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The Kurds Are About to Blow Up Iraq

Next month, on September 25, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil will hold a binding referendum on whether or not to secede from Iraq. It will almost certainly pass. More than a decade ago, the Kurds held a non-binding referendum that passed with  99.8 percent of the vote.

No one knows what’s going to happen. Iraq is the kind of place where just about anything can happen and eventually does.

Kurdish secession could go as smoothly as a Scottish secession from the United Kingdom (were that to actually happen) or a Quebecois secession from Canada, were that to actually happen. It could unfold like Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, where some countries recognize it and others don’t while the Serbs are left to stew in their own juices more or less peaceably.

This is a serious business, though, because Iraq is not Britain, and it is not Canada. And there’s a potential flashpoint that travelers to the region would be well advised to stay away from for a while.

Shortly after ISIS invaded Iraq from Syria in 2014, the Kurdistan Regional Government effectively annexed the oil-rich governate of Kirkuk. Ethnic Kurds made up a plurality of the population, with sizeable Arab and Turkmen minorities, before Saddam Hussein’s Arabization program in the 1990s temporarily created an artificial Arab majority. Since then, Kurds have been returning to the city en masse while many Arabs, most of whom had no history in the region before Saddam put them there, have left. No one really knows what the demographics look like now.

It’s a tinderbox regardless of the actual headcount. Some of the Arabs who still live there could mount a rebellion at some point, either immediately or down the road. If they do, they might engage in the regional sport of finagling financial and even military backing from neighboring countries.

Then again, Arabs have been trickling north into the Kurdistan region for years because it’s peaceful and quiet and civilized. It’s the one part of Iraq that, despite the local government’s corruption and inability to live up to the democratic norms it claims to espouse, works remarkably well.

I’ve been to Iraqi Kurdistan a number of times. It’s safer than Kansas. My only real complaint is that it gets a bit boring after a while. If you’re coming from Baghdad or Mosul, it’s practically Switzerland.

Kirkuk Governate, though, is—or at least recently was—another story. The three “core” Kurdish governates—Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleimaniyah—have been free of armed conflict since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but Kirkuk was down in the war zone. I went there ten years ago from Suleimaniyah and was only willing to do so under the armed protection of Kurdish police officers. Had I wandered around solo as I did farther north, I would have risked being shot, kidnapped or car-bombed. I still could have been shot or car-bombed alongside the police, but at least kidnapping was (mostly) off the table. The very fact that Kirkuk was a war zone at a time when the Kurdish governates to the north were not suggests that the Kurds may be swallowing more than they can digest.  

Kirkuk has oil, though, while the governates to the north mostly don’t, so of course the Kurds want it. Baghdad, of course, wants to keep it for the same reason. Will Iraq’s central government go to war over it? Probably not. Saddam Hussein lost his own war against the Kurds in the north, and he had far more formidable forces at his disposal than Baghdad does now. Still, it’s more likely than a war between London and Edinburgh, or between Ottawa and Montreal.

The biggest threat to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan comes not from Baghdad but from Turkey. The Turks have been fighting a low-grade counter-insurgency against the armed Kurdish separatists of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since the 1970s that has killed tens of thousands of people, and they’re deathly afraid that a free and independent Kurdish state anywhere in the world will both embolden and assist their internal enemies.

While Turkey is no longer likely to invade Iraqi Kurdistan on general principle if it declares independence—a going concern shortly after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—the Turkish government is making it clear that it is supremely unhappy with the KRG including Kirkuk in its referendum. “What really concerned us,” a spokesperson for Turkey’s president said in June of this year, “was that Kurdish leaders want to include Kirkuk in this process while according to the Iraqi constitution Kirkuk is an Iraqi city and is not within Kurdish boundaries … If any attempts will be made to forcefully include Kirkuk in the referendum question, problems will be made for Kirkuk and its surrounding areas.”

One can sympathize with Turkey’s fears. The Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party is, without question, a terrorist organization. Even so, nations have a right to exist even if they are inconvenient to Turkey—especially considering that Iraq’s Kurds are not terrorists.

Rather than terrorists, Iraq’s Kurds are America’s only reliable allies in the entire country. They’re as pro-American as Texans, they’re the only ones who didn’t take shots at us during and after the overthrow of Saddam, and they were, for a time anyway, the only ones willing and capable of taking on ISIS directly and winning. They do not align themselves with Iranian-backed militias as the central government in Baghdad does, and they certainly aren’t on side with Hezbollah and the Kremlin like the Syrian government. They are as allergic to political Islamism as Americans are. They view it, with some justification, as an alien export from the Arab world.

