Shifting Sands in the House of Saud

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

Since Fahd ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Āl Sa’ūd ascended to the throne of Saudi Arabia in 1982, relations between the West and Saudi Arabia have been fairly stable, if somewhat complicated.

 

Secy of Defense William Cohen (left) and King Fahd ibn 'Abd al-'Azīz Āl Sa'ūd (right) October 13, 1998 Image by Dept of Defense, public domain

Secy of Defense William Cohen (left)
and King Fahd ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Āl Sa’ūd (right)
October 13, 1998
Image by Dept of Defense, public domain

 

The Saudi government has remained consistently willing to maintain close diplomatic, business, and military ties with the US and other Western nations. At the same time, it has supported Wahhabi religious leaders in maintaining extremely conservative Sunni religious dominance over Saudi citizens. While the West enabled technological and business modernizations in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government to a great extent allowed the Wahhabi religious leaders to define culture in their country.

Saudi Arabia’s dichotomy of petroleum-fueled modernization versus conservative Wahhabi cultural control has been somewhat baffling to Westerners from democratic nations.

In spite of these constantly conflicting forces, King Fahd managed to maintain a stable balance. From the US point of view, the Saudi Arabian government was one of two allies in the region, Israel being the other. Yet while relations between Riyadh and Washington remained warm, not all Saudis felt that warmth toward the US or the West. In fact, Saudi Arabia, thanks to Wahhabi influence, remained a breeding ground for violent jihadism.

Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 attackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, and wealthy Saudi Arabians have consistently been a leading source for terrorist funding. Yet the oil flowed to the West while Western cash fueled the extended Royal family’s lavish lifestyle. That oil wealth also fueled vast social programs and a bloated civil government that makes our US government seem almost efficient by comparison.

In 1993, King Fahd sent shockwaves through Saudi society when he instituted a sixty person consultative council.

All the members of the council were picked by him. It was nothing like “elected representation,” but by Saudi standards, but it was a huge step forward for Saudi society. Two years later, twenty women were allowed to attend the consultative council. To Westerners, it might seem like a miniscule token step toward liberalization, but to the Wahhabi religious leaders, it was wild heresy.

King Fahd suffered a major stroke in 1995. His brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, acted as his regent and unofficial prime minister. When Fahd died in 2005, Abdullah ascended the throne and continued the balancing act.

 

King Abdullah bin Abdul al-Saud, January 2007 Image by Cherie A. Thurlby, Dept. of Defense, public domain

King Abdullah bin Abdul al-Saud, January 2007
Image by Cherie A. Thurlby,
Dept. of Defense, public domain

 

Like his predecessors, Abdullah was willing to use the Wahhabi establishment to maintain order and enforce their version of Sharia law in his Kingdom, but like every Saudi King, he was leery of their power. He continued to use oil wealth to further drive modernization and hold up vast social welfare programs while simultaneously struggling with the domestic terror issues caused by the radical Wahhabi influence.

Gradually, King Abdullah implemented small steps toward liberalizing Saudi society.

In 2007, he banned the infamous religious police from making arrests and began to institute major judicial reforms. Two years later, Abdullah pushed ahead with reforms and fired most of the senior judges and leaders of the religious police system.

In 2011 the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Mid-East. When it reached Saudi Arabia, it was quickly stifled by police action.

To outsiders, it may have appeared to be simple oppression, but inside the kingdom, there was genuine fear that Al Qaeda and their many clones would hijack any Arab Spring. There was also concern that Iranian-backed Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia would agitate on behalf of the Iranian Ayatollahs. King Abdullah responded by announcing increases in social welfare programs in the hope of appeasing many of the potential “Springers.”

In September of 2011, King Abdullah announced that women would be allowed to vote in municipal elections and run for office. While Saudi women were quietly celebrating their newfound empowerment, the Saudi courts sentenced a woman to ten lashes for driving a car. King Abdullah overturned the verdict.

In 2013, while Saudi Arabia continued to struggle to control domestic terrorism by homegrown jihadists, King Abdullah appointed thirty women to the consultative council.

The following year, fearful of Iranian-backed insurgents in Yemen and the simmering unrest of the Shia-backed majority in Bahrain, King Abdullah did an about face in policy and introduced strict anti-terror laws.

The new laws give the police the power to arrest anyone that protests against or speaks against the Saudi government or the Wahhabi religious establishment. The law even prohibits “thoughts” against the government or Wahhabi Islam.

When King Abdullah died in January of 2015, his brother, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ascended the throne.

 

Saudi Arabian executions graph Image by Runab, wikimedia commons.

Saudi Arabian executions graph
Image by Runab, wikimedia commons.

 

Though Salman had supported King Abdullah’s reforms he was already eighty years old and in declining health. Instead of appointing one of his aging brothers as his acting regent, he appointed his thirty year old son, Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, as deputy crown prince and defense minister. The choice may prove to be an exceptionally bad one.

Unlike his father and uncles, Mohammed bin Salman was educated in Saudi Arabia rather than in the US, and he is not well travelled. He has a reputation for arrogance and ruthlessness.

Salman and his son face the same challenges that King Abdullah faced, but they lack one important resource that King Abdullah and his predecessors always relied on . . . They lack the cash. Oil prices have been down for the last couple of years, and that has forced the Saudi government to reduce the allowances of the extended royal family and to reverse the increases in social welfare programs that helped calm the attempted Saudi Arabian Spring.

The fear in the house of Saud is showing.

The new anti-terrorism laws are being rigorously enforced. Executions are at a two-decade high. There were 150 public beheadings in 2015. In the first week of 2016 alone, there were 47 executions by beheading or firing squad.

