THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION ADRIFT IN ARABIA
By Dr. Efraim Karsh
So, I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't." 
Reverting to standard "post colonial" rhetoric, the President squarely blamed the West for "the great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world." "The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars," he claimed. Obama continued:
"Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims… [culminating in] the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians." 
While there is no denying the widespread appeal of this argument, there is also no way around the fact that, in almost every particular, it is demonstratively, even invidiously, wrong. The depiction of Muslims as hapless victims of the aggressive encroachments of others is patronizing in the worst tradition of the "white man's burden," which has dismissed regional players as half-witted creatures, too dim to be accountable for their own fate. Moreover, Islamic history has been anything but reactive. From the Prophet Muhammad to the Ottomans, the story of Islam has been the story of the rise and fall of an often-astonishing imperial aggressiveness and, no less important, of never quiescent imperial dreams and repeated fantasies of revenge and restoration. These fantasies gained rapid momentum during the last phases of the Ottoman Empire, culminating in its disastrous decision to enter World War I on the losing side, as well as in the creation of an imperialist dream that would survive the Ottoman era to haunt Islamic and Middle Eastern politics into the 21st century.
To this very day, for example, many Muslims unabashedly pine for the restoration of Spain, and look upon the expulsion of the Moors from that country in 1492 as a grave historical injustice. Osama bin Laden highlighted "the tragedy of Andalusia" in the wake of the 9-11 attacks , while the perpetrators of the subsequent March, 2004, Madrid bombings, in which hundreds of people were murdered, mentioned revenge for the loss of Spain as one of the atrocity's "root causes." 
Indeed, even countries that have never been under Islamic imperial rule have become legitimate targets of radical Islamic fervor. Since the late 1980s, various Islamist movements have looked upon the growing number of French Muslims as a sign that France, too, has become a potential part of the House of Islam.  In Germany, which extended a warm welcome to the scores of Islamists fleeing persecution in their home countries, the radical Muslim Brotherhood has successfully established itself, with ample Saudi financing, as the effective voice of the three million-strong Muslim community.  Their British counterparts have followed suit; "We will remodel this country in an Islamic image," London-based preacher Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad told an attentive audience less than two months after 9-11. "We will replace the Bible with the Qur'an." 
This goal need not necessarily be pursued by the sword; it can be achieved through demographic growth and steady conversion to Islam. But should peaceful means prove insufficient, physical force can readily be brought to bear.
Nor is this vision confined to a tiny extremist fringe, as President Obama apparently believes. That much is clear from the overwhelming support the 9-11 attacks garnered throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, the admiring evocations of bin Laden's murderous acts during the 2006 crisis over the Danish cartoons, and polls indicating significant reservoirs of sympathy among Muslims in Britain for the "feelings and motives" of the suicide bombers who attacked London in July, 2005. 
In the historical imagination of many Muslims, bin Laden represents nothing short of the new incarnation of Saladin, defeater of the Crusaders and conqueror of Jerusalem. In this sense, the House of Islam's war for world mastery is a traditional, indeed venerable, quest that is far from over. If, today, America is reviled in the Muslim world, it is not because of its specific policies, but because, as the preeminent world power, it blocks the final realization of this same age-old dream of a universal Islamic community, or umma.
It is the failure to recognize this state of affairs that accounts for the resounding failure of Obama's policies toward the Middle East and the Muslim World. For all his hyped outreach to Arabs and Muslims — from the pledged "new way forward" in his inaugural speech to his first major presidential interview, given to the Al-Arabiya television network, to his submissive bow to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, to his instruction to NASA to reach out to the Muslim world — Obama has failed to win the quiescence, let alone the respect and admiration, of these societies. On the contrary, in line with Osama bin Laden's handy quip in the immediate wake of the 9-11 attacks that "when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse,"  his prestige has been on a downward spiral since the first days of his Presidency. In the recent words of a Saudi academic, who had been formerly smitten with the first black U.S. President: "He talks too much." 