The Trump administration opposes Kurdistan’s bid for independence. It could, says the White House, be “significantly destabilizing.” Perhaps. But it’s a bit rich for Americans, of all people, to say no to people who want to break away from a country that smothered them beneath a totalitarian regime, waged a genocidal extermination campaign against them, and then convulsed in bloody mayhem for more than a decade. We Americans mounted a revolution for our own independence against a government far more liberal and enlightened than Iraq’s. And we support at least the notion of a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli state, the only properly functioning democracy in the entire region, despite the fact that the Palestinians have mounted one terrorist campaign after another for their own independence while the Kurds of Iraq never have.

An independent Iraqi Kurdistan is far more likely to be stable with American backing than without it, but the Kurds are going forward regardless. As Jack Nicholson’s character Frank Costello said in Martin Scorsese’s scorching film, The Departed, “no one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

The August Vote That Changed Russia’s History

If anyone had told members of Russia’s lower house of parliament on August 16, 1999 that the vote they were about to take would shape events in their country and much of the world for the next two decades, they would have been very surprised. A week earlier, President Yeltsin had dismissed Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and nominated Russia’s domestic security chief to take his place; the extraordinary session of the Duma was called in the midst of the August recess to consider the nomination. The candidate’s name was Vladimir Putin, and he was little-known even to many in the establishment, let alone the public at large. Yeltsin’s announcement that he would like to see the premier-designate succeed him in the Kremlin was met with ridicule.

North Korea Leaves Us With Only One Good Option

Twenty-eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States once again faces the real possibility of nuclear war with a communist state. Because as of this week, American intelligence agencies believe North Korea has developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can be squeezed into one of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The intelligence is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure—if North Korea can’t nuke the United States now, it will be able to soon enough. Sanctions won’t convince Kim Jong-Un to give up his arsenal, nor will pressure from China. Becoming a nuclear power is an existential issue for him after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi, which leaves the United States with only one option.

That option is obvious if we game everything out. Last month, Mark Bowden wrote a sobering essay in The Atlantic as long as an epic poem where he carefully examines four basic options, all of which are terrible: prevention, turning the screws, decapitation and acceptance.

There are actually seven options rather than four, but we’ll get to the other three later. First, let’s look at Bowden’s.

And let’s start with, prevention, which he defines as “a crushing U.S. military strike to eliminate Pyongyang’s arsenals of mass destruction, take out its leadership, and destroy its military.” We’d win the war. No question about it. The United States military is capable of destroying anything it puts in its crosshairs. But North Korea will fight back as surely as any other country under attack would fight back. Millions would die, and they’d die within weeks, days, possibly even hours. Kim has thousands of artillery pieces buried in mountains and hillsides that could destroy South Korea’s capital Seoul as effectively as a volcano erupting right underneath it. Even if Kim doesn’t touch his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, more people could be killed on a per-day basis than during any other war ever fought. A full-blown Korean war would be, as Bowden says, one of the greatest catastrophes in human history.

We could try turning the screws, so to speak, with limited pinprick strikes that fall far short of all-out war. The North Korean regime, though, is famously paranoid and could easily perceive a limited strike as the opening salvo of a regime-change operation and, if so, would respond with an all-out attack of its own. And if Kim did realize that nothing more than pinprick strikes were coming his way, the odds that they’d be effective are negligible. We’re not sure where his stockpiles are, we can’t erase the scientific knowledge his government already has, and bombing him is as likely as not to make him even more committed than he already is.

Decapitation—assassinating Kim and the leadership circle around him while sparing everyone else—is a lot more appealing and seems a lot less dangerous. The problem is that we’d have to recruit inside help, which is nearly impossible, and in any case his military is already under orders to ignite a total war if we try. Even if it did work, Kim’s replacement could be more paranoid and belligerent, and removing the next guy would be even harder.

Bowden’s fourth option is acceptance. (And keep in mind that accepting something isn’t the same thing as liking it.) If the cost of stopping North Korea from becoming a world-class nuclear power is catastrophically high, some form of acceptance may be all that remains. The cost of acceptance, though, may also be catastrophically high.

