SYRIA & THE U.S.A.: BAD HABITS DIE HARD
By Eyal Zisser
In Washington, DC, even officials with a weak spot for Syria found it difficult to swallow the indirect support Syria extended to Saddam Hussein's political regime in Iraq, even as it went down to defeat at the hands of the U.S.-British coalition. They explained this by noting that Bashar was young and inexperienced, and that he simply failed to read the strategic map and U.S. signals.
Yet, Syria's support of Iraq should not have surprised anyone. It was clearly in Syria's interests to have Saddam as a neighbor, rather than the stable pro-American, pro-West- ern democracy sought by Washington. Sympathy toward Iraq was also deeply rooted in Syrian empathy for Saddam's willingness to stand up to the United States—an empathy that extended from the man-in-the-street to Bashar himself.
But the main reason Bashar's audacity should not have surprised Washington was this: it was the logical outcome of the soft approach followed by the United States towards Syria in recent years. In fact, the real surprise in the Syrian-U.S. mini-crisis was not Bashar's conduct but the sharp U.S. reaction to it, especially (but not only) in the Defense Depart- ment. This reaction was very much a break from past U.S. policy.
The future of U.S. policy toward Syria is a question mark. But as Washington ponders what to do next, it should look back and ask where it went wrong in the past. Past U.S. policies of appeasement persuaded Bashar that he could flout American will and get away with it. Only Washington can undo that impression, formed over years of interac- tion with Syria's ruling elite.
Why did Bashar think he could play the defiant Arab hero? The answer lies in recent history and in miscalculations made far from Damascus—miscalculations made in Washington.
The Original Sin:
Syria's relations with the United States have always been tense, and occasionally hostile. They have gravitated between proxy war and discreet cooperation, depending on circum- stances.
The proxy war was waged twenty years ago in Lebanon. After the Israeli invasion of that country in 1982, the United States intervened to keep the peace and restructure the country's politics. But Lebanon was Syria's backyard, and Hafez al-Assad had no inten- tion of allowing the United States to establish a foothold there. In April and October of 1983, two massive bombs destroyed the U.S. embassy and the U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut, killing some 300 servicemen and civilians. Islamic Jihad, the nom de guerre of Hizbullah, claimed responsibility, but U.S. sources consistently suggested that Syria en- couraged these attacks. The struggle for Lebanon left deep rifts in relations between the two countries.
But while the United States effectively ceded Lebanon to Hafez al-Assad, it drew the line at sponsorship of terrorism against Americans elsewhere. From the mid-1980s, the United States took unprecedented measures against regimes suspected of involvement in terrorist acts against American targets. In 1986, American jets bombed the compound of Libyan leader Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi in retaliation for a terrorist attack attributed to his agents. Hafez al-Assad grew wary lest Syria be targeted in the same way. In these years, Assad took care not to get involved in terrorist attacks on Western soil against Western targets.
Syria became even more concerned about the American role after its patron, the Soviet Union, unraveled and collapsed. The Soviet Union had been a model and a source of in- spiration for the Syrian Baath regime, as well as a prime source of political, military, and economic aid and support. Above all, the Soviet Union had provided Syria with strategic backing in the face of a possible Israeli or U.S. attack on Syria. As the Soviet Union weakened, Syria moved to improve relations with Washington, as insurance should the United States emerge as the global hegemonist.
It was an astute policy, but the Syrians had difficulty implementing it for a simple reason: they were not prepared to pay the admission price of a sustained political dialogue with Washington. That would have involved reaching a peace agreement with Israel, as Egypt had done; working with the United States to reach understandings about regional order; and perhaps even opening Syria's doors wide to U.S. political, economic, and cultural in- fluence. Hafez al-Assad was not prepared to follow the Egyptian example, which he re- garded as a sellout of the Arab cause. As a result, Syrian-U.S. relations remained tepid right through the 1980s.
In the early 1990s, the defeat of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the growing isolation of Syria provided the United States with unprecedented lever- age for influencing Syrian policy, and perhaps even fitting Syria into a new American order. But it never happened, and the opportunity was missed. Why?
