ARAB POLITICS: BACK TO FUTILITY
By Dr. Barry Rubin
But, increasingly, they show they have not. The euphoria of the 1990s — in light of Saddam Hussein's defeat in Kuwait, the Oslo peace process, and the growth of Arab civil society — was short-lived. For much of the current decade, events have pointed to a backward trend. First, there was Palestinian and Syrian rejection of peace with Israel in 2000 and, then, re-embrace of terrorism in the Intifada. This was followed in quick succession by the fallout from the September 11, 2001, Islamist attacks on the U.S.A., glorifying insurgency and terrorism in Iraq, crushing of internal constitutional democratic reform movements, and electoral advances by Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
But it was the Summer, 2006, war in Lebanon that reversed the new era back to the old. The possibility of a negotiated Arab-Israeli peace and widespread Arab progress toward the rule of law and constitutional democracy is dead; Islamism sets the agenda, whether it is in or out of power. Arab dynamics now parallel those dominant in the region between 1950 and 1990. The Arab world, now joined in spirit, although not in ethnicity, by Iran, has re-embraced a previous era and is extolling the same ideas and strategies which have led the Middle East repeatedly to catastrophe. "It is my pleasure to meet with you in the new Middle East," said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on August 15, 2006. He declared his goal to replace the "cherished Middle East" of the West, moderate Arabs, and Israel with "a sweeping popular upsurge … characterized by honor and Arabism," of struggle and resistance.  There are many reasons to think that Assad's vision is prevailing.
A large part of the answer is that this new state of affairs serves the two groups that matter most in Arab politics: Arab nationalist dictators and the Islamist challengers who seek to displace them. Arab regimes rejected reforms because change threatened to unseat them. Demagoguery enabled these regimes to continue as dictatorships, whatever their failures, while still enjoying popular support. Radical Islamist forces, on the other hand, found the motif of resistance and anti-Israel rhetoric useful to expand their influence and gain power. The new Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis seeks regional hegemony, the destruction of Israel, and the expulsion of Western influence. These are the same goals of the old pan-Arabism, albeit under a modified slogan of resistance to aggression. This new alliance's emergence represents a sharp break with the past only regarding two issues: unprecedented levels of Iranian involvement in Arab politics, accompanied by a limited ability to bridge the Sunni-Shi‘ite sectarian divide.
There are four major factors that repeat: first is the concept of resistance against foreign powers; second is self-deception about the adversary's strength; third is the belief in a political superhero who will lead Arabs and Muslims to victory; and fourth is the new "resistance" axis which promises easy and quick solutions, albeit through large-scale bloodshed. Why compromise if total victory is achievable?
It is like a 2006 revival of a 1966 play: the old parts have been cast anew with great faithfulness. Iran has taken over Syria's former role of revolutionary patron, although Damascus has played the role of terror sponsor so well that it has retained this part for an amazing 40-year run, however, with a shifting chorus. Hezbollah and Hamas are the new Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), promising to destroy Israel through non-state violence. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has assumed the role of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, threatening the West and toying with war, while promising easy victory to followers inside and outside his country.
Rhetoric repeats. Both the United States and Israel are demonized. There is expectation of imminent revolution and unprecedented Arab-Muslim unity. As there is also no victory but total victory, diplomatic compromise is treasonous. Conspiracy theories blaming "the Zionists" and "arrogant powers" run supreme.
The most major difference between the new and the old concepts is that what was formerly expressed in Arab nationalist terms is now stated in Islamist ones. The idea is that Islamism can succeed where Arab nationalism failed. But, aside from obvious differences in the content of the two ideologies and the lack of a great power patron along the lines of the Soviet Union to sponsor and cultivate pan-Islamists, their basic perceptions and goals are quite parallel.
Both the Arab nationalists of a half century ago and the Islamists today justify almost any violence. Both legitimize terrorism as just, especially when directed against a satanic foe. Both seek Israel's destruction and an expurgation of Western influence to create a just and even utopian society.
But Israel and the West are not the only enemies. Moderate Arab leaders are a secondary enemy whose restraint reveals them to be traitors. Only those who preach struggle uphold proper Arab and Muslim values. In the 1950s and 1960s, this distinction pitted Egypt, Syria, and Iraq against "reactionary" Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other monarchies. Today, it is Iran and Syria against Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Still, the Jordanian and Saudi monarchies remember more than they let on. Just as Nasser and Saddam Hussein threatened them in the past, so now do the forces unleashed and encouraged by Ahmadinejad and Assad. Just as they did in the 1960s, moderate leaders accommodate new ideas, but seek to blunt their edge so as not to fall victim to the new order. Constitutionalism, representative democracy, and political reform become distractions, if not enemy tricks to be resisted.
