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Is Lebanon’s Prime Minister a Saudi Hostage?

Last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri flew from Beirut to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and resigned his post in a televised address, blaming an assassination plot against him and Iranian interference in his homeland. Hezbollah, Iran’s pet terrorist army in Lebanon and Syria, claimed the Saudis placed him under house arrest.

I dismissed that accusation as ludicrous. Why on earth would Hariri’s Saudi allies force him to quit and imprison him? How could Hezbollah explain reports that Hariri was traveling from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates? Besides, Hezbollah is hardly a reliable source of information or regional political analysis.

Yet it’s increasingly looking like Hezbollah was right and I may have been wrong. No one is right about everything, and not even terrorists are wrong about everything.

Hariri’s advisors, according not to Hezbollah but to The New York Times, are shocked and don’t know if or when he’s going back. If he were free to return home or to leave Saudi Arabia, they would know and they would say so, but they are not saying so.

The New Arab cites sources close to Hariri who say they expected to meet him a week ago in Egypt’s resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, that he was summoned to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—who is currently purging government figures for “corruption”—and that the Saudis removed Hariri because they’re unhappy with his unwillingness to strongly confront Hezbollah. “What happened in those meetings,” one of the sources said, “I believe, is that (Hariri) revealed his position on how to deal with Hezbollah in Lebanon: that confrontation would destabilize the country. I think they didn't like what they heard… For the Saudis it is an existential battle. It's black and white. We in Lebanon are used to gray.”

Over the weekend, Paula Yacoubian interviewed Hariri in a house he owns in Riyadh on his own Future TV station, hoping to put to rest this bizarre speculation. Instead, the interview fueled it.

He was anxious, tense and exhausted. He cried a couple of times. He drank massive amounts of water. “Today, Mr. Prime Minister,” Yacoubian said, “I am unable to convince anybody that you aren't a prisoner in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that you're not a hostage, that you're not under house arrest even though we are in your own house.”

She said that to her boss, live, on a TV channel he owns.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he doesn’t believe Hariri is being held against his will in Riyadh, but also that he’s “monitoring the situation.” It’s not just a hysterical rumor, then, if he’s monitoring it. It’s a “situation.” Something is going on.

What, exactly, still isn’t clear. Michael Young, arguably the most astute analyst of Lebanese politics writing in English, isn’t convinced that the Saudis literally have him under house arrest, but he reminded New York Times reporter Anne Barnar that “he is the Saudis’ guy…His margin of maneuver against the Saudis is very limited indeed. He’s a de facto hostage all the time.”

Hariri isn’t hanging shirtless by shackled arms off a dungeon wall in Riyadh, nor are interrogators beating his feet with rubber hoses. His interview sure looks like a hostage video, though.

For years I’ve been saying that it’s often impossible to predict what’s going to happen next in the Middle East because so much of what happens over there barely even makes any sense, and no one can predict things that don’t make any sense. I can comfortably say that nobody could have seen any of this coming a couple of weeks ago. Saudi Arabia doesn’t take foreigners hostage. That’s how the Iranian, Turkish and North Korean governments behave. Also, Hariri is a Saudi ally. He’s a secular liberal while they are medieval theocrats, but they have common interests and common enemies just like Americans and Saudis have common interests and common enemies despite sharing virtually zero moral or political values.

And when was the last time any country deposed and arrested the leader of another except at the end of a war? I can’t think of a single time it has ever happened in the modern era. At the very least, it’s extremely unusual, and doubly so since Hariri and Saudi Arabia are friends. Imagine the United States taking Britain’s Theresa May or Canada’s Justin Trudeau hostage. It’s absurd. If I read an article by Alex Jones alleging that it had happened, I’d scoff. Yet something very much like that may have actually just occurred in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. That’s how wacky the Middle East is.

If you’ve ever wondered why conspiracy theories are so popular in the region, well, here you go. Consider this episode Exhibit A.

How to Avoid a Nuclear War with North Korea

The LA-based Jewish Journal asked me to write an essay about how to avoid a nuclear war with North Korea. Here’s the first part.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between North and South Korea is often described as the most dangerous place in the world. It’s a no man’s land 160 miles long and 2 1/2-miles wide, wrapped with electrical fencing and laced with antipersonnel mines.

At the so-called Joint Security Area, North and South Korean soldiers stare holes through each other, with the South Koreans behind reflective sunglasses. Almost 30,000 American troops are stationed there as a tripwire. If the North invades the South — as it has in the past and for more than five decades has sworn to do again — its soldiers will have to go through ours. You can go there today as a tourist from the South Korean side, a mere 35 miles from the capital Seoul, and nothing is likely to happen to you; but if war breaks out, this place will explode so catastrophically it will make the Iraq War look and feel like a lazy afternoon nap.

In mountainsides just north of the DMZ, the North has buried thousands of artillery pieces that can pound Seoul’s urban area, home to more than 25 million people, with as many as half a million shells in an hour. More than a million people could be killed, practically in an instant, even if nobody on either side uses nuclear weapons.

We haven’t been this close to total war with North Korea since the 1950s.