The original sin appears to have been committed by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and then-Secretary of State James Baker, III. Bush Sr. and Baker had brought Syria into the anti-Iraq coalition in the Summer of 1990. They even initiated Syria into the peace process with Israel in October, 1991, when Syria's foreign minister attended the Madrid Conference, alongside Israel. Bush and Baker probably assumed that the nego- tiations following Madrid would end in a peace agreement between Syria and Israel, bringing Syria into the American camp. In the meantime, Syria had to be conciliated as a future partner, not ostracized as a pariah state.
That assumption was flawed because Hafez al-Assad did not desire a dramatic reorienta- tion of policy or think it necessary. He simply wanted to be left alone to do as he pleased, both in Syria and Lebanon--free to pursue his own agenda in those two countries, and to pursue that agenda without interference on the part of the U.S.A. or any other Western power. So, he sought to do no more than the minimum necessary to buy indulgence from the United States. It was the U.S. administration that set the price of that tranquility or noninterference—and set it amazingly low.
Washington required of Damascus only two things. First, Syria could not be implicated in terror against Americans. Second, Syria's representatives were expected to show up at peace talks with Israel. Syria met both conditions.
Yet, Syrian authorities simultaneously granted a safe haven to undeniably terrorist or- ganizations such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Islamic Jihad's head- quarters is even located in Damascus, where its leader for the past decade, Ramadan Shallah, resides undisturbed. These organizations continued to operate against Israel, and their terrorist attacks contributed to a great extent to the destruction of the Israeli- Palestinian peace process. The Syrian authorities likewise continued to encourage and support Hizbullah in Lebanon and turned a blind eye to the presence of thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in that country. Syria continued granting assistance and shelter to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan, or PKK), which operated against Turkey for most of the 1990s. Syria also continued to maintain and develop its strategic alliance with Iran. And Syria drew on assistance from North Korea and Iran to develop long-range surface-to-surface missiles and chemical and biological weapons. In July, 2001, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Syria of producing chemical and biological warheads in violation of international treaties. The Syrian government ignored the claim.
The United States government, in its policy toward Syria, tolerated all of this, with the expectation that Hafez al-Assad would nevertheless turn the corner at some point in the future. Occasionally, U.S. officials would express weak protest about the regime's more dubious activities. But this did not prevent Syrian emissaries from being welcomed in Washington and American diplomats from doting over Hafez al-Assad. In time, the Syr- ians learned how to deal with these U.S. expressions of concern by simply ignoring them and carrying on as usual. They were scrupulous about meeting the two conditions of ab- staining from anti-American terror and engaging in the diplomacy. They also scrupu- lously continued to support Palestinian and Lebanese terrorism, which served to under- mine the peace negotiations. And it must have amused them that Hafez al-Assad won widespread praise from American leaders and negotiators for his steadfastness and wiliness. Even his bladder came in for admiration (he made it a habit of outlasting his American interlocutors in marathon sessions). Americans seemed not to realize that this simply underlined their own weakness of resolve (and bladder).
The terrorist attacks by Osama bin Ladin's al-Qa‘ida organization on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, drastically changed the American view of the Mid- dle East. The United States asked each Arab and Muslim government a simple question: Are you with us or against us in the "war on terror"? Syria's answer: With you—but, more precisely and sotto voce, with you and against you.
So, Syrian intelligence cooperated with the United States in pursuit of cells from al-Qa- ‘ida. Syria had been careful right through the 1990s not to get mixed up in terrorism against the United States. Bashar made a special effort to guarantee that no suspicion fell on Syria for involvement in the September 11 attacks, and he even offered to assist the United States in its investigations. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents ar- rived in Syria in early 2002 to investigate members of al-Qa‘ida who had been in Syria or who had maintained ties with Syrian citizens. The Americans expressed gratitude to the Syrians for their assistance, and President Bush even called Bashar al-Assad to thank him. Senior U.S. officials said that information provided by Damascus had helped prevent attacks on U.S. targets, saving many American lives.
But Syria's cooperation ended at the point where U.S. demands extended beyond al-Qa- ‘ida to Hizbullah. The United States, as part of its post-September 11 retrospective, concluded it had left too many scores unsettled. Conceptually, this meant that the "war on terror" included Hizbullah, which had the blood of some 300 Americans on its hands. The FBI's list of the twenty-two most wanted terrorists, published after September 11, included three associates of Hizbullah, among them ‘Imad Mughaniyya, long suspected of involvement in the killing of the Americans in Lebanon. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage subsequently described Hizbullah as the "A-team of terrorists."
