of Germany, Austria, and Russia impede a rational solution of complex problems by means short of war? If so, how? Is democratic government naturally more peaceful than monarchical or authoritarian government?

Did the military staffs and their plans, especially in central and eastern Europe, get out of hand?

What part did the widely accepted beliefs of the day play in the coming of the war? The elites in all countries saw war as a legitimate instrument of national policy. Many people accepted ideas of competition, rather than cooperation, between countries, races, and social classes.


European social and political systems were out of joint with the basic realities, so perhaps a great upheaval would have come in any event.

What did domestic crises add to the decision for war? Germany’s established rulers faced political problems in dealing with the rise of the SPD and Center parties; the Austrian rulers faced crises over domestic reforms and South Slav resistance to “Magyarization; Russian rulers feared that a failure to support Serbia would revive the revolutionary forces of 1905. Did the struggle for more responsive government in Germany, Austria, and Russia mean that all were headed toward revolution even without the First World War? Did decision-makers choose war as a way of holding off or resolving domestic problems?

What role did international problems play in the decision for war? The key problems were the rightful place of Germany in Europe, the inability of anyone in central and eastern Europe to formulate a constructive solution to the problems of nationalism in multi-national and multi-ethnic states.

Was the war the product of human errors, which could have been avoided or corrected if better people had been in power, or was it the product of profound causes, which better people might have delayed but could not have prevented from boiling up at some point?


To these questions I would add one more. What lessons, if any, do the answers to these questions have for our own time?



Between 2003 and 2008 al-Qaeda in Iraq came to play an important role in the civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites and in the resistance to the occupying American forces. However, they wore out their welcome with the Iraqi Sunnis. In 2008 the Sunni “Awakening” movement swung most of the Iraqi Sunnis against al-Qaeda in Iraq, while the American “surge” added to American strength in the fight. By the end of 2008 the remnants of al-Qaeda had been driven into Syria’s Raqqa province. Syria is torn by a different civil war, so it is in no position tp control its own borders. Here the defeated survivors split into quarreling factions. Al-Qaeda “Classic” lost the initiative to the more radical Islamic State (ISIS). ISIS went about building its power base by recruiting enthusiastic fighters. Many of them are volunteers from Muslim countries outside Syria and Iraq, and perhaps 500 of them come from Western countries. Estimates of the numerical strength of ISIS forces vary widely, from a low of 7,000 to 10,000 actual soldiers to a high of 10,000 to 15,000. ISIS also raised a lot of money through extortion and systematic kidnappings for ransom. In February 2014 al-Qaeda “expelled” ISSIS followers from its clubhouse. As if they cared.

In 2011 the United States withdrew the last of its troops from Iraq. This allowed Shi-ite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to reverse the course of Sunni-Shi’ite reconciliation that had paved the way for the defeat of al-Qaeda. When al-Qaeda renewed its attack in Iraq, many disgruntled Sunnis renewed their cooperation with the jihadists, while the Iraqi army had been degraded through neglect and corruption. Maliki and the Shi’ites had created a disaster.

In early 2014, perhaps 3,000 ISIS fighters invaded Iraq. Iraqi forces failed to hold them back. In June 2014 a small force of ISIS troops (estimated at 800) drove away in panic 30,000 Iraqi Army troops and seized the city of Mosul. Later they advanced toward Baghdad.[1]


To what extent should we worry about ISIS? The ISIS fighters appear to be professionally competent irregular soldiers with experienced commanders. They are adept at terrorism. They attract a good number of recruits from abroad. They have what looks to journalists to be a big war chest funded by crimes. They have the “momentum” so beloved of sports enthusiasts. They scare the living daylights out of a lot of people.

At the same time, they have won their successes in badly fractured countries whose professional soldiers were preoccupied and divided by other conflicts, and where there exists no political consensus. What happens if and when ISIS slams up against opponents with solid governments, real economic and military resources, and a disposition to fight? Turkey, Iran, and Israel form a cauldron in which the ISIS experience is likely to come to an end.

People will immediately scoff at this idea. Iran, Turkey, and Israel cooperating in spite of their bitter grievances with one another? A historical analogy is useful here. Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union all were at odds with one another before the Second World War. The common danger posed by Hitler’s Germany forced them into what Winston Churchill called the “Grand Alliance.” That alliance began to unravel as soon as the danger had passed.