 

Human Rights Activist Samar Badawi Image from Int'l Women of Courage Awards 2012, Dept. of State, public domain

Human Rights Activist Samar Badawi
Image from Int’l Women of Courage Awards 2012,
Dept. of State, public domain

 

In addition, popular blogger, Raif Badawi, who urged Saudi society to be more liberal and secular, was imprisoned in 2013 and sentenced to 10 years and 1000 lashes. His lawyer, Wahleed Abu al-Khair, was imprisoned in 2014. Now, Samar Badawi – Raif Badawi’s sister and al-Khair’s former wife – was arrested on January 12, 2016, along with her 2-year-old daughter. A long time human rights advocate, Samar Badawi’s crime was running a Twitter account to raise awareness of al-Khair’s situation. At this rate, the Saudis might have to use any money left over from their campaign in Yemen and their weapons acquisitions to fund new prison construction.

On top of the domestic strain, on January 2, 2016, the Saudi execution of a prominent Shiite cleric led to an Iranian mob storming the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Iran and Saudi Arabia then severed diplomatic ties.

The current generation of Saudi leaders is under pressure, and it shows.

The growing influence of Iran in the new Shia government in Iraq, the Iranian-backed rebellion in Yemen, the rise of ISIL in Syria, the increased Russian military presence in Syria, all combine to present what the young Saudis likely perceive to be a menace to their rule and their physical survival. When they add to that the American and Western “accord” with Iran, they may see themselves as being isolated while facing unrest at home and increasing threats by Iran.

So where will the young Royals take Saudi Arabia?

Mohammed bin Salman is planning major economic reforms. He will have to implement those reforms while dealing with Saudi Arabia’s expensive support for Sunni (non-ISIL) rebels in Yemen, the war in Yemen, and the brewing opposition at home.

 

King Ibn Saud & President Franklin D. Roosevelt Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, 2-14-1945 Image public domain

King Ibn Saud & President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, 2-14-1945
Image public domain

 

In 1928, King Ibn Saud came to power on the back of a fierce Wahhabi tiger. The house of Saud has never been able to completely dismount from that tiger. Since 1928, governing in Saudi Arabia has required an acrobatic balance of Wahhabi interests versus Saudi national interests. The future of Saudi Arabia depends on how well Mohammed bin Salman can ride that tiger.

 

 

 

 

Syrian Sound and Fury–An Update on the Crisis

By Jay Holmes

Things have accelerated in Syria during the last six months—“things” such as the death rate and the refugee crisis, which have increased alarmingly. Putting a number on the death toll is not easy. The various rebel forces and the Syrian government may all at times exaggerate or fail to report deaths. However, it seems likely that approximately 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria. That is about fifteen times the number of deaths that we in the US have endured in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined.

Bashar Al-Assadimage by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, Wikimedia Commons

Bashar Al-Assad
image by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, the conflict was reasonably described as a struggle between the Assad regime and his Shia backers versus anyone else in Syria. The Syrians are a diverse population with a high percentage of post-secondary educated adults. If the Syrians, themselves, had remained the only folks in Syria who were fighting with or against the Assad regime, they might have formed a passable coalition with which to depose and replace Assad by now.

There has always been a core of Islamic radicals in Syria. However, more educated and sophisticated Syrians who are less amenable to primitive agendas such as Islamic fundamentalism or anti-Zionist crusades marginalized the radicals over time. Syrians increasingly wanted something more out of life than anti-Western slogans and a feeble economy.

That’s where Assad’s trouble started. The majority of protesters in January 2011 were not protesting for or against Shia, Sunnis, or other Syrian groups. They simply wanted Assad gone. Having watched news footage of the cruise missile assault and modest air campaign put on by NATO in Libya, they were understandably hopeful that the West would jump on an opportunity to depose an old nemesis like Assad. After all, what Middle East revolutionary or Western observer’s heart didn’t warm by the sight of angry Libyans cornering Gadhafi?

Unfortunately for the people of Syria, the West had strong reasons to avoid investing missiles and men in a Syrian conflict. For one thing, the US and the UK were disentangling themselves from the morass that had festered in Iraq, and both are still involved in propping up the unlovable Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. Obama was not willing to invest any significant men or material in Syria while still busy in Afghanistan and wondering how Korea and Iran might soon eat up resources. And all of this was occurring with borrowed money from China. The UK was not about to commit to an operation in Syria or any place more distant than the Channel if the US wasn’t taking the lead in cash and dead troops.

A second major factor in Western reluctance to escalate military aid to the Syrian rebels was the simple fact that we have not quite been able to distinguish who they are. Their identity seems to change on a weekly basis.

The nature of the conflict in Syria has shifted dramatically during the last year. Iran does not want Assad gone. Assad is Iran’s submissive and obedient girlfriend that lives next door to Israel and Lebanon. The relationship between Iran and Assad (any Assad) has always been simple. Assad does what Iran tells him to regarding foreign policy. In return, Iran helps prop up Syria against its Sunni neighbors in Saudi Arabia, its Zionist enemies in Israel, and anyone who might get difficult with them in Lebanon. Previously, Iran helped prop up Syria against the anti-Shia Iraqi regime. That particular Iraqi despot was deposed and has now been replaced by a newer, cleaner, more wonderful Shia despot. That change in Iraq has allowed Iran to more easily ship weapons and people to Syria.

However, a resolution of events in Syria would bring the West one step closer to military action in Iran. Because of this, the Iranians, while pledging their everlasting love and ammunition supplies to Assad, hedge their bets by trying their best to co-opt Shia Jihadi types in Syria.

Unfortunately for Iran, and everyone else on the planet, the Iranians are not the only Islamic radical nut jobs acting out their agenda in Syria. With Iraq now in the “Shia camp,” the Wahhabi-influenced Sunni Saudis and their Gulf State allies have more reason than ever to oppose any Shia influence in Syria. To that end, they are backing a variety of Sunni groups in Syria against the Assad regime. Unfortunately, the Saudis and their gulf pals have never exercised much discretion in choosing anti-Shia friends. Al Qaeda, a group of gangsters who pose as “devout Sunni Islamics,” is now easily obtaining cash and weapons for fighting in Syria.