Reuters quoted Armitage as saying:
For Syria, however, Hizbullah is not in the same category as al-Qa‘ida. Hizbullah is Syr- ia's proxy, useful both in Lebanon and against Israel. Syria would not put pressure on Hizbullah at American behest, or even assist in locating the three wanted men. Mugha- niyya and the others were thought to be openly active in Lebanon under Syria's watchful eye. But when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns named the wanted men to Bashar al-Assad, Bashar denied having any information on their whereabouts. When Hizbullah stepped up its activities against Israel in the course of Israel's "Opera- tion Defensive Shield" in March, 2002, U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney raised the mat- ter with Bashar, who gave him a cold shoulder. According to U.S. sources, Bashar re- garded the approach itself as a sign of U.S. weakness and helplessness. |The Syrians continued supporting and encouraging Hizbullah, ignoring unequivocal U.S. demands that Damascus take steps to rein in the organization.
Syria also continued to conduct business as usual in granting aid and safe haven to Pal- estinian terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Ramadan Shallah, Islamic Jihad's Damascus-based leader, continued to take responsibility for attacks on Israel in statements issued from Damascus. And, of course, Syria continued to foster its strategic alliance with Iran and also its ties with North Korea. These two countries continued to provide Syria with assistance in equipping itself with advanced technologies and weaponry.
Not only did Syria maintain its past policies of defiance, but it embarked upon a new one. In the late 1990s, Syrian-Iraqi relations thawed. In the Autumn of 2000, Syria allowed Iraq to begin pumping oil through an old pipeline to Syria, probably for economic rea- sons. It was a crass violation of the sanctions against Iraq, and Washington was quick to take the Syrians to task for it. The Syrians dismissed the American démarche. They claimed, falsely, that the flow of oil from Iraq to Syria was part of a technical examina- tion of the pipeline, which had been idle for almost two decades, and that the flow would stop once the examination was completed. Bashar himself gave this misleading in- formation to Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush. Syria also assisted Iraq in smuggling combat gear from Eastern Europe via Syria to Iraq and possibly al- lowed Iraq to hide weapons of mass destruction on Syrian soil.
It was Bashar's dangerous Iraq play that brought the United States and Syria to the brink.
Bashar and Baghdad:
In late 2002, the United States turned its attention to Saddam. It was clear that he would eventually bear the brunt of American force, and that the United States would take a dim view of anyone who backed the Iraqi regime. Virtually all the Arab governments under- stood this—except the Syrian government.
The Syrian regime had already allowed growing expression of anti-American sentiment in the streets of Damascus over U.S. support for Israel. During Israel's "Operation De- fensive Shield" in March, there were anti-American street demonstrations in the Syrian capital. A popular committee was established in Damascus to promote the boycott of American products. Signs appeared in the windows of restaurants reading, "No entry to Americans." The U.S. Consul in Damascus was ceremoniously escorted out of the Ocsigen restaurant in Bab Tuma, the Christian quarter of Damascus. The restaurateurs became heroes for more than a day.
In the Fall, Syria's leaders greeted heightened U.S. rhetoric over Iraq with strongly worded statements against the United States. Syrian Vice-President ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam said: "The American attack against Iraq is designed to bring about the parti- tion of that country, which serves as a strategic target for Israel, and is in fact part of a long-time Zionist plan to break up the fabric of national unity of the countries in the re- gion." Syrian minister of information ‘Adnan ‘Umran added: "Involvement of Amer- icans in the domestic affairs of the Arab countries is reminiscent of the colonial period, and if Washington could, it would bring us all back to that period."
Much was made of the fact that Syria, a member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, supported Security Council Resolution 1441 of November 8, 2002. That resolu- tion set a high standard of compliance for Iraq, and Iraqi newspapers attacked Syria for its "treason" in supporting it. But France influenced Syrian support for the resolu- tion, and Syria, like France, seemed to believe that the resolution could actually be in- voked to prevent a U.S. attack on Iraq.
As the Coalition offensive loomed, Bashar himself joined in. "The United States," he announced, "is interested only in gaining control over Iraqi oil and redrawing the map of the region in keeping with its worldview. … In the past, we did not sense the danger closing in on us in the face of fateful developments, including the Sykes-Picot agreement , the Balfour declaration , and the establishment of the State of Israel , but the danger to the Arabs inherent in the war in Iraq is no less than any of those." He warned the Arabs against U.S. friendship, which is "more fatal than its hostility." Elsewhere he compared the United States to "a car speeding towards a concrete wall. But even if the power of an American car will allow it to penetrate a con- crete wall, it is liable to discover that, on the other side of the wall, there is no bed of roses either, but rather an abyss."