In his Al-Arabiya interview, a mere week after his inauguration, Obama already promised that if Iran agreed "to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." Two months later, in a videotaped greeting on the occasion of the Iranian New Year, he reassured the clerics in Tehran of his absolute commitment "to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us," claiming that this "new beginning" would win Iran substantial economic and political gains, most notably worldwide acceptance of the legitimacy of the Islamic regime derided by the Bush administration as a central part of the "Axis of Evil." This, however, could only be achieved --
In his Cairo address, Obama amplified this suggestion. While warning Iran that its nuclear ambitions might lead to "a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path," he made no allusion to the possibility of coercion, going out of his way to show empathy with Iran's supposed sensitivities. "I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not," he said.
However appealing as an intellectual sophistry (though China and Russia, among others, have remained conspicuously unimpressed), the framing of Iran's nuclear buildup within the context of the NPT is totally misconceived, for the simple reason that the matter at hand is one of international security rather than international legality. Even if Iran were not a signatory to the NPT, and hence legally free to develop nuclear weapons, it would still be imperative for the international community to prevent this eventuality, since the existence of the deadliest weapons at the hands of a militant regime driven by messianic zeal and committed to the worldwide export of its radical brand of Islam would be a recipe for disaster.
Nor is Obama's professed commitment to a nuclear-free world likely to impress the clerics in Tehran. Quite the opposite, in fact. Since their nuclear ambitions emanate from imperialist rather than defensive considerations, the disarmament of other nuclear powers (notably Israel) could only whet the Iranian clerics appetite by increasing the relative edge of these weapons for the Islamic Republic's quest for regional hegemony, if not the world mastery envisaged by its founding father, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. As Khomeini put it in his day:
Moreover, Obama's eagerness to demonstrate his even handedness and goodwill to a regime that views the world in zero sum terms has only served to cast him as weak and indecisive, an image that was further reinforced by the administration's knee jerk response to the Islamic regime's brutal suppression of popular protest over the rigging of the June, 2009, presidential elections in Iran. That the U.S. President, who had made a point in his inaugural address to warn "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent" that they were "on the wrong side of history," and who lectured Muslim regimes throughout the world that "you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion,"  remained conspicuously silent, in the face of the flagrant violation of these very principles, did not pass unnoticed by the Iranian regime. Iran's leaders responded accordingly; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not only demanded that the United States apologize to the Iranian people, but also that it withdraw its troops from conflict zones around the world and "stop supporting the Zionists, outlaws, and criminals." 
He reiterated the demand for an American apology five months later, this time for its supposed meddling in the June, 2009, Iranian elections, while the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ridiculed Obama for privately courting Iran, while censuring it in public. "The U.S. President said that we were waiting for the day when people would take to the streets," he stated in a Friday sermon. "At the same time they write letters saying that they want to have ties and that they respect the Islamic Republic. Which are we to believe?" 
Iran's leaders backed their defiant rhetoric with actions. In a February, 2010, visit to Damascus, for example, Ahmadinejad signed a string of agreements with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad, and the two held warm meetings with the leaders of the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas Islamist terror groups aimed at underscoring the indivisibility of their alliance. Coming a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Syria "to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran" and to stop supporting Hezbollah, the summit was a clear slap in the face of the Obama administration — and proof of the abject collapse of Obama's "engagement" policy.
Having praised Turkey's "strong, vibrant, secular democracy," Obama voiced unequivocal support for the country's incorporation into the European Union — a highly contentious issue among the organization's members. In his opinion, Turkey was "an important part of Europe," which had to be "truly united, peaceful and free" in order to be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century. "Let me be clear," he said:
"I know there are those who like to debate Turkey's future," he continued.
"But I believe here is what they don't understand: Turkey's greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide -- this is where they come together." 
As with his Cairo speech, Obama's reading of the historic Turkish-Western interaction (and its attendant implications) was disastrously flawed. Far from being a bridge between East and West, the Ottoman Empire was an implacable foe that had steadily encroached on Europe and its way of life. It is true that the Nineteenth Century saw numerous instances of Ottoman-European collaboration; but this was merely pragmatic maneuvering aimed at arresting imperial decline and holding on to colonial possessions.
This failed, and, from the end of the Napoleonic wars (1815) to the outbreak of World War I (1914), Turkey was the most violent part of the European continent, as the Ottoman Empire's attempt to keep its reluctant European subjects under its domination unleashed a prolonged orgy of bloodletting and mayhem, from the Greek civil war of the 1820s to the Crimean War to the Balkan crisis of the 1870s to the Balkan wars of 1912-1913.
