Friday, February 26, 2016

Guest Column: Is New York City's CUNY a Camel or a Racehorse?

By Professor Andrzej Krakowski, Ph.D.
The City College of New York

As a member of the faculty at the City College of New York, I closely follow the trials and tribulations of the City University of New York (CUNY) with regard to its inextricably intertwined fate and financial future. Funding CUNY has become a political struggle between New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The dispute has, among other things, exposed the total ineffectiveness of a faculty union leadership that has inexplicably—and inexcusably--allowed its rank and file to labor a staggering seven years without a contract.

All that is well known to CUNY stakeholders and seasoned observers and, increasingly, to better informed consumers of New York State and City news. What isn’t well known—in fact, it seems to have been totally overlooked by all interested parties—is the fact that nobody seems to have a clear sense of the purpose or mission of CUNY, or, for that matter, of America’s public colleges and universities as a whole. Absent agreement on this, it will be practically impossible to adequately fund (or finance, as businesspeople prefer to say) CUNY or other taxpayer-supported institutions of higher education; and a steady diet of starvation-sized budgets and savage spending cuts will be permanent features of American educational life. People, put simply, are naturally reluctant to invest in or support funding of projects, programs and organizations led by individuals who can’t seem to express or even agree among themselves on fundamental aims and purposes.

Europe is Different

As someone who was born and educated abroad and frequently travels to other countries in connection with creative and educational endeavors, I’m struck by the differences between our public universities and colleges and their overseas counterparts. In other countries, since they’re not profit oriented, the aim of government-funded universities and colleges is to provide the highest-level education to the most deserving students, while the goal of for-profit schools is to produce as many graduates as possible (oftentimes greatly contributing to the phenomenon of degree inflation). Whether we like it or not, this system is more democratic as it is based purely on merit. In Europe and Asia, if a student studies hard and shows promise (there are entry exams for all candidates to determine this) the state will subsidize the student’s education, regardless of the student’s class origins. A student looking for an easy way forward, academically, can usually secure a spot in a private college—and pay through the nose for the privilege of getting a degree.

Rankings of overseas private and public institutions of higher learning take their respective missions into account. In the United States, however, the same standards of ranking and classification are applied to public and private colleges and universities—the method used in the U.S. News and World Report survey combined with what is known as the Carnegie Classification.

Let’s take a quick look at the criteria considered in the recent U.S. News Ranking of the Best Colleges and their Ranking Model Indicators. These are:

1. Undergraduate Academic Reputation (22.5% of the total score)
2. Retention (22.5%)---this measure is a combination of two ingredients: six-year graduation rate (80% of just the retention or 18% of the total score) and first-year retention rate (20% or 4.5% respectively)
3. Faculty resources (20% of the total score)---which consists of six components: A) class size, with its two elements: a) the proportion of classes with fewer than 20 students (30% of only the faculty resources score) and b) the proportion with 50 or more students (10%), B) faculty salary (35%) adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living, C) the proportion of instructors with the highest degree in their fields (15%), D) the student-faculty ratio (5%) and E) proportion of the full-time to adjunct faculty (5% of the faculty resources score)
4. Student selectivity (12.5% of the total score)--with its three sections:  a) the SAT and the composite ACT score (65% of the Student selectivity score), b) class ranking in their high school classes (25%), and c) ratio of students admitted to applicants (10%)
5. Financial resources (10% of the total score)
6. Graduate rate performance (7.5%)
7. Alumni giving rate (5%).

A closer analysis will show that each of these seven standards puts public colleges at a strong disadvantage.

Let’s start from the first one. Below are the elements the U.S. News uses in ranking Undergraduate Academic Reputation (which account for almost one quarter of the score): “The U.S. News ranking formula gives significant weight to the opinions of those in a position to judge a school's undergraduate academic excellence. The academic peer assessment survey allows top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – to account for intangibles at peer institutions, such as faculty dedication to teaching.”

The Reputation Concept

First of all, the concept of reputation is based totally on abstract thinking, which is not very conducive to statistical standardization or prioritization. It simply doesn’t withstand the scientific method. Show me a president, provost or a dean of admissions, who wouldn’t be biased while talking about his or her school. It would be counterintuitive and foolish for us to think that there are such people.

