Notes from the Islamic Republic

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Walking down the street in Tehran, if you’re from the Great Satan, is like starring in a triumphal procession, you attract so much attention. I was there last week and it’s the oddest feeling, nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy. People come up to you, not by ones and twos, but by the scores and hundreds and snap selfies and tell you how much they like Americans. If you happen to pass by a picnic, whole families will wave you over to join them. If it’s close to a mealtime, and it’s always close to a mealtime, strangers will invite you into their homes to eat.

Sometimes Iranians will elaborate a bit and tell you that, although they really do like Americans, they don’t approve of our government . . . which struck me as profoundly sensible, since I feel exactly the same way. Every now and then I’d wax especially geopolitical and opine that, all over the world . . . Canada, South Africa, India, you name it . . . nobody likes their own government. To which they’d reply, “Yes, but we don’t like our government a lot more than they don’t like theirs.”

It’s hard to figure where all this goodwill comes from. Back in the day, a lot of Iranians studied abroad and plenty of them must have brought home warm memories of their time in America. Part, I suspect, has to do with the fact that they don’t see that many of us anymore. I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place. Some of the good thoughts may spring from the very public alternative we provide to the society they’re forced to live in. Whatever, two or three even told me they liked President Trump because “his sanctions force our government to pay attention to the people.”

It's nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy.

For a government trying its damnedest to turn the Islamic Republic into a police state, the mullahs aren’t getting a lot of buy-in at the interpersonal level, at least when the other person is a foreigner. Iranians will tell you right up front, “We like talking to foreigners because we can discuss politics with them.” The unspoken . . . and, sometimes, spoken . . . corollary is that they’re afraid to talk politics with their own countrymen, at least if they don’t know those countrymen well enough to share a drink with. In a society where the strictures of Islam are jammed down everybody’s throats, sharing a drink with a friend is the ultimate act of trust. In fact, drinking itself is an act of trust because, with the borders shut tight and the vineyards at Shiraz long since uprooted, most of the available alcohol is brewed up from raisins.

Public defiance happens in small ways, but small rebellions are the hardest to control. Women — every woman, foreigner and local alike, even female SCUBA divers — have to hide themselves under layers of cloth. Some of that cloth can be astonishingly form-fitting, and the head coverings that go with it pushed so far back on the skull that they become more of a tease, like a very low-cut gown in the West, than anything exemplifying feminine virtue. Once, in a mosque of all places, I saw a woman remove hers entirely. It was early morning and she stood in the light streaming through a curtainwall of stained glass, the colors dancing off her face and clothes, to have her picture taken. Then pulled off her scarf so her hair could be in the picture, too. A guard, who’d been posted in the shadows to protect the mosque from just such an outrage, marched over and ordered her to cover back up.

“Now.”

With the time-honored gesture imperious women everywhere give to dismiss bothersome males, she flicked her fingers at him, he retreated to the dark recesses he’d risen up from of, and she went back to the serious business of having her picture taken.

I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place.

Iranians have rebelled in more substantial ways, too. After the Revolution, when a particularly crazed mullah ordered Persepolis bulldozed, townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the mullah gave up and the bulldozers lumbered away.

Whatever religious feelings individual Iranians have, or don’t have, they pretty much keep to themselves. Or, at least, they don’t make a show of to foreigners. Aside from a lady in the Grand Bazaar in Isfahan who wanted to sell me a tile painted with lovely Farsi script, then commanded not to use it as a trivet because the script spelled out “In the name of God,” religion only came up one time. That was in a park in Tehran when a claque of schoolgirls presented me with a scrap of paper, also lettered in Farsi. It took some asking, but the paper turned out to be a prayer for the return of the Mahdi. It was his birthday and the girls were celebrating by passing out prayers to park-goers.

The Mahdi, for those not versed in the intricacies of the Shia brand of Islam, is the Occulted Imam who, in the fullness of time, will reveal himself and reign over the Latter Days before the Resurrection. Oddly, given the echoes of Christianity in the story, or fittingly, or eerily, or because of rotating calendars, or for reasons known only to the common God our more ecumenical theologians claim we all share, his birthday fell on Easter Sunday this year.

Townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the bulldozers lumbered away.

To believers of a certain ilk, the Mahdi has already taken a stab at revealing himself. This happened in the 1880s when he led an uprising in Sudan. But it didn’t stick. He won a spectacular series of battles, then died and became occulted all over again. His movement fell apart a few years later when his successor in Mahdiship attracted the notice of a British army equipped with Maxim guns and Martini-Henry rifles. Whether he’s planning on re-revealing himself anytime soon has not been communicated to me but, whatever he has in mind, there’s not much doubt what those girls were thinking. Their faces were ablaze with the joy and light of the true believer.

All of which is to say that, whatever tensions exist between America and the Islamic Republic, they’re not on the personal level, or even the religious. Government-to-government is a different story. Citizens of almost any place in the world can pick up a visa to Iran upon arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport City in Tehran. Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even APPLY for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa . . . which means sending in a form four months in advance setting out, among other things, the complete itinerary of our hoped-for visit along with a curriculum vitae for the past 15 years . . . where we worked, what we did, what our employers did . . . and then waiting three of the four months while they check our bona fides. The people who aren’t bona fide, the ones they don’t want in their country, are employees of “certain” US government agencies, and those of us with a history of practicing journalism. That practicing journalism business gave me pause until I realized that scribbling the occasional screed for Liberty is about as removed from journalism as an honest writer can get.

If you pass muster in the government-employee and journalism departments, they’ll favor you with a document granting permission to apply for a visa. This lets you fill out a visa application, slip the document, the application, your passport, a couple of photos, and a money order into an envelope and . . . Iran not having an embassy in the US . . . send the envelope to the Islamic Republic of Iran Interest Section at the Embassy of Pakistan. Which leaves you with the uncomfortable thought that I just sent my passport to Pakistan.

Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even apply for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa

Our government isn’t all that gung-ho about Americans travelling to Iran, either. Here’s what the State Department posts on its website for those of us who might be tempted:

“Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping, arrest, detention of U.S. citizens. There is a very high risk of kidnapping, arrest, and detention of U.S. citizens in Iran . . . .” (Bolds copied directly from the original, State Department font.)

After warning you about kidnapping, arrest and detention, the site highly encourages you to register with the American embassy so that our folks in Tehran will know you’re in town and can help you get back out if things go awry. Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering. One of the ladies who traveled with us did, though, and got a note back instructing her to appoint a hostage negotiator before setting out. She submitted the name of her 14-month-old granddaughter on the ground of, “that girl always knows what she wants.”

In Iran, traveling with a group is pretty much de rigueur on account of you aren’t allowed go anywhere without a guide. (“Guide” is Farsi for “minder.”) After you leave the country, your guide goes down to the Internal Security Police and reports on you. One of our guides told me he hated doing that, not because he felt that he was betraying his clients, but because he never knew what to say. “They ask me where the tourists went and what they took pictures of and what they talked about. I tell them they went to Persepolis and took pictures of the Gate of All Nations, and talked about Alexander the Great, and the Security Police get mad and threaten to pull my license.”

Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering.