Once the war broke out, Syria rolled out all its verbal artillery. Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq ash-Shar‘ bluntly told the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Syrian People's As- sembly: "We want Iraq's victory." Shar‘ subsequently ventured an indirect compari- son between the United States and the Third Reich, and between President Bush and Adolf Hitler. Bashar granted an interview to the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, in which he warned that "Syria does not intend sitting idly by." The statements of Syr- ia's leaders and the Syrian media gave indirect encouragement to Syrian and Palestinian volunteers, who crossed the Syrian-Iraq border in order to join Saddam's pan-Arab le- gion. Syrian border guards did nothing to stop them.
This was too much for Washington. It violated the implicit understanding that Syria, whatever it might say, would do nothing to endanger American lives. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a statement that created near-panic in Damascus, accused the Syrians of sending night-vision goggles to Iraq. Later he accused Syria of providing a safe haven to fleeing members of Saddam's failing regime. President Bush upped the ante by raising the issue of Syria's development of chemical weapons.
Syrian officials denied Washington's accusations as false and continued to declare Syr- ia's clear and unequivocal support of Iraq against the United States. But it was not prepared for a high-stakes game of chicken, especially on behalf of a doomed regime in Iraq. Syria quietly but promptly closed its border with Iraq, denied entry to escaping Iraqis, and corralled those already in Syria.
The United States, now positioned in the very heart of the Arab world, must make it clear to Syria that there are new red lines. The success of the U.S. venture in Iraq de- pends on that, as do the lives of Americans serving and working in Iraq. To convey that message, the United States should make a credible threat to push hard on Syrian pres- sure points if Syria dares to stray.
What are those points? Three-quarters of the revenues of Syria's backward economy are from oil exports. That makes it extremely vulnerable to any disruption of exports, either by embargo or by damage to facilities. Lebanon is also a pressure point. Lebanese stability is crucial to the Syrian economy: hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers are employed in Lebanon, and Syrians systematically skim the cream off the top of the Leb- anese economy. Syria is also vulnerable in the Arab arena, in which it is isolated. At home, the regime's legitimacy faces more questions than ever. Syrian television avoided screening reports from Baghdad's central square where Iraqis celebrated the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. As one Syrian activist put it on one of the opposition's Internet sites, statues can be found in Damascus as well.
These are all points of Syrian vulnerability. All that is required to get Syria to jump through the right hoops is to press the right pressure points. There is no need to use force against Syria. But for the United States to avoid the use of force, it must be pre- pared to use it. That is, its threats must be credible. The Syrians have a sixth sense for detecting empty threats and an ingrained habit of concluding that many U.S. threats are just that. The removal of Saddam has shaken the Syrians' confidence in their ability to tell when Washington is bluffing. That augurs well for the future, but it is necessary to keep up the pressure—and maintain credibility—if Syria is to be domesticated in its new environment.
Can the United States achieve that? Since the end of hostilities in Iraq, there has already been slippage. It happened, predictably, during Secretary of State Colin Powell's first postwar circuit through the Middle East. Powell announced, at the conclusion of his stop in Syria, that the Syrians would close the Damascus offices of Palestinian groups en- gaged in terrorism. Syrian sources denied making any such commitment. It was typical Syrian brinkmanship, based on the assumption that the United States had never been prepared to go to the mat over the operations of these offices. By including Syria in his trip, Powell had reconfirmed to Syria that it could host (and toy with) America's top dip- lomat, even as it continued, for yet another year, to occupy a slot on the U.S. State De- partment's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
If there is a lesson to be learned from past failures, it is this: do not send Syria complex, vague, and ultimately contradictory messages. Such messages only invite Damascus to probe their "real" meaning, which in different situations might mean sheltering terror- ists, smuggling oil and guns, playing with dangerous chemicals, and other actions that unsettle the neighborhood. Clearer messages from the United States would probably be understood and even accepted by Damascus and would better serve U.S. regional in- terests.