 As to the next part of the quote:  “To get another set of important opinions on National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges, we [The U.S. News – AK] also surveyed 2,200 counselors at public high schools, each of which was a gold, silver or bronze medal winner in a recent edition of the U.S. News Best High Schools rankings, as well as 400 college counselors at the largest independent schools.” - opinions of the high school counselors are easily influenced by such factors as marketing and public relations, and those in turn wholly depend on the wealth of the institution. It’s hard not to notice the ads for University of Phoenix on primetime television. With plenty of the advertising dollars and satellite campuses around the country and abroad, private universities will always attract many more foreign and out-of-state students (in the state and city colleges those are the highest profit generators) than the perpetually underfunded public institutions. Clearly, academic reputation is a factor of money poured in--- the more you put in, the more you get out.

Retention, with its two elements, without a doubt favors private institutions, even with the seemingly liberal six-year graduation approach. For those unfamiliar with the term, retention means completing a four-year degree in six. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that a student paying $50,000 or more in tuition has financially more to lose by not completing the coursework on time than a student paying $9,000 per year, no matter how rich his or her parents might be. Many private colleges (even in major cities) require on-campus residency, at least during the freshman year, and provide space in their dormitories---a nice additional income stream, since they’re also the landlords. The city-located, public schools rarely have sufficient available housing and depend mostly on the commuter traffic. The dormitories housed students are by nature more focused on studying---even the ones who must work in order to afford the tuition, as those usually look for employment within a walking distance from the campus, as opposed to the public school students who could be working in one end of town, live in another and take classes in the third. From my own observation, the most absences and lateness for classes are caused by commuting and transportation problems within the city.

Similar factors apply to first-year retention. Ironically, a student from a more affluent family—typically not the first in his or family to attend college—with the financial resources to pay for an Ivy League, or, say, a NYU education, will most likely have fewer problems with financing his or her second year of education than a poorer student—typically the first in his or her family to attend college—who must rely on both student loans and a paycheck to pay the CUNY tuition.

Explaining its ranking of Princeton as the nation’s #1 university, U.S. News & World Report states: “Princeton was the first university to offer a “no loan” policy to financially needy students, giving grants instead of loans to accepted students who need help paying tuition.” Very noble of Princeton to do so, but how many underfunded public universities or colleges can afford giving grants to individual financially strapped students? I also wonder how many grants were actually given by Princeton, compared to the total number of “students in need” flocking to the public institutions. I suspect by comparison probably not that many. On the other hand, I don’t remember ever seeing any comprehensive studies undertaken by CCNY that would try to define, identify and remedy the high rate of the first-year dropouts. The reasons for the low retention could be varied: from the loss or change of employment, the inadequate schedules of classes or decaying infrastructure, through seemingly problematic location of the campus, poor selection of courses, dissatisfaction with the quality of instruction, the price of tuition itself, finally to the poaching of the most talented students frequently practiced by the richer private schools (in this case the college becomes a victim of its own success). Whereas each reason should be separately addressed and dealt with, from the statistical point of view it doesn’t matter--a dropout is a dropout.

The Faculty Resources category, with its six underlined factors, is devastatingly skewed towards for-profit, private institutions of higher learning. Class sizes, faculty remuneration, the ratio of student-faculty and full-time to adjunct instructors, as well as the number of teaching staff with terminal degrees in their respective fields are clearly functions of available resources. As a point of reference, an average professorial salary at CUNY is almost 50% lower than its NYU or Columbia counterparts, not to mention that during a fiscal crisis, the natural tendency at any school would be to cut the number of unprofitable classes and increase size of the profitable ones. Not a good idea from the accreditation standpoint, however.

One may argue that the entire category is responsible for only a fifth of the entire score, so we shouldn’t be overly concerned abut each of its many components, but in the ranking each fraction of a point counts. It’s so evident that the public colleges are at the disadvantage that all we have to do is to check the current placement of the top ranked public university. UC Berkley is ranked #20 in the U.S. and none of the CUNY colleges made the top 200 on the U.S. News survey. Even CCNY--which produced 10 Nobel Prize winners—didn’t make the list.

The Student Selectivity category with its three factors, which account for an eighth of the total score, takes under consideration such elements as: SAT and the composite ACT scores, class ranking in high school classes, and ratio of students admitted to number of applicants. The SAT score, which is the only standardized test available, works better as a filter to sift away the less desirable candidates in a stand-alone private university than in a city-run system, such as CUNY. With the recently introduced Pathways, the graduates from local community colleges are guaranteed smooth transfer to one of the senior colleges. Whereby the senior colleges are considered a research level, the two-year community schools are more trade and craft oriented.