While Arab commentators sometimes complain of the West's lack of historical memory, there is selective amnesia among many in the region — even those critical of the new dynamics. They refuse to recognize today's parallels with the recent past. To acknowledge repetition of past patterns would suggest that they are again likely to fail. Today, Islamists and Arab nationalists may compete for power, often violently, but they both reinforce the intellectual system and worldview that locks the Arab world into the very problems which both ideological movements purport to remedy.
At the time, few paid attention to such critiques. Nasser's nakedness was only revealed in the 1967 war and after his death in 1970. Today, many have forgotten this outcome. It is also instructive to recall that Nasser's victorious reputation rested mainly on the 1956 Suez war, which was actually a military humiliation for Egypt. Only U.S. and Soviet diplomatic intervention saved Nasser — a situation paralleling the Lebanon war "victory" of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah — rescued by international pressure for a cease-fire that left Hezbollah armed and in place.
The comparison of Nasrallah and Nasser often plays on the similarity of both men's names to the Arabic word for "victory." In Cairo, demonstrators carry their pictures together, even though their views on political Islam were opposite. That the Lebanese "victory" took place fifty years after the Suez one did not escape many Arab commentators. What they did not mention, though, was that a half-century had not brought much progress to Egypt and that even the return of the Sinai Peninsula required American patronage and a peace treaty with Israel.
Consistent across decades has been the search for the charismatic leader who can produce victory. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was Nasser; in the 1970s, Arafat and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad; in the 1980s and 1990s, it was Saddam Hussein, then Osama bin Laden, and, perhaps now, Ahmadinejad. All failed; all were defeated. The outcome, however, has not been to reject this spurious hope, but, rather, simply to seek another candidate.
The "resistance" paradigm is particularly dangerous and difficult for reformers to face because its promoters accuse anyone who questions them of being agents of the Zionists or the West. "In a state of war," wrote the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, whose works are banned in his own country:
And when, in March, 2001, Baath Party members asked Syrian Vice-President Abd Halim Khaddam at a public meeting why the regime did not do more to solve the problems of corruption, incompetence and the slow pace of reform, his answer was that the Arab-Israeli conflict permitted no changes at home. "This country is in a state of war as long as the occupation continues," he said.  While the Syrian leadership uses the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict to justify its domestic failures, it has shown little interest in ending that conflict, in large part because anti-Israel invectives are so useful for purposes of regime maintenance.
The rhetoric also stigmatizes alliance with the West. Bashar often attacks the Egyptian and Jordanian governments as lackeys of the West.  Sometimes that taboo is broken — such as when Kuwait and Saudi Arabia accepted Western military assistance against Saddam Hussein in 1990. But the cost of breaking this taboo can be high. The U.S. deployment to Saudi Arabia fueled Osama bin Laden's rise.  Rejectionists assassinated Jordan's King Abdullah I in 1951 for considering peace with Israel, murdered Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 after he made peace with the Jewish state, and killed Lebanese President Amin Gemayel the next year for the same reason.
Bashar, Nasrallah, Ahmadinejad, and their predecessors cite many precedents to argue that resistance will triumph over the United States. The Chinese "people's war" alongside the Cuban and Vietnamese "heroic guerrillas" live on in the Arab world, as if in a time capsule. Many Arabs compare Nasrallah now — as they once did Arafat — to Che Guevera. Like the failed Latin American revolutionary leader, Nasrallah did not overthrow governments but was a boon to the T-shirt industry.
Islamists justify their people power rhetoric with examples ranging from the victory over the Soviet superpower in Afghanistan (conveniently ignoring the U.S. role in that conflict), the 9-11 attacks on the U.S.A., and the Iraqi insurgency. They also claim Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip as triumphs. The Iranians can add their own revolution, the U.S. embassy hostage crisis, and their stalemate of Saddam Hussein.
Islamists say that their victory is inevitable. An Egyptian Islamist wrote, less than a month after the September 11 attacks, that the Americans are cowards, while the Muslims are brave. He explained:
That such commentary appeared in a state-controlled Egyptian newspaper shows how Arab nationalist institutions collude to promote "Islamist" ideas that feed the resistance mentality.
There is, however, a good reason why weaker states do not provoke or go to war against stronger ones: they lose. History is full of examples of high-spirited, ideologically-motivated states that simply could not overcome the odds of reality. The United States defeated Japan in World War II, despite the ideological fervor of Japanese troops and their kamikaze pilots.
