Is the Middle East America’s to Lose?

14 Jun


I was appalled by the embedded colonialism of a recent issue of The Economist [June 6-12, 2015], boldly proclaiming its mood of geopolitical angst on its cover titling its featured story “Losing the Middle East.” Any glimmer of doubt about the intent of the magazine’s editors is removed by displaying a somewhat bedraggled American flag on the cover accompanied by the sub-title “Why American must not abandon the region.” The rationale offered for this political imperative within this most revered journal of intelligent establishment guidance strikes me as even more appalling than this provocative packaging giving the plot away before we even begin reading the story.


What The Economist Proposes


The argument set forth rests on the colonialist assumption that the Middle East is America’s to lose, although not quite, as the lead editorial ends with an enigmatic distinction: “The idea has taken root that America no longer has what it takes to run the Middle East. That it ever could was an illusion. But America has a vital part to play. If it continues to stand back, everyone will be worse of—including the Americans.” We are never told whether the catchall ‘everyone’ includes the people of the region, and whether they even matter in the calculations of this organ of elite opinion primarily concerned with the wellbeing of the West, which is linked seamlessly to the operations of the neoliberal world economy. The strong implication of this lead editorial, never adequately explained, is that America should intervene more throughout the Middle East to reverse, or at least contain, present disruptive trends. Why this is so is never really explored beyond the misleading supposition that American military capabilities can improve the situation if brought more directly to bear and without explaining why, insisting that existing alignments with political actors in the region, regardless of their character, should be reinforced and strengthened.


The pragmatic side of what The Economist seems to be proposing is two-fold:First, a militarist prescription for the pursuit of America’s regional interests, which are identified as counter-terrorism, oil, and preventing nuclear proliferation; secondly, a willingness to accept contradictions in protecting these interests, such as siding with Iran against IS [Islamic State] in Iran and opposing Iran in Syria. It is within this framing that “[t]he Middle East desperately needs a new, invigorated engagement from America. That would not only be within America’s power, it would also be in America’s interest.” Its central critique is that President Obama’s policy is too weak and wavering to be effective, which is clarified by the insistence that “[h]e must be ready to use force. Mr. Obama’s taboo about deploying American soldiers against IS in Iraq has led to a self-defeating shortage of special forces to guide air strikes to their targets.” In their view, Obama’s approach has created a ‘vacuum’ that has “exacerbated the strife and disorder.” The fuller story in the body of the magazine also welcomes the prospect that either Hilary Clinton or any of the Republican presidential hopefuls seem determined to be far readier than Obama to intervene forcibly throughout the region.


Behind this scathing criticism of Obama is the evident belief that America’s geopolitical muscle if applied with skill, militarily and diplomatically, could have lessened the chaos and violence that now pervades the region. Such an argument seems deeply flawed. To begin with, it is hardly accurate to portray Obama as standing aloof from the struggles going on in the Middle East. It is actively militarily engaged against IS and Syria and is in the process of becoming militarily reengaged in Iraq at the present time. It was a strong advocate of the regime changing NATO intervention against Qaddafi’s dictatorial rule in Libya, and it has quietly gone along with the counter-revolutionary shift in Egypt that destroyed the hopes of humane governance, at least temporarily, that surfaced with such excitement in early 2011 throughout the region. My own view is that this degree of American military and diplomatic engagement brought more, not less, chaos to the Middle East. And now, as if to take the critique of The Economist immediately to heart the U.S. Government has announced plans to pre-position heavy weaponry and military personnel in several points in the region so as to be in a better position to intervene rapidly should further crises emerge.


Criticizing the Obama Approach


In my view, the burden of persuasion should always be upon those who favor greater reliance on military force whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. Without acknowledging any inconsistency, The Economist concedes that the Bush invasion of 2003 and subsequent occupation of Iraq was a disaster, illustrative of imprudently intervening in a massive fashion. As every major effort at intervention by the United States has revealed, upping the ante by intervening a bit more, is a slippery slope that has eventually led to defeat after defeat, most vividly evident in the trajectory and outcome of the Vietnam War. This unquestioning militarization of the political imagination, which is what comes through in this sharp criticism of Obama’s approach, does not even pause to consider the benefits of allowing the dynamics of self-determination to control political outcomes in the 21st century.