Distinctly Different Missions

Again, unless we consider the distinctively different missions of those schools, we will be comparing apples and oranges, doing disservice to both. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the disproportionally large number of the third-year dropouts in CUNY is made of young peoples who after graduating, transferred from community colleges and quickly found out that they are not cut out to be full time senior level students. The class ranking in a high school means nothing, unless ones assumes that all schools are level-wise equal and have the same number of students, but we all know that that’s not the case.

As to the points given for a high ratio of students admitted in relation the number of applicants--- how can a public college system, which is obliged to take any student graduating from the city’s high school, compete with a top-tier private institution?

If all this is confusing, the category called Financial Resources is even more confusing. What financial resources? Those derived from tuitions, generous philanthropy, government research grants and smart capital investments or the skimpy allocations in the state and city budgets during occasional ceasefires in political wars--even when the state and the city enjoy budgetary surpluses, as is the case right now?

Is the situation so hopeless? Unless we reconsider our priorities, I’m afraid that if it’s not now hopeless, it will be soon.

American public universities and colleges in their structure remind me that old definition of a camel: a horse designed by a committee. Camels are amazing animals; but a camel will never outrun a race horse. Nor should it be expected to—nature didn’t design the camel for this purpose. Similarly, even the finest, best engineered luxury sports car will never, all things being equal, win a Formula One race. Still, the racehorse can’t do what the camel can do; and the Formula One racecar can’t compete against, say, a Jeep or Land Rover when it comes to traversing rough terrain—or, simply, driving in snow.

In other words, we have to refocus our thinking regarding the entire system of higher education, and make sure that the missions of public colleges and private universities are both clearly defined and adhered to before we start fixing our immediate problems.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Can an 'Unknown' Polish Director Save Hollywood?

By André Pachter

America's Memorial Day weekend is behind us and the official summer of blockbusters is again underway. Seasonal observations seem in order....

Perusing the front pages of The Hollywood Reporter in the last few years one could get the impression that one is reading an endless list of obituaries. No matter how the media spin doctors try to dress it, even a child can understands that “a soft opening”, “below expectations”, “gets buried”, “underperforms” mean only one thing––– A FINANCIAL FLOP! The question, then,  is why so many major studio high budgeted concept film fail at the box office.

One train of thought would suggest that perhaps the ticket prices had lately became too steep for the pockets of (what remains of) the middle class. But if the answer was so simple the studio brass would’ve quickly lowered the prices to make everyone happy. What they would’ve lost on price they would’ve made up in volume. So ticket price isn't the answer.

Another school of thought would say that perhaps with shorter attention spans mass audiences got tired of so many franchises and can no longer distinguish one film from another.

Be that as it may, this much is clear: With a break even point of five to one or higher (a film has to gross five times or more to return its initial investment) and budgets approaching a staggering $200 million, in order to attract huge audiences a film needs to create a clearly recognizable identity for itself. But with so many sequels, prequels and remakes accomplishing this is at best a likely lost cause.

Perhaps the financial woes of major releases can be attributed to the ever changing technology of entertainment delivery. Who wants wants to drag a family to a cinema on the other side of town if  he or she can see the same thing for less money from Netflix or Hulu--delivered directly to the living room? Delivery must be the answer! The Internet is killing The Business!

Another industry disrupted by the endlessly disruptive medium--if only The Real Answer could be this simple. But I suspect it actually lies elsewhere--in the storytelling itself. The expansion of technology has made access to content much easier. But the narration of storytelling has not kept in step. Visual special effects that require huge screens and sophisticated sound systems for the audience in order to get the full value of what is being presented is just another expense--and no substitute for great cinematic storytellers.

Where are the new Billy Wilders, Preston Sturgeses, or Alfred Hitchcocks? One Quentin Tarantino is not enough. Signature directors with idiosyncratic humor or visual style seems the way of the past…

Recall the revolution that Jacques Tati created in Europe in the mid-1950s. After years of doldrums, an eccentric Monsieur Hulot suddenly became a huge hit… What was so unique about him?

