Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’


I have nothing against athletes making upwards of thirty million dollars a year—or more. The NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ payroll (equivalent to 15 full-season players) came to $101 million. I don’t mind fans idolizing players. But I’m uncomfortable when people see athletes as heroes, and especially when athletes call each other “warriors.” Where does this leave the men and women in America’s armed forces?

Let’s start with money. A marginal NBA player can put away serious cash towards his future. Next year, the minimum salary for rookies (first-year players) will be $815,000. An Army staff sergeant (E6) with 10 or 11 years of service makes $41,000. In our voluntary military, pay is better than it used to be. In 1966, I made $94 a month during basic and advanced infantry training. When I entered officer candidate school at Fort Benning, my E5 pay shot up to $200 a month.

NBA players fly on chartered jets with plentiful food and drinks. Military personnel head to the Middle East on transports with no amenities. Buses take NBA players from hotel to arena and back. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan leave their operating bases to go outside the wire in armored vehicles targeted by improvised explosive devices and other weapons.

NBA players stay in five-star hotels. Many of our troops in combat and combat-support areas live in shipping containers. During the Vietnam, Korean and Second World Wars, they slept in pup tents, hammocks or foxholes they dug themselves. If they got to sleep.

On the road, NBA players receive $106 a day for meals. That’s on top of their salaries. Today’s troops in the Middle East take what they can with them outside the wire and are thrilled to dine at a McDonald’s or Pizza Hut when they return to base.

After an NBA team wins a championship, it’s feted with a parade and usually—this year may prove an exception; Golden State players and coaches are not fans of the president—an invitation to the White House. Our troops return to the U.S. to be met by their families and maybe a military band. Many are rushed immediately to hospitals and VA centers.

I’m not calling on Americans to boycott the NBA or other professional sports. I enjoy sports, too. But most Americans—including all of America’s NBA players—have never served in the military. They don’t relate to the risks our troops take and the horrific personal consequences of bad government decisions, like invading Iraq. What can we do?

First, urge professional athletes, coaches, the media and fans to stop calling ballplayers warriors. Let’s save that terminology for people who train for or go into combat and dangerous combat-support roles. Second, let’s support our troops beyond wearing cammies to the ballgame or the mall, and posting photos of military and military-style weapons on Facebook as if combat is just another video game.

Today, I made another contribution to Fisher House, which helps families of military members live for a while at no cost near the hospitals which house their recuperating loved ones. Find out more at

Let’s get real. NBA “warriors” face no risk of losing life or limb save from a freak accident. The warriors who protect us face risks daily. They too deserve love.

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Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson infamously responded to a question about the tragic war in Syria with “What is Aleppo?” I’ll answer. You won’t be comforted.

Aleppo—not the capital Damascus—was Syria’s largest city and business hub with 2.1 million inhabitants (2004 census). Since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, nearly 500,000 have been killed nationwide. Aleppo’s population has dropped. What is it? No one knows.

What we do know is that Aleppo, the Syrian civil war and widespread violence in the Middle East present a conundrum. The United States is damned if we do get more involved, damned if we don’t.

Start with refugees. Turkey hosts 2.6 million, Lebanon one million and impoverished Jordan over 628,000 (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees). Eastern Europe hasn’t the resources, ability or will to accept many—if any. Germany takes the lead in the West. It accepted over one million asylum seekers in 2015. That’s dropped to 220,000 in 2016 (Deutsche Welle). Germans said, “No more.”

Regrettably, Western Europe long has done a poor job assimilating Muslims. In counterpoint, many Muslims have resisted integrating into Europe’s secular culture. America does much better, but no matter how many refugees we accept, we won’t come close to meeting existing needs.

Militarily—despite Donald Trump’s assertions—we also face limits. In Syria, U.S. weapons, training and airpower have failed to oust President Bashar al-Assad. (ISIS will soon be driven underground.) Diplomatic efforts face intransigence by Vladimir Putin. Inserting traditional American ground forces into Syria risks a violent clash with Russia. No one will win.