The North’s tyrant leader, Kim Jong Un, has dozens of atomic bombs (no one is entirely sure of how many) and claims he’s ready to test an exponentially more destructive hydrogen bomb. And for the first time ever, his intercontinental ballistic missiles may be capable of striking mainland United States.

The North Korean missile crisis, which these days feels like the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion, already has taken us well beyond the most dangerous threshold. North Korea isn’t an aspiring nuclear power. It already has arrived. Kim can kill as many American civilians in cities from Seattle to Chicago as he can in Seoul. It is too late to stop him. During a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania in late September, retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander in Europe, said he believes there is a 10 percent chance of a nuclear war breaking out between the United States and North Korea, and a 20-30 percent chance of them engaging in a conventional war.

Kim also has a massive stockpile of chemical weapons and has proven that he’s willing to use them. In February, two young women — one from Vietnam, the other from Indonesia — assassinated his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in the international airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with the ultratoxic VX nerve agent.

South Korea and Malaysia have accused North Korea of being behind the killing. If that was the case, Kim removed a potential rival, reminded the entire world that he has chemical as well as nuclear weapons, and demonstrated to all that he’s willing to use them. And if he’s willing to use them against his own family, what’s stopping him from using them to kill complete strangers in the United States, Japan and South Korea?

In 1994, North Korea committed itself on paper to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the so-called Agreed Framework between Pyongyang and Washington, agreeing to replace its nuclear power infrastructure with light-water reactors that couldn’t be used to produce nuclear weapons. In exchange, President Bill Clinton’s administration agreed to deliver half a million tons of heavy oil each year. The purpose was to prevent North Korea from building nuclear weapons without going to war. It failed.

A Gallup poll released in September found that 58 percent of Americans favor military action against North Korea if diplomatic options continue to fail, including 37 percent of Democrats. The United States absolutely could mount a preventive war against North Korea and would certainly win. Let there be no doubt about that. Let there be no doubt also that the cost would amount to a textbook example of a Pyrrhic victory, where the price of victory would be so high that it would be indistinguishable from outright losing.

Millions could die in South Korea alone, mostly in and around Seoul. Hundreds of thousands could die in Japan, too, if Kim, in a fit of malicious pique, nuked the Japanese. There’s no telling how many would die on the northern side of the Korean border. That would depend, in part, on whether the United States used nuclear weapons. And we might as well write off most of the 30,000 American troops stationed near the DMZ as potentially lost right at the outset.

Read the rest here.

Hezbollah Consolidates Its Stranglehold Over Lebanon

Saad Hariri resigned his post as Lebanon’s prime minister, citing an assassination plot brewing against him, presumably from his former government coalition partner Hezbollah. “Wherever Iran settles,” he said in a televised speech, “it sows discord, devastation and destruction, proven by its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” Iran’s hands in the Middle East, he then said, “will be cut off.” He delivered that speech and resignation not from Beirut but from Saudi Arabia.

In a sinister statement worthy of Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad himself, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, a long-time tool of Damascus, says he won’t accept Hariri’s resignation unless he returns to Beirut and hands it over in person.

Nobody really knows what’s going on there right now. Lebanon is one of the hardest countries in the world to make sense of sometimes, even for experts, because there are easily ten different versions of every event, nearly everyone lies, and your average Lebanese media organ is a tribal sectarian fusion of Breitbart, Alex Jones and Pravda. For instance, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah says the Saudis forced Hariri to step down, and the hysterical pro-Hezbollah news rag al-Akhbar goes even further and says Hariri is under house arrest in Riyadh, a story proven instantly false by the fact that Hariri is now in Abu Dhabi.

The Lebanese Army says it isn’t aware of any assassination plots inside the country. Hardly a credible statement. Hezbollah effectively controls Lebanon’s army now, and in 2011, an independent United Nations tribunal fingered Hezbollah for the assassination of Hariri’s father on February 14, 2005, with a gigantic bomb in the city center. Not even a damn fool would expect the army to say, yes, our masters are planning to retire yet another prime minister.

MP Samir Geagea says Hariri stepped down “because the government was not able to practice its authority as was expected of it…The developments of the past eight months left no room for someone to continue on respecting themselves.”

That is a credible statement, though Hariri should have known from the very beginning that he’d end up compromising himself, perhaps fatally, by agreeing to form a government with an Iranian-backed terrorist organization. He had no choice if he wanted the job, and reasonable people can understand how he might convince himself that he’d be a moderating force, but there was never a chance that that would pan out.

Hariri in the prime minister’s office was a band-aid on a sucking chest wound, but he’s a good guy with nothing remotely in common with the grim Iranian ayatollahs, the sour-faced kings in the gulf or the military dictators who erect billboards of themselves overseeing their subjects from behind reflective sunglasses.

I met him once when he invited me and some other journalists to his home in Beirut for dinner. (This was back before he became the prime minister the first time in 2009.) From the outside, his place looks like a medium-rise apartment tower on a dense urban street, but the entire building is his. We took an elevator up to the dining room, an opulent gilded cage. When he wanted to go out for dinner, he had to do it in France.

When he greeted me, he shook my hand and said, “hey, man, what’s up?” He drinks whiskey and plays Xbox. (At least he used to.) He wants peace with Israel even though he’s shy about saying so for reasons that I trust are obvious. He’s not even interested in absolute power for himself, though truthfully Lebanon would be in better shape if someone like him did have absolute power.

