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No Child Left Behind

Wouldn't it be quaint to have discussions among presidential candidates about the history of the Middle East and its lessons instead of the hollow "debates" that only the pundits and insiders watch?
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For all but the perversely ignorant, it should be apparent by now that America suffers when it elects leaders who choose not to read. I say "choose" because, whatever else may or may not have happened there, somewhere between Yale and Harvard surely George W. Bush learned how to read. But he seems to have chosen not to. Had he chosen to read, current events could well have turned out much better.

Take for example the second chapter in Stephen Kinzer's very important book All the Shah's Men. This chapter is a brilliant essay on the history of Persia, Islam, and modern Iran set in the context of a larger, dismaying story of how the U.S. overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh led directly to the age of terror, the confrontation between the West and fundamentalist Islam, and the unnecessary Iraqi quagmire.

Being men of intelligence, matched only by their arrogance, the neoconservatives surely knew this history but, in the interest of American empire in the Middle East, chose to ignore it. But suppose George W. Bush had read and knew something about the rich, complex and turbulent history of the region, of the rise and fall of Persia, of the cultural and religious tides and typhoons, of the post-632 Islamic chasm. He might then have asked questions of his neoconservative wise men: "Aren't Shiites only ten percent of Muslims?", he might have said, "and aren't Persians different from Arabs?" "Didn't those divisions go back a long way," turning to Mr. Wolfowitz, "and didn't that have something to do with the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980?" "Why were we supporting Iraq," he turns to Don, "while we were selling arms to the Iranians?" "And, Richard, explain to me exactly why the U.S. would want to try to occupy Iraq, even under your friend President Chalabi, when we know how disastrously the British occupation failed?"

After about an hour of common sense questioning most Presidents engage in, the very intelligent neoconservatives would have been forced to state, with considerable patience, "Mr. President, this really is about our nation's interest -- you know, oil -- as it was for the British, but it would not be a very good idea to tell the American people that. They might ask you, in the rare chance that you ended up in an audience composed of citizens who are not necessarily 'our people,' 'Do we really have to trade the lives of our sons and daughters for oil, Mr. President?' And you know we don't want to have that kind of discussion."

So it goes, according to Kurt Vonnegut.

Wouldn't it be quaint to have discussions among presidential candidates about the history of the Middle East and the lessons to be drawn from it instead of the hollow, shallow, ritualized "debates" that only the pundits and insiders watch for clues to cleverness, cleverness now being highly prized over intelligence and leadership? What if candidates were asked to read a very important book like Stephen Kinzer's and write an 800-word essay on what they learned from it?
Most of all, might it not be important to have a discussion among presidential candidates as to whether a republic, in this case the United States of America, can also be an empire.

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