In Iraq, we see progress. The crucial battle for Mosul is underway. It will be long and bloody. Clearing Mosul of booby traps and rebuilding will take decades. Estimates place 5,000-6,000 American trainers, advisors, forward air controllers and special operations personnel on the ground. The U.S. could send in 25,000 or more traditional combat troops. But Washington probably would face massive protests at home, particularly with many Americans embittered after a nasty presidential campaign. We’d also see protests throughout the Middle East.

What if we send in combat troops anyway? Following victory, Iraqis will demand we leave. If we stay, we’ll face a new insurrection featuring improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers and sniper attacks. After we go, Iraq will descend into renewed chaos with no dominant indigenous force controlling the fragmented nation.

Feeling conflicted? Who isn’t? Recently on TV, a Syrian man asked how the West could let such brutality continue. Another Syrian man interviewed some months earlier presented another perspective: “Nothing good ever comes from the West.”

We are witnessing a war within Islam between those who accept the twenty-first century and those who long for the seventh. Throw in nationalist/sectarian (Sunni-Shia) and tribal conflicts, as well as political thuggery, and we’re left with a witches brew too toxic to consume.

Limiting our response seems inhumane but reflects reality. Only the peoples of the Middle East can create lasting peace for themselves. This may not happen until the middle or later stages of this century when they’ve been exhausted by death and destruction. It may not happen at all.

What is Aleppo then? A final two words: frustration, angst. I suspect you can come up with many more.

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Two of my favorite TV shows, both on Showtime, reveal a lot about Syria and Iraq. Yet only one involves the Middle East. It’s all about the rodef, the Hebrew word for pursuer—one who seeks to murder or otherwise harm an innocent person. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) states that in self-defense, we may kill the rodef first. But the concept of the rodef and responses to it defy easy definition.

Take Homeland. The rodef lies at the heart of the series, including season four, which began last Sunday. The relentless Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) is in Kabul managing the drone rocketing of Islamists on a long hit list. The CIA considers these men rodefs—pursuers seeking to launch terrorist operations.

The initial episodes pose troubling questions. How are we to view collateral damage—a euphemism for killing and wounding civilians—when targeting rodefs? (I’m not giving anything away when I write that a drone attack approved by Carrie causes extensive collateral damage.) Must attacks against rodefs guarantee zero collateral damage? Should the target be spared regardless of potential loss of life resulting from his future activities?

Ray Donovan, which concluded two weeks ago, poses another question: Can the concept of rodef be exploited? Ezra Goodman (Elliot Gould), a doddering but powerful and immoral Hollywood lawyer, frequently draws on Jewish law to justify his instructions to Ray (Liev Schreiber), his hired fixer with blood on his hands. Ezra excuses a murder by citing the rodef. But it’s clear that the victim was not pursuing innocent blood but rather the truth about criminal activities in which Ezra and Ray were involved.

How does Ray Donovan relate to the Middle East? Islamists see rodefs everywhere. The West, they say, is out to get us. The West’s colonial past is undeniable. But so too are the brutal Muslim dictatorships in Iraq and Syria that spawned so much chaos. (For the record: I opposed invading Iraq; the Bush administration’s mishandling of the post-war period demonstrates why.) It’s particularly sad—and frightening—to see so many young Western Muslims, including women, in Syria. They’re true believers fighting not only the Assad regime but also anyone who doesn’t follow the intolerant forms of Sunni Islam they’ve only recently adopted.

Last Wednesday, CBS-TV News’s Clarissa Ward interviewed a young Somali-American man who condemns America for bombing innocent Muslims. America is the terrorist, he says while praising Osama bin Laden. He makes no concession that the 190,000 deaths in Syria alone involve mostly Muslims killed by Muslims. Neither does he mention Islamists killing Christians and Yazidis simply because they are Christians and Yazidis.

A Thursday Reuters report on was particularly affecting. A 15-year-old French-Muslim girl went to Syria to take part in humanitarian efforts on behalf of Islamist forces. Seemingly disillusioned, she cannot return. Many young women from the West find themselves forced into marriages. All become virtual prisoners. Like the Eagles’ Hotel California, you can get in, but you can never get out.