Lebanon, however, is the kind of place where no one can wield absolute power, not even Hezbollah, and not even Assad back when his army occupied most of the country. Lebanon has dozens of political parties, almost twenty different religious sects crammed together cheek by jowl in a space only half the size of miniscule Israel, pretty much every family is armed to the teeth, and few are shy about pulling the trigger to protect their communities. Hardly any other place in the world would be harder to transform into a hierarchical collective with a pyramid-shaped org chart and a dictator on top.

My conversation with Hariri was entirely off the record, so I can’t quote anything he said, but I will say this: the man is emphatically not part of the problem in the Middle East. And by “the problem,” you can fill in the blanks with whatever you want—terrorism, war, autocracy, religious bigotry, mass slaughter and all the rest of it. Hariri, like his father before him, is one of the precious few genuinely liberal political leaders the Middle East has ever produced.

And now he’s out. Again. The only thing surprising about the fact that he’s no longer Lebanon’s prime minister is that he was ever Lebanon’s prime minister in the first place.

He was basically just a figurehead, though, the friendly smiling face of a regime that is mortally compromised by Hezbollah, the amputated remnants of Syria’s Assad regime, and the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. He’s better off not surrendering his own moral and political legitimacy by refusing to collaborate with terrorists and mass murderers, and he’s doing the rest of us a favor, honestly, by exposing Lebanon’s government for what it truly is—the subject of a hostile takeover by malevolent foreign powers in Damascus and Tehran.

Is there really an assassination plot against Hariri? Is he just being paranoid? Or is that just a cover story while he’s actually resigning for another reason entirely? I have no idea. All three of those explanations are perfectly plausible.

What I do know is that Iran’s conquest and de-facto annexation is complete. And now that Hariri is out, Beirut isn’t wearing a mask anymore.

Putin Unveils Memorial to Victims of Soviet Repression, While His Own Repression Continues

On October 30—the day that had been unofficially marked in the Soviet Union as Political Prisoner Day and was later designated by Russia’s first post-Soviet parliament as the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression—a new monument was unveiled in downtown Moscow. Standing on the corner of the Garden Ring and Sakharov Avenue, the memorial—called the “Wall of Grief”—commemorates those who had perished at the hands of the totalitarian system and its repressive structures over the seven decades of communist rule. The stones for the memorial had been brought from former Gulag camps across Russia; the word “Remember” is written on it in 22 different languages; the faceless heads adorning the memorial symbolize tears. “This is an uncomfortable monument,” said its sculptor, Georgy Frangulyan. “It sends shivers down the spine.”

The unveiling of Russia’s first national memorial to the victims of communist terror was long overdue. It is astonishing that, 26 years after the end of Soviet rule, there was no such memorial honoring the millions of its victims.

Manafort Down

So much for the Bob Mueller investigation being a fake news witch hunt. Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, Manafort’s business partner Rick Gates, and former Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos have all been indicted.

Manafort and Gates are charged with concealing their work as agents of a foreign government, money laundering, and a number of additional crimes. Papadapolous just pled guilty for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials on behalf of the Trump campaign.

None of this means Trump himself is guilty of anything criminal, but he absolutely is guilty of terrible judgement. I confess to being unfamiliar with Manafort before the president hired him to manage his campaign last March, but I knew instantly and automatically that he was bad news for one simple reason—he spent years working for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the disgraced former strongman and Putin poodle overthrown during the Maidan Revolution and now living in exile in Russia.

The best that can be said for Americans who would work for a guy like that is that they’re amoral mercenaries with no sense of political decency and a high tolerance for thuggery and corruption. Sure, it’s possible to work cleanly and honestly for corrupt thugs without becoming corrupt yourself, but it’s also probably safe to say that most clean and honest people wouldn’t want to, and either way, Manafort, if he’s guilty—and keep in mind that there’s a 93 percent conviction rate in federal cases—didn’t pull it off or even try. He had a giant red flag next to his name long before Donald Trump hired him.

Trump didn’t see the red flag or, if he did, he ignored it.

His supporters insisted that it was okay that he had no political experience and knew next to nothing about foreign affairs because his advisors would help him out. The problem here is that he wasn’t—and isn’t—knowledgeable enough to properly vet his advisors. He actually didn’t know that hiring a whole batch of people with Kremlin ties—not just Manafort, Gates and Papadopoulos but also Mike Flynn and Carter Page—virtually guaranteed a whole raft of trouble for himself and the country.

Manafort is sucking up all the media oxygen right now—we all know who he is, and just about everybody but Trump has known he’s dirty for more than a year—but the indictment and guilty plea of foreign policy George Papadopoulos may prove more troublesome in the long run.

He lied about reaching out to a person named in the indictment, oddly enough, as “the professor,” a Kremlin-linked Russian national in an attempt to link the Trump campaign with Russian officials and even Vladimir Putin himself. The so-called professor told Papadopoulos that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and thousands of stolen emails. Papadopoulos sent an email to seven members of Donald Trump’s staff with the following text in the subject line: “Meeting with Russian Leadership - Including Putin.”

