China Policy as Cliché

“President Obama has made it clear that the United States welcomes the rise of a peaceful, prosperous, and stable China—one that plays a responsible role in Asia and the world and supports rules and norms on economic and security issues,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in Hawaii last week, in a major policy address. “The president has been clear, as have I, that we are committed to avoiding the trap of strategic rivalry and intent on forging a relationship in which we can broaden our cooperation on common interests and constructively manage our differences and disagreements.” 

Some observers marveled at how many clichés and abstractions America’s top diplomat was able to insert into just one speech. Said Peter Jennings of the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Countries will be a little disappointed that after the secretary’s six visits to the region, US policy seems to be still largely aspirational but lacking detail on how to achieve these aims.”

Vice News Embeds With the Islamic State

I’ve just returned from a very brief summer vacation in a remote part of the Pacific Northwest without cell phone coverage or Internet access, so I’m a bit behind on what’s happening in the world. While I’m catching up, take a look at Vice magazine’s five-part documentary on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

I don’t know how they did it, but they somehow got permission to embed a team of reporters with IS in both Syria and Iraq. There is no chance I would ever trust these people with my life and my safety, but the team got in and out okay and what they came back with is extraordinary.

The Islamic State is a deadly serious army with delusional global ambitions. Someone will have to defeat it with force, and it won’t be one of the local armed forces. Not any time soon. I’m sorry to say this, but if you watch Vice magazine’s documentary I doubt you’ll come to any other conclusion.

Back to Iraq?

In many ways the US airstrikes targeting the Islamic Sunni extremists in Iraq are the Libyan playbook brought up to date, but they also recall a longer, broader aerial offensive in Iraq more than 20 years ago that began as Operation Provide Comfort before morphing into a long, ambivalent, low-grade war involving US, British, and—at first—French combat jets.

In 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, the US, France, and the United Kingdom launched a containment strategy against Saddam Hussein, enforcing a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. The initial objective was to support coalition ground forces in the Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq. When the troops left the no-fly zone was kept in place with the declared intention of protecting the Kurds from Iraqi attacks.

Civilians or Plainclothes Combatants in Gaza Death Toll?

Could it be that most of the Palestinians who died in Gaza were combatants? The claim that the vast majority were civilians fueled a global anti-Israel outpouring during the war in Gaza to which even our own State Department and White House contributed. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of August 13th 1,965 had died in Gaza of whom 1,417, about 72 percent, were civilians. This office has issued running totals daily that have been the basis for virtually all news reports on the subject. But these reports beg the question of how the OCHA knows who is a “civilian.” And, moreover, the numbers themselves suggest a very different assessment from what the OCHA offers.

Hamas Threatened Reporters in Gaza

The Foreign Press Association is protesting “in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month."

Of course this happened. Gaza is ruled by a dictatorship and a terrorist army, and this is what dictators and terrorists do. I’d flatly refuse to believe any report that said otherwise. Hezbollah pulled the same crap with me in Lebanon, and that was during peace time, not war time. I also told my readers about it and refused to be censored. And Hezbollah, at least in some ways, is less oppressive and controlling than Hamas.

Alan Johnson published a round-up of first-person reports in The Telegraph if you want to know the nuts-and-bolts of how this actually works.

Here is just one:

Israeli filmmaker Michael Grynszpan described on Facebook an exchange he had had with a Spanish journalist who had just left Gaza. “We talked about the situation there. He was very friendly. I asked him how come we never see on television channels reporting from Gaza any Hamas people, no gunmen, no rocket launcher, no policemen. We only see civilians on these reports, mostly women and children. He answered me frankly: 'It's very simple, we did see Hamas people there launching rockets, they were close to our hotel, but if ever we dare pointing our camera on them they would simply shoot at us and kill us.'”

I understand why these reporters didn’t write about this while they were in Gaza. They could have been kidnapped or killed. Perhaps their editors back home kept quiet for the same reason, to protect their employees and freelancers.

There is a solution to this conundrum, however. Don’t send reporters to places where they are intimidated into lying by omission or commission.

The Gaza war was a huge story, of course, and it had to be covered, but it could just as easily have been covered from the Israeli side of the line. Covering both sides of the story is of course preferable whenever possible, but providing balanced coverage from Israel alongside censored coverage from Gaza is a form of journalistic malpractice. Stop it. 

‘Criminal in the Kremlin’: An Interview with Professor Walter Clemens

Below is an interview I conducted recently with Walter Clemens, a professor emeritus of political science at Boston University and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

* * *

MOTYL: Walter, you’re well known for tackling complex moral and legal issues of international relations in your work. One of your books was Can Russia Change?

CLEMENS: I’m still doubtful.

MOTYL: Your current project is titled “Can—Should—Must We Negotiate with Evil? The World and North Korea.”