Ray Donovan demonstrates that the term rodef and justifications for self-defense can be abused. Homeland raises the challenge that legitimate defense against the rodef may be fraught with moral danger. We’d all like to pursue simple answers. They likely will outrun us.

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Medical science has helped many cancer patients extend their lives. Further, it’s inching towards cures. Military science has been far less effective in fighting religious cancers, such as ISIS—the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (aka ISIL, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant). The United States might take that into account as Iraq faces dismemberment.

We toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Then Iraq disintegrated thanks to a virtually nonexistent post-war plan for rebuilding a shattered country. A troop surge in 2007 brought bubbling hot spots down to a simmer but never extinguished the fire. Fuel and matches remained abundant. We withdrew in 2011. Now the lid has blown. Again.

Let’s get real. And that includes you, Dick Cheney! We can’t remake the Middle East. The cancer of Islamism—Islamic fundamentalism as distinct from Islam—has eaten away at the region since the Sunni-Shiite split in the Seventh Century following the death of Muhammad. We can retard its spread in some places, but a cure will come only from within. Whether it will be found in this century remains to be seen.

Is the cancer metaphor overblown? While all peoples praise peace, justice and freedom, Islamists and many others in the Muslim world define these principles differently. Peace means planting your boot on the neck of your enemy. And you always have enemies. Justice equates with revenge rather than ending the conditions that contribute to hostilities. Freedom, in terms of the caliphate, entails living as you believe God dictates—and dictating the same conditions to everyone you overrun. In The Clash of Civilizations (1996), Samuel Huntington posited that different civilizations/cultures possess different values and goals. Some are malignant. He was right.

What now? Use may be made of American air power in Iraq. But American boots—aside from Special Forces advisors and small, covert special operations units—will not hit the ground. We could stay there for a hundred years, and the same religious and tribal hatreds would remain while we slowly bled ourselves. So we won’t try to cure the cancer of Islamism. We’ll attempt to contain it. This will involve a web of complex, often unsavory, political relationships to stabilize the disease’s periphery.

Turkey will work with Kurdistan. (They’ve been coming to terms for a while.) The vicious Assad regime in Syria will receive more support from Iran, the rebels little from us. The U.S. and Iran will engage, although how remains unclear. We’ll try to drag Saudi Arabia to the table, although the Saudis hate Iraq’s Shiite, Maliki-run government—which we’ll try to change. We’ll quietly prop up Egypt’s military-run government and continue working with Jordan’s King Hussein. We’ll stand by Israel as a counterweight to Shiite Islamist ambitions in Lebanon—again while working with Hezbollah’s patron Iran. Hopefully, Mid-East first aid will stop the bleeding then prompt ISIS to cannibalize itself.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” goes a well-known Arab saying. Many enemies may accommodate each other until this crisis ends. But once ISIS is dealt with, allies joined under duress will turn on each other yet again.

The blog will take two weeks off. Look for the next post on July 11.

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Last Friday, Iran’s parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani referred to Israel as a “cancer” in the Middle East. He accused Israel and the United States of trying to “sterilize” the Arab Spring. But what happened last week in “non-cancerous” countries?

Sunday: Six hundred Syrians fled besieged Homs under attack by snipers… A Pakistani family of eight was killed in the home of a pro-government militia leader… Mali’s minister for interior security said that MUJWA, The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, killed 31 Tuaregs near Tamkoutat.

Monday: An instructor in suicide bombings for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) unwittingly blew up his training class. Twenty-two died, 15 were wounded… In Mosul, Iraq a roadside bomb wounded six guards of the parliamentary speaker… A doctor was found dead in Baghdad with bullet wounds in his head and chest two days after being kidnapped… A bomb near a Baghdad café killed four and wounded 11.