Since the technology and story itself were traditional, Mr. Hulot was himself unique. Hus movements were farcically exaggerated; his walk, hesitant and Max Linderesque; his pipe, hat and cane, instantly recognizable… In his day, for his time, Mr. Hulot was The Answer.

Which brings me back to my search for The Answer, which I think that perhaps I have found--in Poland--in the person of a Mr. Krzysztof Pulkowski, a director not known in the United States. He has actually tried something really new, combining a traditional story with a grotesque (very much like Tati) acting technique and a totally new approach to production design and visual storytelling.

Starting with an empty space, the screen fills up in front of our eyes with minimalistic items barely identifying the purpose of it all--in this case a bank. With a stroke on an electronic pen, judging from the behavior of the characters, it could have been a ... brothel. Really!  What a surprise! I will not divulge any more of the story; the readers can see it for themselves at:

PS Perhaps the movie business has come full circle: the industry--Hollywood!--created by Polish immigrants can be saved by a new talent from Poland.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Call it Jihad: Terrorism Doesn't Define the Threat

By Clare M. Lopez

2014's spate of Islamic terror attacks against Western targets leaves observers grasping for words to describe what's happening. President Obama doesn't want to deal with it at all, so after a Muslim convert beheaded a woman in Oklahoma, he thought it appropriate to send the beheader's mosque (the Islamic Center of Greater Oklahoma City) warm greetings about "shared peace" and "a sense of justice." (The occasion was the Muslim feast of Eid Ul-Adh, but the timing was awful.) U.S. national security agencies are no help either—under the tutelage of the Muslim Brotherhood, they were purged long ago of any vocabulary useful for dealing with jihad. "Lone wolf" gets a lot of play with the media, but as Michael Ledeen, Andrew McCarthy, and Patrick Poole (here, here, and here) have all pointed out, there's nothing 'lone' about Muslim warriors, self-selected or otherwise, engaging in fard 'ayn (individual jihad) in obedience to the doctrine of their shared faith.

Nor are these attacks simply "terrorism" in any way that is uniquely descriptive. As Ledeen noted, the Unabomber was a domestic terrorist. The FBI calls the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) terrorist. The Black Liberation Army was accused of murdering more than a dozen police officers in its day. But none of these operates today in obedience to a 1400-year-old ideology that claims a divine commandment to conquer the earth. Nor is any of these other 'domestic terrorists' the 21st century embodiment of a force that already has overrun many powerful civilizations, including the Buddhist, Byzantine, Middle East Christian, Hindu, and Persian ones.

It's time to call this what it is: Jihad.

Jihad is a unique descriptor: it is motivated solely by one ideology—an Islamic one. It encompasses any and all tactics of war, be they the kinetic violence of terrorism, the stealthy influence operations of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian intelligence agencies, or funding, speaking, teaching, and writing. Importantly, the term 'jihad' is the one used by its own practitioners—the clerics, scholars, and warriors of Islam. Arguably the most valid qualification of all is that Islamic Law (shariah) defines jihad as "warfare to spread the religion [Islam]." Warfare encompasses many things, though, and not all of them are violent.

Katharine Gorka, President of The Council on Global Security, has an astute new essay entitled "The Flawed Science Behind America's Counter-Terrorism Strategy" in which she skewers the Obama administration's misguided policy it calls "Countering Violent Extremism." She explains how America's counter-terrorism 'experts' have tried haplessly to apply Social Movement Theory to what actually is a totalitarian ideology cloaked loosely in a handful of religious practices. A decade or more of attempting to apply the language of grievance, poverty, and unemployment laid at the door of Western colonialism or secular modernity has achieved little but the neutering of America's national security defenses. Yet, even this dead-on analysis doesn't quite get us where we need to be.

Just as Obama's bland "violent extremism," deliberately devoid of meaning identifies neither the enemy nor the ideology that animates him, so in its way, 'terrorism" likewise falls short. For if "terrorist" can and does mean anyone from a nut job like Ted Kaczynsky to assorted tree huggers, neo-Nazi skinheads, as well as Islamic warriors committing atrocities in the name of Allah, then its scope is just too broad to define precisely the paramount threat to global stability in the 21st century: jihad.

