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MOOC Probes a War You’ve Never Heard Of

Middle East course by BU’s Bacevich coincides with ISIS emergence


Here’s something you probably don’t know: the United States has been fighting a losing war for 34 years. We can’t win it, and getting out will require a shift in mind-set, with Americans seeing things from the eyes of those who are variously our enemies and our allies in this war.

Didn’t see this epochal and confusing conflict in the headlines? Then you might be interested in the next course on BU’s MOOC menu, War for the Greater Middle East, launching tomorrow. Many students may not agree with the premise of a failed, multigenerational war put forth by Andrew Bacevich, a College of Arts & Sciences and Pardee School of Global Studies professor emeritus of history and of international relations. But he picked a choice moment to argue for a Middle East policy reboot, coming just two weeks after President Obama vowed to launch airstrikes and other measures intended to roll back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Bacevich, who retired from BU last month, hopes the class persuades students to rethink the history of the 20th century so as to be better prepared for the 21st.

“What we understand as history, the story that history tells, is inadequate,” he says. The American version of 20th-century history is of triumph over evil, from the Nazis to the Soviets, but citizens of the Islamic world have a very different version, Bacevich says. Starting in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a vital American interest because of its oil, the past 34 years have been a history of US military involvement in the Middle East—the war of his course title—that has failed to produce stability or democracy, he says.

Where does that leave us in the fight against ISIS? “The threat it poses to the United States is not great—probably less than the Ebola virus,” Bacevich says. “Both cases call for an identical response: erect effective defenses.” While ISIS is a greater threat to key Middle Eastern nations such as Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, “those nations are far better positioned to deal with that threat directly.” Bacevich suggests we assist them with “intelligence, arms, perhaps advice and training, all based on the capacity and willingness of the recipient to make effective use of what we offer.”

As for MOOCs—massive open online courses—whose value compared with a traditional classroom setting is the subject of debate among educators, Bacevich professes himself an “agnostic.”

“It’s an experiment worth trying,” he says. “Let’s wait and see what results we get.”

More than 9,500 students have enrolled for his MOOC, offered through the online platform edX. BU’s MOOCs are available, for free and without credit, to students globally, who can do the course work at their own pace and convenience. They can opt either to audit the class or to pursue a completion certificate.

Two other MOOCs—The Art of Poetry, taught by Robert Pinsky, a CAS English professor, and Alien Worlds: The Science of Exoplanet Discovery and Characterization, taught by Andrew West, a CAS assistant astronomy professor—will debut September 30 and October 31, respectively. A fifth, AP Physics 1, launches in January, while a sixth, Differential Equations, is in development. BU’s first MOOC, Sabermetrics 101, drew almost 17,000 students when it launched last spring.

Register for Andrew Bacevich’s MOOC, War for the Greater Middle East, here.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

4 Comments on MOOC Probes a War You’ve Never Heard Of

  • student on 09.23.2014 at 2:02 pm

    One has to ask, was the Mid East and Northern Africa better with Gaddafi, Mubarak, and Saddam?

    These dictators were stabilizing figures the area. After we assisted the terrorists remove Gaddafi, Lybia, once the most advanced country in North Africa, has fallen into chaos. In October 2011, the black flag of Al-queada flew high over the courthouse in Benghazi and a year later the US Ambassador was killed there.

    No more visiting Egypt to see the Pyramids after Mubarak was removed from power.

    After toppling Saddam, and the US leaving Iraq, IN 6 MONTHS half of Iraq fallen to terrorists.

    The final “dictator” to remove is Assad, however, the US’s proxy-fighters have proved too weak to topple Assad and the Syrian Arab Army. I, for one am glad for this. Do we really want Syria to turn into another Iraq or Libya where extremists (terrorists) are in charge?

    If the US really wanted to win the war against ISIS, they would support Assad and Putin with their fight against these terrorists, not provide 500 million dollars to the Syrian rebels who have been linked to ISIS. I guarantee most of that 500 million just approved by congress, will end up in ISIS hands.

  • RObert L.Glaser on 09.23.2014 at 4:20 pm

    A much needed and superb idea. I have been reading Bacevich and sharing his insights with others. The opportunity to attend his classes is much appreciated.

  • RObert L.Glaser on 09.23.2014 at 5:20 pm

    I would suggest that the middle east will contiue to be a no win situation that be without end , There is no place for democracy and to believe otherwise will cost america and other western nations blood and money. At best, america can support those they believe will fight to protect their own interests.

  • QWIP-BVR on 09.23.2014 at 9:43 pm

    Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson at William&Mary, a veteran of the Bush Admins, might be expected to be in opposition to the historical vision offered by Professor Bacevich but, no, these experienced hands appear to have arrived at similar judgments on the long-term outcomes brought about by [my interp.] a string of shortsighted leaders.

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