With refugees streaming into their country every day, the Turks have serious angst over the situation at their southern border. The Obama administration recently hailed Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan, as a new pan-Mideast leader, a lion amongst hyenas, who holds equal footing with top Western leaders. But Erdoğan tripped in the shower. He’s now back to hyena status and has gone from criticizing the US for interventionist policies in the Middle East to begging the US to please, please, please, with sugar on top, do something about Assad.

With so many fish to fry elsewhere, and not very fresh fish at that, and no clear sense of precisely who we would be helping, the White House does not want to escalate US involvement in Syria.

If we observe Western media reports on Syria, the theme of the show is thus: Assad in his convincing performance as a bastardly dictator is losing ground to a rebel coalition led by a Syrian-American citizen named Ghassan Hitto. The show on the ground in Syria is less entertaining and far more complex. While Hitto may have significant support from many Syrians, he does not control the various Jihadi groups ranging from Al Qaeda to the Iraqi and Iranian Shias that are fighting there. If tomorrow Assad were to commit his first kind act to Syria by shooting himself, with or without assistance, it is not apparent that Hitto would be in any position to govern Syria.

The view of the play from Assad’s bedroom balcony is slightly simpler. He sees a lot of different groups fighting against his government forces. He sees many of them committing the sorts of atrocities that he expects his troops to commit, not the other guys. Assad sees an eleven-year-old child from a Sunni faction beheading a Shia man. Assad sees a world beyond Syria that would love for him to drop dead as soon as possible. He might now and then click on a YouTube video showing his old pal, Kaddafi’s, final minutes. What he can’t see is a happy ending if he gives in. Assad crossed the Rubicon while asleep in the back of the boat. He woke up one morning and found himself standing on the wrong shore. What this all means is that Assad and his backers are desperate to maintain the struggle. For him and his well-armed pals, backing down now means stepping backward into a grave.

Some news sources are claiming that an Iranian agent has already assisted Assad to that grave. However, no verification has been forthcoming, and the stories can be traced to a single source, so I can neither confirm nor deny Assad’s reputed death. Meanwhile, various fascinating sub plots are playing out in Lebanon and on the Israeli border as the war continues. Those are a tale for another day.

Today, though, for once, the people of Syria and the West find themselves standing on the same side of a critical question, hoping for the same answers. The question is no longer when or how Assad will move on to the great harem in the sky, but rather, how will Syrians wrestle control of their own country from the hands of the many well-armed hyenas that tear at the body of a dying nation? American cruise missiles and Marines can’t answer that question.

Iraq — Ten Years Later

By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes

Ten years ago this week, a US led coalition invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. While it is still a bit too soon to see the long term prospects for the post-Saddam Iraq, we have enough hindsight to make reasonable judgments about the overall effects of the Coalition conquest.

Previously, on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and conquered it within two days. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein then declared Kuwait a province of Iraq and began a barrage of verbal threats against Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi army was then within short striking distance of Saudi oil fields. That mattered to the West for humanitarian reasons and because Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were, and still are, exporting oil to Western nations. Which reason mattered most depends on which Westerner or non-Westerner you ask.

On January 18, 1991, US-led Coalition aircraft and ships began an intense and very effective attack on Iraqi military assets. On February 24, the Coalition attacked Iraqi forces in Iraq and Kuwait for the purpose of liberating Kuwait and destroying the Iraqi elite Republican Guard divisions. By February 27, the surviving Iraqi forces in Kuwait retreated, and by the next day, all Iraqi forces near Saudi Arabia had been destroyed or had retreated north. The Coalition ordered a cease-fire.

The Coalition offered Saddam Hussein a truce based on his willingness to destroy all Scud missiles and to allow unhindered weapons and site inspections by the US and/or by inspectors from Coalition nations. Saddam quickly agreed to the terms. However, once the majority of Coalition forces were gone from the region, Saddam stopped cooperating with UN and Western inspection teams. Neither the UN nor the US could verify what WMDs remained in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein Playing Card public domain

On March 20, 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq with the stated intent of removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power. A significant part of the US and British justification for that invasion centered on Iraq’s failure to comply with the terms of the 1991 truce. Given that Saddam Hussein’s military had already used nerve gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and against its own Kurdish citizens, the US and some Western allies took the WMD threat very seriously.

When the US Coalition forces invaded Iraq, the US used its air supremacy, its superior mobility, and its superior training and leadership to defeat the numerically superior Iraqi military. The 300,000 strong Coalition made fast progress against the 375,000 demoralized Iraqi military, and on May 1, 2003, US President George Bush announced that combat operations in Iraq were over.

While the war against the Iraqi military was, indeed, successfully concluded, the difficult process of occupying Iraq had only started. “Peace” in Iraq would cost the US and its Coalition allies—the UK principle among them—far more in lives and treasure than the war did.

Most participants and observers on both sides of the conflict were confident that a US-backed coalition would defeat the Iraqi military. However, coalition military and political leaders had three critical questions on their minds:

  1. What will it cost us in lives to destroy the Iraqi military and Saddam’s regime?
  2. What will it cost Iraq in civilian casualties and oil production?
  3. What will it cost Coalition members in both domestic and international political capital?

Leaders in Washington, D.C. and London knew the answer to the third question would be determined by the answers to the first two.

According to a variety of US polls, on the morning of the invasion, over 70% of the US population approved the action. A general anger over the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which Islamic jihadis murdered approximately 3,000 innocent civilians in the US, fueled that approval. Some of the approval was also fueled by the belief that Iraq still possessed WMDs, intermediate range missiles, sarin gas, and extended range SCUD missiles.

The few adventurous folks who targeted Iraqi chemical weapons facilities on the ground with the assistance of Kurdish allies probably won’t say anything except that they were on vacation some place else that month. The Iraqi war veterans who now suffer from symptoms caused by chemical exposure in the Iraqi tunnels and bunkers usually don’t say much either, and if they did, who would listen?