At the end of our trip we had to fly from Shiraz to Tehran to catch our flight home. Tehran has two airports. The old airport, for domestic flights, and the new Khomeini Airport for international travel. On a good day, meaning at midnight when traffic is lightest, these airports are an hour and a half apart. Our tour arranged for a cab to take us.

The driver was more than accommodating, even by the standards of an Iranian dealing with Americans. When we arrived at Khomeini, he insisted on carrying our bags into the terminal . . . even though all we had was carry-ons, and the carry-ons had wheels.

Then he insisted on waiting in line with us.

And accompanying us to the ticket counter, and on through to emigration . . . at which point he couldn’t insist any more, so, pulling out his phone, he took a selfie of the three of us with the emigration booth in the background. “To remember you by.”

To REMEMBER us by? This guy was a cab driver.

Or, when I thought about it, something more than a cab driver. The selfie documented the fact that he’d gotten us onto the plane.

Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one.

The mullahs weren’t as queasy about what we were allowed to see while we were in Iran as they were about making sure we didn’t overstay our welcome, and one of the first places we went was the Nest of Spies. Also known as the Den of Espionage or, more poetically, the Museum-Garden of Anti-Arrogance, where we were invited to inspect all of America’s latest (à la 1970s) high-tech computer gadgetry, Faraday cages, and shredding equipment left over from when the place really did harbor spies. So it’s not exactly true that we don’t have an embassy in Tehran, it’s just that we don’t currently have diplomatic personnel serving in the embassy.

A few days later we drove past, but weren’t invited to examine, the uranium processing facility at Natanz with, presumably, stuxnet still whirling away at the centrifuges.

Something else the mullahs seemed a bit lax about was military couture. Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one, which makes Iranian soldiers a lot spiffier in the personal appearance department than baggy fatigues make our guys look.

I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter.

The tailors have a full line of insignia to complete the look and, like merchants all over the Middle East, don’t seem to care whom they sell to. So, if you want, you can walk into one shop and get fitted out in the regalia of a full colonel in the Iranian air force. Or, as I did, come away more modestly accoutered with a black Revolutionary Guard shoulder patch embroidered in gold thread with a hand clutching an automatic rifle. I heard there were Hamas shoulder patches on offer, but didn’t get one.

Despite this military stuff I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter. In the been-there-done-that department, Iran is top of the line. Back in the Eighties . . . almost the whole of the Eighties . . . it got in a dispute with Iraq and refought World War I. Trenches. Machine guns. Gas. Shells. Barbed wire, and a lot of Iranians died. Two-hundred-thousand. Six-hundred-thousand. Eight-hundred-thousand, you can take your choice because nobody believes the official stats. Reminders are everywhere.

On bridges. On lampposts. On sides of buildings. And, especially, down the center lanes of highways leading into towns.

Unlike the men whose names are chiseled beneath the words “We shall never forget” on obelisks and the bases of statues in Britain and America, these dead really are hard to forget. Their faces are on big black-and-white portraits hanging, two at a time, every 20 meters or so along the center strips of highways as you drive into town. Every town, and back out on the other side. Kilometers of young men. Miles of young men leading into Tehran and Qom and Kashan and Isfahan and Yazd and Shiraz and every little village and berg in between, and into the countryside beyond. Hometown kids. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands.

The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

As with people in photographs everywhere, you feel you can look them in the eye, that you can sense who they were, and who they could have been. Skinny, scared boys. Smirking cads. Athletes. Sad sacks. You make up stories in your mind. That one was proud to serve. Or a scholar. Or wishing he were home. Or back in school. Or in his uncle’s shop, or working the farm, or hanging out on a street corner. All . . . because you know what trench warfare is like, because you know what machine guns and gas and shells and barbed wire do to human flesh . . . destined for horrible, filthy deaths. The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

I don’t have any better idea than any other friend of Liberty what really happened to those four tankers that are said to have been sabotaged in the Persian Gulf in mid-May but, to a person of my generation, the news can’t help bring up memories of what we were told happened, but didn’t, in the Gulf of Tonkin. This time feels different, though, and I sure hope it is. Under Johnson we had a president who not only was looking for a fight but was willing to manufacture an incident to create one. Blunderbuss that some people will tell you our current president is, he’s said from the beginning he doesn’t want to get us involved in wars. So, maybe, he won’t.

Whatever is really going on between us and Iran and those tankers, Iranians are not people we want to fight. They are people who, in a different world, would be our closest friends. They are funny and spontaneous and laughing and much more like us than anybody else I know about in the Middle East, than many Europeans, for that matter, but I’m not sanguine about what’s going to happen. Not that I think we’ll get into a shooting war with them, I just can’t see how we can ever get out of each other’s faces.

Two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves.

Nobody who isn’t Iranian wants the Islamic Republic to control the Persian Gulf, and nobody who isn’t Saudi wants Arabia to control the Persian Gulf. The problem from the point of view of those of us who aren’t Iranian or Saudi is that Iran has the best army in the region, is a major industrial power, has a thriving agriculture sector, and is just short of world-class in high tech. Arabia can’t so much as make a ballpoint pen. Heck, Arabia can’t even feed itself. Wheat that sells for five dollars on the world market costs ten dollars worth of water to grow in Arabia. All of which puts America in a classic geopolitical bind.

Unless we want to send our own young people to the Persian Gulf to keep Iran from taking over the whole show, we don’t have any choice but to play balance-of-power, which means sanctions, and scaring away tourists, and pushing every country we have any sway with to keep cranking the screws down tighter.

It didn’t have to be this way. It used to be there was a built-in balance of power, with Iraq sitting on Iran’s western flank, tying up its army and its resources and generally putting the brakes on the Mullahs getting too frisky. But two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves. As one of the ayatollahs, or imams, or mullahs or somebody said at the time, “Allah has blinded the Great Satan into doing our work for us.” Or something along those lines.




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OPEC Death Watch

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A number of recent articles suggest that OPEC — that kleptocratic cartel that has artificially jacked up oil prices for so many decades — is in its death throes.

The cause is something upon which I have long commented in these pages: the roaring renaissance of the American oil and natural gas industry, a renaissance produced by entrepreneurial capitalism — as opposed to interventionist statism. While the Department of Energy funded wind and solar power, along with biomass and ethanol production, all of which together have accounted for only a tiny sliver of American energy production, and that only with massive subsidies and draconian mandates — private enterprise backed the winners: oil and natural gas.

But the recent dramatic increase in production and exportation was occasioned by Speaker Paul Ryan’s success in enacting into law the right of American energy companies to export those resources. This allows frackers (and ordinary drillers) to increase production, because they now have an unlimited world market within which to sell their products.

There's a roaring renaissance in the American oil and natural gas industry, a renaissance produced by entrepreneurial capitalism — as opposed to interventionist statism.

And this is already happening, as several noteworthy articles report. One is a Bloomberg report that of all countries, no less than the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — the fourth largest oil exporter in OPEC — is buying oil from shale wells in Texas. It turns out that the Texas crude is much “sweeter” (lighter and of superior quality) and more useful to the UAE’s refining than the local brand. The 700,000 barrels of oil that it is buying are their first purchase from us.