Another historical analogy is that of Sino-Soviet relations in 1949. Americans assumed that the Soviets would alienate the Chinese. The Korean War then prolonged the Sino-Soviet alliance. Now some Americans assume that ISIS will alienate Sunnis. What if the unexpected happens, as it often does? Which historical analogy is correct, if either one is correct? Should the United States take the lead in solving this problem?

[1] “Rise of a terrorist state,” The Week, 11 July 2014, p. 9.


Back in the very many days ago, there were a couple of runty little Jewish kingdoms in what is today Palestine (between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean).  Then came the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks under that psycho Alexander, and the Romans.  No more Jewish kingdoms.  Jews ended up spread all over the Middle East and Europe.

Flash forward to the end of the 19th Century.  Everybody else gets a country (Germany, Italy, Rumania for crying out loud), why shouldn’t the Jews have a country too?  This idea is called Zionism.  Trouble is that the place where Zionists wanted to have that country, Palestine, was now full of Muslims and belonged to the Ottoman Empire.            Then, jump to the First World War.  The Ottoman Empire fought on the same side as Germany (which lost) and against Britain (which won).  The Ottoman Empire got broken up, with the British in temporary charge of Palestine.  Also, during the war the British had supported the creation of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine.

Next, along came the Nazis, who tried to wipe out the Jews of Europe.  After the war many of the survivors of the Holocaust didn’t want to remain in Europe.  One bright idea: let them go to Palestine.  Zionists liked the sound of this.  Arabs didn’t like the idea because they were starting to set up their own countries and didn’t see why they should take in a bunch of European colonists just because some other Europeans had done some bad stuff.  Brits weren’t too crazy about this idea because it would make the Arabs mad.  Nevertheless, the Zionist managed to ship the Jews to Palestine, then fought a war (1948-1949) with the Arab countries in order to create the state of Israel.

Lots of Palestinian Arab Muslims got driven off their land during the war.  They ended up living in refugee camps in Egypt (Gaza Strip), Jordan (on the West Bank), and Syria.  Arab countries weren’t too good about taking in their fellow Arabs, although they were pretty good at chasing out all the Jews from their own countries and stealing their property.  Instead, the Arab countries kept talking about wiping Israel off the map and letting all the Palestinian refugees go home.

However, the post-Holocaust Jews of Israel weren’t the pre-Holocaust Jews of Europe.  After the Holocaust the Israelis always took people seriously when they said that they wanted to wipe out the Jews, then spent a lot of time figuring out how to beat up on people who talked that way.  They beat up on Egypt in 1956; then Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in 1967; then Egypt and Syria in 1973; then they bombed a nuclear reactor under construction in Iraq in 1981.

Outcomes of the war of 1967. First, Israel took the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which were full of Palestinian Arab Muslims.  So they have this huge population of captives who hate their guts.  Second, the Palestinians got fed up with Mickey Mouse Arab countries talking about wiping Israel off the map, only to get beat up on by Israel, always making the situation of the Palestinians worse than it was before the Arab countries tried to “help.”  Palestinians decided that they were going to have to fight on their own to create a country.  It had worked for Israel, so be like Israel.  They didn’t have an army or an air force, so they turned to terrorism.  Israel doesn’t want to turn loose of the West Bank and Gaza if it is just going to turn into a safe-haven for extremists who will try to wipe out Israel, but the longer Israel holds these people captive the more anti-Israel the Palestinians become.  If that’s possible.

Yemen and Nomen.

The Christmas Day 2009 “Underwear Bomber” brought attention to a little-known, impoverished, physically desolate, ill-governed, violent corner of the world. No not Detroit. Yemen, on the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Conditions in Yemen are miserable. Yemen consists of mountains and deserts and tribes. Furthermore, there are fewer than thirty million Yemenis, but they own sixty million guns. Then, the economy is dead: about half the population lives in poverty and over a third of the work force is unemployed. What little oil there is won’t last much longer. There is a shortage of water that will only get worse. Yemeni women have an average of six children, so the population is rising rapidly.

Political conditions make this dire situation even worse. First, the recent President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was seen as a crook and a tyrant. After two successive presidents had been assassinated, the army put him into power in 1978. He quickly entrenched himself. Then, in 1990 his government managed to get control of the southern region, which is home to the oil resources of the country. Since then it has bled the region of the oil revenue while starving it of resources. So there is an insurgency underway. Then, in the north there are Shi’a Muslims who dislike being ruled by a Sunni government. So there is an insurgency under way. Then, because the economy is in poor shape, unemployed young men tend to have a lot of time to kill. Fundamentalist religious preachers abound, usually spewing stuff about Islam establishing its world predominance through struggle. One of these preachers was the Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who was in touch via internet with Major Nidal Hasan before he killed thirteen soldiers at Fort Hood in November 2009, and he met with the “underwear bomber” before his mission in December 2009. Guy appeared to be in a rut.