It was never a question that Iraq had WMDs. As mentioned above, Saddam Hussein’s military had already used nerve gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and against its own Kurdish citizens. That is undisputed fact. Three conditions of the of the 1991 truce, as well as a UN mandate, were that Saddam get rid of the WMDs he had, that he not stockpile any more, and that he prove he was in compliance. However, Iraq routinely blocked UN inspection teams sent to verify that he was abiding by the terms of the treaty. This obstruction created the doubt that Iraq had disposed of its WMDs and ceased its WMD programs.

While blocking these inspections, Saddam continued to finance “secret” WMD programs in Iraq with illegally diverted “oil for food” funds that were administered by corrupt UN leaders. Saddam’s scientists and administrators, in their turn, stole most of the diverted money while sending false reports up the food chain to indicate a level of progress in their WMD research and production that did not exist. However, this façade was enough to convince Saddam that his scientists were succeeding in developing WMDs, including nuclear weapons. Intelligence agencies outside of the Iraq were seeing some of the same overblown progress reports to Saddam, and this created a confusing picture. In addition to those reports, a variety of other anti-Saddam parties, both inside of and outside of Iraq, were doing their best to tell the West whatever it needed to hear in order to get the West to depose Saddam.

Saddam staunchly denied possession of WMDs to the West and to the UN. Simultaneously, he waged an information war against Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Syria, posturing and puffing up his WMD capabilities. He wanted to scare them. He succeeded.

Saddam gambled. He and most of the other oil-producing Islamic nations pressured the West to stay out of Iraq. Saddam thought that petroleum bargaining chip, combined with the threat that his modified extended range missiles could reach as far as Paris, would keep the US from “pulling the trigger” and launching an attack on Iraq. He was wrong and that bad bet cost him a trip to the gallows and the lives of his two sons.

During the Iraqi War, Coalition forces quickly found the banned Scud Missiles but found little remaining WMD equipment. The few sarin gas artillery shells and the nerve gas manufacturing equipment that were discovered did nothing to overcome most of the public’s perception that “there were never any WMDs in Iraq.”

While Saddam and his regime were easy to dispose of, creating something like a “government” in Iraq to replace the old Baathist regime was far more difficult. The US would pay dearly for the occupation process. In fact, “process” might be the wrong term. Much of the US/UK strategy for the occupation seems to have been based on wishful thinking and a strategy of “spend and pray.”

In a live broadcast interview on April 23, 2003, USAID administrator Andrew Nastios said the rebuilding of Iraq could be accomplished for no more than $1.7 billion dollars in total. He missed by a bit. Before the end of 2003, the cost of the Iraqi occupation had increased to about $1 billion per week. By 2007, the costs had escalated to $2 billion per week.

Visitors to Iraq today would likely wonder precisely where that $2 billion a week went. While the variety of contractors, both US and foreign, will reassure us that every penny was well spent, not being one of those contractor folks, I am a bit less satisfied with the results of the expenditures. If you are a family member or loved one of the nearly 4,500 US troops or 312 British troops who were killed, you might be too busy remembering that fallen soldier to wonder about the money. If you are a family member of one of the 90,000 injured Coalition soldiers, then you might simply be too busy wondering about your own expenses to think about Iraq. But even if the money doesn’t matter to you, and the dead and injured are not directly related to you, it’s still worth wondering why we achieved so little at such a high cost in lives and treasure.

Unfortunately, we are not likely to permanently avoid war in the future. For one thing, as we reach the tenth anniversary of the “Shock and Awe” show, we remain involved in Afghanistan where we are burning more cash and lives to prop up an unlovable hoodlum in the person of Muhammad Karzai. For another, the White House has just stepped up its rhetoric against Iran. So while the Iraq War is over for us, questions about how we managed it remain critical.

Even at the time of the Iraq invasion, my greatest concern was that we were likely to invest heavily in lives and money without demanding anything from whatever group that we would prop up as an Iraqi government. My fears have been realized. How could I have imagined such a thing, you ask? Easily, Viet Nam should have taught us all better. Apparently, it didn’t.

While we spent generously and the Coalition troops fought effectively and efficiently, we have demanded very little from the Iraqi leadership to whom we relinquished control. While the various concerns of the many different Iraqi Peoples deserved consideration, we allowed the Iraqis to muddle along and call the shots while we paid the bills. That was nothing short of insane.

How insane? About a trillion dollars and 4,500 lives insane from the US point of view. The view from the Iraqi side of the equation is much worse. The Iraqi government, the Coalition, and the UN have no idea how many Iraqis were murdered during the chaos that plagued the US occupation. The estimates range from 110,000 to 600,000. The 600,000 figure seems wildly high to me, but 200,000 seems possible. The vast majority of those Iraqi civilians were murdered by Iraqi insurgents and foreign jihadis rather than by Coalition forces. Nonetheless, that’s still a level of human loss that should not be ignored.

If we weren’t willing to take charge during the occupation, then we simply should have shot Saddam when US Army Special Forces troops ferreted him out of his fox hole and then gone home. If we weren’t willing to be seen as being in charge in Iraq while providing some stability for a representative government to form, then we should not have stayed for more than the year that it took to destroy Saddam’s forces and hunt down his key Baathists pals.

In all major theories of war, including the various theories of guerrilla warfare and terror operations, one of the leading critical principles is “the principle of the objective.” Without a clear and viable objective in mind, one cannot achieve anything meaningful in a war.

In my opinion, and I won’t claim that it’s a humble one because I’m an opinionated old SOB and I know it, we failed to identify and pursue a clear objective in Iraq. We succeeded within the year in our original objective of removing the threat against ourselves and our allies by removing Saddam. Those who love to say Saddam never posed a threat to the US have ignored history and must not be paying for the petroleum they consume. But having achieved that objective, we stayed in Iraq while presumably hoping that someone in Baghdad would generously provide us with a plausible objective while we waited for democracy to break out. When we left in 2011, we were still waiting for that democracy. We’re still waiting now, but at least we no longer spend $2 billion a week for the privilege.