Tuesday: Assailants in Peshawar, Pakistan tossed grenades into a movie theater killing 10 people and wounding 16—the second theater attack in two weeks… The Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center reported that 15 percent of the world’s suicide bombings in 2013 took place in Syria. In 2014, a surge of similar attacks has taken place in Lebanon

Wednesday: Syrian troops and warplanes along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah pounded the Syrian border town of Yabroud before a government offensive… In Konduga, Nigeria Islamists killed 39 people, destroyed a mosque and leveled 1,000 homes… Seventeen civilians and soldiers were killed across Iraq.

Thursday: In Mogadishu, Somalia a bomb planted by the Islamist al Shabaab targeted a United Nations convoy, killing at least seven people… In Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, 11 people were killed in an attack on a prison that houses members of Al Qaeda… U.N mediator Lakhdar Brahimi stated that failure of the Syrian peace talks was “staring him in the face.”

Also on Thursday, Israeli soldiers killed one Palestinian and wounded another on the Israel-Gaza border. Relatives said the dead man was collecting gravel to sell. The Israeli military said soldiers fired at Palestinians tampering with Israel’s security fence. Israel played a role in just one of last week’s incidents, and it’s disputed.

Still, not only the Iranian leadership but also many “justice loving” people—including those in the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDM) movement—focus their attention solely on the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. Yes, I support a two-state solution with proper security for Israel and full rights for Israeli Arabs. And no, the status quo won’t do.

I suspect, however, that there is more to this unbalanced focus on Israel than meets the eye. Perhaps much of the West assumes that Muslims will continue to slaughter themselves and others as they’ve long done for sectarian and tribal reasons. Perhaps the BDM folks hold Israel, a Western-oriented democracy with a thriving and open culture, to a higher standard

Or perhaps the image of Jews with power—which can be use for both right and wrong, witness America’s oft-checkered policies—and the existence of a Jewish state prove more than they can handle.

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Check out the news, and you can’t help taking a grim view of humanity. Yet heroes walk among us. Some we see. Many we don’t.

After an Asiana Airlines plane crashed on landing at San Francisco International last Sunday, heroes got to work. The flight crew and first responders removed passengers from harm’s way. That only two people died seems incredible.

But death has a hunger. Nineteen firefighters—members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots—died fighting a fire northwest of Phoenix. Fighting huge fires entails a great deal of danger, and these folks accepted the challenge. If you’re looking for heroes, look to them, too.

We often honor our military personnel for their sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can dispute the value of those wars but not the courage and endurance of our people sent into harm’s way, often on multiple deployments. They’ll tell you they’re just doing their job. But just being out there entails a large measure of heroism. After all, they volunteered to risk everything while so many of our citizens risk nothing.

But while it often takes a disaster to place some heroes in the spotlight, many others never get attention. Maybe what they do is modest in comparison to aircrews, firefighters, police and military personnel, yet what they do matters.

I saw a number of those heroes at the Irwin Memorial Blood Center (Masonic at Turk) last Tuesday. They took time out of their day to help people they will never meet or know. And they’ll never get recognition.

One young hero, a 33-year-old skateboarder, gave blood for the first time. He became a little woozy in the chair—not unusual for first-timers. Getting a needle stuck in a vein and watching your blood come out—if you watch—takes getting used to. When he was done, he was shaky but proud. He had a right to be. He overcame a natural fear to possibly save the life of another human being.

As for me, I’m no hero. I’ve been giving blood for decades. It’s routine. I kick back, catch up on my reading then pig out on juice and a donut (or two). Imagine my surprise when, because it was mid-afternoon, the donuts were gone. Still, that double-chocolate cookie was good. I limited myself to one because it was my birthday and I was going out to dinner that night. As it happened, we went to an acclaimed restaurant, and I didn’t like the desserts on the menu so I didn’t order one. But given the circumstances, nothing would have topped that cookie.

As August approaches, I think about First-Lieutenant Howard Jon Schnabolk, US Army, about whom I wrote in “Courage.” Howie saved the lives of countless wounded men flying a medevac helicopter in Vietnam. He was shot down and killed on 3 August 1967. We all have our heroes. Howie is mine both for his service and many charitable acts.

If I’m choking up as I write this, you’ll understand. And you’ll know why the present I most enjoyed on my birthday was the one I gave in Howie’s honor.