The magnitude of the jihad threat demands its own category. Neither Kaczynsky nor animal and environmental activists nor neo-Nazis could threaten the very existence of our Republic. Certain 20th century totalitarian ideologies arguably did, though, and that's why the U.S. marshaled every resource at its disposal to fight them to defeat. Islamic totalitarianism is such an ideology, albeit one that has survived cyclical periods of defeat and resurgence for many centuries. We constrain ourselves both conceptually and legally, however, when the only way to label an act of violence 'terrorism' is when it is carried out against civilians for a political purpose and the perpetrator(s) can be tied to a designated terrorist organization, with no consideration for the ideology that so many of them—and others not on such lists—share.

Islamic terror attacks of recent decades typically involved identifiable Islamic terror groups such as al-Qa'eda, Ansar al-Shariah, HAMAS, Hizballah, and the PLO, but were often funded and supported by jihadist nation states such as Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. As Katharine Gorka described in her white paper, though, the Obama administration's willfully amorphous term, "violent extremism," ensured that no enemy threat doctrine called 'jihad' that unifies these diverse yet similarly-motivated actors and that actually may threaten the Republic, was ever permitted to be articulated—or confronted.

Now, after the overwhelming post-9/11 Western retaliatory offensives, both al-Qa'eda and more recently, the Islamic State, increasingly have called for acts of 'individual jihad' (fard 'ayn, according to Islamic doctrine). Such attacks by Islamic true believers against armed service members, civilians, and law enforcement officers as well as ordinary citizens duly are proliferating across the West, but the U.S. national security establishment grasps for any term—lone wolf, violent extremist, workplace violence—to avoid saying either 'terrorism' or 'jihadist.' Granted, as Daniel Pipes noted in his 24 October 2014 essay, "Terrorism Defies Definition," there are legal consequences under the U.S. Legal Code for "formally certifying an act of violence as terrorist." But as we see, it's more than that – and it's why we need to use "jihad" more often and "terrorism" less.

To properly identify individual jihad attacks is to acknowledge that there is an established ideology behind them that derives its inspiration from Islamic doctrine, law, and scripture. To acknowledge that would mean the threat actually is existential, at a minimum in its objective: universal conquest and enforcement of shariah. Until and unless the entire American citizenry, federal bureaucracy, Intelligence Community, law enforcement, and the U.S. military understand that failing to acknowledge, confront, and defeat the forces of Islamic jihad and shariah indeed do endanger the very existence of our Republic as we know it, and mobilize to meet this challenge, the inexorable advance of shariah will continue. As Pipes notes with some understatement, the current "lack of clarity presents a significant public policy challenge."

The term "terrorism" will continue to provide useful applications in security categories and lists. But it is much too inclusive and yet restrictive to offer a precise definition of the Islamic threat. The forces of Islamic jihad and shariah are mounting a whole of civilization assault against liberal, modern, representative, secular civil society. Nation states, sub-national terror organizations, transnational alliances, academics and scholars, media conglomerates, networks of mosques and Islamic Centers, so-called 'charitable foundations' and their donors, battlefield fighters, and too many individual Muslims are united in a jihad that is not only violent but insidious, inexorable, and sophisticated. Unless we learn to resist in the same way—a whole of civilization way—that list of subjugated civilizations may yet include one more: ours.

Monday, September 01, 2014

A Great Movie Featuring the Greatest Movie Speech Ever Made

For the 75th Anniversary of the Start of the World War II and the 100th Anniversary of the Start of World War I …

The Great Dictator from TheMelancholia on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Jihadist Monster Originally Backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey Now Threatens Kingdom, Entire Region

By Clare M. Lopez

As the annual Muslim holy month of Ramadan drew to a close in late July 2014, Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud addressed a meeting of senior Saudi leadership figures and religious scholars in Jeddah. The Saudi monarch, who turned 90 on 1 August, spoke during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations to an audience of his closest supporters. While an official statement aimed at the overall international community had been read out on his behalf on Saudi state television on Friday 25 July 2014 in which he called the Israeli Operation Protective Edge in Gaza as "a war crime against humanity," at the Jeddah meeting, Abdullah returned to a theme that apparently concerns the Saudi royals even more than Gaza these days. He called it fitna, meaning civil strife among fellow Muslims, but what he really meant was the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Islamic State (IS) that now threatens the borders of the Saudi kingdom.