To be fair, what exists in Iraq today is probably, from the Western perspective, slightly less horrible than the Saddam regime. From the perspective of most Iraqis, life under the tyrant Maliki is far better than life under the tyrant Saddam Hussein. The Sunni backed kingdom of Saudi Arabia might not agree. The Iranians are thrilled to have a Shia in charge in Iraq, but they are learning that not all Shia believe Iran needs to be the one Islamic Caliphate.

And now we can add a couple of new factors to the Iraqi equation. Turkey has decided that those “disgusting subhuman” Kurds in Iraq have oil and are therefore lovely folks. Turkey finds itself talking to the Iraqi government in Baghdad less and less, and holding hands with the Kurds more and more. But let’s not forget another important neighbor of Iraq. Syria is in turmoil, and the violence is increasing. Iraq’s Maliki regime is supporting Iran’s ally Assad in Syria.

The US, NATO, and Turkey are in no hurry to start an air campaign against Assad. Iran backs some anti-Assad fighters as a hedge against the Syrian dictator. However, Iran needs Assad to stay in power and remain a major concern to the West for as long as possible. If the West is busy being concerned with Syria’s recent attacks against Lebanon and Turkey, it is less likely to invest the considerable military assets and massive political capital required for a meaningful military strike against Iran. Iran is free to pursue its nuclear dreams.

Interestingly, Iran turned down its patented “death to America” rhetoric this week and seems willing to talk. How much of that shift is a response to the economic pain of UN and US sanctions, and how much is a strategy to buy time to assemble a nuclear weapon, is tough to guess at this point. If you happen to live in Israel, you can’t be enjoying this card game at all.

Not everyone will agree on whether the 2003 Iraq invasion should have occurred at all. Many who agreed at the time have changed their minds. What most of us can easily agree on is that the White House and Congress mismanaged the occupation. If we are to learn anything, and if the sacrificed Coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians matter at all, then we are obligated to examine the Iraq occupation dispassionately and apolitically so that we can do our best to avoid such hideously expensive mistakes in the future.

Egypt: The Corner of Theocracy and Democracy

By Jay Holmes

When the people of Egypt ousted President Hosni Mubarak on February 12, 2011, most Western media outlets assumed that the anti-Mubarak protestors were de facto pro-democracy. However, Egyptians are not so cohesive, and they have a complex variety of political factions and goals.

Egyptian Protestors Tahrir Square Nov 2011 Lilian Wagdy wikimedia

Image of Egyptian protestors by Lilian Wagdy, wikimedia commons

The protestors ranged from sophisticated, well-educated individuals seeking representative government to foreign agents acting on behalf of Iran, wanting to establish an Islamic theocracy. The single largest group of these Egyptian activists was, and still is, the Muslim Brotherhood.

After Mubarak departed, the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by Commander-in-Chief Mohamed Tantawi, took control of the Egyptian government. This was a temporary measure until a new government could be formed.

Once in control, the SCAF assured Egypt and the world that it would suspend the emergency laws that had been in effect for four decades. It also said it would conduct fair and open elections, honor all of Egypt’s international agreements, and maintain peace and security. All of these promises were difficult to believe since the Military was involved in violence against the protestors; however, the SCAF appears to have done its best to accomplish these goals.

The SCAF greatly reduced military tribunals against civilians, and on some fronts, it made positive developments in human rights in Egypt. For example, journalists and foreigners are less frequently beaten, arrested, and kidnapped in that country. But members of non-Islamic religions continue to suffer heavy discrimination and live in fear–particularly Coptic Christians, who are frequently murdered by Islamic radicals while the Egyptian government looks the other way.

The SCAF conducted tainted but believable elections for the national parliament and for the presidency. To the dismay of the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won the presidential election. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations have grown in political power since that time.

On the international front, Egypt’s relationship with Israel is much worse than it was two years ago, and Egypt has grown closer to Iran. Meanwhile, Egypt’s relationship with the US can be best described as Egypt politely accepting US aid while smiling and ignoring US concerns.

Western media corporations present Morsi as a “reformer” and a moderate. However, based on Morsi’s actions and his selective inactions, it appears he is simply paying lip service to moderation to continue to receive US aid and Western acquiescence to his rule.

Morsi is quick to tell the US and other Western diplomats that he intends to bring more security and human rights to all Egyptians, but he has been slow to take simple actions to back those words up. In fact, last month, on November 22, Morsi abandoned his democratic pretenses and decreed absolute powers for himself.

Since then, Morsi proposed a constitution that is Islamist in its composition and does not ensure equal rights for non-Islamists who would prefer a secular government. If Morsi supports an agenda of national unification for Egypt as he claims, he certainly hides it well. Loopholes in this proposed constitution grant near-dictatorial powers to the Office of the President and appear to make the document close to useless for the practice of government.

Egypt’s previously less organized non-Islamists were inspired to action this week. They took to the streets in the tens of thousands to protest Morsi’s dictatorial decrees and the proposed constitution. Unfortunately for them, though Morsi responded by rescinding his power grabbing decrees, he is going forward with a national referendum to implement the constitution.

The decrees gave power to Morsi, personally. The constitution would give him the same powers through his office as President of Egypt, making the rescinding of the decrees rather hollow.

Many Western media corporations are largely ignoring the referendum and the basic outline of the proposed Egyptian constitution. Still others are representing this as a “do or die” moment for democracy and human rights in Egypt.

I view it a bit differently. My best guess is that, since Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies will conduct the election and count the votes, they are not likely to lose at the polls. The referendum to implement the constitution with its excessive powers to the Office of the President will pass by a narrow margin.

While the referendum and the constitution are certainly important, they will not settle the question of whether Morsi will succeed in consolidating an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy in Egypt. For one thing, not all Muslim Brotherhood members are radical. Though the moderate members are now marginalized from power, they do remain alive and present in Egyptian politics.

Since the non-Islamists don’t feel represented by the government and the proposed constitution, they may not acquiesce to the constitution and the new Egyptian government as Morsi and his power brokers assume. Morsi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in consolidating power for themselves will depend on whether they can force their opponents to obey whatever state they create.