Bloomberg notes that while American exports to the UAE are not projected to continue, the explosion of American oil exports will. Shipments from America rose from a mere 100,000 barrels per day (BPD) five years ago to 1.53 million BPD in November of last year.

Besides increasing American exports of oil, the fracking revolution has reduced non-American imports to below 3 million BPD, the lowest level since data were first gathered 45 years ago. Our current net imports are only one-fourth of what they were in 2006, and we are likely to become a net exporter in about a decade — sooner, if ANWR is finally tapped, and new offshore areas are opened up for drilling.

The 700,000 barrels of oil that the UAE is buying are their first purchase from the US.

A second story reports the rapid growth in exports of domestically produced natural gas. It reveals that China has signed a long-term contract with Cheniere Energy — a major exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) — under which Cheniere will ship LNG from the Gulf Coast to China. Under this contract, Cheniere will provide 1.2 million tons of LNG annually to China, starting in five years, and lasting for 20 years after that.

And there is a third story, which notes that besides a rapid rise in American LNG shipments to China, we are seeing an explosion of exports of American crude oil shipments to that country. These exports have mushroomed from zero, before two years ago, to 400,000 barrels per day during the past two months. And again, if we bust open ANWR and the coastal waters of Alaska, such exports will increase even more quickly.

One nice side effect of this is that the more oil China buys from us, the lower our balance-of-trade deficit is with China. Two months ago our trade deficit with China was $25.55 billion. Last month it dropped to $21.895 billion.

Our current net imports are only one-fourth of what they were in 2006, and we are likely to become a net exporter in about a decade.

For the foreseeable future, of course, China will continue to buy most of its oil from Russia and the OPEC countries. But our share of the Chinese market will grow, for two reasons. First, at $60 per barrel, American crude is more than $4 cheaper than the benchmark (Brent) price. Second, while there are certain infrastructure bottlenecks that have to be overcome, they are being addressed. For example, while we don’t yet have ports capable of handling the biggest oil tankers (“Very Large Crude Carriers”), we have already started expanding one of the largest ports on the Louisiana coast.

All of this has added to the stress on OPEC that may result in its collapse as a cartel: the members of the cartel may go their own ways. The recent uptick in oil prices above the $60 per barrel range has helped OPEC find some relief. The recovery of the old price from its lows in the $40–50 range has two causes.

One is the meltdown of socialism in Venezuela, which has cut its oil production dramatically. Venezuela, a founding member of OPEC, is allocated by the Cartel to produce 1.97 million BPD. But the near civil war in Venezuela has dropped actual production to only 1.64 Million BPD. In fact, Venezuela’s production dropped by a whopping 30% last year alone. This is a steeper decline than that experienced by Russia when the Soviet Union broke up, and that experienced by Iraq following the 2003 invasion!

As noted by the Wall Street Journal article that I am referencing, the drop in Venezuelan petroleum output will likely continue, if not accelerate, because the nation is trapped in a vicious socialized spiral. As it exports less, it receives less foreign currency, which cuts its ability to buy food and other necessities that its own dysfunctional economy cannot produce, which in turn increases its hyperinflation and thus the political and economic failure. Moreover, Venezuela’s declining shipments of crude are deducted to paying creditors (such as Russia) and are in constant danger of being seized by creditors.

All of this has added to the stress on OPEC that may result in its collapse as a cartel: the members of the cartel may go their own ways.

In short, the ill winds that have so badly buffeted the hapless Venezuelan people have blown great good to the rest of OPEC. I suspect this is the real reason why Russia — no longer itself socialist — so strongly supports the Venezuelan socialist regime: it keeps a formidable competitor on the ground. The Russians want nothing so much as fair competition — the history of their Olympic teams shows that!

Speaking of Russia, the second major reason that OPEC has been able to keep the price of oil as high as it has recently (i.e., in the $60–70 per barrel range) is that so far Russia has stuck to its agreement with OPEC to hold down production. In early 2017, OPEC and Russia — which, while not a member of OPEC, is certainly an ally of it — agreed to cut back Russia’s production. This agreement has held up for thirteen months, now, and the Russians have signaled that they are inclined to keep to the bargain through the rest of this year and even into the first half of next year. However, the Russian oil oligarchs are expressing doubts about the deal — since Russia needs to maximize its income in order to arm itself maximally.

Vadim Yakovlev, deputy CEO of Gazprom Neft, the giant Russian oil company, has said that the company views the OPEC agreement as only temporary, and it irks the company to be forced to hold back production. Gazprom’s CEO Alexander Dyukov has said, “Following the OPEC agreement, instead of growing at eight to nine percent, we [Gazprom] have increased by just 4.5 to five percent. Which is, without a doubt, a negative factor for us.”

At this point, American production is a regulator of world prices: whenever the price rises much above $60, the industry jacks up production, and the result brings the price right back down.

It is clear that OPEC’s day of rule is coming to an end. America — already the greatest producer of oil and natural gas combined — is on track to become the world’s biggest oil producer this year. Energy research firm Rystad Energy estimates the US production will rise by 10%, hitting 11 million BPD. America hasn’t been the global leader since — 1975!

The report from which I have drawn that last piece of information notes that in 2015 the Saudis drove oil prices down to $26 a barrel. This lowered American production by 11%. But the American oil industry, not destroyed, became stronger — and more efficient, able to turn a profit with prices as low as $30 a barrel. While some experts are not so sanguine about the US becoming number one, it is clear that our production will continue to grow. At this point, American production is a regulator of world prices: whenever the price rises much above $60, the industry jacks up production, and the result brings the price right back down. A recent article spells this out — oil prices have been driven down by American production’s rise to a new high of 10.25 million BPD.

In sum, the days of OPEC — an evil cartel of evil states, from socialist Venezuela to religious-fascist Iran to duplicitous Saudi Arabia to revanchist neofascist Russia — are numbered. The free market will at last prevail.




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Collateral Allegory

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Hostiles is an elegant and moving western that challenges viewers to look beyond the western genre to examine something larger and more contemporary. It begins in the way many great westerns have: a wide-angle shot of blue skies and golden prairie zooms in to a homesteader’s cabin, where the inhabitant, Wes (Scott Shepherd) is working in the yard and his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is teaching a grammar lesson to their daughters. When a band of Indians swoops over the horizon, Wes rushes his family out the back door while he stays to fend off the attackers — who are soon tracking Rosalie through the woods. Her fear is palpable. We are in the trees with her, hiding under the log, terrified of being caught.

Cut to the next scene. We hear the offscreen wails of a woman and see a closeup of our hero, Captain Joe Blocker. We know he’s our hero because this is Christian Bale in an Army uniform, and we are certain that he has arrived to rescue Rosalie. But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here; his men are rounding up a family of Natives and dragging them off to the local fort. This juxtaposition of brutal attacks on two peaceful families of opposite backgrounds sets us up for a film that is going to challenge our social, cultural, and political values.

But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here.

Blocker has been working most of his career on the western frontier, rounding up Indians and bringing them to Army stockades. About to retire, he is given one final assignment: by order of the president (who is concerned about public opinion), he must take a dying Cheyenne chieftain (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana, where they will be allowed to remain. Blocker doesn’t want to do it; it goes against everything he has done throughout his career. But he’s an Army man. If his commander tells him to dig a hole just to refill it tomorrow, he’ll do as he’s told. He doesn’t have to like it.