An unlearned lesson of geopolitics in the post-colonial world is that the power balance has decisively shifted as between intervention by the West and national forces of resistance. These forces have learned to be more effective in their combat tactics, but above all, have come to understand that time is on their side, that a foreign intervener will give up the quest at some point implicitly acknowledging that military dominance is not able to impose a political outcome at acceptable costs. This is not just a matter of democratic societies becoming impatient in the face of a drawn out distant wars with questionable justifications, which causes death and injury to its young citizens, but the deeper realization that the post-colonial politics of resistance over time subverts the will and morale of the intervener. This happened as clearly to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as it did to the United States in Vietnam, or later in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is more of a reflection of the structure of shifting power relations than of a weakening of ideological resolve.


The central metaphor of ‘losing the Middle East’ presupposes that it was America’s to lose rather than an acknowledgement of the empowerment of the peoples of the region and their governments with respect to the control of national and regional destinies. The metaphor of winning and losing is a colonialist framing of geopolitics that amorally vindicates hegemonic ambitions, especially the virtues of Western control. It gives priority to Western interests in a non-Western geographic domain, and pretends that such an orientation conveniently also happens to be an expression of fidelity to Western values, including democracy and human rights, and of benefit to the affected societies. No where in the extensive article are doubts raised about the unconditionality of support for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies that oppress their populations and subject women to humiliating social constraints or to Israel that has dispossessed most Palestinians from their own homeland, and held the rest captive.


The Economist has the temerity to couple its sharp criticism of Obama’s allegedly soft diplomacy by anticipating what is misleadingly described as a “return to the center” that is expected to occur after the U.S. presidential elections in 2016: “The next American president may well be warmer towards Israel, and more willing to turn a blind eye to new settlements in the occupied territories. He or she might do more to reassure Gulf monarchies and speak more sternly to Iran.” What a strange set of hopeful expectations! Obama turned a pretty blind eye to Israeli settlement expansion during the last several years, even instructing his representatives to vote in isolation to shield Israel from UN censure over settlement expansion. His administration has also gone along with the basic approach of the Gulf monarchies, although timidly voicing some recent doubts about the wisdom of respected Saudi air strikes directed against the Houthis in Yemen.


And it is astonishing to note that the Obama presidency is situated by The Economist in the political spectrum as left of center? The idea of returning to the center implies that American regional policy these last six years had somehow veered toward the left. And therefore, for me what The Economist calls the center would more accurately be described as the right, or even the hard right. In most respects, including policy toward Iran, Iraq, and Israel, Obama’s essential approach has been to sustain continuity with the policies of the George W. Bush presidency. There was the same willingness to threaten Iran with a military attack if seen to be crossing the nuclear threshold, a similar stance toward supporting the Shia governing process in Iraq, and the same endorsement of Israel’s defiance of international law, as well as insulating its nuclear weapons capability from even a whispered challenge.


There are more fundamental deficiencies in this analysis by The Economist of what has gone wrong in the region and what to do about it. There is a seemingly blind eye toward the relevance of the history of Western responsibilities for the unfolding political ordeal that is being enacted throughout the Middle East. This perspective overlooks such defining antecedents as the playing out of British and French overt colonial ambitions in the aftermath of World War I and of the statist goals of the Zionist Movement as abetted by British policies during its period of mandate administration. Imposing arbitrary boundaries on the region by Europe meant establishing unnatural political communities that could be held together (or broken apart) only by violence from above (or below). In a revealing respect Lebanon is a poster child of this era of Sykes-Picot diplomacy, having been carved out of Ottoman Syria to satisfy France’s egocentric craving at the time for a colonial possession in the region with a Christian majority.


The Economist’s policy prescriptions are also notable for their failure even to mention international law or the United Nation. These normative sources of authority and constraint are evidently seen as of utterly no concern to the geopolitical optic through which the magazine’s august editors perceive policy options for the region. But if China were to assess its approach to the sovereignty disputes involving the Spratly Islands with the same cavalier attitudes toward the relevance of normative authority, the West would be up in arms, persuasively contending that such behavior is dangerously destructive of a moderate political order in the Pacific.