So, it is a natural environment for Al Qaeda. The first Al Qaeda people showed up as early as 1992. In 2000 Al Qaeda bombed the USS Cole when it was entering port in Yemen. Later on, Yemeni jihadists went to fight the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the survivors of those adventures have returned home over the years. When the Saudi Arabian government stomped down on jihadists sympathizers after 9/11, many of them fled to Yemen. Right now it is estimated that anywhere from 300 to 500 committed Al Qaeda fighters are somewhere in Yemen. (For obvious reasons, it’s a little tricky to go door to door doing a proper census.) More recently the British and American embassies in the capital city of Sanaa were attacked. Most recently, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian Muslim studying in Yemen, was recruited as the “Underwear bomber.” So, the place is a pain-in-the-neck for the United States.

Generally, Yemenis don’t like the United States as an abstract concept. The government is less anti-American than are the people generally, but people don’t like the government either. If the government co-operates too openly with the United States in opposing Al Qaeda, it will become even less popular than it is now. The result may be that it will be over-thrown by people who are pro-Al Qaeda. So, we can let the situation sort of fester in hopes that nothing worse will appear, or we can push for action against Al Qaeda and make that worse situation appear. I suppose we could invade the place to bring them hope and change, just like we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for you?”

“Terrorism’s new hideout,” The Week, 22 January 2010, p. 11.

Halloween on the Border.

Actions have unintended consequences. Even actions with a high moral purpose behind them can turn out to cause unforeseen problems far down the road.

The United States has waged war on drug gangs at home and drug cartels abroad. The two targets overlapped in Southern California. There, two big street gangs—MS-13 and MS-18—recruited large numbers of their members from Central American illegal immigrants. The gang members came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.[1] In the late 1990s a US law allowed the deportation of non-citizens who committed a crime in the United States. Between 2000 and 2010, the US deported 100,000 gang-members back to their country of origin in “Con Air”[2] flights.

The deported gangsters just took up where they left off, only in countries with far less robust law enforcement. As has been the case in Mexico and Columbia, the drug gangs used violence and money to take over big sectors of the economies and societies of their new “homelands.” The homicide rate in San Pedro Sula, for example, is 187/100,000 people. (That’s bad: the over-all US rate is 5/100,000.) The violence terrified many people in these countries. It also terrified parents who had migrated illegally to the US while leaving their children behind in the care of relatives. Some of those people sought to get their children to safety.

Enter the unintended effects of other US government actions. For decades, high-minded people have been worried about human-trafficking. The possible sexual exploitation of children as part of this trafficking really sets off alarm bells. In 2008 a US law required that unaccompanied minors from Central America caught entering the US illegally be given a hearing before being returned to their homes. The Immigration courts are under-staffed, so this whole process can take a year. (Meanwhile, the children are released to relatives or volunteer host families and just disappear.) Then in 2012, President Obama ended the deportation of young illegals who had lived in the US for at least five years without blotting their copy-books.

In Central America, “coyotes”—human traffickers—saw a market need and rushed to fill it. They told worried parents that illegal immigrant minors could not be deported from the United States. The parents did what any parent would do in similar circumstances. They paid the “coyotes.” The “coyotes” did what any businessmen would do in similar circumstance. They provided the service for which they had been paid. In Spring and Summer 2014, almost 60,000 children of various ages illegally entered the United States. They came by way of Mexico, but they came from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Having already taken actions that unintentionally caused the problem in the first place, the US government is now dead-locked about what action to take to make it go away.   The Republicans want to change the 2008 law so that the Immigration Service can put the new immigrants on kiddy versions of “Con Air” flights as soon as they show up. The Democrats want to throw money at immigration judges to legally process the new immigrants under the existing law. Given how actions have unintended consequences, maybe inaction is the best thing. Although, philosophically speaking, inaction is a kind of action.

“The origins of the border crisis,” The Week, 15 August 2014, p. 9.

[1] Although, curiously, not from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or Panama.

[2] The Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, run by the US Marshal Service, inspired the movie “Con Air” (1997, dir. Simon West, prod. Jerry Bruckheimer), but bears no resemblance to it. If it did it would probably try to enter the Witness Protection Program and live as an insurance agent in Dubuque.