The rest of the film is a typical trail-ride western, with the typical conflicts among the troops, attacks by the enemies (both white and red), bouts of bad weather, and pensive conversations under the stars. There’s even a discreet romance. And the acting is first rate, especially by Bale and Pike.

"Hostiles" is a parable, all right, but not of the American West.

But it’s hard to watch a “typical western” about cowboys and Indians these days; our sensibilities bristle at the way indigenous people have been treated and portrayed. Mainstream reviewers don’t seem to know what to say about this movie. One wrote, “There's a good movie here, but it's buried by too many attempts to be something it's not, most egregiously some kind of great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” Well, excuse me for disagreeing, but I think the “something it’s not” is a “great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” And if you think that’s what it’s about, you’re going to be confused by the ambiguity of the tone and the characters.

Another reviewer wrote that it “works as a contrived but effective parable of the American West, [with] its painful legacy, and small measures of redemption.” Hostiles is a parable, all right, but not of the American West. The American West is being used here as an allegory of the Middle East. Its very name should offer the first clue; “hostiles” is the word modern soldiers use to identify the enemy. And Hostiles is a subtle parable about modern war.

Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get

We see officers obeying orders simply because “that’s my job.” We see peaceful families suffering the collateral damage of a prolonged war. We see “good Indians” and “bad Indians” representing the difference between good Muslims and jihadist Muslims. We see soldiers ravaged by PTSD and torn by the guilt of having killed. We see other soldiers struggling with the realization that in one circumstance killing is considered murder, but in another it’s considered heroic. Most of all, we see the importance of judging individuals by their character and their actions, not by their label or their group. Hostiles asks us to focus on what makes us human instead of what makes us enemies. Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get. Sometimes truth is that self-evident.

The body count for Hostiles comes close to that of a Quentin Tarantino movie (or Hamlet, for that matter) but without the gratuitous blood and guts of Tarantino. It’s tense and suspenseful because we care about the characters, but there’s a distance from the killing, just as there is a distance between these broken and dysfunctional characters. The pace is slow at times and the story is somewhat predictable. But what it subtly says about the personal, psychological ravages of war is important. And the final scene is so exquisitely moving and perfectly acted, it’s one of those moments in film that you never forget. Well worth the two and a half hour trail ride, just to get there.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hostiles," directed by Scott Cooper. Entertainment Studios, 2017. 134 minutes.



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Better than Advertised

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If you encountered the trailers for War Dogs, you would probably expect to see a typically raunchy Todd Phillips and Jonah Hill road trip, set untypically in the Middle East. But you would be wrong, and that’s a good thing. While there is indeed a wild ride from Jordan to Iraq as Mr. Hill’s character is being chased by Fallujahns wielding AK-47s, War Dogs is a surprisingly satisfying and informative film. It’s based on the true story of an unlikely pair of entrepreneurs who managed to live as fat as drug dealers in Miami by procuring supplies for the military.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) is working as a door-to-door massage therapist when middle-school chum Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) comes back into his life and invites him to help in his new business — providing materiel for the military. Partly as a reaction to the profits Dick Cheney made in the Middle East through his company Haliburton, Congress changed US policy in the ’90s so as to require multiple bids in procuring supplies. Efraim realized that big companies only wanted to bid on big contracts, and that created a niche for him. “Everyone’s fighting over the same pie and ignoring the crumbs,” he explains to David. “I live off the crumbs.”

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop.

Soon the two are in business together, living off more than crumbs in their newly purchased Miami beachfront condos and poring over contract listings to search for the buttons, belts, and bullets that other companies are likely to ignore. “It costs $17,500 to outfit one American soldier,” David, who narrates the story, tells the audience. You can make just as much money selling helmets and gloves as you can selling tanks and airplanes. Sometimes more, as Efraim and David discover. One deal is for more than $300 million. All of this is legal, and necessary. Competitive bids, after all, should keep the price down, and provide some relief to the taxpayer.

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop. Or how they work with shady characters around the world to fulfill the orders they’ve promised to supply. Or how they circumvent embargoes and other regulations to make sure their deliveries go through. They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

Efraim is wild, unpredictable, greedy, and self-serving — a role tailor-made for Jonah Hill. By contrast, David is a family man with a new baby and a conscience. He wants a better life for his family than what he can provide as a massage therapist, but he doesn’t want to destroy his relationship with his partner Iz (Ana de Armas) in the process. The dynamic between these two character types, one virtually amoral and the other morally connected, drives the conflict of the film and creates a satisfying storyline.

They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

As the film came to an end on the night I saw it, and the audience stood up to leave, I was struck by the number of young men who had come in packs. I don’t think they were Iraqi veterans looking to reminisce about their latest tour of duty. They had come for a mindless, raunchy Todd Phillips comedy, à la The Hangover Part IV: Iraqi Nights or something like that — the film the trailer promised to deliver. What they got was something else — something you could also say about the characters in the film. From the conversations I overheard, they didn’t seem disappointed. War Dogs is entertaining throughout, with well-developed characters and a healthy underlying cynicism about war.

Narrator David asks us, “What do you know about war? They’ll tell you it’s about patriotism, democracy. . . . But you wanna know what it’s really about? . . . War is an economy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.” David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli were both — they were in on it, and ultimately they were stupid. Nevertheless, he continues, “War dogs [are] bottom feeders who make money off of war without ever stepping foot on the battlefield. It was supposed to be derogatory, but we kind of liked it.“

Whether they’re bottom feeders or not, I kind of liked this film.


Editor's Note: Review of "War Dogs," directed by Todd Phillips. Green Hat Films, 2016, 114 minutes.



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Europe’s Migrant Crisis: Culture Matters

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Almost a decade back, at a Liberty magazine conference in Las Vegas, a speaker asked the audience what they see from the windows of their planes slightly after takeoff. He was alluding to the vast empty spaces in the US. Why not be more inviting to outsiders?

I shuddered. It had been a painful process to leave India and the last thing I wanted was the prospect of having millions of Indians living around me, again. I was even trying to run away from one Indian I couldn’t run away from: me.

It was not turning out to be easy to wean myself from the indoctrination. I had decided not to return to India for a few years, to avoid falling back into the old patterns of thinking and living that I had earlier succumbed to. Muscles have memories. Old habits don’t go away easily, even if the bad one can be recognized — for those living the bad patterns don’t see them.

Only someone heartless would not feel empathy for the sufferings of these migrants. They have starved. They have been abused. They have lived under totalitarian systems.

Most Indians I know in the US earn top salaries. They pay massive taxes. But alas, virtually all vote for things that contribute to making the US the mirror image of India. They vote for big, nanny governments. They vote for an increase in regulations to control the lives of others.

Culture matters. Our public institutions are nothing but a reflection of the underlying culture.

Indeed there is tyranny in Syria, Afghanistan, northern parts of Africa, and many other places. Only someone heartless would not feel empathy for the sufferings of migrants from there. They know what tyranny is. They have starved. They have been abused. They have lived under totalitarian systems.