Among the most potent recent Arab political memories are those of losing wars in 1967, 1973, and 1982. The losses reflect the suffering, waste, dictatorship, and squandered resources of the second half of the Twentieth Century. This history was a potential resource, demonstrating the failure of radical methods, intransigence, and violence. In the 1990s, many Arabs faced this history and began to reconsider strategy. If Israel could not be destroyed, then perhaps a deal was preferable. If the United States was so powerful, perhaps alliance would be more productive than antagonism. If Arabs were flagging in every economic, scientific and social category, perhaps comprehensive reform was necessary.
Such introspection has now been reversed. A new generation has adopted a new ideology that discounts the applicability of the Arab nationalist experience. New populists argue that the Arabs made no mistakes, but simply did not struggle with sufficient fervor nor follow the proper ideology. Once a resistance mentality shreds this memory of experience, it may be necessary to proceed down a decades-long ordeal of relearning lessons the hard way before there is another opportunity for real progress.
In contrast to the resistance mentality, any consideration of the balance of forces suggests the West would achieve a lopsided victory in a conflict with Arab or Muslims states. But, what if such an assessment of military hardware were an illusion? As Winston Churchill said of the Soviet Union in his famous 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri, marking the beginning of the Cold War,
Many Islamists may consider the West in general and the United States in particular too craven to fight and stupid enough to be outmaneuvered.
Such was the argument Saddam Hussein made before invading Kuwait in 1990 and up to his 2003 downfall. Still, the fate of Iraq's dictator has not prevented Ahmadinejad from calling America a "superpower made of straw." 
Saddam's analysis rested on a series of examples. Speaking at the Royal Cultural Center in Amman, Jordan, on February 24, 1990, he explained that the Americans had run away from Vietnam and Lebanon (in 1983) and abandoned the Shah of Iran. He argued that they would not fight or, at least, would not have staying power. Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini agreed with him on this point, if on nothing else, noting on November 7, 1979, in connection with the hostage crisis, that the United States "could not do a damn thing"  to stop the Islamist revolution.
Bin Laden himself explained:
He designed the September 11 attack to puncture the myth of American power, to show U.S. vulnerability, and, in terms of Muslim perception, the attack was a success.
The basic approach of Bashar's new Middle East has already permeated throughout the Arab world, from Yemen's President advocating immediate war with Israel,  to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir boasting that he would rather fight the United Nations than let its forces into Darfur. He explained:
Bashir calculates that despite his military weakness, not only does the West lack the will to back its rhetoric with force, but his own demagogic response will win him support at home and among other Arab and Muslim countries. His goal is not war, but the fruits of war.
Such thinking produced four decades of disaster for the Arab world. It began when Arab leaders announced in the 1960s that they soon would defeat Israel and throw the Jews into the sea, only for the Arab states to lose overwhelmingly in the Six-Day War. Thereafter, Arafat and others bragged that guerrilla warfare would do the trick, a parallel to Hezbollah's thinking today.
In the 1970s, this dynamic resulted in civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon, repeated battlefield defeats, suffering, and waste of billions of dollars in resources. Such thinking has laid waste to the Gaza Strip three times between 1989 and 2006. The Arab world is alone in the world in the near monopoly of dictatorships since generations of rejectionists argued that only authoritarian governments could defeat Israel and expel Western influence.
Consistent across all these flights of fantasy and failure has been, except perhaps for brief periods in the 1990s, incomprehension of Israel. Arab nationalists and Islamists misinterpreted newspaper columns and public debate for discord. Since they did not want Israel to exist, they treated it as an illusion. Israel was weak, divided, and cowardly; it would crumble.
Just as Egypt and Syria once used Jordan and Lebanon as launch platforms for PLO proxy attacks, today the Iranian government is using Lebanon and Hezbollah in the same way. Both the PLO and Hezbollah analyze Israel incorrectly. In 1968, Arafat explained, "The Israelis have one great fear, the fear of casualties."  In 1970, a PLO official said that internal division would fragment Israel and force the Jews to leave. "Zionist efforts to transform them into a homogeneous, cohesive nation have failed," he said.  The parallels with today's Islamist rhetoric are striking. On July 29, 2006, Nasrallah declared, "When the people of this tyrannical state loses its faith in its mythical army, it is the beginning of the end of this entity."  Had Nasrallah understood that Israel suffered heavier losses fighting PLO terrorists in the 1960s, when the country's population was far smaller, and did so without political or social upheaval, he may not have initiated what, for the Lebanese, was so reckless a fight.