The Old Geopolitics versus the New Geopolitics


Even when it comes to the pragmatic level of analysis, I find that The Economist’s sense of editorial guidance is woefully shortsighted. Let’s accept their focus on terrorism, oil, and nuclear proliferation even accepting as accurate their portrayal of American interests. Surely, the best way to combat jihadism is a measured withdrawal from the region. As for oil, the Arab producers in the region have shown through the years that their policies are market-driven with scant attention to ideology as shown by their readiness to throw the Palestinians under the bus. Most persuasive of all, nuclear proliferation would be best prevented by establishing a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, which all governments except Israel favor, and have done so for several years. In other words, the idea of trying to fill the so-called vacuum following the European retreat, which began during World War II and was consummated by the 1956 Suez War, with American military power and diplomatic muscle epitomizes the ‘old geopolitics’ of Western hegemony rather than relying on a potential ‘new geopolitics’ of self-determination.


There is, of course, little assurance that the outcome of the interplay of domestic and regional forces in the Middle East will be ethically satisfying or politically stable, but there is at least some likelihood that going with the post-colonial historical flow will produce better results than further reliance on the United States to continue battling the strong currents of nationalism. This clarion call for enhanced trust in the nostalgic imaginary of the old geopolitics seems historically tone deaf. It represents a reliance on the old geopolitics of militarism that should have been discredited long ago by its record of failure and its incredibly high opportunity costs. At the very least, adopting this new geopolitics of self-determination might enable the politicians and citizenry of the United States to take a much needed and long overdue look within its own borders, and devote much more of its imaginative and material resources to creating a humane society at home, starting with its physical and moral infrastructure.


One good starting point for such a program is with the language of political discourse. This idea of the West ‘losing’ a country or, as with The Economist’s cover story, losing a whole region, should be banished from the 21st century political imaginary, and with it the realization that such a concept of winning and losing is worse than anachronistic, it is obsolete. It might be helpful to recall that for many years the American political right accused the U.S. Government of ‘losing China’ only to discover later in the Cold War that China had become a valuable geopolitical ally in the core struggle with the Soviet Union, and still later, that China as much as any country, keeps the world economy from unraveling.

24 Responses to “Is the Middle East America’s to Lose?”

  1. Ben June 14, 2015 at 11:54 pm #

    I was equally appalled to hear one of my colleagues refer to “despots in places like North Korea, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.” I later discovered that the reason he put Chavez and his successor in the same pigeon hole as true despots was that the Economist had told him so.

  2. ray032 June 15, 2015 at 4:37 am #

    Richard, this is another accurate, clear and incisive assessment of the conundrum facing us.

    “The idea has taken root that America no longer has what it takes to run the Middle East. That it ever could was an illusion.” June, 2015

    Now where could that idea have come from? Is it possible it could have come from THE KANSAS CITY TIMES, September 13, 1976, 39 years earlier?
    “He came to town for the Republican National Convention and will stay until the election in November to do God’s bidding: To tell the world, from Kansas City, this country has been found wanting and its days are numbered […] He gestured toward a gleaming church dome. “The gold dome is the symbol of Babylon,” he said.”

    These are the first two parts of the three part Writing On The Wall recorded in Daniel 5 during the Captivity of Babylon some 2600 years ago. It was not until 9/11 and 7 years later, with the Global Financial Meltdown-Economic Pearl Harbor-Tsunami in the Fall of 2008, the whole world was able to see the Writing on the Wall for the 1st Time at the same Time.

    Ancient Babylon is the Tanahk-Bible model for the world’s dominant Imperial economic-military Superpower, the US being the latest, greatest of them all to wear that mantle among the Nations. Ancient Babylon is now the Land of Iraq. The Tail struck the Head, and the continuing reverberations are not fully felt yet.

    The 3rd part of the Writing on the Wall records the fall of the world’s dominant Imperial Superpower Babylon, and the rise of Persia-Iran.