A rational mind might easily conclude that such immigrants would fight for their liberties, and ours, once they were in Europe or elsewhere in the West.

But I still recall with anger and frustration the fact that when anyone among my colleagues from my engineering college in India — people who were elite students, having gone through an extremely competitive examination to gain admission — was abused, he almost never retaliated. Instead he looked for someone weaker to abuse. That was his release. I never managed to make even those proficient in math and science see reason.

Worst of all, why should they fight among themselves — kick and beat one another — in exactly the way they seem to be forever fighting among themselves in Syria and northern Africa?

A man of faults projects his faults on others. A man of virtues projects his virtues on others. That second principle defines the erroneous zone of empathetic Europeans. The European thinks that any rational immigrant would feel grateful for new opportunities and would be a frontrunner in any effort to preserve the liberties that Europe offers. Such a European erroneously projects his rationality on others, assuming it to be a natural state of being. Alas, it is not.

A look at the videos of migrants offers a glimpse that very likely leaves a rational observer uneasy and confused. Why should these migrants, instead of feeling and showing gratitude, create an angry nuisance? Why should they destroy public property? Why should they steal from their kind hosts, and abuse them? Worst of all, why should they fight among themselves — kick and beat one another — in exactly the way they seem to be forever fighting among themselves in Syria and northern Africa? A rational observer thinks that once in Europe, these people will give up the ways they have apparently been trying to leave behind. But that isn’t happening.

It is from rationality that morality emerges. It is from rationality that a society knows what is truly right or wrong, what is a virtue and what is a vice. The irrational society is immoral and incapable of respecting virtues. Irrational people see no need of being grateful or being virtuous in a thoughtful way. Rationality must be learned. But the European, nurtured in a culture of basic reason, thinks that rationality is a natural state of being. Certainly, they don’t always live up to it — but the claims of impartial reason, reason that transcends and judges the claims of tribe and superstition, do not have to be explained to them.

Unfortunately, the concept of reason has hardly made itself popular outside the West. These, the Rest — in Africa, in the Middle East and most of Asia — still exist in superstitions and tribalism. In a nonrational operating system, a person responds very different from the way in which a rational person would respond. The nonrational behavior you see on your TV screens in foreign news reports therefore comes across as strange, unbelievable, and uncomfortable in many ways.

They fail to shake off a deeply ingrained meme that money is “created” through political connections and positioning themselves in a certain way socially, rather than through wealth-creation.

The gem of analytical and skeptical reason is mostly and predominantly a Western phenomenon. Despite almost 500 years of trade and interactions with the Rest, and over the past decade, with immediate, worldwide access to knowledge through the internet, one would have expected wisdom and rationality to have percolated through to the Rest rather quickly.

It hasn’t.

The truth is that the concept of reason needed 2,500 years and the vehicle of Christianity, and a lot more, to come to the visible changes that happened in Europe in the past 500 years: the Reformation, the age of reason, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution.

But shouldn’t the culture of migrants change over time? Indeed, there are people who left their homelands because they were desperately tired of their irrational societies. These people appreciate the freedoms they experience when living in the West. They feel grateful for their hosts, for they have or at least had the inkling of the concept of reason before they arrived. But these are a small minority. Most modern day immigrants stay irrational, and never gain respect for their hosts. Moreover, processing their experiences — the compassion, opportunities and liberties they face in the West — but still using the operating system of the society they left behind, many immigrants learn to disrespect their hosts. They came not for freedom but for the material prosperity they had seen on TV. They are incapable of understanding what made the West what it is. They gravitate toward areas — Germany, for example — that offer the most welfare payments, for they fail to shake off a deeply ingrained meme that money is “created” through political connections and positioning themselves in a certain way socially, rather than through wealth-creation. They fail to see that when people continue Syrian or African ways of interaction they will evolve institutions in Europe that mirror what they ran away from.

Today in Europe there are many urban areas that are barred for visitation by those from outside the ethnic or religious ghettoes. When I lived in England, I had to pass through a Muslim area and then a Hindu area. I had made up convenient names for myself, rehearsed in my mind to tell them if I were accosted. This is not life lived according to reason. A rational person — projecting his virtues on others — would be in his erroneous zone if he expected that this predicament can change with time or with increase in prosperity.

It was in my early teens that I finally realized the cultural milieu that I was growing up in was utterly corrupt and irrational. Thirty-five years later — a span that includes a couple of decades spent in the West — I still feel envy when I see Western kids not suffering from habits and patterns that I still cannot shake off, after huge amount of work. Even a passionate person who realized his problems early on has found it almost impossible to surmount the problem of releasing himself from the shackles of his culture and indoctrination. When it is so difficult for someone keenly interested in changing himself to change, how difficult it must be to change those who don’t feel the need to change themselves! How doubly difficult it must be to change those who exist in a society, or ghetto, that won’t let them change even if they want to. Moreover, my indoctrination was Indian. A Syrian or North African indoctrination is probably much worse.

But isn’t the US a good example for Europe? Isn’t the US a cultural melting pot? Can Europe not do the same?

It pays to remember that virtually all the early immigration to North America was from Europe. The migrants were people who had Europe, and reason, in their genes, memes, and cultures. It is not necessarily the same with the new immigrants, either to Europe or to North America.

As a corollary, imposing what are products of enlightenment in the West — democracy, the nation state, public education — on culturally alien countries won’t work. It is for this reason that the removal of Saddam Hussein, after a lot of pain, chaos, and crisis, will end in a situation in which Iraq, some day, has to restart with a tyrant similar to Hussein. The same is the case in Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere.

Syria and Iraq should be left to develop their own social capacities for change, and even before that they have to find an internal feeling of a need for change.

The US government, perhaps influenced by lobbies from the military-industrial complex, wants to be forever embroiled in conflicts abroad. In the meantime, the rational American, projecting his virtues on alien cultures, thinks that such institutional impositions can effect changes in such places as Syria and Iraq. Such a rational American very erroneously sees the individuals in Syria and Libya as isolated innocents — but they are, very unfortunately, part and parcel of the problem.

It is best not to destabilize other countries. Syria and Iraq should be left to develop their own social capacities for change, and even before that they have to find an internal feeling of a need for change. This is the only possible way for a change in their societies, and Europe’s only chance to avoid getting too many migrants. Should the migration continue, it will almost certainly make an end, in Europe at the least, to the biggest achievement of humanity: the culture of reason, and hence the future of liberty.




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The Cult of Cynicism

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From time to time, this column has good news to report.

From time to time. Occasionally. All right — rarely. We’re not living in the golden age of literacy, you know.

But there is, occasionally, news that’s not so bad. If it’s true. The current version of buenas noticias comes to us, possibly, from the father of Mohammed Emwazi, allegedly the real person behind the mask of Jihadi John. JJ is the British subject who runs about the Middle East butchering people who don’t accept his religious notions. That’s the bad news. The good news is that his father may not have adopted the old, hackneyed ways of responding to the reported misdemeanors of family members.

There are at least two versions of this story. One is that the father is defending his son, saying there’s no proof that he did those things. The otheris the one I want to believe.