Narcostate within a State.

The Clinton administration (1992-2000) made a great push against the Columbian drug cartels and this effort was continued by the Bush administration (2000-2008). American blocking of sea and air imports forced the Columbians to switch to overland shipments through Mexico. A Mexican gang—the Guadalajara cartel– then sank their talons into the flow of drugs. “If you want to move it through Mexico, then we’re the ones who are going to move it. Or else.” In 1989 the leader of the cartel got arrested. His former subordinates grabbed chunks of turf, creating the Sinaloa, Juarez, and Tijuana cartels. Then they started to fight with one another for larger shares of the flow.

Mexican drug gangs haul in an estimated $8 billion to $23 billion a year. This kind of money buys a lot in a poor country. It buys machine guns and rocket-launchers, policemen and judges, politicians and government officials, and lots and lots of gunmen. From 2006 to 2008 drug gangs killed 3,500 people; during 2008 they killed 6,000; and by April 2009 they killed a further 1,000. Often they did it in gruesome fashion. Possibly as many as 60,000 people have been killed. In a sense, every level of Mexican society has a stake in the trade. Almost half a million Mexicans are involved in the business in some way; songs celebrating the drug lords (”narcocorridos”) are wildly popular with poor Mexicans, and Raul Salinas, the brother of a former president, is sometimes alleged to be the ruler of the Mexican drug transportation business. (“The gang war that’s ravaging Mexico,” The Week, 21 March 2008, p. 11.)

Nevertheless Mexican president Felipe Calderone moved aggressively against the drug lords from early 2007 on. Why did he do so? The huge profits from the drug trade allowed the drug lords to begin buying chunks of the legitimate economy. In a sense they posed a grave threat to the ruling elite in Mexico by seizing both its economic and political power. War followed between the drug lords and the government. When the drug gangs savaged the police forces, Calderone called in the army. Forty-five thousand soldiers flooded into some of the most lawless towns of Mexico. Thousands of low level gun men and dealers have been arrested. However, it isn’t clear that the government is winning this fight. The army may prove just as vulnerable to corruption as have the police and the rest of the government. (“Mexico’s brutal drug war,” The Week, 10 April 2009, p. 11.)

What are the national security implications of this for the United States? The violence and corruption creates the danger that Mexico’s government will collapse or fall captive to the drug lords. This will put a narco-state on the porous border with the United States. If we can’t keep out the drugs or the illegal immigrants, how are we going to keep out the killers and corruptors? For a long time, we didn’t: they were just busy in Mexico. Now the Mexican drug gangs have invaded the United States. They operate in 230 American cities. (“Mexico’s brutal drug war,” The Week, 10 April 2009, p. 11.)

The Sinaloa cartel is the most powerful of these. It centers its American operations in Chicago because it is a major transportation hub in the center of America’s densest population distribution. Moreover, there is a suspicion that the Sinaloa cartel cooperates with the DEA to weed-out other cartels. Apparent victories in the “war on drugs” merely hide the growing power of the Sinaloa cartel. (“Mexico’s drug kings,” The Week, 31 January 2014, p. 9.)

A Dog In This Fight?

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reveals some of the complexities of American policies in the Middle East.[1] In August 2011 President Obama stated that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had to leave power. Assad thought different. He fought on, helped by Russia and Iran. The view of one Middle Eastern researcher[2] is summarized in the article. “Having declared that the Assad regime had to go, [the White House] found that there was no opposition group that didn’t have some ties to jihadists, and actively backing the rebels would put the United States on the same side as al-Qaeda.”

In 2012 many senior defense, diplomatic, and intelligence officials urged President Obama to provide arms and training to “moderate” groups within the anti-Assad rebellion. However, voices of caution warned that any American arms provided to the “moderates” could well end up in the hands of “extremists.”   This wasn’t a foolish concern. The “moderates” regarded the “extremists” as valuable allies in the fight against Assad. The “extremists” could have acquired—either taking them from unresisting “moderates” or actually being given to them–American weapons provided to the “moderates.”

The American government began keeping an eye on the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) when it established a strong position in Syria in 2012. They were aware that thousands of foreign fighters traveled to join ISIL through Turkey. They were aware that ISIL intended to use a base in Syria to rejoin the fight in Iraq. They were aware that Iraqi forces weren’t up to the job of defeating ISIL. In August 2013, some American diplomats in the Baghdad embassy urged that US drone strikes be launched against ISIL bases in eastern Syria.