And the Washington Post reports that Papadopoulos is cooperating with the Mueller investigation, which generally means he’ll trade dirt on bigger fish, so to speak, for a more lenient sentence.

“Papadopolous is the big one,” former Bush administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter tweeted today. “Lesser charges but it is about collusion. And he is cooperating. Bad news for Trump.”

Indeed. This was never fake news, never a witch hunt. So far, it defines the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency more than anything else and will go down in history as such.

Overplaying Their Hand: The Kurds’ Referendum Debacle

The Iraqi Kurds have just announced that they're freezing the results of their independence referendum, which is bureaucratese for saying that they don't intend to act on it. Which, in turn, is another way of offering a ceasefire to the government troops that have displaced them from Kirkuk and environs. The Kurds gambled and lost. It seems they'd hoped that their western allies would come to their aid, but none did. This, despite loud protestations by sympathetic commentators in the West that the Kurds' loss was a victory for Iranian hegemony over Iraq—in particular, a victory for Iran's IRGC commander in the region, Qasim Suleimani. And even though the State Department denied any Iranian participation, it's unlikely that without Tehran's concrete intervention the Iraqis had the capability to overcome the Peshmerga so swiftly.

Trump Throws the Kurds to the Wolves

The one part of Iraq that was considered an unalloyed success until now is going to hell, and it’s partly Donald Trump’s fault.

Last month, voters in the Kurdish autonomous region chose overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq, which they’ve wanted to do since the day the country was forged in the ashes of the British Empire in Mesopotamia, and Israel was the only country in the entire world to support them. The United States said no. Europe said no. NATO said no. The hostile regimes in Iran, Syria, and Turkey said hell no, of course, as did Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.

Turkey closed the border and said the Kurds of Iraq will surrender or starve. Iran closed the border. Iraq sent in troops and grounded all flights into and out of Iraqi Kurdistan’s international airports.

Then Iranian-backed militias moved into the city of Kirkuk and clashed with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson engaged in an excruciating display of both-siderism, as if fighting had just broken out between Britain and France rather than between America’s best friends in the region and its worst enemy.

“We are concerned and a bit sad,” Tillerson said. “We have friends in Baghdad and friends in Erbil and we encourage all parties to enter into discussion.”

Najmaldin Karim, the democratically elected governor of Kirkuk Goverornate, fled in the night to escape the wrath of Iranian militias. “If I go back,” he told Eli Lake at Bloomberg, “my life is in danger. Even the night when all this happened, I had to maneuver carefully to go to safety.”

Iraq’s central government is not an enemy of the United States, but it’s not a friend either. It is aligned with Iran, and its so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, with its flag that riffs on the Hezbollah logo, includes militias explicitly backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the patron and armorer of terrorist organizations stretching from Beirut through Damascus to Baghdad. As Michael Weiss aptly put it at CNN, “Nothing better illustrates the incoherence of America's stance in the Middle East than the fact that it turned out to be on the same side as Major General Qasem Soleimani, who occupies a status within US intelligence circles somewhere between Professor Moriarty and Darth Vader.”

Conservatives howled when President Barack Obama gave air cover to Iranian-backed militias in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. They had a point, since Iran is an avowed enemy of the United States. The Obama administration had a point too, though, of course, since ISIS, and not Iran, was busy massacring people all over the world, including in Europe and the United States. One could argue that a rising nuclear power like Iran is ultimately more dangerous than a bunch of yahoos in the desert riding around in pickup trucks even if they can also manage to shoot people by the dozens in places like Orlando and Paris. One could just as easily argue in favor of dealing with ISIS first and Iran second, since ISIS posed the most immediate threat that would only grow—and quickly—if its “caliphate” were allowed to stand unresisted. Even indirectly cooperating with one enemy against another is inherently controversial, inherently risky. It is also defensible, at times the best of bad options. A cogent case for each side of that argument can be made by the sharpest foreign policy minds in the world.

What’s never wise or defensible is siding with an enemy against an ally. Ostensibly, the Trump administration is playing the part of a neutral actor between Baghdad and Erbil. The problem with both-siderism, though, is that it implicitly favors the stronger side. How could it not? If one side is in the process of steamrolling the other, you’re at least tacitly accepting the final inevitable outcome if you stand aside and do nothing.

Barack Obama never backed Iranian militias against the Kurds of Iraq or stood neutral between them. He never took anyone’s side against the Kurds of Iraq. On the contrary, the United States entered the war against ISIS in Iraq on Obama’s watch at the precise moment ISIS declared war against Iraq’s Kurds.

The Kurds of Iraq absolutely, and for very good reasons, saw both the Bush and Obama administrations as their friends and allies, but Donald Trump is selling out and alienating the most pro-American people in the entire Middle East, first by banning them from even entering the United States, and now with this. For the first time in the history of the world, Kurdish people are protesting the United States, in Iraq’s Kurdish capital of Erbil and also in Nashville, Tennessee, where a large number of Kurdish-Americans live.

Foreign policy is hard work, and it’s often not easy to thread the needle between American values and American interests. Most of us are old enough to remember, though, when rewarding friends and punishing enemies was a no-brainer.