It goes like this. Confronted by questions about young Mohammed’s alleged crimes, he didn’t say, “My son is a good boy.” He didn’t say, “My son was an honor student who was planning to attend a community college.” He didn’t say, “This is all a plot of the Zionist Christian infidel crusaders.” He didn’t accuse anyone of racism. He said, “My son is a dog, he is an animal, a terrorist.” He said, “To hell with my son."

Mohammed called his father and said “I'm going to Syria to fight jihad, please release me and forgive me for everything." [His father] said, "F*** you. I hope you die before you arrive in Syria."

While other parents of miscreants initiate lawsuits, shriek into microphones, and solicit contributions for their pain and suffering, Emwazi’s father (in this version of the story) showed what the Declaration of Independence calls “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”:

"He said he cannot come back to work because he felt so shy of other people," said [his friend] Mr. Meshaal. "He is sitting home and cannot even go to the mosque to pray because he is ashamed of his son. He doesn't want people to see him, so he is praying at home."

Dignity and truth are so closely related that one seldom appears without the other. It is a sign of our world’s cheapness and cynicism that the reported remarks of Emwazi père, so honest, so worthy of respect, should also be so unusual as to shock the headline writers into noticing them. If the story isn’t true, our world is the poorer for it.

But what shocks me is the cult of cynicism that has swept our own country like a thousand gangs of jihadis. It’s a cult in which the central ritual is lying. The faithful gather; the priest tells a blatant, whopping lie; then the congregation breathes “Amen!”, congratulating itself on being clever enough to know that the words are lies, and that the speaker knows they’re lies, and that the speaker knows that the faithful know that the speaker knows they’re lies. I could go further with that sentence, but you get the point. The grand lie, the most pious of all lies, is that nobody knows any of this.

Dignity and truth are so closely related that one seldom appears without the other.

Our era’s most fitting representation of a priest is President Barack Obama. He has all the stereotypical qualities: he’s pompous, he’s unctuous, he’s obscurantist, he’s self-righteous — and he lies all the time. That’s not hyperbole. Given a choice between truth and lie, he chooses the lie. Lying is his religion.

This month, Obama’s former secretary of state, an ambitious under-priest named Hillary Clinton, carried the lying ritual far enough to disgust everyone. She called a press conference to claim, on the authority of nothing but her own word (a word that during the past two decades has been repeatedly exposed as worthless), that she is not concealing information from the American people regarding her communications while secretary of state.

Brazenness comes naturally to Hillary Clinton; she is well qualified to be a priestess in the house of Baal. What she lied about this time was her use of a private email account to cover her deeds as a public servant, including misdeeds that no person of normal intelligence, even among her fervent supporters, doubts that she committed. But in the cult of cynicism, a lie means nothing if it isn’t so obvious that partisans say to themselves, “Christ, what a flumpin’ lie! But she’ll get away with it.”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton’s obvious lies about her weirdly obvious coverups were nothing when compared to the reaction of Obama, her former boss. During her long, long years as secretary of state, she undoubtedly corresponded with Obama many, many times, and in her correspondence undoubtedly analyzed many state secrets (“classified information”) that it is death and hell to harbor on one’s private email. Which of course she did. So. Whenever Obama got a message from Clinton, he had an opportunity to observe the address from which she sent it, which was a private address, not a government address. He must have noticed that. He certainly noticed that. So what does he have to say about it? He says that he learned about her putting government emails on her private server at “the same time everybody else learned it, through news reports.”

A cult of cynicism has swept our own country like a thousand gangs of jihadis. It’s a cult in which the central ritual is lying.

Again, it’s a religious duty: given a fair choice between truth and lie, you lie. And if you don’t have a choice, you make one. Witness Mrs. Clinton’s out of the blue stories about being shot at in the Balkans and being named after Sir Edmund Hillary. Nobody cared where her name came from, but it represented an abstract chance to lie, and she tried to cash in on it. The fact that a lie is preposterous — as preposterous as Mrs. Clinton’s claim that she used a private email system instead of the government’s system because she didn’t want to carry both a private phone and a public phone — just adds to the priest’s perception that she or he is showing bold leadership. Boldness seems still bolder and, indeed, more truly presidential, the more closely it is linked to an obvious lie.

Acolytes, such as presidential press secretary Joshua Ryan Henry (“Josh”) Earnest, naturally compete to emulate the bold adventures of their saints. For them, shamelessness is next to godliness, and their bosses graciously give them the open shot at shamelessness. Even President Obama must have realized that no one could possibly believe his lie about learning of Mrs. Clinton’s nongovernmental email “through news reports.” Not only is “learned it from the news” preposterous, but he’s used that line about virtually every scandal in his administration. On a charitable interpretation, he must have known that he was being ridiculous, and he was being that way to give Josh his chance to tell a landmark lie of his own.

The chance came when the media hacks had finally scratched their heads and stared at their cellphones long enough to say to themselves, “Well, golly. If I know where my emails are coming from, why wouldn’t the president know where his were coming from?”

So out came Josh, to explain it all. Which he did, in this way:

Earnest said that while Obama likely recognized the e-mail address that he was responding to was not a government account, the president was referring to the fact that he didn’t know Clinton was using a personal e-mail server that was kept at her house or that she was using that exclusively for government business.

In private life, such statements would send you flying out the door. In public life, they beget learned analyses of how cleverly your camp has distanced itselffrom the offender. That’s another dimension of cynicism — the cynicism of the media, the cynicism of the learned experts.

Brazenness comes naturally to Hillary Clinton; she is well qualified to be a priestess in the house of Baal.

But for those of us who value religious faith, it’s sad to observe that President Obama doesn’t always adhere to his. I’m not referring to his flagging relationship to Christianity; I’m referring to his vital faith in cynicism. Even from this faith he is capable of backsliding. The high priest of cynicism sometimes blathers nonsense that he actually believes. At those dark moments, climate change (formerly known as global warming) is piously considered the biggest threat to civilization. Hiphop is welcomed as a form of art. The Islamic State is denied to be Islamic. Taxes and regulations are prescribed as cure-alls for the middle class.

Most recently, the president has taken to prattling about the idea that if voting were mandatory, it would become a kind of religious experience:

It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract [campaign] money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.

Well, of course it would. No one would have to pay a dime to guide political illiterates to the polls. They would find the polls themselves! And no one would need to show them how to vote. They would do it by inspiration! It would be a miracle.

One of Obama’s weirdest intervals of devout belief occurred this month, when he prompted a State Department minion to announce that the religious fanaticism of, say, Jihadi John is prompted, not of course by religion, but by the need for economic development. I mean, if you wonder why some people treat women as slaves, hang gay men for being gay, hack off the heads of hostages, and burn fellow Muslims in iron cages, it’s because there aren’t enough jobs for young jihadis.

The high priest of cynicism sometimes blathers nonsense that he actually believes.

Obama never runs out of temple servants, but the one bearing these revelations happened to be Marie Harf, a State Department spokesman and reputed expert on something, who delivered — or rather, like her boss, intoned — a series of remarks that made even progressive Democrats convulse with laughter. Harf maintained that if we are to win the war against terrorism, its “root causes” must be addressed — not such causes as morbid religiosity, abusive ideas of sex, or opportunities to practice sadism in real life, but such causes as a “lack of opportunity for jobs.”