In February 2014, a State Department official told a Congressional committee that ISIL’s operations “are calculated, coordinated, and part of a strategic campaign led by its Syria-based leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The campaign has a stated objective to cause the collapse of the Iraqi state and carve out a zone of government control in western Iraq and Syria.” The official explained that the “Iraqi government wanted to act on its own with our assistance.”

However, American assistance was not forthcoming. Why not? For one thing, the Americans wanted something from the al-Maliki government in return for their help. They wanted him to close the air-corridor across Iran by means of which the government of Iran was sending arms to the Assad regime. Prime Minister al-Maliki refused. In the view of the State Department, “it is … legitimate to question Iraq’s independence given Iran’s ongoing use of Iraqi airspace to resupply the Assad regime.” Four months later, ISIL forces seized the Iraqi city of Mosul. Soon they advanced toward Baghdad. Both Iran and the United States sent aid.

Lessons learned:

First, President Obama declared that Assad had to go before he explored the nuts-and-bolts of how that would come about. See: “the Cambridge Police were stupid.”

Second, Americans regard Iraq as “independent” when it follows American instructions instead of following a foreign policy of its own. See: Germany and the Ukraine crisis.

Third, Syrian Alawites-Iraqi Shi’ites-Iranian Shi’ites are lining up against Syrian Sunnis-Iraqi Sunnis-“extremist” foreign fighters. Does the United States actually have a dog in this fight?

[1] Jonathan S. Landay, “U.S. knew of jihadis’ goals,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 July 2014: A16.


[2] Phillip Smyth. See:

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Some of the countries in the Middle East are make-believe countries. That is, after the First World War the British and the French carved up the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine were created on map tables in Europe before they had any reality for the people who lived there. Religious and other divisions within these areas were of little interest to the French and British decision-makers of the time. Those administrative territories then became sovereign states, mostly after the Second World War. So, Kurds were divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims were grouped together in Iraq and—to a lesser extent—in Syria. Tensions smoldered: a Sunni minority dominated the Shi’a majority in Iraq; Christians, Muslims, and Druze struggled in Lebanon; and Palestine became the target for immigration by Eastern European Jews without the consent of the Arabs. That did not mean that these countries were doomed to fail. Good judgment, a spirit of cooperation, and self-restraint could go a long way to building bridges. All of those things have been in short supply in post-American Iraq.

The Iraqi insurgency had been defeated when the Sunnis switched sides to oppose the Islamist fundamentalists of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Nouri al-Maliki–a member of the Shi’a Muslim majority sect–became Prime Minister in 2006. During his campaign for re-election in 2010 he promised to form a “unity” government that included representatives of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities. Then the United States withdrew the last of its forces in 2011.

Maliki (and the Shi’a he represented) promptly changed course. Maliki’s program was to concentrate power in the hands of Shi’ites, while spurning both Sunnis and Kurds. First, he opened the way for a spectacular increase in the high level of corruption. Hundreds of billions of dollars of oil revenue had been diverted to private hands. The diverted revenues benefitted only Maliki’s followers. Soon, Maliki turned on the Sunnis more directly. They were purged from the government and tens of thousands were imprisoned. Maliki’s power grab alienated the Sunnis from the government. It sent some of them back into co-operation with Islamist groups.

The key Islamist group is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is simultaneously fighting in Iraq and in the Syrian Civil War. The major cities have been targeted for bombings. This coincided with the run-up to elections in April 2014. In April 2014, 750 people died, either in bombings of public places or in street-fighting between the security forces and insurgents. By May 2014, ISIL and the Sunni opponents of Maliki had won control of Anbar province west of Baghdad. By June 2014 the decision by Maliki and the Shi’ites to grab all the toys for themselves proved to have been a catastrophically bad decision. In June ISIS forces suddenly over-ran Mosul and Tikrit, while four divisions of the Iraqi Army just folded up in front of the attack. (“Iraq, three years later,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 11.)

Iraq’s Army offers a particularly telling example. Under Maliki, religious affiliation replaced competence as a criteria for many senior officers; purely Shi’ite divisions concentrated near Baghdad, while mixed divisions were sent to the provinces; troop training, equipment maintenance, and logistical support all suffered as the military budget was diverted just like the oil revenue. (Eric Schmitt and Michael Gordon, “The Iraqi Army was Crumbling Long Before Its Collapse, U.S. Officials Say,” NYT, 13 June 2014.)

ISIL probably can’t conquer Iraq or even hold its present gains. But when their tide ebbs, what will Iraqis do with their country?