Russia and China have been capable of striking the United States with nuclear weapons for decades now, but hardly anyone has been losing much sleep over it since Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. Kim Jong-Un is no Gorbachev, though. He rules as brutally at home as the Soviet Union’s worst tyrant Josef Stalin did, and he seems as comfortable with brinkmanship as Saddam Hussein was—a terrifying combination. He is already capable of killing millions in Seoul and thousands of American soldiers stationed along the so-called demilitarized zone on the border. Soon enough, he’ll be able to do the same to Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Washington.

Asking Americans to accept this is like asking us to swallow razor blades while maniacs hold guns to the heads of our friends. We don’t have to swallow anything, but our friends will get their brains blown out if we don’t. We don’t have to accept North Korea as a nuclear power, but millions of people will die if we don’t, including thousands of ours.

There are three more options available, though, starting with this: The United States could threaten to nuke North Korea and hope Kim stands down. Mark Bowden and the military and foreign policy professionals he consulted didn’t consider that as a serious option for reasons that are probably obvious. Barack Obama never would have done it, nor would George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter certainly wouldn’t have done it. But they seem to have forgotten who currently works in the White House.

Donald Trump effectively did it on Tuesday when he said, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” What is that if not a threat to drop a hydrogen bomb on top of Pyongyang?

It might work, but we’d better not count on it. All Kim has to do is threaten the United States one more time, and if Trump doesn’t enforce his own red line, Kim will know it’s a bluff. He probably already knows it’s a bluff because the State Department has already dialed it down. “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said within hours of the president’s threat, “would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

If bluffing North Korea doesn’t work, the United States could actually nuke North Korea. Whether the US military would obey an order to pre-emptively use nuclear weapons against another country is an open question. (And whether Congress would allow a president who gave such an order to remain in the White House is another.) We could speculate all day about the terrible consequences that would result from instantly killing tens of millions of people in the most violent moment of our species’ history. A man who would give such an order almost certainly wouldn’t correctly anticipate the convulsive reaction, both at home and abroad, that would result, or how history would remember him. No sober-minded foreign policy professional on any point on the political spectrum would ever recommend this course of action.

The final option is related to Bowden’s fourth option but a little less terrible. It starts with acceptance, but it doesn’t end there.

Think about it: why does Kim Jong-Un want nuclear weapons? He is not Osama bin Laden, and he is not ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He isn’t even Iran’s Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei. He doesn’t want to incinerate the United States any more than the Soviet Union did. He simply wants his regime to survive, and he’s already kept in check with something worse than Mutually Assured Destruction. John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev could have nuked us all into oblivion and brought about a planetwide near-extinction event, but this is not that bad. Kim will probably never be able to destroy every American city, but we can already kill every living thing, with the possible exception of a handful of cockroaches, inside North Korea.  

Mutually Assured Destruction would probably work, but it guarantees mutual perpetual angst. So let’s trade. We can give Kim what he wants and he can give us what we want. He just wants to survive. We want to live without a Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

The Korean War killed millions and only technically paused with an armistice agreement in 1953. It never formally ended. Rather, we have been enjoying a very long lull, one that has lasted longer than most of us have been alive. We’re all so accustomed to it that it seems like the natural order of things.

But it’s not. All wars eventually end, and they don’t have to end with regime-change. The Vietnam War wound down decades ago, and the United States has excellent relations with the same government we used to fight in Hanoi. The Vietnamese Communist Party reformed itself out of all recognition, for sure, but we settled that conflict years before it happened.

We could do the same thing in Korea. We could negotiate a formal end to the conflict and sign a mutual non-aggression pact. What do we have to lose? If the US were to start (or resume) a war on the Korean Peninsula, it could easily rank as the worst foreign policy decision in American history. It would be an even bigger mistake if Kim were to do it. So why not put it in writing?

The only reason Kim wants nuclear weapons is because, after Libya and Iraq, he doesn’t feel safe. The truth, though, is that he has been safe all along. The north’s hardened artillery pieces pointed at Seoul guaranteed his safety long before he took power. We will never send our army in there just because we don’t like him. His problem, and ours, is that he either doesn’t know it or doesn’t believe it.