P.J. O’Rourke once defined a modern liberal as a person who believes there are some people who are just too poor to clean up their front yards. Now there are people who are just too poor to keep from burning other people alive.

When she realized that the nation was laughing at her, Harf went back on television to insist on the “root causes” cliché, and add lack of “good governance” to the list of reasons — never, apparently, including religion — why people spend thousands of dollars traveling across the globe to torture and kill other people. She then blamed her audience for failing to appreciate her “nuanced” argument.

Nuanced raised even more laughs. It became clear to all, even to John Kerry, the reductio ad absurdum of Ivy League elitism, that to everyone this side of Harvard Yard, nuanced is a funny word, not a deeply seriousone. He told congressmen not to laugh at the miserable Ms. Harf. But they did. Everybody did.

But what had she done? She had given honest (though ridiculous) voice to the honest (though ridiculous) ideas of her boss.

It’s better to stick to cynicism.




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Enemy of My Enemy

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Obama's ISIS Strategy: Death by Flatulence

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The more the Obama administration talks about the war on terrorism, the less we know. What are we fighting? Is it violent extremism or radical Islam? OK, it's actually radical Islam (we only need to kill jihadists, not all Muslims); the term "violent extremism" is less offensive to violent Islamists and no one cares about its repugnance to non-Muslim violent extremists — a subset in the Venn diagram of terrorism that is imperceptible to all but a handful of White House officials.

But is it Sunni radical Muslims or Shiite radical Muslims that are the problem? Or both? (And who are we to make such judgments — after the Crusades and all?) Do we need to worry about Iran, with its expanding regional hegemony, soon to be bolstered by nuclear weapons? Or Iraq, which, having been abandoned by the US in 2010, has descended into barbaric chaos with the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) running amok throughout its north, and equally vicious Iranian militia groups running amok everywhere else? Or both?

And what about the original Syrian rebels, valiantly fighting Bashar Assad? When, in 2011, the civilian death toll from Assad's brutal regime had reached 2,000, a horrified Mr. Obama declared that Assad must step aside. Yet, after drawing his famous red line, it was Obama who stepped aside, allowing both ISIS and Iranian thugs to trespass into Syria. What are we to make of Obama's silence today, when the Syrian death toll exceeds 200,000? And, as Hezbollah fighters and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) creep into the Golan Heights and Hamas wages war in Gaza, why has Mr. Obama become displeased with Israeli president, Nethenyahu? Is it time to abandon Israel?

When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Some experts believe that if we (Western infidels) knew what radical Muslims wanted, then a reasonably peaceful coexistence agreement could be reached. But, as President Obama is discovering in his negotiations with Iran, even when we know what radical Muslims want, compromise is a charade, with reason playing, at best, a bit part to concession.

Despite his Herculean appeasement efforts, Obama has been unable to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. His support for President Nouri al-Maliki (a puppet of Iran ) and his (Maliki's) violent purge of Sunni participation in Iraqi government affairs; his hasty withdrawal of American military forces — just when the Bush-Petraeus surge had stabilized the country and Vice President Biden was gleefully declaring that Iraq was "going to be one of the great achievements of this administration"; his refusal to help the Kurds fight ISIS militants; his blind eye to the spread of Shiite terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Lebenon, Yemen, and Gaza — all has been for naught.

In 2012, Obama issued a crystal clear promise to "do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from producing an atomic bomb." That promise became nebulous with a November 2013 agreement to forge, within six months, a treaty to freeze or reverse progress at all of Iran’s major nuclear facilities. Today, as the delays (and the relaxation of economic sanctions against Iran) continue, Obama's promise is idle. The mullahs, who have been playing him for a sucker all along, will get their bomb. Obama can only hope for a toothless treaty that postpones Iran's acquisition of a functioning ICBM system — until after he leaves office, when nuclear proliferation in the Middle East will become his successor's problem.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK.

We also know what Sunni Muslim radical organizations such as ISIS want. They tell us, loudly and unequivocally: 7th-century Islam, a caliphate, with sharia law, and remorseless death to all who interfere. That they are pathologically indifferent to diplomacy, negotiation, or compromise is demonstrated in a relentless parade of choreographed atrocities: decapitation, crucifixion, immolation, torture, rape, slavery, and mass murder, to name a few. In his brilliant and disturbing exposé, What ISIS Really Wants, Graeme Wood elucidates,

We can gather that their state [ISIS] rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of — and headline player in — the imminent end of the world.

Wood suspects that, in the past year, president Obama's confusion over the nature of ISIS "may have contributed to significant strategic errors." The confusion extends much further back. As ISIS marauded into Iraq in late 2013, Obama may have believed that he could reason with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of what Obama perceived to be the al Qaeda JV team. However, already embroiled in the war against terrorism and fully aware of ISIS's fanatical designs on Iraq, he might have followed the advice of Benjamin Franklin, arguably the finest diplomat in US history, who knew that sometimes "force shites on the back of reason." Had Obama chosen this path, any time before January 3, 2014, the day when Fallujah fell to al-Baghdadi's brutal thugs, would have been a fine time for overwhelming military force to shit on the back of ISIS.

It did not. Unchallenged, ISIS continued its rapid expansion, conquering most of northern Iraq by early June, when it captured the city of Mosul. It wasn't until August, when American journalist James Foley was beheaded, that Obama sprang into action — in a press briefing, where the president announced, to the dismay of our allies in the Middle East and Europe, that he had no strategy.

By the following week, however, he had hastily cobbled together a plan to "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS. Enlisting the aid of allies (nine, initially), it would involve air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and not involve American "boots on the ground" anywhere. With Syria but a tattered impression in his entangled memory, Secretary of State John Kerry spouted, “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here.” ISIS poses no existential threat to the US, yet. The immediate threat is to Iraq, the oil producing monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, and, to a lesser extent, Europe. When it comes to facing ISIS on the ground, those with the most to lose have the greatest aversion to do so.

Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint.

Only the Kurds have been willing to face ISIS. Apart from Israel, they are our only true ally in the region. They struggle alone, except for sporadic US air support. Their weapons are obsolete. The ISIS attackers wield vastly superior American weapons, stolen from the Iraqi military. Kurdish pleas for such weapons have found nothing but Obama's shameless denial.

Our other Middle East allies meekly stand by, partly because of their reluctance to face any grueling warfare, but also, perhaps more significantly, because of their suspicions about Obama. They are Sunnis, who, while appreciating Obama's dilemma in Syria (where he can't bomb ISIS without helping Assad), are deeply troubled by his concessions to Iran — a Shiite juggernaut feared more than ISIS. Why should they follow a leader whose ultimate sympathies lie with their ultimate enemy?

President Obama entered office vowing to deliver on his campaign pledge to improve America's image in the Middle East. Apologizing for America's arrogance (including the War in Iraq, torture, Gitmo, and more), he did his best to ingratiate himself to the Muslim world. He did, however, warn that "al Qaeda is still a threat and that we cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president suddenly everything's going to be OK."