Obama's exercise in appeasement was wholly unnecessary. By the time he was addressing the Turkish parliament, the country's "strong and secular democracy," lauded by Obama as Atatürk's foremost and most enduring legacy, was well and truly under siege. In the eight eventful years since it won the November, 2002, general elections, the Islamist Justice and Reconciliation Party (AKP) has transformed Turkey's legal system, suppressed the independent media, and sterilized the political and military systems, even as hundreds of opponents and critics have found themselves indicted on dubious charges of a grand conspiracy to overthrow the Turkish government. 
This process was not confined to the domestic scene. Turkey's growing Islamization has been accompanied by a mixture of anti-Western sentiments and reasserted aspirations for regional hegemony, aptly described by a growing number of Turkish and foreign commentators as "Neo-Ottomanism."  Hence Turkey's growing alignment with Iran, exemplified most notably in the attempt to avert the imposition of international sanctions on Tehran by signing (with Brazil) a nuclear fuel swap deal in May, 2010, which would have provided for the dispatch of low-enriched Iranian uranium to Turkey, in return for fuel for one Iranian nuclear reactor. Similarly evocative has been Turkey's eagerness to wrest the mediator's role between Syria and Israel from the West, despite the AKP's overt hostility to Israel and to Jews more generally. Then, there is Turkey's embrace of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, better known by its Arabic acronym, Hamas, which reached its peak in May, 2010, with the sponsorship of a flotilla aimed at breaking the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
To be sure, in his Cairo address Obama made a point of emphasizing the permanence of "America's strong bonds with Israel." But then, by predicating Israel's right to exist on the Holocaust (which he diluted by putting on a par with Palestinian suffering), he effectively adopted the Palestinian narrative. Under that telling, the Palestinians are the real victims of the Holocaust, forced to foot the bill for the West's presumed desire to atone for its genocidal tendencies and indifference through the establishment of a Jewish state. Never mind that there was no collective sense of guilt among Europeans, many of whom viewed themselves as fellow victims of Nazi aggression. Anti-Semitic sentiments remained as pronounced as ever, especially in Eastern Europe, which witnessed a few vicious pogroms shortly after the end of World War II.
Nor did Obama's succeed in advancing his avowed commitment to the two-state solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict -- preservation of the State of Israel and establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. On the contrary, by putting excessive pressure on Israel and none whatsoever on the Arabs, and by casting the issue of West Bank settlements as the foremost obstacle to peace, while turning a blind eye to continued Palestinian and Arab rejection of Israel's right to exist, he managed to alienate the Israeli public and to harden the position of the Palestinian leadership, which watched the recurrent crises in U.S.-Israeli relations with undisguised satisfaction, in anticipation of substantial (and unreciprocated) Israeli concessions. Thus, for example, when on June 14, 2009, in an abrupt departure from Likud's foremost ideological precept, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state, provided the Palestinian leadership responded in kind and recognized Israel's Jewish nature, the Obama administration did nothing to disabuse Arab regimes of their adamant rejection of Jewish statehood and, instead, pressured the Israeli government for a complete freeze of building activities in the settlements and East Jerusalem.
This behavior is not difficult to understand. Appeasement of one's enemies at the expense of friends, whose loyalty can be taken for granted, is a common — if unsavory — human trait. Rather than reward America's longest and most loyal ally in the Middle East, the Obama administration ruthlessly exploited the Jewish state's growing international isolation for the sake of winning over enemies and critics. It was also a telling affirmation that the Obama administration subscribes to the common fallacy that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict constitutes the root of all evil, and that its resolution will lead to regional peace.
Such a view is wildly inaccurate. For one thing, violence was an integral part of Middle Eastern political culture long before the advent of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and physical force remains today the main, if not the sole, instrument of regional political discourse. For another, the Arab states have never had any real stake in the "liberation of Palestine." Though anti-Zionism has been the core principle of pan-Arab solidarity since the 1930s, it has almost always served as an instrument for achieving the self-interested ends of those who proclaim it.