In an ideal world, we’d take him out with a drone strike and watch the two Koreas unite like the two Germanys did after the Cold War. In the real world, Kim Jong-Un sits on top of a doomsday machine and we can’t remove him without setting it off. The question is, how do we want him to feel while he sits there? If we’re not going to take him out—and if we are, we should do it today, not tomorrow—far better for everyone’s sake if he feels secure enough not to turn himself into the world’s largest suicide bomber.

Enforcing the Travel Ban on Putin’s Deputy PM

The biography of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin reads like a guide to whatever is trending in Russian politics: a rising star in Communist Youth in late Soviet years; a defender of democracy at the White House barricades and cofounder of a liberal party in the early 1990s; a nationalist and imperialist firebrand from the mid-1990s as President Yeltsin’s policies became increasingly unpopular. With Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and the consolidation of authoritarian rule, Rogozin firmly allied himself with the Kremlin. Though he continued with nationalist rhetoric—speaking and throwing neo-Nazi salutes at far-right rallies—he has consistently defended Kremlin interests, whether as head of the Russian delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe or as leader of the hastily created Motherland bloc that was (successfully) designed to divert votes from the opposition in the 2003 parliamentary elections.

Russia Threatens Poland Over Decommunization

Just days after the Russian government accused the United States Congress of violating international law by imposing sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin is threatening Poland with sanctions if it pulls down Soviet World War II memorials. Vladimir Putin ought to be grateful that the Poles have let them stand as long as they have. Moscow built them to glorify and whitewash its brutal conquest in the ashes of the Third Reich, yet Warsaw has been free of Russian domination since 1989, more than a whole generation.  

Even after all these years, though, Poland is still in the process of decommunization—eradication of the political, psychological and physical detritus left behind by a totalitarian regime that rivaled only Nazi Germany in its brutality. Yet Russia’s foreign ministry, cribbing the language of political liberalism that it so despises, is accusing Poland of “Russophobia” and of belittling the Soviet Union’s role as a “liberator.”

Russians might even believe that they liberated Poland, but that’s only half true at best. Yes, they drove the Nazis from Poland, but only after first signing on to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact) that guaranteed Adolf Hitler’s annexation of the western half of the country. Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin turned on Hitler only in 1941 after the Wehrmacht blitzkrieged through Soviet-occupied Poland all the way to the outskirts of Leningrad. After defeating the Nazis, Stalin imposed his own ghastly Russian-made totalitarian system on Poland in its place, complete with secret police, the persecution of dissidents, show trials, the execution of political prisoners, the nationalization of private industry, a botched collectivization of agriculture and all the rest of it.

Imagine if, after the United States invaded Iraq, George W. Bush replaced Saddam Hussein’s mass-murdering regime with a mass-murdering Washington puppet and erected statues of himself in Baghdad. Imagine also that the brutal Bush-installed tyranny lasted half a century before the Iraqis finally squirmed out from beneath it. How do you think the Iraqis would feel about the United States, and about Bush in particular, had this happened? And how do you suppose the Iraqis would feel if the United States then threatened them with sanctions for toppling a hated statue of W?

At least the Russians had enough sense not to put up statues of Stalin himself. Instead they installed a statue of his predeccesor Vladimir Lenin in Krakow.

Poland doesn’t have to tear down the Soviet monuments to effectively decommunize its own landscape. Hungary, for instance, moved some of its own Soviet-era garbage scuptures into a place called Memento Park in Budapest and turned it into a tourist attraction. "This park is about dictatorship,” architect Ákos Eleőd said. “And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”

This isn’t the first Soviet statue controversy in Poland. The Warsaw government temporarily took down the Monument to Brothers in Arms (pictured above) in 2010 to make way for a construction project, and its removal was made permanent when residents who live nearby complained that it constantly reminded them of the communist era. The Russian government complained, of course, but they really howled in 2013 when Jerzy Bohdan Szumczyk erected a statue in Gdansk showing a Russian Red Army soldier raping a Polish woman. He did it without permission, and the police removed it just a few hours later. Even many Poles found that statue outrageous. The Kremlin’s response, though, tells us everything we need to know about how Russia views its former vassals. Russia’s then-ambassador said Szumczyk “defiled by his pseudo-art the memory of 600,000 Soviet servicemen who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom and the independence of Poland.”

The freedom and independence of Poland? In 1945? Poland wasn’t free and independent until nearly a half-century later, until the regime in Moscow that “liberated” Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe finally began to circle the drain.  