Canada Adopts Version of Magnitsky Law, Shuns Global Outlaws

It took six years of work, tireless public advocacy, and overcoming powerful interest groups—both within and without—but a crucial milestone was finally reached in Canada this week. On October 18, the country’s Governor General, Julie Payette, gave royal ascent to Public Bill S-226, the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, better known as the Magnitsky Law, making Canada only the third country in the world to enact what should seem like a straightforward principle: that foreign government officials who abuse and steal from their citizens should not be allowed to take advantage of the freedom and opportunities of Western societies.

Turkey Is Behaving like an Enemy Now

Turkey, along with the American-Turkish relationship, is going so far off the rails so quickly right now that there’s no chance you’re aware of everything that’s going on unless you track it professionally or get Google Alerts in your inbox.

Where to even begin? We could start, I suppose, with the fact that a Turkish court sentenced a Wall Street Journal reporter to two years in prison in absentia for “promoting a terrorist organization.” Her real crime? Interviewing and quoting members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). In other words, for doing her job.

The reporter, Ayla Albayrak, is in the United States now, so President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can’t get his grubby mitts on her, but let this be a lesson to all journalists who write about Turkey. You can and will be sentenced to prison.

Whether or not you’re a journalist, Americans can be sentenced to prison just for existing in Turkey. Last year, the government arrested and imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has lived there for decades, on bogus terrorism charges. He is being warehoused along with thousands of other innocent people for allegedly associating themselves with Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric and former Erdogan ally who is currently living in exile in rural Pennsylvania and blamed for the botched military coup last summer.

Lest you believe these people might actually be guilty of something, consider this: A NASA scientist is also currently jailed there. The authorities arrested him while he was visiting on vacation. The evidence against him? Having an account at a bank supposedly “linked” to Gulen, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean, and for having a one-dollar bill in his pocket, which is supposedly how Gulenists identify themselves to each other.

These are just three of the individuals gratuitously punished by the regime. There are tens of thousands more who have been purged from their jobs, imprisoned or both.

If you’ve ever seriously wondered if political leaders who wallow in conspiracy theories are dangerous or simply exasperating, look no farther than Erdogan. Conspiracy theorists who manage to bend a state to their will are capable of inflicting extraordinary amounts of destruction on a virtually limitless number of people.

I have reported from police states in the past. I risked deportation for doing so, not imprisonment, even in communist countries. When it comes to the treatment of journalists, the Turkish government is more oppressive even than China’s or Cuba’s. Turkey has in fact jailed more journalists than any other country in the entire world. Erdogan says they’re all terrorists. Probably none of them are. Being branded a terrorist in Turkey is only faintly more plausible than being fingered a witch in Salem, Massachusetts, 300 years ago.

On the off chance that you aren’t quite convinced, the director of Amnesty International in Turkey is also facing 15 years in prison on terrorism charges.

Meanwhile, an employee at the US Consulate in Istanbul was arrested for “facilitating the escape” of some “Gulenists.” The United States government responded by refusing to issue non-immigrant visas to anybody from Turkey, and the Turkish government responded in kind. So if you’re an American planning on visiting Turkey any time soon on business or as a tourist, sorry. You can’t.

Under current conditions, you probably shouldn’t go anyway. Turkey is holding a number of Americans hostage and isn’t shy about admitting that they are hostages. “Give us the pastor back,” Erdogan himself said last month. “You have one pastor as well. Give him (Gulen) to us. Then we will try him (Brunson) and give him to you…The (pastor) we have is on trial. Yours is not - he is living in Pennsylvania. You can give him easily. You can give him right away.”

Needless to say, this is not how a NATO ally is supposed to behave. Taking hostages is an act of war. It’s what Iran does. It’s what North Korea does. It’s what Hezbollah does. It is not what genuine allies like the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Germany do.

Erdogan is not going to settle down if the United States doesn’t deport Gulen, which Washington refuses to do as there is scant evidence that the exile had anything to do with last year’s coup attempt and reams of evidence that the old man couldn’t possibly get a fair trial if he were shipped back to Ankara even with the best lawyers on earth. Erdogan probably won’t settle down even if he does manage to throw Gulen into a dungeon or onto the executioner’s chopping block. Stalin didn’t settle down after one of his goons dispatched his rival Leon Trotsky with an ice axe in Mexico City, nor did the Ayatollah Khomeini settle down after the Shah Reza Pahlavi died from cancer in the United States in 1980. Authoritarian conspiracy theorists are never sated. They can only be resisted until they are overthrown or in the ground.

Turkey is still in NATO. We’ll see if that lasts much longer.

The Trump Administration Just Stabbed the Kurds in the Front

On September 22, the Kurds in Erbil, Suleimaniyah, Dohuk and Kirkuk voted overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq.

This has been a long time coming. With 28 million people, the Kurds are the largest stateless people on earth, their “nation” parceled out in pieces to despotic governments in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Roughly six million of them live in Iraq. The central government under Saddam Hussein’s genocidal regime murdered them by the hundreds of thousands with conventional and chemical weapons. After Saddam’s regime was demolished, the Kurds effectively retreated from the rest of Iraq and built the only properly functioning region in the country while the rest consumed itself in blood and fire.