Yet, Nasrallah says, as Arafat did over his four decades atop the PLO, that their fighting demonstrated Israel's army to be "helpless, weak, defeated, humiliated, and a failure."  Of course, such propaganda is aimed to win the masses' cheers and the cadres' steadfastness, but the leaders, too, believe it. After all, they base their strategy and tactics on it. Both the PLO then, and Hamas and Hezbollah now, see terrorism as the key to victory. They use terrorism not because they are evil, but, rather, because they believe terrorism will work against Israel. By attacking civilian targets, Arafat said in 1968, the PLO would "weaken the Israeli economy" and "create and maintain an atmosphere of strain and anxiety that will force the Zionists to realize that it is impossible for them to live in Israel." 
In the 2006 war, Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel in an attempt to damage that country's economy and create such an atmosphere by displacing so many Israelis or forcing them into bomb shelters for two weeks. Zaghlul an-Najjar, a columnist for the flagship Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, wrote:
The column was no fluke. Two weeks later, the same paper carried a similar article arguing that Hezbollah had changed history by demonstrating Israel's weakness.  The Egyptian government does not want war with Israel, but such demagoguery inoculates the Egyptian regime against radical criticism, although only at the expense of legitimizing rejectionist incitement to the point where, collectively, it can be difficult to step back.
But Arafat argued that Karama was a great victory for Fatah. He juxtaposed Fatah's supposed heroism against the Arab armies' incompetence and apparent cowardice the previous year during the Six-Day War. Ironically, it was the Jordanian army that resisted the Israel Defense Forces at Karama, not Fatah. Nevertheless, Palestinians embraced the illusion. Thousands begged to join Fatah; Nasser invited Arafat to come to Cairo to be his protégé, and Arafat cemented his career.  Thirty-five years of bloodshed and political failure followed.
The Egyptian government used the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the same manner. While the initial Egyptian offensive was brilliant and its use of new antitank weapons successful, the Israeli military rallied and Egypt lost the war.
The PLO provides another example. After its 1982 defeat in Lebanon, culminating in the group's expulsion from the country, Arafat declared victory and his colleague, Khalid al-Hasan, proclaimed, "We should not become arrogant in the future as a result of this victory."  There was some introspection. Isam Sartawi, the PLO's leading moderate, sought an investigation of the poor PLO military performance. He urged the PLO to "wake up" and leave the "path of defeat" that had led to the 1982 debacle. Sartawi ridiculed the organization's victory claims. "Another victory such as this," he joked, "and the PLO will find itself in the Fiji Islands."  Two months after voicing his complaints, Palestinian terrorists murdered Sartawi.  Criticism can be silenced, and imagination can persuade people that defeat is victory, but imagination is never enough to produce military victories.
Another repeating feature of the resistance mentality is the idea that wars redeem Arab honor. Whether at Karama in 1968, in the Sinai in 1973 or after both Palestinian intifadas, Arabs have claimed redemption of honor through violence. Claims that Hezbollah forced Israel out of southern Lebanon and Hamas expelled Israel from the Gaza Strip reinforce the trend. The problem is that the quest for honor is insatiable. No sooner is honor restored, than there are demands for further redemption. During the 1990s, reformers stated that the true way to raise Arab dignity was not through fighting Israel or the West, but by prioritizing building of a productive economy, higher living standards, equality for women, an independent judiciary, honest media, and good educational and health systems. The re-embrace of resistance, though, has pushed these items off the agenda, bringing resistance not only to Israel's existence, but also to changes the Arab world needs.
In 1966, a revolutionary Baath faction ruled Syria. Headed by Salah Jadid, it was willing to take great risks in its struggle against imperialism and Zionism. With the Six-Day War, the regime got its wish. And, again, four decades later, such willingness to sacrifice was lauded. Yusif al-Rashid, a columnist for the Kuwaiti daily Al-Anba, illustrated this paradox in an August, 2006, column. "The Lebanese people may have lost a lot of economic and human resources" in the 2006 war, he writes, but such calculations aside,
Accordingly, suffering, death, the return of Syrian suzerainty, the possibility of augmented sectarianism and civil war, and stripping Lebanon of all its recent financial gains were, to this non-Lebanese Arab, worthwhile because it made Arabs feel better about their dignity and honor.
In some ways, a worldview so out of touch with reality is collective insanity, but there is much method to the insanity of those who promulgate and practice such madness. The resistance paradigm is an excellent tool for regime preservation, as it was earlier for Arab nationalist movements, and it is a useful tool to mobilize support for radical Islamist groups. But the cost of such a paradigm is clear: no reform and squandered resources.