CLEMENS: The subtitle could also read “The World and Vladimir Putin.”

MOTYL: What should the international community do about Mr. Putin?

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Rebuilding a Demilitarized Gaza Is the Road to Peace

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, 
Old Time is still a-flying; 
And this same flower that smiles today 
Tomorrow will be dying.

Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” 

Here is an idea whose time has come: the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip in return for demilitarization of Hamas.

China's Latest Attempt to Co-opt Christianity

Last Thursday, China Daily reported that Beijing plans to “establish a Chinese Christian theology.”

The new theology “should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture,” said Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, at a seminar in Shanghai on the “Sinicization of Christianity.” In the words of the official paper, Wang believes that “Chinese Christian theology should be compatible with the country’s path of socialism.” 

China’s socialist path is atheistic, so Wang is attempting something that is theoretically impossible. Impossible attempts, however, are nothing new when it comes to China’s Communist Party and religion. Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, had a simple solution to Christianity and all other forms of religion: he persecuted and banned them.

Who Are the Yezidis?

The Weekly Standard asked me to write a piece explaining who Iraq's Yezidis are since I spent some time with them in 2006 and 2008. Here's the first part.

Islamic State terrorists, formerly known as ISIS, have killed at least 500 members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority in and around the city of Sinjar and taken hundreds of women as slaves. Some of the victims were buried alive. Their only crime: not being Muslims.

Tens of thousands bolted from Sinjar and fled to a remote mountaintop without food, water, or shelter where many more perished. If the United States hadn’t air dropped supplies or blasted the Islamic State from the skies, the number of dead Yezidis could have mushroomed to genocidal proportions.

Even so, the Islamic State’s genocidal intentions are obvious now. Christians, Jews, Druze, Alawites, Shia Muslims, and mainstream Sunni Muslims should expect precisely the same treatment if they find themselves conquered.

If war teaches us about geography, genocide teaches us about ethnic and religious minorities who might remain obscure otherwise. I had never heard of the Yezidis myself until I went to Iraq in 2006 and interviewed the president of Duhok University in the Kurdish autonomous region. He told me to go to Lalish, the Yezidi “Mecca,” where the last of the region’s ancient fire-worshippers believe the universe was born.

The place is scorching hot during the summer like everywhere else in Iraq, but I drove there through empty snow-covered land during the winter. Lalish didn’t look or feel like the center of the universe. It looked and felt like the ends of the earth. The area is as unpopulated as the Wyoming outback, which offers the Yezidis a certain measure of protection. If their “Mecca” were in the center of Baghdad—or, worse, Fallujah—they’d be in more serious danger right now than they already are.

Read the whole thing.

Why the US is Bombing Iraq and Not Syria

Cable news reporters have spent all weekend asking one US government official after another why we’re bombing Iraq and not Syria if we’re motivated by humanitarian concerns as Washington says.

I have yet to hear a straight answer, perhaps because the administration thinks a straight answer is undiplomatic. But I’m not a diplomat, and I can explain it point-blank.

So here it is. It’s real simple. The US is bombing Iraq right now because the psychopaths of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) are attacking the Kurds.

Morally and philosophically, the death of every innocent person on earth—from New York City to Gaza—carries the same tragic weight. Lopping off the heads of Kurdish children in Iraq is not more reprehensible than cutting off the heads of children in Homs or Aleppo, but Syria is hostile and the Kurds are our friends, and that difference matters to government officials and foreign policy makers. If it didn’t, friendships and alliances would mean nothing.

The Kurds of Iraq are our best friends in the entire Muslim world. Not even an instinctive pacifist and non-interventionist like Barack Obama can stand aside and let them get slaughtered by lunatics so extreme than even Al Qaeda disowns them. There is no alternate universe where that’s going to happen.

Iraqi Kurdistan is a friendly, civilized, high-functioning place. It’s the one part of Iraq that actually works and has a bright future ahead of it. Refusing to defend it would be like refusing to defend Poland, Taiwan, or Japan. We have no such obligation toward Syria.

That’s it. That’s the entire answer. Washington is following the first and oldest rule of foreign policy—reward your friends and punish your enemies.

Harshest Sanctions on Russia Yet—From Vladimir Putin

MOSCOW —When, earlier this year, policy experts suggested that the aggression against Ukraine would be the undoing of Vladimir Putin’s regime, they could not have imagined the speed with which the Kremlin will be sowing the seeds of its own destruction. As Russian analyst Maxim Samorukov has noted, dictatorships often get away with the severest repressions at home—as long as they do not attempt to upset the international order. Vladimir Putin has stepped over the line. His chosen path of confrontation with the entire Western world, his regime’s blatant disregard for international law—accompanied by lies and hypocrisy on a scale not seen since the Soviet days—has already resulted in hard-hitting US and EU sanctions not only on senior Kremlin figures, but also on state-connected banks and corporations.