The ambassador might be able to fool Russian schoolchildren who don’t know any better into believing this kind of ahistorical absurdity, but nobody in Poland is going to buy it. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is as committed to lies as was Soviet Russia when George Orwell masterfully exposed it in his allegorical novel, 1984. Soviet troops died for freedom in Poland? Sure, and war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength, like Big Brother insisted.

The Russian propaganda organ Pravda, which operates under the same name and from the same office as it did during the Soviet era—and whose name, in classic Orwellian style, means “truth”— says Poland, with its slated removal of Soviet monumnets, is trying to “prove its devotion to Western masters.” As if anyone in Washington or Brussels cares a whit what Warsaw does with its own urban landscape.  

With Denazification, the West all but forced Germans to acknowledge the unspeakable crimes the Nazi regime commited in the 20th century. Germans internalized that critique and directed it back at themselves to an astonishing—some would even say excessive—degree. Within a historical instant, Germany was transformed from the world’s most belligerent nation into one of its most pacifist.

Nothing comparable ever happened in Russia. The West never even asked Russians, let alone attempted to force them, to atone for the crimes they committed in the 20th century, probably, at least partly, because so many victims of the Soviet system were Russian. Most of us assumed Russia would move on from its communist past as enthusiastically as the people of Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia have.

We were wrong, and we should have known better. Because the Soviet Union was more than just a totalitarian state. It was also an empire, and that empire was Russian. Hardly anybody in Warsaw, Prague or even Moscow wants to bring back the slave labor camps, but Russians are still chafing at the loss of their vassals in Warsaw and Prague. They’re still smarting from the loss of their empire. They won’t be good neighbors unless and until they get over it.

North Korea Economy Shows Surprising Strength

On Saturday, the Bank of Korea, the South Korean central bank, reported that last year North Korea’s gross domestic product grew 3.9 percent. That is the highest growth rate since 1999.

The 3.9 percent figure was, for most observers, unexpected. In the previous half decade, the North managed only an average of about one percent growth. It appears, therefore, that last year the regime managed to break out of a long period of stagnation.

Congress Makes Russian Sanctions Trump-proof

Bipartisanship isn’t dead yet, not even in Donald Trump’s Washington. The House of Representatives just passed a sweeping new sanctions package against Russia, Iran and North Korea by 419 votes to 3.

The White House won’t say if the president will sign it or not. It’s no secret that he doesn’t like it, and the reason why is perfectly obvious—Congress is making it Trump-proof. He will not be able to strike a unilateral deal with Vladimir Putin and roll back these sanctions. Let him veto it if he wants. Congress can just override it. He doesn’t have the power to stop it.

Nor do the Russians. The Kremlin can hardly even retaliate. Not effectively, anyway. Case in point: Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov is threatening “sanitary sanctions” against McDonalds. He’s referring to what Russia did in 2014 when, angry about the last round of sanctions, it closed the largest McDonald’s in Moscow for three months so that officials could launch “safety inspections.”

These people do not understand how American politics and economics work. They’re projecting their own twisted norms onto us. In authoritarian crony capitalist Russia, all the largest businesses are yoked to the Kremlin. If Washington punishes one of those companies, it’s effectively punishing Russia’s government.

That’s not how it works over here. The United States government has nothing to do with McDonalds. The Kremlin could burn every McDonalds franchise in the entire country to the ground and it would hurt the American government less than if an entry-level Russian spy threw gravel at the capitol building.

Russia’s mafioso system makes it especially vulnerable to sanctions that target businesses and rich individuals personally, and nothing so far tops the precision-guided Magnitsky Act. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012, also with overwhelming bipartisan support, it singles out the Kremlin’s worst human rights abusers, freezes their assets, bans their travel to the United States and places their names on the US Treasury’s list of sanctioned individuals, preventing them from opening up a bank account anywhere in the world. Any bank that lets one of these people open an account would itself be in violation of American sanctions.

We know the Magnitsky Act is the near-perfect weapon because it works, and we know it works because Vladimir Putin rails at it constantly. Abolishing it is one of his principle foreign policy objectives, yet most Americans had never even heard of it until we found out earlier this month that Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya met Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort in Trump Tower last year and hoped to trade sanctions relief for dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The act is named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He worked at the Firestone Duncan law firm and accused Russian officials of ripping off hundreds millions of tax dollars. The Russian state responded by banishing the company’s co-founded Bill Browder, illegally signing over the business to convicted kidnapper and murderer Viktor Markelov, throwing Magnitsky into Moscow’s Butyrka prison, assaulting him while he was in custody and denying him adequate medical treatment. He died days before his scheduled release.