Underneath the referendum for the acceptance of the constitution, there is a deeper, long term game playing out in Egypt. The radical factions of the Muslim Brotherhood likely feel that if they bide their time, their opponents, lacking in any outside help or international interest, will simply exhaust themselves and give up without being able to force any real concessions.

If Morsi really does have the 51% majority that he claims to have, that still leaves over forty-two million angry Egyptians opposed to his rule. For the moment, they still have voices.

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*‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.

© 2012 Jay Holmes. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact us at the above links to request permission.

Why ARE We In Afghanistan?

By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes*

As we approach 2013, several Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries seem to be undergoing changes, but there is no consensus on what those changes will mean. While a few are hopeful, many give cause for concern.

Obama and Karzai Pete Souza for Executive Office of the President of the US wikimedia

Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai

Image by Pete Souza for Executive Office of the President of the United States

Let’s first look to the north. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai and his Obama Echo continue to assure the world that “things are improving” in Afghanistan. If by “things” he is referring to his and his brothers’ foreign bank accounts, then he’s telling the truth. If he is talking about “things” in reference to those unfortunate 35.3 million Afghans who don’t share in the Karzai family profits, then “things” are not so good.

For starters, 1.6 million Afghans remain in refugee camps in Pakistan. Another 430,000 continue to live in makeshift huts and UN-supplied tents in refugee camps inside of Afghanistan. Apparently, those two million folks have not heard Karzai’s glowing reports about the improved security in the areas that the Taliban forced them to abandon, or they simply enjoy living in tents and not receiving the millions of dollars of aid that the US taxpayers are sending them.

The Afghan Peace Commission this week announced that Pakistan has agreed to cooperate in a peace plan. To put that in Western terms, that would be like the US Congress agreeing to term limits. Don’t hold your breath. Pakistan doesn’t even cooperate with Pakistan on peace initiatives so how would they cooperate with Afghanistan? If that peace commission gets something more than the usual comical Pakistani lip service out of Islamabad, they will deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

According to the White House, US Forces will all be gone from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 . . . Oh, wait a sec. This just in from Pennsylvania Avenue . . . We might have to keep “about ten thousand troops” in Afghanistan after 2014 in a support role.

Let me translate that to reality. “About ten thousand troops” generally means around 16,000 troops. The White House is admitting that without around 16,000 crack US troops in Afghanistan to prop up the bogus Karzai government, a few thousand Taliban will ride their donkeys and mopeds into Kabul and take over the place. Let’s hope that 16,000 troops will be enough.

But why have any troops there at all? What’s in it for us? Regional stability perhaps? We don’t live in that region, and our oil fix doesn’t come from Afghanistan.

There are, in fact, some rare metals there that we could use but we’re not taking those. Karzai sold those to China. China is already increasing copper production at an Afghan copper mine and exploring for oil in the Amu Darya basin. And if there’s no oil there? No problem. There are enough natural gas reserves in Afghanistan to keep China happy for a decade or more. So again, why are we there? Why not let China bring “stability” to their neighbor?

Some would argue that the US wants to deny al-Qaeda a base of operations by forcing them out of Afghanistan. Let’s put that in perspective. Al-Qaeda being kicked out of Afghanistan and having to move to Africa, Pakistan, and the Gulf is like inmates being kicked out of Sing-Sing and having to move to Malibu. Al-Qaeda is hardly complaining. In any event, if al-Qaeda sets up a serious infrastructure in Afghanistan again, we can bomb them more easily there than we can bomb them in Pakistan. Pakistan is our “friend,” after all.

Others would argue that if the US “abandons” our “friends” in Afghanistan, that country might return to heroin production. (Insert gasps of shocked disbelief.) Forget it. Heroin production is so high right now in Afghanistan that Afghanis are currently stockpiling surpluses.

So let me see if I have the Obama Plan right. “About ten thousand” (around 16,000) US troops will remain indefinitely in Afghanistan to ensure that Afghanistan remains stable enough to export energy and metals to Communist China.

Yes, Virginia, there is indeed a Santa Claus, and he evidently loves China.

US Marines patrolling poppy fields in Helmand Province DOD

US Marines patrolling poppy fields in Helmand Province, image from Department of Defense

Now for the situations in the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia . . .

To the east, we still see the Pakistani government exhibiting the same lack of loyalty to the Pakistani people and nation that has plagued Pakistan since their independence. Every day, Pakistani leaders must wonder who their secret police and intelligence services might be serving, and whether they, themselves, will be the next targets of “unfortunate Pakistani accidents.” In the meantime, the education system and economy remain in a shambles that would almost make General Motors look like a viable economic enterprise. Okay, I exaggerate. GM isn’t that good, but you get my point.

Pakistan’s neighbor, Iran enjoys the regional upheaval and is using the distraction to press on with their atomic bomb program. Even the UN, try though it stridently might, isn’t fooled by Iran’s intentions, but the international buck passing continues.

Everyone outside of Iran urgently wants the US to step in and stop Iran’s bomb program. Just as urgently, those countries can’t wait for the US to step in so they can all rise up and sing a chorus of righteous indignation against “American war mongering.” If nothing else, it would be amusing to hear the predictable staff at NPR criticize their favorite president.

In the Gulf Region, recent Kuwaiti elections had dismally low participation levels, and a rebellion is slowly fomenting there.

Dubai, Bahrain and Qatar all appear to be fragile. All are employing increased police violence and rigged courts to keep their rulers in power.

The United Arab Emirates is looking less united than ever.

Although Yemen remains in a state of social and political upheaval, the Yemeni people have thus far successfully resisted attempted al-Qaeda takeovers.

To the west, Syria has grown tired of the Assad family gang, but it is unable to present an attractive alternative to the Westerners who might facilitate their revolutionary efforts.

Lebanon remains in the state of chaos that it has endured for forty years.

In Israel, we saw the Israeli Defense Force bomb Gaza, mobilize reserves, and move tanks to the Gaza border. Then, they suddenly halted their operations in exchange for a cease-fire agreement with Hamas. It took less than a day for Hamas to violate that agreement, and to no sane person’s surprise, Iran continues to ship missiles to Hamas.