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Last week, I asked a question: “What if you looked in the mirror and couldn’t see yourself?” An event last Sunday reminded me that that question might be asked in a different way: “What if you walked down the street in broad daylight and everyone looked right through you?”

The event I referred to was a program at the San Francisco Public Library main branch explaining Filipino suffering defending Bataan in early 1942 and during the “death march” following Bataan’s surrender on April 9. Approximately 12,000 Americans became prisoners of the Japanese—but so did 63,000 Filipinos, died in far greater numbers due to disease, starvation and brutal murder on the 65-mile trek north and during imprisonment at Camp O’Donnell.

Cecilia Gaerlan, the Filipina-American creator of the Bataan Legacy Project, seeks increased recognition for Filipinos who fought alongside American troops. Those vets have had great difficulty getting benefits from Washington. Filipinos they may have been, but the United States ruled the Philippines after wresting the islands from Spain in 1898.

I mention this in light of the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon. The Boston bombing was horrific but not the only—or most chilling—act of violence experienced in recent years. Heinous acts beyond our borders often go unnoticed. Americans tend to think that what happens to us is tragic while what happens to others merely represents a footnote to history. Understandably, our deepest emotions respond when disaster strikes at home—Oklahoma City, September 11, Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and the recent explosion in West, Texas to name a few.

Yet we must acknowledge others’ suffering. Following catastrophes in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 80,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war, many of them civilians. (About 1.4 million Syrians have fled the country, according to The New York Times.) Violence abounds in sub-Saharan Africa, too.

This past week’s news offered more tragedy. The death toll from a fire at a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh—allegedly caused by a lack of safety precautions—soared to 1,000. (One woman was just found alive.) Another factory fire in Bangladesh killed eight. In Pakistan, a suicide bomber killed 25 and wounded 65 at a rally organized by a religious political party. A gas tanker outside Mexico City exploded killing 20. Suicide bombers killed three people in Kirkuk, Iraq. Gunmen in Nigeria ambushed and killed as many as 46 police officers (death tolls vary).

My morning contemplation includes, “May this day bring us all a step closer to healing and peace, understanding that we’re all children of the same Creator and all deserving of the same respect.” I don’t kid myself. This thought won’t eliminate the hatred, greed and will to power too often attached to the human heart. This post won’t put an end to bad news.

Still, any and every step towards making the world better demands that we recognize the plight of others. We can’t dwell on these horrors all the time; we’d go mad. But we can transform footnotes to history into real people.

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Posted Feb 8 2013 by with 3 Comments

The superstar singer Beyoncé is popping up everywhere. She sang (okay, lip-synced) at President Obama’s inaugural. She starred in the halftime show at last Sunday’s Super Bowl. And she is mentioned and seen but not given thoughts or dialog—in Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a National Book Award finalist. That’s something to think about.

In an interview, Beyoncé once stated that her sexy performance character (seasoned by girlfriend-sister smiles) isn’t her. She sells an image. Like an actress who plays Lady Macbeth but who may be a tenderhearted polar opposite. Or a raunchy comedian who may be good-natured and mild-mannered offstage.

As a novelist, I get it. My characters reflect diverse aspects of human nature, not necessarily me. I’m not as greedy as Sheik Yusuf and the Ambassador in Slick! Nor as egocentric as Jesús Garcia-Vega and Adella Rozen in San Café. (Not that that’s saying all that much for me.) The Beyoncé factor—the adoption of a persona to meet specific objectives—comes into play.

Alas, Americans—as the rest of the world, because this is a human phenomenon—tend to mash up reality and fantasy. Politicians, artists, CEOs, athletes—anyone in the spotlight—profess the highest ideals then mock them by word and deed.

Mass shootings take place with horrible regularity? Let’s arm ourselves to the teeth—no weapon left behind. Abortions kill the innocent? Let’s kill people who perform them and muzzle those who counsel women to make their own decisions. Democracy’s threatened overseas? Let’s send American military forces anywhere, anytime—multiple deployments are just a fact of life—and run the table on our national budget. Congress is deadlocked? Let’s keep poor and minority Americans away from the polls. They vote for the wrong candidates.