Consider, for example, the pan-Arab invasion of the newly proclaimed state of Israel in May, 1948. On its face, it was a shining demonstration of solidarity with the Palestinian Arabs. But the invasion had far less to do with winning independence for the indigenous population than with the desire of the Arab regimes for territorial aggrandizement. Transjordan's King Abdullah wanted to incorporate substantial parts of mandatory Palestine, if not the entire country, into the greater Syrian empire he coveted; Egypt wanted to prevent that eventuality by laying its hands on southern Palestine; Syria and Lebanon sought to annex the Galilee; Iraq viewed the 1948 war as a stepping stone in its long-standing ambition to bring the entire Fertile Crescent under its rule. Had the Jewish state lost the war, its territory would not have fallen to the Palestinians, but would have been divided among the invading Arab forces.
During the decades that followed, the Arab states manipulated the Palestinian national cause for their own ends. Neither Egypt nor Jordan allowed Palestinian self-determination in the parts of Palestine they had occupied during the 1948 war (respectively, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). Palestinian refugees were kept in squalid camps for decades as a means of derogating Israel and stirring pan-Arab sentiments. "The Palestinians are useful to the Arab states as they are," Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser candidly responded to an inquiring Western reporter in 1956. "We will always see that they do not become too powerful."  As late as 1974, Syria's Hafez al-Assad referred to Palestine as being "not only a part of the Arab homeland, but a basic part of southern Syria." 
If the Arab states have shown little empathy for the plight of ordinary Palestinians, the Islamic connection to the Palestinian problem is even more tenuous. It is not out of concern for a Palestinian right to national self-determination, but as part of a holy war to prevent the loss of a part of the "House of Islam" that Islamists inveigh against the Jewish state of Israel. In the words of the Hamas Covenant:
That current American policy ignores this reality not only serves to weaken Israel and embolden its enemies, but also to make the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace ever more remote.
A new beginning?
A year after announcing "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world," Obama's grandiose outreach lies in tatters. The clerics in Tehran continue their dogged quest for the "bomb" and have intensified arms supplies to their Lebanese terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, with Syria's connivance and support. Turkey persists in its Islamist odyssey, and Hamas continues its military buildup and occasional terror attacks, while at the same time promoting its removal from the EU's list of terror organizations. Nor for that matter has the cold shouldering of Israel enhanced Obama's popularity in the Arab world, as evidenced, inter alia, by recent surveys showing a steady decline in his standing and making him only marginally more popular in comparison with his much maligned predecessor, George W. Bush. 
Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has failed to chart a course that is different in any meaningful way from that of the previous administration. On the contrary, while credit for the relative calm in Iraq is undoubtedly due to the Bush-era "surge," which Senator Obama had bitterly opposed at the time , the military situation in Afghanistan — which he has made the edifice of his struggle against violent extremism — has seriously deteriorated, owing to his indecisive and poorly conceived strategy. Particularly damaging was the pronounced intention to withdraw from the country in the Summer of 2011, which has left the Taliban in the enviable position of lying low and biding their time until the departure of American forces, or wearing them down in a sustained guerrilla and terror campaign, so as to portray the withdrawal as an ignominious retreat.
The truth of the matter is that, in order to have even the slightest chance of success, Obama's "new beginning" must be promptly ended, with appeasement replaced by containment and counterattack. As a first step, the President and his advisers must recognize the Manichean and irreconcilable nature of the challenge posed by their adversaries. There is no peaceful way to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, stemming as they do from its imperialist brand of Islamism; a military strike must remain a serious option. Turkey's Islamist drift is bound to make it an enemy of the West, rather than the ally it was over the past half-a-century. Hamas and Hezbollah will never reconcile themselves to the existence of a Jewish state on any part of the perceived House of Islam, however tiny. And there is no way for the U.S.A. to resolve the century-old war between Arabs and Jews, unless the Palestinian and Arab leaders eschew their genocidal hopes for Israel's destruction and accept the Jewish right to statehood. Failure to grasp these realities is an assured recipe for disaster.
 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by the President on a New Beginning," Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009.
 "Statement of Osama Bin Laden," Al-Jazeera (Doha), October 7, 2001.
 "Beyond Madrid," Times of London, November 1, 2007.
 Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 306.
 Michel Gurfinkiel, "Islam in France: The French Way of Life Is in Danger," Middle East Quarterly 4, no. 1 (March 1997).
 Lorenzo Vidino, "The Muslim Brotherhood's Conquest of Europe," Middle East Quarterly 12, no. 1 (Winter 2005).