While Egyptians managed to scare their old despot Mubarak off of his throne, they have yet to form a representative government. Educated Egyptians are watching the turmoil in Cairo and wondering if their country might be tumbling backwards into a Dark Age where civil rights and freedom are suppressed by a handful of self-proclaimed Islamic clerics.

We do have positive news out of Libya. Although Libyans have not yet formed strong, functioning governmental institutions, they have thus far avoided having their nation hijacked by Iran or any of the various al-Qaeda start up gangs that currently plague Islamic nations. Our respect and continued hope that the Libyans will succeed in making their nation a peaceful, viable, and productive home for their people.

In our next foreign policy article, we will look at more of the less absurd and/or depressing prospects in the Middle East and Central Asia. Any questions?

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*‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.

© 2012 Jay Holmes. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact us at the above links to request permission.

Iran’s Approaching Nuclear Capability

By Jay Holmes

For the past several weeks, we have reviewed Iran’s history in our efforts to understand current dynamics with that nation. After all, if we don’t understand what happened in the past, we can’t understand what is happening today or why. (See Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VIIPart VIII, and Part IX.)

image by Fastfission at wikimedia commons, public domain

In February of 2012, Iran publicly threatened to attack any US Navy ships that entered the Arabian Sea via the Straits of Hormuz. In response, the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, joined by warships from France and the UK, sent a carrier task force through the Straits. Iran did not attack them. That same month, Iran denied International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors access to the Parchin site, south of Tehran. The Parchin site is where the US and the UK believe Iran is attempting to construct an 800-mile range missile for the delivery of nuclear warheads.

In March of this year, UN inspectors announced that traces of uranium enriched at 27% were found at Iran’s Fordo nuclear site. Europe, Canada, and the US held talks with Iran about its nuclear program. Iran continued to stall and the talks proved to be as useless as the last hundred or so attempts at diplomacy with the Iranian government.

From March 2 to May 4, Iranian President Ahmadinejad, getting testy and wanting more money and power, ran his own anti-Western/anti-reason supporters against Ayatollah Khomenei’s anti-Western/anti-reason supporters in parliamentary elections. Not surprisingly, the Ayatollah’s supporters won. No one else did. Approximately 60% of Iranians are in neither of these two extremist camps, but their opinions and votes don’t matter because no serious challengers were allowed to run in the elections.

In June, the US exempted India, Malaysia, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Turkey from any economic penalties for continued trade with Iran in exchange for them agreeing to cut oil imports from Iran. The original deal was that no one could import any oil. These countries wanted to violate the embargo so the US negotiated this reduction in consumption of Iranian oil.

The European Union boycott of Iranian oil took effect in July. The Iranian economy took yet another turn for the worse. Social unrest increased, but unarmed protestors were beaten and arrested by the Republican Guards and the regime’s other supporters.

An unarmed majority cannot influence a well-armed minority, and a well-armed minority rules Iran. If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, freedom of speech must be instituted in Iran before reason can conquer ignorance and brutality in that country.

The IAEA announced in September that Iran doubled its production capacity at Fordo uranium enrichment facility. It also significantly hampered an IAEA attempted to inspect the Parchin military site. Canada broke off diplomatic relations with Iran due to Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s continued support for the Assad regime in Syria.

Now, in October, Iran’s currency is at a record low against the US dollar. The Iranian Rial has lost 80% of its value since 2011, in part because of international sanctions and in part because of waning public confidence in Iran. Black Market currency trading is increasing in that country.

The EU announced more economic sanctions against Iran. The Iranian regime ordered that more riot police and political thugs be kept on alert, but it made no policy changes to alleviate the stress on the Iranian people.

Ahmadinejad’s mouthpieces now claim Iran has achieved a uranium enrichment concentration of 83%. They will need better than 90% concentration for fission weapons. The Iranian government continues to stall the West as it attempts to produce such weapons in the form of nuclear warheads and nuclear armed missiles. The West continues to make that easy for Iran by procrastinating in taking any effective action.

Clandestine operations have thus far prevented the Iranian regime from adequately refining uranium to the high concentration necessary for the assembly of a nuclear warhead. This success has been helped by the fact that not all of Iran’s scientists and members of government agree with the regime’s desire to create a nuclear arsenal. Low cost, “low kinetic” operations against Iran are attractive because of the low political risks to Western governments that such operations present, but such operations cannot prevent the assembly of a nuclear weapon indefinitely.

It is possible that the US will become more aggressive in opposing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, its Hezbollah operations in Lebanon, and its support for the Assad regime in Syria after the November elections are concluded.

The Iranian regime has been consistent and predictable in its foreign policy and military objectives since the 1979 founding of the Islamic Republic. They are quite open about the fact that they see themselves as the Pan-Islamic Caliphate and have said as much in the past.

Predicting the reaction of Western governments remains the more difficult challenge both for the Iranian regime and for Western voters. Those voters can only hope that the continued procrastination of their governments does not enable Iran to field a credible nuclear force. If the West finds Iran difficult to deal with under present circumstances, it will not find it any easier once Iran has obtained nuclear weapons.

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*‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.

You may contact them in blog comments, on Twitter at@piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard, or by email at piperbayard@yahoo.com

© 2012 Jay Holmes. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact us at the above links to request permission.

Speech, Religion, and Politics: Where is Our Red Line?

By Piper Bayard

My intelligence operative writing partner, Jay Holmes*, is not at liberty to issue a statement on the current “insult to Islam” situation, but thanks to Freedom of Speech, I am under no such restrictions.

The Muhammed Movie Trailer has stirred up quite a lot of passions in America and around the world. That’s because religion, like politics, is visceral and rational discussions of either are rare. Blame is flying in a chaotic whirlwind with nowhere stable to land. Let’s take a moment to calm our roiling viscera and look at some facts.