Back in the 2011-2013 timeframe, the Saudis, along with the Qataris and Turks, had been among the early supporters of what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), when the hard-core Salafi militia was seen as the best chance for ousting the Iranian-backed regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. But after al-Qa'eda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri officially broke ties with the group in February 2013 because its Iraqi leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, refused to confine his activities to Iraq, ISIS began a savage rampage across Syria that eventually in June 2014 drove southward into Iraq as well. The speed of the ISIS advance spread shock and alarm throughout the region. Division after division of the Iraqi army, trained and equipped by the U.S., collapsed and fled, abandoning large quantities of top-of-the-line tanks, vehicles, and weapons to ISIS. On 29 June 2014, with an ever-expanding swath of territory now fallen to his forces, al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of a Caliphate (The Islamic State – IS). Shariah and the so-called 'Conditions of Umar' (the dhimma conditions) are brutally enforced everywhere under its control, sending hundreds of thousands of Christians, Shi'ites, Yazidis, and other minorities fleeing IS's merciless demands to "convert, pay the jizya, or die." Atrocities not seen on such a scale for many decades include the Islamic hudud punishments of amputations, crucifixions, flogging, and stoning, plus beheadings (even of children), sexual enslavement of captured women and the wholesale slaughter of prisoners.

It was against this backdrop that King Abdullah convened some of his closest supporters for the Jeddah speech, in which he cited key Qur'anic passages to condemn in the bluntest terms the "tumult and oppression" that IS is spreading:

Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.

And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith.

But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression. (Qur'an 2:190 – 193)

Understandably shaken (and with good reason, given the thoroughly un-Islamic lifestyles enjoyed by many Saudi royals), the Saudi King directed his message at the Muslim community as a whole, but called specifically upon "Muslim leaders and scholars of the Islamic nation to carry out their duty towards Allah Almighty and stand in the face of those trying to hijack Islam and [present] it to the world as a religion of extremism, hatred and terrorism."

While Abdullah included a passing mention of "the blood of our brothers in Palestine," at least in this speech he did not call out Israel or Jews specifically by name, apparently more focused instead on the immediate crisis of IS on his doorstep. His call to other Sunni states ("those who fail to carry out their historic responsibilities against terrorism…will be its first victims tomorrow") rings as both condemnation of IS-supporting regimes in Qatar and Turkey and plaintive appeal to fellow Sunni regimes for support against the IS juggernaut—ironic of course, given that Saudis were among the original sponsors of an entire spectrum of jihadi militias in Syria, among them Jabhat al-Nusra and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as ISIS. The notable inclusion among the King's invited guests in Jeddah of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has just returned to Lebanon after several years of self-imposed exile in Paris, further indicates Saudi alarm at the spread of IS influence, that now threatens to plunge that troubled nation back into chaos as well.

Saudi, Jordanian, and Gulf leaderships that a short while ago feared above all the rising hegemony of a nuclear-capable Shi'ite power in Tehran are reeling at the sudden emergence of a far more immediate threat—a Sunni one that they themselves helped to birth. Speculation persists about a possible Iranian role that allowed ISIS to survive and expand in Syria, where its internecine campaigns against other rebels, including the Syrian Free Army, were at least as ferocious as anything it mounted against Damascus. Even now, with the Qods Force and its vaunted commander, Qassem Suleimani, in Baghdad ostensibly to repel the IS blitzkrieg, aggressive offensive moves against IS have not yet materialized.

The U.S. was drawn back into the Iraqi theater in early August 2014 to mount air strikes against IS forces threatening genocide against some 40,000 Christians and Yazidis trapped without food, water, or shelter atop Mt. Sinjar in northern Iraq and perhaps moving as well on Kurdish-held Irbil (where the U.S. has a consulate). The Obama administration is floundering badly, responding only in haphazard fashion after public outcry about women and children dying on the mountain prodded it into action. But that action—limited for now, but in obvious danger of succumbing to mission creep—is no substitute for a coherent policy that outlines compelling U.S. national security interests and then implements an effective strategy to defend them.