China's Militarist General Liu Yuan Promoted

Reuters reports that General Liu Yuan will be promoted to the Communist Party’s 11-member Central Military Commission in October. Liu, 62, could even be given one of the two vice-chairman slots when the Central Committee meets, sources state. His elevation is a certain sign that hard-line elements are fast gaining power in Beijing.

Liu, the political commissar of the General Logistics Department of the People’s Liberation Army, ostensibly earned the move up for his role in bringing down Lieutenant General Gu Junshan. The investigation of Gu, in turn, led to the dramatic detention of Xu Caihou, a former vice-chairman of the military commission and former Politburo member. Both Xu and Gu have been ensnared in what the party has termed “anti-corruption” probes.

Recriminations and Denials After Putin

One of these days Russians will wake up from what they now think is a dream and realize that it was a terrible nightmare. They’ll realize that Vladimir Putin—their current hero and demigod—is really a loser and a thug who’s brought ruin to their country, ruin to their people, ruin to their ethnic brethren in Ukraine and other non-Russian states, and ruin to the world. They’ll realize that Putin is a criminal, that the regime he created is fascist, and that his policies are paranoid, delusional, destructive, and self-destructive to the point of being suicidal.

And that’s when the recriminations and denials will begin. There’ll be lots of finger pointing. “Blame it all on my neighbor,” many Russians will say, “He’s the collaborator. He’s the flag-waver. He’s the one who voted for Putin and attended all those mass rallies. And he did it voluntarily too.” 

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ISIS Exterminating Minorities in Iraq

Kurdish members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority in Sinjar are being massacred by ISIS if they refuse to convert to Islam. They’re ancient fire-worshipers with roots in Zoroastrianism and they long predate the Koran.

More than 300 of them so far have been murdered for their religion alone.  

Killings of this sort on a large scale are called genocide.

Islam is a proselytizing religion, but converting these people at gunpoint and executing those who refuse will not fly with the Kurds who are Muslims, and not just because the Yezidis are their fellow Kurds.

The Yezidi religion is part of the Kurdish identity. Iraqi Kurdistan’s flag eschews the crescent moon so common on the flags of Islamic countries and opts for fire imagery from the Yezidi religion instead. Many years ago I interviewed the president of Duhok University in Iraq Kurdistan and he seemed to speak for the majority when he professed his affection for these people and their ancient religion. “I am a Muslim,” he told me. “But I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.”

Sinjar is a Kurdish town, but it’s in Nineveh province outside the Kurdish autonomous region. The armed Kurdish Peshmerga forces operating there ran out of ammunition and had little choice but to retreat in the wake of the ISIS assault. Tens of thousands of civilians fled the area and are stranded atop a remote mountain without food, water, or shelter.

Eight years ago I visited the Yezidi “Mecca” in Lalish, Iraq, inside the Kurdish autonomous region a ways south of Duhok. This is where the Yezidis believe the universe was born. Eternal flames burn forever in little shrines. Baba Sheik, their leader, showed me around and took me into their temple.

“All people in the world should be brothers,” he said. “You are welcome here for the rest of your life.”

Baba Sheik wanted to include Muslims in his proclamation of universal brotherhood, but he didn’t entirely trust them. The Yezidis have been persecuted relentlessly in the past and he knew perfectly well that they could be persecuted again, especially considering the precarious state of Iraq. And he was right. Ruthless persecution—this time by ISIS—is on.

I asked my Muslim translator and guide Birzo Abdulkadir if he was offended by Baba Sheik’s comments and he said, “Of course not. Kurds don’t get upset about religion. We aren’t like Arabs. We believe in arguments based on reason, not emotion. If people don’t agree with me about something, I’m not going to get mad at them. We will just have different opinions.”

The Kurds do, however, get mad, so to speak, at the likes of ISIS. And they’re gearing up for a counterattack. Another front in the great Middle East war is about to be opened.

The Left’s Fixation with Israel

“Israel has broken my heart: I’m a rabbi in mourning for a Judaism being murdered by Israel,” reads the devastating headline in Salon.com. But it turns out the author is not really a rabbi. He is Michael Lerner, a lifelong radical activist who was ordained by no seminary but who calls himself a “rabbi” in the same sense that Al Sharpton calls himself a “reverend.” He has spent the last decades in homespun clerical garb, relentlessly bashing Israel and debasing Judaism.

Starting as a founder of the violent “Seattle Liberation Front,” he moved on after 1960s radicalism petered out to declare himself a “psychotherapist,” pursuing the same political agenda by analyzing the “psychodynamics of American society” and founding the “Institute for Labor and Mental Health.”


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