America has no established religion. America has Freedom of Speech. That’s what allows people of many religions to co-exist. Differing religions that produce violent conflict in other parts of the world co-exist peacefully here because Americans chose at the nation’s founding to value Freedom of Speech above the individual ability to do violence in the face of offense. It is part of the Social Contract, and it is based on the notion that human life and peace are more important and productive than any verbal insults.

Currently, Muslims are attacking our US embassies and consulates around the world because an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in America made a parody film of Muhammad and posted it on YouTube. The violence claimed the lives of four Americans, including the US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.

US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, image from US Dept. of State

Some Americans place the blame for those deaths squarely on the filmmaker and his backers. “He should have known Muslims would riot and kill people.” I would disagree for two primary reasons.

The Supreme Court has always had the right to regulate the time and place of speech. However, that is generally applied where speech is calculated to incite violence by Americans toward other Americans. A film parodying Muhammad that is rife with intentional religious insults is far more similar to the hateful speech of the Westboro Baptists, and the Westboro Baptist message of death to America and our soldiers has been deemed protected under the First Amendment.

The Westboro Baptists are every bit as offensive to Americans, to soldiers, and to actual Christians as the parody film of Muhammad is to Muslims. As a general rule though, Americans can count on each other to not riot and kill people, even in the face of grave and sacred insult. That is Freedom of Speech in practice. To hold the filmmaker responsible is to hold Muslims to a lower standard of civility and behavior than the average American.

This condones the idea that Muslims cannot reasonably be trusted to behave in a mature and civilized fashion. If I were a Muslim, I would be insulted by that notion. Also, by the same reasoning, shouldn’t the grieving soldiers’ families be excused if they decide to kill some Westboro Baptists? Is that the law we want in our land?

Speaking of the filmmaker, I’ve heard numerous theories about who was backing him. Was the Coptic Cigar just a Coptic Cigar? Were right-wing Republicans intending to highlight Obama’s weakness in foreign policy? Was this a plot by Israel? Was it sponsored by Iran as a way of inciting Muslims to violence to mask other, more insidious agendas on the part of that Shi’ite country?

Let’s look at Israel first. Israel certainly has plenty of schemes to go around, as do all countries, but this wouldn’t be a very smart plot for Israel. It had nothing to gain by simultaneously pissing off the entire Muslim world around it above and beyond what its mere existence already does. This chaos is a much more fruitful opportunity for so many other players.

So let’s turn to Libya. The vast majority of the Libyan people want America in their country. They are highly educated for the region with a literacy rate of over 70%, which is better than that of many American cities. With increased education comes awareness of the rest of the world and the ability to conceive of and participate in a nation rather than just a tribe. In other words, Libya has a chance at molding itself into nation of peace and prosperity.

Image from BuzzFeed: 15 Photos of Libyans Apologizing to Americans

There are many factions in Libya, some of them foreigners from other Middle Eastern countries, who want to see the new Libya fail. Those countries and organizations are always on the watch for some excuse to stir up hatred against the US and break our diplomatic ties.

Unorganized, spontaneous mobs in the Middle East generally throw rocks or shoot up the place a bit. They do not have mortars and rockets and do not perform organized attacks on US embassies and consulates. The nature of the attack on our US consulate in Benghazi would indicate that a foreign predatory country or organization like Al-Qaeda is behind it, and that Libya is as much a victim of that attack as the US is.

On Sunday, the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told Jake Tapper on ABC’s “This Week” that the Libyan protest was completely spontaneous and a copycat of Egyptian protests. However, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich), former FBI agent and House Intelligence Committee Chair, tactfully pointed out that there were too many coincidences to conclude the Benghazi attack hadn’t been planned in advance. Arizona Sen. John McCain, top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, added that, “Most people don’t bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to a demonstration.” I can only say that Rice will play this however the White House tells her to, and that this is the same UN that put Gadhafi in charge of Human Rights.

Iran, Yemen, and Egypt are another story. Unlike Libya, those countries are capitalizing on this moment.

Protests in Iran, image from news.kuwaittimes.net

The Iranian government is using this poorly-made parody film to incite Shi’ites around the world to violence, something their mullahs do at the drop of a Koran. Iran has openly declared in the past that it wants to turn all Muslim nations into its satellite states. It’s hardly a stretch to see Iran behind the attack in Libya, either as a well-laid plot or simply an opportunistic taking.

Another gem is Yemen. The Yemeni government didn’t simply fail to protect the US embassy. Yemeni security police were seen encouraging the few hundred protestors to pass through their check points to get to the embassy. These were the same police who were supposed to be protecting the embassy. In fact in some cases, they even joined the protestors.

These Yemeni security forces are still controlled by ex-Yemeni President Ali Saleh’s family. The Saleh faction wants Al-Qaeda defeated, but it also wants to generate anti-Western hysteria to help stall any democratic reforms in Yemen. It’s worth noting that over two million people did not protest in Sana’a in spite of the efforts of the Saleh-controlled security police.

Then there is Egypt. The Egyptian government, run by the duly elected Muslim Brotherhood, was too busy cashing our billions in aid money and begging Europe for more to bother to use its massive security forces to fulfill its diplomatic obligation to protect our embassy on their soil. In between panhandling in Europe and chumming with the wanted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is verbally condemning the violence. However, he also threatening America, saying that the Islamic prophet is “the red line.”

Egypt is demanding that America ignore her own laws and values of Freedom of Speech and punish the filmmaker who made this parody film. Questions hang in the air . . .

Will President Obama make it clear that America is a country that stands behind its Constitution and the Freedom of Speech guaranteed in it, even when people are insulted by that speech? Or will Obama compromise our First Amendment to appease the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and punish the filmmaker for his legal activities? Will America continue to aid and do business with countries that refuse to honor their duty to protect our embassies?

Where is America’s “red line”? I wish I knew.

In the meantime, I appreciate this rational appeal from Syed Mahmood, “A Muslim’s Reaction to Muhammad Movie Trailer.”

All the best to all of you for remaining rational in the face of visceral reactions.

© 2012 Piper Bayard. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact us at the above links to request permission.