Magnitsky’s namesake act singles out 44 individual human rights abusers worldwide (the original list included only 18, all of them linked to the Kremlin) and makes them international pariahs. “When Putin reacts to the Magnitsky Act with such personal venom,” Browder said a few days ago in an interview with Jacob Weisberg at Slate, “he’s reacting because he feels like the entire purpose in life, which was to steal money from the Russian state and keep it offshore, is at risk. That’s why they’re ready to ruin relations with America over the Magnitsky Act by banning adoptions and doing other things, and that’s why so much money has been spent fighting the act and fighting me, the person behind the campaign to get Magnitsky Act in the United States and around the world.”

Browder estimates that roughly 10,000 people in Russia have stolen upwards of a trillion dollars from Russian taxpayers over the years. Only a tiny percentage of them are currently targeted by American sanctions, but many more could be in the future, and in any case, those named are the most notorious. More important is that the sanctions throw sand into the gears of Putin’s crony capitalist system. If members of his little oligarchy can’t spend the money they steal when and where they want to spend it, they have less incentive to bother working for him or stealing it in the first place.

These people are still rich, sure, even with the sanctions against them, but they don’t just want to be wealthy in Russia. They want to be wealthy in New York, London, Prague and Berlin. They want to be rich on the French Riviera. It’s nice enough owning a dacha on the Black Sea in Sochi or Yalta, but I’ve been to Yalta and it’s no Provence. If you’re vacationing there in the winter from Moscow you’ll surely appreciate its rugged coastline, its relative warmth and its palm trees. It’s provincial and tacky, though, and it underwhelms just about everyone who has ever been anywhere else. So if you’re a staggeringly wealthy Gazprom executive accustomed to whiling away your leisure time in the Swiss Alps, in Paris or in Tuscany, Yalta will seem as barren a destination as the center of North Dakota.

What happens to these people if the Putin regime is overthrown and they have to go into exile? They’ll have nowhere to go and no money to spend once they get there. Washington should never bail them out, ever. Don’t trade sanctions for “better relations” or “cooperation” in Syria or anywhere else. If they want to work with us against ISIS, that’s fine, but we should still treat them like the murderers and thieves that they are.  

In the Hobbesian realm of foreign policy, American national interests often clash with American values. The United States partners with medieval Saudi Arabia against Iran, for instance, and during the Cold War supported brutal Latin American military dictatorships so long as they were anti-communist. Washington has strangled local economies from Cuba to Iran in order to punish the hostile regimes in those countries but mostly ended up hurting innocent people instead. Our Russian sanctions are bigger, better, smarter and more American by punishing only the perps. Long may they live.  

As the Kremlin Tightens the Screws, It Invites Popular Revolt

Perhaps the most important requirement in an election is that voters have a choice. It sounds trivial, but that is something that has been lacking in most Russian elections held under Vladimir Putin’s rule. In both the latest presidential elections that the Kremlin decisively “won”—in 2008 and 2012—genuine opponents (including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and veteran liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky) were disqualified from the ballot before voting even started. Those who repeat the Kremlin’s talking point about Putin’s “popularity” would do well to remember that, after 2000, it has never actually been tested in a real election against real opponents.

Iran Takes Another American Hostage

Iran just sentenced Princeton University graduate student and American citizen Xiyue Wang to ten years in prison for espionage. His professor Stephen Kotkin tells The Washington Post that Wang “is innocent of all the charges.” Of course he’s innocent. Wang is just the latest in a long line of Americans kidnapped by the most promiscuous hostage-taking regime in the world.

Never mind, for now, the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, when radical followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 diplomats and other American citizens against their will for 444 days. That was a uniquely despicable event that even the Islamic Republic hasn’t repeated.

Arresting Wang and convicting him of espionage is part of another pattern that has been ongoing for years. This is the same government that convicted Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian of espionage before releasing him and three other prisoners last year on the same day the United States government paid Iran 400 million dollars. The State Department said the 400 million wasn’t ransom since Washington legitimately owed Tehran that money since before the 1979 revolution, but the Iranian government took it as ransom anyway. “Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies,” General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, commander of the Basij militia, said on Iran’s state-run television, neverminding the fact that the “spies” he referred to weren’t spies.