They are the most staunchly pro-American and anti-Islamist people in the entire region by far and were, for a time, the only ones truly willing and able to take on ISIS and win. None of the Iraqi Kurdish parties and movements are terrorists. On the contrary, of the three largest ethno-religious groups in the country, the Kurds are the only ones who consistently resist terrorism in all its forms everywhere—not just in Iraq but everywhere else in the world.

Yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says their independence referendum is illegitimate.  “The vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” he said.

What garbage.

Roughly three million people voted, and 92 percent of them chose independence. That number cannot be rigged. I visited Kurdistan four times during the war and never met a single person there who wished to remain in Iraq. Only foreigners refer to their part of the country as “Northern Iraq” rather than “Kurdistan.” You’re all but guaranteed to be chastised if you refer to the place as “Iraq” within earshot of the locals. Rigging an independence vote in such an environment makes about as much sense as the Democrats in the United States rigging an election against the Republicans in San Francisco. What on earth would be the point? If anything, a 92 percent “yes” vote is low, and it’s only that “low” because the ethnically mixed Kirkuk Governate was included this time around.

Kurdistan is a nation in all but name while Iraq is a nation in name only. Iraq isn’t really even a country. It’s a map and a geographic abstraction. Baghdad, from the Kurds’ point of view, is a foreign capital home to terrorists, deranged militias, dictators and war criminals.

If Middle Easterners drew their own borders rather than French and British imperialists, Iraq wouldn’t even exist. (Nor would Syria, for that matter.) The yearning for an independent Kurdistan dates back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I, roughly the same time Arab and Turkish nationalisms were born. Back then, the League of Nations promised Kurdish autonomy, but they were cruelly shackled to Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, three of which went on to produce mass-murdering totalitarian regimes and terrorists armies. Of course the Kurds want out. Under what theory would they want to stay? Saying their referendum on the question isn’t legitimate, as Rex Tillerson does, is a despicable lie made doubly despicable by the fact that the Kurds are our friends.

Their enemies, predictably, are turning the screws. Iran ordered a fuel embargo, Iraq’s federal government is closing the borders with all flights into and out of international airports in Erbil and Suleimaniyah grounded by the Civil Aviation Authority. If you’re willing to visit or work in Iraqi Kurdistan because it’s far safer than the rest of the country (and it is), you’re out of luck. Now you’ll have to travel through Baghdad and risk a run-in with the head-choppers. Turkey has also halted fuel shipments, is threatening military intervention, and its deranged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says blocking Kurdish independence in Iraq is “a matter of survival.”

Iraqi Kurdistan does not threaten anybody’s survival. Iraq’s Kurds have never invaded anybody, have no interest in invading anybody, and have never supported terrorists or militias on anyone else’s territory, and especially not on their own.

No other group of people in the entire world gets blockaded this way for declaring independence—not the South Ossetians or the Abkhaz in Georgia, the Crimeans in Ukraine, the Albanians in Kosovo or anyone else. Only the Kurds get treated this way, because their part of the world is even more wretched than the post-Soviet space. They’re getting kicked in the stomach by their belligerent neighbors—again—and Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson are siding with the belligerents, none of which are true friends and one of which is an enemy.

Yes, backing Kurdish independence would make life more complicated for the United States in the Middle East than it already is. Even so, how small the United States has become since the days of the Cold War. When the colossal Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin in an attempt to snuff out the small Western enclave, the Truman Administration launched the Berlin Airlift and delivered millions of tons of cargo—food, medicine, fuel—over the course of a year.

Backing Kurdish independence wouldn’t require anything like the Berlin Airlift. Turkey, for all its faults, is not Soviet Russia. It’s not a superpower, it’s a regional power. It isn’t interested in conquering the world. It can’t blow up the planet or fight long foreign wars far from its borders. It is not attempting in starve Kurdistan out and couldn’t even if it wanted to. On the contrary,Turkey has had good relations with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government now for almost ten years. It could choose, with a bit of pressure from the United States and from Europe, to maintain those good relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government if it’s sovereign rather than simply autonomous. It’s the same entity regardless, and it’s already de-facto sovereign.

Either way, the Kurds are far better friends of the United States than Turkey or Iraq ever have been or ever will be.

Foreign Affairs magazine editor Gideon Rose and French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy debated this question on CNN last weekend. Rose backs what he called a “realist” anti-Kurdish foreign policy while the “idealist” Henri-Levi supports them. One could just as easily make a “realist” case for the Kurds. By punishing our friends and taking the sides of enemies and non-friends, the mathematically predictable result is the empowerment of our enemies at the expense of our friends—the inverse of what foreign policy is supposed to accomplish.

To be sure, Turkey is part of the NATO alliance while the Kurds aren’t, so Turkey counts as a “friend” in that sense, but as I argued last week, if Turkey weren’t already in NATO, it would not be admitted. Not only is it threatening our allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, its forging closer ties with Iran and Russia and purchasing a missile defense system from Moscow. Until recently, it effectively supported ISIS in Syria. Turkey is a second-class member at best and needs to be treated accordingly. If it can’t handle Americans pursuing American values and American interests, it is welcome to leave.