The savagery that has torn Iraq and Syria apart is an intra-Islamic sectarian fight for dominance between Shi'ites and Sunnis that grew out of the Syrian civil war but has roots that date to the first century of Islam itself. More recently, the origins of IS date to the mid-2000s in Iraq, when al-Qa'eda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi plunged the country—and American and Coalition troops—into years of vicious sectarian conflict. Then, as now, the Iranian regime manipulated forces behind the scenes. While al-Zarqawi ostensibly loathed Shi'ites, his closest collaborator in Iraq was the Iranian Qods Force. Likewise, al-Baghdadi and his Caliphate have taken aim at Shi'ites, whom they term rafidah ("rejecters' – that is, of "true Islam"), while the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei returned the sentiment in his own Eid al-Fitr speech, in which he called IS "a tumor" that needed to be excised (language usually reserved for Israel). And yet, even as these two rivals face off over leadership of the Muslim world and jihad movement, Suleimani thus far has given no indication of taking the fight to IS or doing any more than necessary to prevent the fall of Baghdad and what's left of a rump Iraqi state comprised largely of its Shi'ite population.

U.S. national security interests demand recognition, first and foremost, that both sides in this Islamic rivalry seek global dominance for Islam to rule in a resurgent Caliphate (or Imamate) where shariah is imposed forcibly on one and all. At issue here is only who gets to be on top. As such, it makes no sense for the U.S. to do anything that would tip the advantage to either one. Shi'ite or Sunni, the agenda is the same: jihad and shariah.

That doesn't mean we have no national interests in the region at all. To the contrary, it is imperative that U.S. leadership recognize the threat posed by the jihadist agenda, whether from IS or Iran, to U.S. regional interests directly, to friends and allies and those who ought to be, and eventually, to the homeland itself. This sort of understanding demands a sharp reversal of existing policy that refuses even to acknowledge the Islamic ideology that animates this enemy's threat doctrine. Only once that basic professional responsibility is met can an overall strategic policy that makes any sense be formulated and implemented.

Core U.S. interests in Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf region would then dictate the following policy priorities:

  • American personnel and facilities at the American Embassy in Baghdad and the Irbil and Basra consulates must be secured; if this is not possible without calling in airstrikes off an aircraft carrier, they should be evacuated.
  • The U.S. must stand by allies and partners in the region, especially Israel and Jordan. It is long past time that the U.S. also reaches out to those pro-Western ethnic and religious minorities who yearn to be part of the free world, especially the Kurds, and offer them support in their struggle to survive. For the Kurds in particular, this means diplomatic support, intelligence, logistics, and modern weapons that will at least allow them parity with the U.S. arsenal that IS has captured.
  • It is right that we provide as much humanitarian aid as possible to beleaguered minorities facing genocide, as well as to friendly countries like Jordan that are burdened with overwhelming economic demands to care for millions of refugees.
  • Finally, the U.S. should maintain—or create, as the case may be—a robust intelligence capability and deploy a Special Forces capability to the region that will provide early warning of threats to U.S. interests and the ability to project power and influence as required.

Beyond this, the latest round in the Islamic world's 1300 years of incessant chaos and warfare should be left to the belligerents to sort out. Regimes like Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey that play all sides of the jihadi games have enabled a monster in IS that they can no longer control. They should be allowed to reap what they've sown. U.S. leadership has proven incapable of sorting out who's who or who's backing whom—not that it's so simple, but rather that understanding who we are should probably come first, followed by some intensive thinking about a new national security strategy that prioritizes American interests.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

China Making Strategic Investments in Israel

Robert Hardy reports for the Globalist on China's deepening investments in Israel, including construction of a strategic freight rail line linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean:

China is expanding its economic interests in Israel. Its growing portfolio of holdings in high-tech startups, national infrastructure and core industries gives Beijing an expanded strategic presence in Israel. 
In Europe, a move is underway to respond to the Palestinian BDS strategy. Some EU companies have withdrawn from Israel’s government bidding process to build private ports. 
As to the United States, President Barack Obama warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his recent visit to Washington that, unless Israel stops building settlements and makes a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority, it will lose U.S. support. 
Finding new friends 
China has seized the opportunity to fill the void left by the withdrawal of European business from Israel and the gap resulting from the anticipated reduction in U.S. support. China has no moral qualms about investing in Israel and by doing so is increasing its strategic presence. With the support of Netanyahu, China is moving full speed ahead.

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Thursday, July 03, 2014

Words of Wisdom: Washington's Farewell Address 1796

The Foreign Policy Portion of George Washington's Farewell Address … Sage Advice Sadly Unheeded by His Successors

Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it - It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue ? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?

In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils. Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.