But ending the Iraq War did not win the favor of Islam. Indeed, Obama's hasty withdrawal from Iraq (against the wishes of his military advisors) thrust that country into a violent chaos that destroyed what he himself called “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq" and touted as "an extraordinary achievement." It allowed ISIS to be created — reconstituted from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that had been defeated by the Bush-Petraeus surge. With his pre-announced 2016 exit, Afghanistan is likely to follow the same trajectory. And we were kicked out of Libya, Yemen, and Syria by Sunni Muslim terrorists, Shiite Muslim terrorists, and Vladimir Putin, respectively. So much for America's image.

As al Qaeda continues to be a grave threat, Mr. Obama has convinced himself that for ISIS — the now much larger threat — we can pretend that everything's going to be OK. In his recent Vox interview, he asserted that the media exaggerates terrorism and that climate change and epidemic disease may be more important issues. He concedes that it is legitimate for Americans to be concerned "when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris," fastidiously avoiding, of course, any association with radical Islam. We should not be alarmed by the organization that he once dismissed as a JV team, and now dismisses as a caliphate, believing that it will collapse under its own weight. Says Obama, "It [ISIS] can talk about setting up the new caliphate but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually, you know, sustain or feed people or educate people or organize a society that would work."

Nevertheless, with the gruesome ISIS murders, in early February, of a Japanese journalist (beheaded), a Jordanian pilot (burned alive in a cage), and 21 Egyptian Christians (beheaded), Obama was spurred to action. He convened a global summit, in Washington DC, where leaders from 60 countries came to combat "violent extremism” — by the surprising method of "empowering local communities" that can provide "economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity." Said the president, "We can help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the Internet." To that end, the State Department promptly opened 350 twitter accounts (designed, apparently, to deluge the violent extremists with clever anti-barbarism tweets) and a new web site: "The Solution to Violent Extremism Begins in your Community."

Strangely, they are serious. Violent extremism, says John Kerry, is "the defining fight of our generation." Back in the real world, however, it is quite astonishing that Obama has been unable to convince countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states to join the fight against ISIS. These Sunni Muslim nations, having the most to lose, should be the most willing to put their own boots on the ground against ISIS. Nothing would please America more than to see Arab Muslim soldiers at the forefront of Obama's "degrade and ultimately defeat" ISIS’ campaign. Should this happen, I am sure that Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths would march together with Muslim Americans through the streets of America cheering for our president and praising his inspired leadership.

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president.

But it's not likely. Obama's goal may be to defeat ISIS, but his strategy is based on constraint: can't bomb Syria, can't cross Kerry's redline, can't jeopardize negotiations with Iran, can't offend Islam, can't capture terrorists, and so forth. Such a strategy, together with his indecisiveness and distaste for military force, crowds out the possibility of victory. Besides, even if ISIS is defeated, al Qaeda and numerous other radical Muslim organizations remain — not to mention Iran, an immensely virulent, existing terrorist organization, on the fast track to obtain nuclear weapons.

President Obama, therefore, has retreated to his community organizer roots, where he finds, as chief weapons against Islamic terrorism: political rhetoric, social media, and hope — hope that ISIS self-destructs, that budding terrorists find jobs, that Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions, that pithy tweets will curb terrorist atrocities and stymie terrorist recruitment, and that the media stops exaggerating the barbarous acts committed, as Obama is careful to insist, by "individuals from various religions."

Hope could work. It has worked very well for Obama in the past. After all, it's how he was elected president. On the other hand, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin also warned, "He that lives upon Hope, dies farting."




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Job Faire

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Canada’s 10/14

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Two recent events in Canada have taken over the emotions both of Canadians and of people far and wide. In a more rational world these might not even have been news, but in our world they have become very big news, largely for the wrong reasons: the victims were in uniform and there is an association with Islam.

Americans and Canadians have been so conditioned to fear Islamic influence that even minor events related to Islam suddenly appear to be all that matters. They also forget that those in uniform take up jobs in which their lives may actually be at stake. Ironically, deification of the uniformed means that any death among them becomes the cause of hysteria.

The state never loses an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. The indoctrinated, infantile population, deep in their being expecting a utopia where no one ever dies or even gets hurt, must beg and plead for a bigger state, more reductions in privacy, and a ramp up of war.

Ironically, deification of the uniformed means that any death among them becomes the cause of hysteria.

In league with the United States, Canada has unilaterally declared war on several states or state-like entities in the Middle East, most recently on ISIS, an organization that no one, not even the “all-knowing” US spy agencies, had a clue about a few months back but that, ironically, for the convenience of the English speaking populace, has given itself an English name rather than scarier ones such as Abu Sayyaf, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Al-Shabaab, etc. The Taliban and al Qaeda are now old-fashioned. If what we have been told about ISIS is to be believed, it is trying to take over a region where what is supposed to work politically in the United States has not worked. Having removed Saddam Hussein, who kept stability and sectarian violence at bay, the US created massive chaos in the region.

The whole iteration of implanting democracies, removing democratically elected Islamists, funding and arming rebels who then become inconvenient, then going back through the sequence again and again, forever churning out more insecure sociopaths, hasn’t convinced the US that it should leave Iraq and Syria alone to deal with their own problems, organically evolving their own institutions, as Hayek would have suggested. The US and its groupies, Canada and the UK, must decide how others should live.

To say that there has been a lack of perspective concerning subsequent events would be putting it mildly. In Canada, the two murderers had opportunities to kill a few civilians on the way; they didn’t. Moreover, the fact that there was only one crazy who was involved in entering the Canadian parliament shows that he was unable to find more to join him in his “jihad.” Making the next step a rational response is too much to expect from indoctrinated Canadians. They will do exactly the opposite. They will work to increase the size of the state and its military effort. The guy working at Starbucks worries about the lack of driving rights among women in Saudi Arabia, not knowing that it is a US protectorate. In a generalized fear of all the strange things he hears, he sees massive civilian deaths by US drones as mere collateral damage; he acquiesces in the idea of killing women and kids to bring more freedom to women and better education to kids. People who are indoctrinated emotionally lose their bearings and their foothold on reality — and when it comes to the crunch, Canadians, the more indoctrinated and socialistic people, will exhibit a worse side than Americans.

We are constantly profiled, fingerprinted, photographed, and traced by our governments. Can writings like this be forbidden?

Stephen Harper will not let this overblown crisis go to waste. If sanity prevailed, Canadians would be protesting their entanglements in Iraq, Syria, etc., which have had horrible unintended consequences. But expecting rational actions would be asking for the impossible.

Post script: We must all watch what we say these days. What one says or writes ends up in the NSA or similar meta-databases. We are constantly profiled, fingerprinted, photographed, and traced by our governments. Can writings like this be forbidden? The Canadian government is contemplating a law to make it illegal for anyone to sympathize with terrorists. What “sympathy” means will of course be left to the judgment of the bureaucrat. My guess is that Canadians will take the pill of increased slavery without a murmur.

We often forget that governments can actually get away with a lot more than they do. The reason they do not increase regulatory control is not so much a fear of resistance from the citizens as a fear of hurting the economy, and hence their tax collections, as well as a realization that heavy-handed laws may increase corruption and the fragmentation of their control mechanisms, defeating the whole purpose. They always tread the thin line that helps them maximize control, tyranny, and privilege.




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