Part of the problem here, I suspect, is Trump’s disgraced former national security advisor Mike Flynn, who worked as a paid foreign agent for Turkey even after he joined the Trump campaign. He was Trump’s Rasputin for a while, when Trump was still a blank slate. I can’t say for certain what he told Trump about Turkey and its increasingly creepy and hostile President Erdogan, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that he didn’t tell his boss that backing the Kurds is in America’s interests. We know that Flynn opposed the Obama administration’s arming of the Kurds in Syria to fight ISIS because Erdogan didn’t like it, and he tried to delay the plan to retake the city of Raqqa from ISIS on Erdogan’s behalf. The Turks paid Flynn more than half a million dollars to lobby for their interests inside the Trump campaign and the White House.

As for Rex Tillerson, he probably isn’t corrupt. He was just busy running an oil company rather than studying up on the fraught dynamic between Arabs, Persians, Turks and Kurds in the Middle East.

Trump himself, meanwhile, boasts that Erdogan is his “friend” just like the previous occupant of the White House did. At least Erdogan hadn’t yet begun the Stalinist phase of his rule when Barack Obama foolishly trusted the wrong man in the region.

The White House almost certainly understands that a successful foreign policy rewards friends and punishes enemies, but the president can’t even get that right if he doesn’t know who his friends and enemies are.

Kurdistan is so unique in the Middle East that it almost seems to exist in some kind of alternate universe. It’s by far the most pro-American and pro-Western place in the region, even more so than Israel. (It is also, for what it’s worth, staunchly pro-Israel, which sets it even farther apart from its neighbors.) Over and over again I heard from its people, including government officials, that they want the United States to build permanent military bases there. I even heard, more than once, requests that Iraqi Kurdistan join the union as the 51st state. These people are more reliable allies even than Europeans, yet because people and nations that don’t like us—even hate us—want the Kurds to be kept under the boot, we’re going along with it.

“I ask Americans not to leave us,” Kurdish Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin Ahmad Ameen said to me in his office some years ago while most of Iraq was on fire. “From 1920 until now, we have been frustrated and disappointed by their pledges and promises. Eight times we have been disappointed. I ask the American people, do not make it nine.”

Sorry, Colonel. Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson and Mike Flynn just made it nine.

Ukraine’s Wounded Veterans Honored, a Nation is Inspired

The United Kingdom’s Prince Harry helped found the Invictus Games in 2014 as a way to pay tribute to the sacrifices made by the wounded and disabled veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and to make an example of their courage and determination. For the 2017 iteration of the Games an invitation was extended to Ukraine for the first time. The Ukrainian team of fifteen—plus eleven alternates—joined 550 athletes from 16 other nations for the third convocation of the Games, which were held in Toronto. While Ukraine—like all the invited nations—did take part in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of its team members were wounded in the ongoing war with Russia in eastern Ukraine.

After Years of Battling Nemtsov, the Kremlin Battles His Memory

For more than two years now, anyone walking across Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge—steps away from Moscow’s iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral and a few hundred yards from the Kremlin wall—passes by a small makeshift memorial made of a few buckets with fresh flowers by the sidewalk, handwritten posters, candles, Orthodox icons. A confident man smiling from the photographs. This is the spot where, on the night of February 27, 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down, five bullets to his back, by an Interior Ministry officer subordinate to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin’s man in Chechnya. While the hired guns have been convicted, no one is really pretending to look higher up the chain of command.

The First Book in the Resurrection Series is Now Free

My new book, Into the Wasteland, is officially released today and, for a limited time, the first book in the Resurrection series is now free at all online retailers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and iTunes. (The electronic edition of the sequel is only 5.99.)

Here’s the description from the back of the book:

Welcome to a world turned to ashes.

Annie Starling is missing her memory of the last eight weeks—the most devastating in history. It started in Russia and went global in a matter of days, the most virulent virus the world has ever known. It’s stripping its victims of every last thing that makes them human. And that’s just the beginning. The other survivors are no less dangerous than the infected.

She meets Lane, who stops at nothing to assert power and control over everybody who’s left; Kyle, who dreams of building a new world upon the ruins of the old; Hughes, who lost the ability to feel after burying his family; and Parker, who threatens to tear himself and his companions apart.

And when her memories finally return, Annie discovers a terrifying secret that could change everything—but she can’t tell a soul what it is.


Praise for Resurrection

“For fans of World War Z and The Walking Dead, Michael J. Totten's Resurrection is the novel you've been waiting for.” – Scott William Carter, author of Ghost Detective

“In the tradition of The Walking Dead, Michael J. Totten delivers a must-read with Resurrection. Action packed with a wicked twist, this is one book I couldn't put down.” —Annie Reed, author of The Patient Z Files

Resurrection dragged me in from the first page, with fast-paced, suspense-filled action and multi-layered and totally believable characters. Painting a vivid and gritty picture of a post-apocalyptic Northwest, Totten puts us into the minds and emotional struggles of a group of mismatched survivors forced to band together for protection even when they're on the verge or ripping each other apart. He also wrote one of the scariest passages I've read in any horror or suspense story...so be warned if you’re afraid of the dark, or water, or both.” – JC Andrijeski, author of Rook

The Black Sheep of NATO

It was made abundantly clear last week in Philadelphia, of all places, that NATO is being undermined from within and lacks the will to defend its own values and interests.