One possibility is for the Bush administration to reconsider its opposition to the "Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act." The draft law proposes eco- nomic and other sanctions against Syria because of its support for terrorism, the contin- ued Syrian military presence in Lebanon, and Syria's development of weapons of mass destruction. In the past, the White House has opposed such legislation, arguing that it would deny the U.S. government the flexibility it needs to deal with a difficult and com- plicated situation. Yet perhaps it is not flexibility, but firmness, that would yield better results.
The United States should set aside its skepticism about its ability to influence Syria and tune out the talk about the inexperience of Syria's young leader. It should send the Syr- ians clear and unequivocal messages, backed up by credible threats to apply pressure to Syria's vulnerable points. If Washington does that, it will get what it wants and needs from Damascus.
 Eyal Zisser, "Does Bashar al-Assad Rule Syria?" Middle East Quarterly, Winter
2003, pp. 15-24.
 Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria, The Struggle for the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 1988), p. 406.
 Eyal Zisser, Asad's Legacy—Syria in Transition (New York: New York University Press, 2000), pp. 74-7.
 James A. Baker, III, The Politics of Diplomacy, Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995), pp. 443-69, 487-513.
 Al-Hayat (London), July 31, 2001; Dany Shoham, "Poisoned Missiles: Syria's Doomsday Deterrent," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 13-22.
 Al-Hayat, Nov. 25, 2001; The Washington Post, July 25, 2002.
 The Washington Post, July 25, 2002; al-Watan (Abha), Feb. 24, 2002.
 Reuters, Sept. 10, 11, 2002.
 Reuters, Oct. 11, 2001; al-Hayat, Jan. 31, 2002; al-Jazeera television (Doha), May 13, 2002.
 Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Apr. 12, 2002; Reuters, Apr. 2, 17, 2001.
 Eyal Zisser, "The Return of Hizbullah," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 3-12.
 Reuters, Sept. 10, 11, 2002, Apr. 14, 15, 2003.
 Ha'aretz, Dec. 25, 2002. For the Syrian response see Radio Damascus, Dec. 25, 2002; Fox News, Apr. 5, 14, 2003.
 Syrian Country Profile, 2002 (London: The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2002), no. 1, pp. 2-5; Reuters, Oct. 29, 2002.
 Al-Quds al-‘Arabi (London), Oct. 10, 2000; The Times (London), Dec. 16, 2002.
 Ha'aretz, Dec. 25, 2002. Syrian response, Radio Damascus, Dec. 25, 2002; Fox News, Apr. 5, 14, 2003.
 Akhbar ash-Sharq (Syrian opposition website, http://www.thisissyria.net), Apr. 18, 2003; al-Hayat, Apr. 21, 2002; Reuters, Sept. 11, 2002.
 Akhbar ash-Sharq, Apr. 18, 2002; al-Hayat, Apr. 21, 2002, Apr. 1, 2003.
 Syrian Arab News Agency (Sana), Sept. 6, 2002.
 Al-Hayat, Nov. 14, 2002.
 Babil (Baghdad), Nov. 9, 2002; al-Quds al-‘Arabi, Nov. 11, 2002.
 As-Safir (Beirut), Mar. 27, 2003; Assad's speech at the Arab summit, Sharm al-Sheikh, Syrian television, Mar. 1, 2003.
 Radio Damascus, Mar. 10, 2003; al-Hayat, Mar. 10, 2003.
 Radio Damascus, Mar. 9, 2003; as-Safir, Mar. 10, 2003.
 Sana, Mar. 30, 2003.
 Ar-Ra'y al-‘Amm (Kuwait), Apr. 13, 2003; Reuters, Apr. 12, 2003.
 As-Safir, Mar. 27, 2003.
 Associated Press, Mar. 28, Apr. 13, 2003; Reuters, Apr. 9, 2003; Fox News, Apr. 14, 2003.
 CNN, Apr. 13, 2003.
 CNN, Apr. 14, 2003; Radio Monte Carlo, Apr. 17, 2003; Reuters, Apr. 21, 2003.
 Robert Olson, Turkey's Relations with Iran, Syria, Israel, and Russia, 1991-2000 (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2001), pp. 105-24.
 As-Siyasa (Kuwait), Apr. 15, 2003; al-Hayat, Apr. 15, 2003.
 Draft of act at http://freedom.house.gov/library/foreignaffairs/syria.pdf
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