As to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: The Army brings home from Iraq the survivors of a heroic squad. They engage in a two-week tour of the U.S. to be lauded and applauded. And raise support for the war. The tour concludes—and this constitutes the novel’s setting and time frame—at the Dallas Cowboys’ old Texas Stadium for a Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears.

Admiration drenches the squad like the sleet penetrating the opening in the stadium’s roof. Team officials, their guests and fans continually ask, “We’re winning, aren’t we?” But these young kids—their squad leader is twenty-two—have no strategic view. All they know is blood, death and lingering fear. They’re being sent back to Iraq.

Beyoncé’s appearance represents a cultural reference as do the Barbie Doll-style Cowboys cheerleaders—controlled sexual imagery in a repressed, evangelical milieu. Fountain peels away the Beyoncé factor from the big shots and ordinary folks surrounding his confused protagonists, unmasking the pretensions with which we seek to disguise ourselves.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is serious stuff. That’s why Pleasant utilizes satire loaded with humor. And doubtless why he includes references to Beyoncé—whoever she may be.

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Yesterday’s Opinion Pages in The New York Times asked, “Can the United States stay engaged with modern democratic Middle Eastern countries that have sizable anti-Western populations?” The answers by the chosen debaters were reasonable. The question was misleading.

Modern democratic Middle Eastern countries don’t exist—with the exception of Israel. Now let’s be clear: Millions of people in the region want their nations to move into the category of “modern democracy.” But millions more don’t share that desire. The recent attacks on American embassies in Egypt and Yemen—and the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya—reflect real differences with the modern democratic West that can’t be papered over. Kings? In the Middle East, they rule as well as reign. Ayatollahs? They run Iran. Autocrats? Syria’s makes headlines daily. Elected presidents? Yes, even those—but men ruling over fractured states where the rule of law has yet to be established let alone extended to all citizens.

Emotions in the U.S. are raw now. That’s understandable. So it’s time for a reality check, which I’ve reduced to three salient points (although I welcome you to add more).

1. Societies in the Middle East really do have different worldviews. Take free speech. In the U.S., we cherish it. Sometimes we abuse it, but still we uphold it even when we fault the abusers. The Middle East? Someone—not Washington—made a hateful film about Muhammad. Most Americans condemn and dismiss it. Egyptians and Yemenis stormed our embassies. Sudanese forced their way into the German embassy. In Tripoli, Lebanon, one person has been killed in a protest. These stories are still unfolding. Political dissenters? I can yell “Screw Obama!” ‘til the cows come home. In the Middle East, dissenters face intimidation, imprisonment or death. Iranians and Syrians, among others, can tell you.

2. American power to foster change is limited. (Read Slick! for a satirical take on that.) The world is not a machine that can be repaired by a competent mechanic. In part, our options are restricted precisely because the Middle East is not like us. What we believe to be rational, progressive arguments often fall on deaf ears. Moreover, we’re condemned when we don’t step in (Egypt) and reviled after we do (Libya). Does anyone really want to send U.S. troops into Damascus?

3. The Middle East will remain a political and religious powder keg for a long, long time. Europe experienced centuries of bloodletting before achieving peace. The horrors of World War Two and the Holocaust are less than seven decades behind us. In the Middle East, the forces of Islamism (by which I mean theocratic dictatorship, not Islam) battle those seeking modernity, with or without a Muslim flair. Add to that Islamists battling among themselves. And stir in age-old clan, tribal and ethnic animosities. Can you say “Iraq?” With prudence, we can contain the fire. But only the people of the region can extinguish it.

Should we then turn our backs on the Middle East? No. The world is far too interconnected. Moreover, those of us who support Israel’s right to exist cannot risk a second Holocaust through disengagement. Let’s hope those in power or seeking power in Washington will adopt both perspective and patience. Because as we also saw this past week, a shot from the hip often lands in the foot.

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Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at SLICK! also is now available at, and