    Iran become the Israeli-American-Western obsession 29 months later with the Revolution happening in February 1979, one month before the signing of the Camp David Accord.

    Stripping it down to the fundamentals, the Writing on the Wall record from Babylon of the Old Testament is about the economy, “They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone”

    Babylon is carried over to the New Testament, Revelation 18;
    And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buys their merchandise any more:
    The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble, And cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men. (it’s the Economy, Stupid! as the saying goes)

    I share your view “that this degree of American military and diplomatic engagement brought more, not less, chaos to the Middle East. And now, as if to take the critique of The Economist immediately to heart the U.S. Government has announced plans to pre-position heavy weaponry and military personnel in several points in the region so as to be in a better position to intervene rapidly should further crises emerge.”

    If the US is doing that in the Middle East, this is the 1st I heard of it. Most of the weapons in the middle East are already prepositioned in the Nations the US supplies, Saudi Arabia being the biggest buyer. What I have been reading is the US is now moving to pre-position heavy weaponry in the Baltic States and Poland.

    In my view, the burden of persuasion should always be upon those who favor greater reliance on military force whether in the Middle East or elsewhere.
    I would expect all people of Good Will share your view on this point. In a 30 second sound byte Society of smart phones and dumb people, how can the masses speak up when mass media controls the propaganda and agenda?

    although timidly voicing some recent doubts about the wisdom of respected Saudi air strikes directed against the Houthis in Yemen.
    Why? Because prior to the Saudis bombing the Houthis, the US called them Al-Qaeda and attacked them with drones?

    • Gene Schulman June 15, 2015 at 6:56 am #

      Aw, c’mon Ray, leave out the biblical prophesies. The reality is political power in the hands of wrong people. The bible doesn’t advise on how to reverse that.

      • ray032 June 15, 2015 at 7:36 am #

        Aw, c’mon Gene. If the shoe fits………….

        You do know about Jesus saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” so often used to justify taxation of the many by the few.

        Most people don’t view it in context.He was being asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? He said, Show me the money you pay with. He said, Whose image is on the money? They answered, Caesar!
        He answered rightly, Then give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give God what belongs to God.

        You cannot serve two Masters. Either you will love one and hate the other, or you will serve one and neglect the other. You cannot serve God and money. Each Individual has to draw their own red line.

        What is less discussed is the other perspective on taxation or paying Tribute in the systems of this world:
        And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Does not your master pay tribute?
        He said, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What do you think, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?
        Peter said to him, Of strangers.
        Jesus said to him, Then are the children free?

        The Bible doesn’t answer that question in detail either, leaving it up to us to discover.

      • Gene Schulman June 15, 2015 at 7:57 am #

        The bible doesn’t answer any questions, it but commands. On what grounds should one put faith in mere commandments? Drop the other shoe, Ray.

  3. Gene Schulman June 15, 2015 at 6:59 am #

    Richard, I would appreciate if you could post your exchange with Rosemary here (received from a mutual friend via email). I think your response to her should be seen by other readers of this blog. Important!

  4. Björn Lindgren June 15, 2015 at 11:55 am #

    Hi Richard,

    Your comment on and analysis of The Economist article is fully accord with my own views, but expressed much deeper, eloquent, and put more diplomatic.

    Like you, I percieve the blindness and deafness of the American elite (military, economical, political, and media) with horror. In its trajectory, the US empire is moving towards economic collapse, political chaos, apathy, imperial over-stretch, poverty, low-level civil war. A country unable to reform itself.

    An ugly sight…

    Right now, I am looking into what is happening in Rojava in northen Syria and possible connections to and openings for Turkey. Even though I haven’t come very far, and haven’t reached any conclusions, my impression is that the “Social Revolution” in the Kurdish cantons might have some promising potentials, even if it is initiated and lead(?) from within an armed and authoritarian structure.

    If you have any comments on these things, I’d be grateful to take part of them.