Resistance propaganda is so pervasive — in schools, mosques, the media, and both government and opposition rhetoric — that it takes the greatest courage and strength of character to stand against it. Those willing have, for the time being, lost.
"Oh, Master of Resistance," wrote the Syrian state-run newspaper Tishrin on August 3, 2006, in an ode to the man who set Lebanon back twenty years,
And so we are at the start of a long, long road of conflict, just as Arabs stated in the 1950s. Perhaps some time around 2035, a new opportunity will emerge.
 Tawfiq al-Hakim, The Return of Consciousness (New York: New York University Press, 1985), p. 50.
 Ali Salem, "My Drive to Israel," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2002, pp. 45-52.
 The New York Times, Mar. 12, 2001.
 See, for example, Bashar al-Assad, speech at the Fourth General Conference of the Syrian Journalists Union, Damascus, Aug. 15, 2006; Syrian television, Aug. 15, 2006.
 Uriya Shavit, "Al-Qaeda's Saudi Origins," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2006, pp. 3-13.
 Al-Jumhuriya (Cairo), Oct. 7, 2001.
 Winston S. Churchill, "Iron Curtain Speech," Mar. 5, 1946, Internet Modern History Sourcebook, accessed Sept. 18, 2006.
 Islamic Republic of Iran News Network (IRINN) television, Feb.1, 2006, speech in Bushehr, Iran, translation in Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Special Dispatch Series, no. 1084, Feb. 2, 2006.
 Speech at Isfahan University, FBIS, Nov. 8, 1979.
 Al-Jazeera television (Doha), Oct. 7, 2001.
 Al-Jazeera, Aug. 1, 2006, translation in MEMRI, clip no. 1217.
 Al-Jazeera, Aug. 29, 2006, translation in MEMRI, clip no. 1255.
 "Yassir Arafat," Third World Quarterly, Apr. 1986; South, Jan. 1986, p. 18.
 Al-Anwar symposium, Mar. 8, 1970, cited in Yehoshafat Harkabi, The Palestinian Covenant and Its Meaning (London: Frank Cass, 1979), p. 12
 Al-Manar television (Beirut), July 29, 2006, in MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, no. 1224, Aug. 1, 2006.
 Interview, International Documents on Palestine, 1968 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1968), p. 300.
 Al-Ahram (Cairo), Aug. 14, 2006.
 Al-Ahram, Aug. 29, 2006.
 See Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 38-45.
 Al-Madina (Medina), Aug. 31, 1982, in FBIS, Sept. 9, 1982.
 Muhammad Anis, "An Interview with ‘Isam Sartawi," Al-Musawwar (Cairo), Mar. 25, 1983.
 Ibid.; Al-Hawadith (Baghdad), Mar. 4, 1983.
 Associated Press, Aug. 17, 2006.
Israel & the Arabs -- The Israeli-Arab Conflict
Middle East -- Arabs, Arab States,
& Their Middle Eastern Neighbors
North Africa -- The Arab States of Islamic North Africa
The Middle East & the Problem of Iraq
Page Two Page One
The Problem of Rogue States:
Iraq as a Case History
National Strategy for Victory in Iraq
The Middle East & the Problem of Iran
Egypt, Arabs, & the Middle East
Tunisia, Islamic North Africa, & the Arab World
The Middle East & the Problem of Syria
The Middle East -- Lebanon as a Geopolitical Problem
Turkey, the Middle East, & the U.S.A.
Israel & the Arabs -- The Israeli-Arab Conflict
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
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International Politics & World Disorder:
War & Peace in the Real World
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Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
U.S. National Security Strategy
American Foreign Policy -- Constitutional Democracy:
U.S. Promotion of Constitutional Democracy in Foreign Countries
Dr. Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herizliya, Israel, and is Editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, which is published by the GLORIA Center. Dr. Rubin is also Director of Research of the IDC's Lauder School, Editor of Turkish Studies, Deputy Director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, and a senior fellow at the IDC's International Center for Counterterrorist Policy. He is co-author, with Judith Colp Rubin, of Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford University Press, 2003) and of Hating America: A History (Oxford University Press, 2004). Dr. Rubin's recently published books include The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (John Wiley Publishers, 2005), The Tragedy of the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-Building (Harvard University Press, 1999). His book, The Truth About Syria, will be published by Palgrave-Macmillan in April, 2007.
The foregoing article by Dr. Barry Rubin was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Winter, 2007, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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