I flew to Philadelphia to speak to visiting members of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly at a foreign policy conference organized by the Middle East Forum, where I am a fellow. Most of the event was off the record, but the final portion was not, and that’s when the news broke.

First, a bit of background. Rumi Forum President Emre Çelik was supposed to be on my panel, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office in Ankara demanded we disinvite him or his delegation wouldn’t attend. Çelik is part of the intellectual movement led by Fethullah Gülen, a former Erdogan ally currently exiled in rural Pennsylvania. Erdogan blames Gülen and his followers for the botched military coup last summer and has since purged and imprisoned tens of thousands of people, including journalists as well as government officials and military officers. Çelik couldn’t sit next to me on a panel in Philadelphia because Ankara—on the other side of the world—declared him an enemy of the state and a terrorist.

I know little about Çelik personally and had no idea what he was planning to say, yet I expected to be a bit skeptical. He’s not on Team Erdogan—that’s clear—but the Gülenist movement isn’t composed of Jeffersonian democrats either. In City Journal, Claire Berlinski expertly exposed Gülen as an authoritarian thug masquerading as a moderate. Lest there be any doubt about that, until a few years ago, the Gülenists were part of Erdogan’s authoritarian coalition, making Gülen Turkey’s Leon Trotsky, if you will.

Even so, I didn’t mind being scheduled to sit next to Çelik and hear him out, but Turkish government officials reacted like campus snowflakes who were about to be forced, Clockwork Orange-style, to sit and listen to a speech by Ann Coulter.

MEF President Daniel Pipes wouldn’t stand for it, so he ostensibly disinvited Çelik, then sprung him on the NATO conference goers at the last minute. The Turkish delegation pitched a fit and stormed out. What happened next, though, was worse. The entire NATO delegation, in solidarity with their Turkish colleagues, also walked out of the conference.

So a dictator in Asia used the heckler’s veto against a dissident in America, a five-minute walk from the Museum of the American Revolution, and our European allies let him get away with it. The remaining guests in Philadelphia, though, almost all them Americans, gave Çelik a standing ovation.

Declaring this unacceptable doesn’t quite say it. NATO is Western Civilization’s military alliance. Turkey is not part of the West. It does not share our values, not really, nor does it share our interests any longer. It’s threatening military action against our friends in Iraqi Kurdistan, forging closer ties with Iran and Russia, and purchasing a missile defense system from Moscow. Until recently, it effectively supported ISIS in Syria.

If Turkey weren’t already in NATO, it would not be admitted. We might as well admit Venezuela, Cuba and Belarus if Turkey fits the bill. We are not going to kick the Turks out, though, nor should we, tempting as it may be. We’re going to have to deal with them either way, and we’ll get better results if we do so within a friendly framework than with them on the outside where they’d feel compelled to snuggle up to Moscow and Tehran even more than they already have.

It made perfect sense to bring Turkey into the Western alliance when the Soviet Union strode like a colossus over half of Europe, but it’s grandfathered in at this point, a second-class member, and needs to be treated accordingly. Virtually no Western government seems to grasp this, however, not even the American government, and not even the Trump administration. Last week, Donald Trump called Erdogan a “friend,” boasted that the Turkish dictator gets “very high marks,” and allegedly apologized to Erdogan personally for the fact that members of his security detail were indicted for beating up Kurdish protesters on a public sidewalk in Washington, DC.

Alas, the only Western head of state willing to take on Erdogan publicly and personally is German Chancellor Angela Merkel who, earlier this month, said Turkey has no chance of ever joining the European Union. It’s not the same as downgrading Turkey’s status in NATO, but it’s a start.

New book release – the sequel to Resurrection

Into the Wasteland, the sequel to Resurrection, is now available for pre-order in Amazon’s Kindle store. If you order your copy today, it will be delivered to your device automatically next Thursday, September 28.

A trade paperback edition will also be available next week, as will electronic editions for Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Sony e-reader, etc.

Here’s the back jacket copy:

In the sequel to Resurrection, as Parker, Annie, Kyle and Hughes begin their journey across a shattered and empty continent, Parker spins into a psychological abyss of post-traumatic stress, and the feud between him and Kyle hurtles toward a dangerous tipping point.

They find a small seemingly friendly city near Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, so isolated that it survived the plague nearly intact. But all is not as it seems, and when residents of the town discover Annie’s secret at the same time the infected reappear with a terrifying ferocity, the fate of all survivors—the entire human race—hangs in the balance.

“Riveting! Nail biting! A couldn't-put-down read that kept this Walking Dead fan on the edge of her seat.” – Annie Reed, author of The Patient Z Files

Critical praise for Resurrection:

“For fans of World War Z and The Walking Dead, Michael J. Totten's Resurrection is the novel you've been waiting for.” – Scott William Carter, author of Ghost Detective

Resurrection dragged me in from the first page, with fast-paced, suspense-filled action and multi-layered and totally believable characters. Painting a vivid and gritty picture of a post-apocalyptic Northwest, Totten puts us into the minds and emotional struggles of a group of mismatched survivors forced to band together for protection even when they're on the verge or ripping each other apart. He also wrote one of the scariest passages I've read in any horror or suspense story...so be warned if you’re afraid of the dark, or water, or both.” – JC Andrijeski, author of Rook

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