    Cheers, Björn Lindgren

  5. Clif Brown June 15, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

    I read the Economist for decades until I found that I couldn’t finish one issue before another would arrive…

    A constant theme of the magazine was (still is, it appears) to pat Goliath (America) on the back as the savior of all things good and steel his resolve to get in the ring and face down the bad guy of the day.

  6. ISIS is US construct June 15, 2015 at 5:36 pm #

    {It is actively militarily engaged against IS and Syria and is in the process of becoming militarily reengaged in Iraq at the present time.}
    This is NOT true. Obama, the most savage US president so far, is acting militarily against Syria and in Iraq to help ISIS against Iraqi and Syrian governments. The phony attack that Obama says directing at ISIS, does not happen. These attacks are helping US/Israel’s pawns, the kurds, so they can steal more land from Iraqis and Syrian people, zionist jews’ style in Palestine.
    {Anti-ISIS Coalition Forces are the Target: US Warplanes Strike Iraqi Army Position, US Delivers Weapons to Terrorists.}

    All the evidence on the ground tell that US = ISIS = Israel = Kurds

    {ISIS Colonel Was Trained by Blackwater and U.S. State Department for 11 Years}

    Why can the US pawns, the kurds, defeat ISIS, to steal more land like zionist Israelis, but USG the biggest terrorist in the history of mankind with 50% of world’s WMD at their disposal not be able!!?
    The reason is that ISIS is USG’s own terrorists that their mission is to destroy all the Islamic symbols and create chaos using terrorism and mass murders of Muslims so the West can change the geopolitical arrangement, like in WWI, to establish ‘kurdistan’ – second Israel in the region – as part of “the greater Israel”.
    We are certain that ALL take this wish into their GRAVES including the baby killer at the WH. The world is fed up with degree of savagery and terrorism can is coming from the WH and the criminal West.
    People of the region will force these criminals out and teach the traitors, the kurds, and lessons not to be in the service of the evil for petty concessions. These wars are waged by the criminal West, started by 9/11 designed by USG using false flag operation. Building 7 went down without being touched by a FLY, demolition style.

  7. Laurie Knightly June 15, 2015 at 7:29 pm #

    During the Cold War, nations of the Mid East area had to line up with either the US or USSR. Syria, Libya, Iraq and S Yemen leaned toward the USSR. Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Israel, and Turkey allied with the US. After the Soviet breakup, the Bush Doctrine and National Security Strategy was filled with pre-emptive threat regarding ‘terrorism’. Oil access was to be unhampered. No fly zone and sanctions continued on Iraq. 9/11. Bomb Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘You are either with us or you are with the enemy.’ The US, as always, sponsored Israel – including expansion and massacres…. no crime that couldn’t be rationalized – maybe accuse them of being ‘unhelpful’.

    And then Arab Spring.

    Good bye US and Good Riddance

  8. Jerry "Peacemaker" June 16, 2015 at 8:20 am #

    “One good starting point for such a program is with the language of political discourse. This idea of the West ‘losing’ a country or, as with The Economist’s cover story, losing a whole region, should be banished from the 21st century political imaginary, and with it the realization that such a concept of winning and losing is worse than anachronistic, it is obsolete.”

    That Economist magazine asks “Is the Middle East America’s to Lose?” instead of “Is It Time for a Middle East Peace Conference?” shows the distance to travel before war ends in that long-suffering region. Simply organizing through the United Nations an event giving every nation/member state the opportunity to speak for fifteen minutes on the question “what will it take to bring peace to the Middle East?”, record the addresses, then post the multi-hours of talks on the UN website would go a long way toward actually creating peace. Such a simple concept is very easy to organize and allows the greatest wisdom and truth on Earth to surface and become recognized, through moral discernment concepts rise to the top – understood as superior peace-generating ideas moving forward, then corresponding actions are taken resulting in peace being manifested into reality.

    This is a description of the highest, noblest and morality-driven political discourse possible.

    • Gene Schulman June 16, 2015 at 8:36 am #

      Your heart is in the right place, “Peacemaker”. You are being rational and idealistic. But suppose you could put such a peace conference together, what makes you think the aggressors (USA, Israel, et al.,) could ever agree? The USA, especially, is autistic, and would not listen, let alone negotiate.