 "Poll Shows Muslims in Britain are the Most Anti-Western in Europe," Guardian (London), June 23, 2006; "British Muslims: London Bombing Justified," The Trumpet, October 26, 2006.
 As cited in James Poniewozik, "The Banality Of Bin Laden," Time, December 13, 2001.
 As cited in Fouad Ajami, "The Arabs Have Stopped Applauding Obama," Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2009.
 "Obama's Tone in Iran Message Differs Sharply from Bush's," Washington Post, March 21, 2009.
 "Obama to Iran - 'A New Day, a New Beginning,'" Times of London, March 21, 2009.
 "Remarks by the President on a New Beginning."
 Farhad Rajaee, Islamic Values and World View: Khomeini on Man, the State and International Politics (Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 1983), 82 - 83.
 "Text of Barack Obama's Inaugural Address," New York Times, January 20, 2009; "Remarks by the President on a New Beginning."
 "Ahmadinejad Says Obama Must Apologize to the Iranian People for Bush," Times of London, January 28, 2009; "Iran Rebuffs Obama's Surprise Offer of a 'New Beginning,'" Times of London, March 20, 2009; "Obama Dismisses Ahmadinejad Apology Request," Washington Times, June 26, 2009; "Ahmadinejad: Obama is a Cowboy Who Follows Will of Israel," Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), April 4, 2010; "Iran: Ahmadinejad Threatens Obama with 'Tooth Breaking Response to U.S. Nuclear strategy," Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2010; "Ahmadinejad: Iran is Obama's Only Way to Stay in Power," CNN, April 10, 2010.
 "Ayatollah mocks U.S. Pre-election Overture," CBS, June 24, 2009.
 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by President Obama to the Turkish Parliament," Ankara, Turkey, April 6, 2009.
 Michael Rubin, "Turkey, from Ally to Enemy, Commentary, July/August 2010; Dani Rodrik, "The Death of Turkey's Democracy," Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2010.
 See, for example, Suat Kiniklioglu, "The Return of Ottomanism," Zaman (Istanbul), March 20, 2007; Omer Taspinar, "Neo-Ottomanism and Kemalist Foreign Policy," Zaman (Istanbul), September 22, 2008; Tariq Alhomayed, "Turkey: Searching for a Role," Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), May 19, 2010.
 This according to senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar. He added that "Islamic and traditional views reject the notion of establishing an independent Palestinian state... In the past, there was no independent Palestinian state." "Exclusive Interview with Hamas Leader," The Media Line, September 22, 2005.
 John Laffin, The PLO Connections (London, Corgi Books, 1983), 127.
 Damascus Radio, March 8, 1974.
 Articles 11, 13, 15, 27, The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, August 18, 1988.
 See, for example, Daniel Pipes, "Obama Makes Little Headway among Arabic-Speaking Muslims," The Lion's Den: Daniel Pipes Blog, May 29, 2010; Pew Research Center, Global Attitudes Project, "Muslim Disappointment," June 17, 2010.
 See, for example, "Obama: Iraq Surge has Hurt American Interests," New York Sun, July 15, 2008.
Middle East -- Arabs, Arab States,
& Their Middle Eastern Neighbors
The Middle East & the Problem of Iran
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American Foreign Policy -- The Middle East
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Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
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Dr. Efraim Karsh, Editor of the Middle East Quarterly and author most recently of the book, Palestine Betrayed (Yale University Press, 2000), is Professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College, University of London, U.K. A graduate in Arabic and Modern Middle East History from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and holding the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in International Relations from Tel Aviv University, Dr. Karsh has held academic posts at Harvard University, Columbia University, the Sorbonne, the London School of Economics, Helsinki University, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Founder and Editor of the scholarly journal Israel Affairs, Dr. Karsh has written extensively on Middle East politics, Soviet foreign policy, and European affairs. A regular media commentator, he has appeared on U.K. and U.S. television and radio and contributed articles to leading newspapers in Britain and the U.S.A., among them the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Times (of London).
The foregoing article by Dr. Efraim Karsh was originally published in the The Journal of International Security Affairs, Fall, 2010, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (URL: http://www.meforum.org/ 2763/obama-adrift-in-arabia)
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