    • Richard Falk June 16, 2015 at 9:09 am #

      It is, as Gene suggests, a worthy proposal, but given the outlook of the necessary participants
      unlikely to accomplish any gains over the present unless the US was willing to push Israel hard
      to join a nuclear free Middle East by denuclearizing, which so far it has been unwilling to do.

  9. Beau Oolayforos June 17, 2015 at 10:44 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,
    Cheney, Wolfowitz & Co. have to be smiling, as the Economist now sounds like a position paper from one of their think tanks, the ones that brought us the devastation of Mesopotamia and a million Iraqi dead. The Brits’ pathetic sycophancy is very old news to the likes of Matt Johnson, whose ‘The Heartland’ long ago refrained “This is the 51st State of the USA”.
    NATO’s storing of weapons in eastern Europe, and Russia’s saber-rattling response reminds one, once again, of SB Fay’s examination of the causes of World War One – talk about handwriting on the wall.
    Your comment about Lebanon reminds one of MacArthur’s concern that the Philippines remain a bastion of Christianity in Asia. Egocentrism was not the good General’s most endearing trait, even (or especially?) to some stalwart military men.

  10. Kata Fisher June 18, 2015 at 7:56 pm #

    Professor Falk – I had very difficult day and I am concerned with everything that is going on. Can you please e-mail to David Singer?

    • Richard Falk June 19, 2015 at 11:15 pm #

      Kata: I am sympathetic with whatever difficulty you are experiencing, but I fail
      to see any reason why that prompts you to make the suggestion that I contact David Singer
      who has consistently attacked my views on Israel/Palestine and launched a rather nasty
      personal attack against me on a far right website.

      • Kata Fisher June 20, 2015 at 7:45 am #

        Dear Proffesor Falk: I alway did hold that you are like a Father in this age. I did brainstorm on things that David wrote – and there is a shift. I did show David how Algebra can be applicable to his writing because he has to reorginise what he wrote and said. I do believe that you need to e-mail David, so that he can explain. I do not believe holding on to strife. Can you please talk to David, so that he can explain?

      • Richard Falk June 20, 2015 at 9:21 am #

        Okay, but give me David’s email address. I agree with you about letting go of bad feelings..

      • Kata Fisher June 20, 2015 at 5:47 pm #

        Proffesor Falk:

        Here is David’s e-mail:

        David wrote following on

        December 7, 2014 at 3:01 am:


        Redrawing the boundaries between Israel, Jordan and Egypt in direct negotiations will result in no one – Jew or Arab – having to leave his current home or business.

        I do not know why you think Professor Falk and I would have to meet in Israel or anywhere else to strategize how it would best be possible to get Israel, Jordan and Egypt to engage in direct negotiations on the allocation of sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza.

        We can do that privately by email.

        My address is

        I am ready to respond to Professor Falk or initiate the correspondence if he posts his email address.”

        A note: I am sorry that I just now do reply on your post. I was unable to download your entire web-site on my phone. I did not know David’s e-mail address, so I had to wait to be back in resort and use computer to see what it was.

        I hope you are having wonderful weekend.

      • Richard Falk June 21, 2015 at 3:36 am #

        Kata: Thanks for the information, but there is no point in renewing such a conversation
        that I have had many times with David in this comments section. His proposal ‘disappears’
        the Palestinians, is totally unacceptable to Jordan, and has long been advocated by the
        right wing in Israel. I know you mean well, but there is no point unless the rights of the
        Palestinians, including their right of self-determination, are made part of the vision. Warm best, richard

    • Kata Fisher June 21, 2015 at 5:57 am #

      Proffesor Falk, I believe that old ways took a new direction. It is just metter of good problem solving application what will make folks happy in Holy Land. That was just old post that I used for your refference. You may need it in order to refocus with David. Tell David that I am happy that you you and him are the best in position to be–resolving dead-end issues.

  11. katasayang July 15, 2015 at 7:30 am #
    Kinda liken the main message from theAtlantic, which carries forth the appeal of avoiding some war being a ‘center’ pragmatic approach for the nation.


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