The only thing unique about arresting Wang is that he holds dual Chinese-American citizenship. Iran’s government generally captures dual Iranian-American nationals, presumably because it thinks it can get away with it a little more easily.

Two months ago, American and Iranian diplomats met in Vienna and discussed yet another batch of four dual American-Iranians held in Iran, including art gallery owner Karan Vafadari, his wife Afarin Niasari, businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer Namazi. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghasemi confirmed to the New York Times that representative from the two governments met and discussed the fates of these people and said that similar talks in the past produced “positive results.” If earlier prisoners were arrested and sentenced legally and properly, why even discuss it with the United States? What “results” could have been “positive” from the Iranian point of view unless the regime got something in return?

Even if arresting and charging Wang weren’t part of a well-established pattern already, we should always be skeptical when a repressive police state tells us why it puts anybody in prison. Earlier this month, Lahav Harkov wrote a blistering piece in The New York Post excoriating commenters in the West who took seriously North Korea’s claim that it sentenced University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of slave labor for stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel.

The regime forced Warmbier to “confess” his crime in front of cameras. He said he was following the orders of his Friendship United Methodist Church in Ohio when he stole the poster. Never mind the ludicrous notion that any church anywhere in the United States would order someone to steal a poster from North Korea. Warmbier didn’t even attend Friendship United Methodist Church or any other church in Ohio of anywhere else.

Warmbier was Jewish.

One of two things happened during Warmbier’s forced confession. The regime told him to say he was following orders from “his” church, or Warmbier inserted the easily checkable falsehood himself to telegraph to the rest of us that his confession was bogus.

“In North Korea,” Harkov writes, “like in the Soviet Union, there’s no such thing as a fair trial or justice. It’s an evil regime, and buying their side of the story only empowers them.” The same goes for the Iranian government, and for the same reasons.

Besides, the CIA doesn’t send Chinese-American graduate students as spies to Iran. What on earth could a foreign college student possibly learn, in Iran or anywhere else, that governments around the world don’t already know?

From the very first moment I started working in the Middle East as a journalist, all kinds of people over there have accused me of being a spy. At first I didn’t even know what to say. I could hardly convince anyone otherwise. A year or so later, a hotel manager in Beirut all but begged me to give him a job at the CIA. I told him I don’t even know anyone at the CIA, but acknowledged that he’d make a better spy than I would. That’s when it clicked for me. That’s when I knew how to convince Middle Easterners that I wasn’t a spy.

From that day forward, I’ve told people this: “I’d be useless as a spy. I’m a white man from the United States. The American spies in your country were born here. They blend in. They speak the language with a local accent. And they work at the highest levels of the government and the military.”

Works every time. Sometimes the answer actually spooks people.

You don’t have to be an intelligence expert or even read spy novels to know that that’s how espionage works in the real world. Nothing else even makes sense. Foreign journalists and college students can’t blend in, can almost never speak the native language with a local accent, can’t get within a mile of sensitive information, and can’t possibly learn anything the CIA doesn’t already know.

Someone like me or Xiyue Wang could be an intelligence analyst, sure, but if that were the case, we’d be working in Langley, Virginia, not in Tehran, Beirut or Damascus And yes, someone like me or Xiyue Wang could be a case officer—a recruiter—but if so, we’d be attached to the American Embassy, not a university or a media organization.

That’s why it’s obvious on the face of it that Wang, even more than the dual Iranian-American nationals who are normally kidnapped in Iran, is a hostage instead of a spy.

Trump Puts Squeeze on Beijing over North Korea

“Recently, certain people, talking about the Korean peninsula nuclear issue, have been exaggerating and giving prominence to the so-called ‘China responsibility theory,’” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Tuesday, referring indirectly to Trump administration officials. “I think this either shows lack of a full, correct knowledge of the issue, or there are ulterior motives for it, trying to shift responsibility.”

Beijing expressed more than just irritation with Washington. “Asking others to do work, but doing nothing themselves is not OK,” Geng said. “Being stabbed in the back is really not OK.”

Language this intemperate is rarely heard from government officials in public, especially diplomats, and it tells us that US-China relations are about to spiral downward.

Russian Lawyer’s ‘Trump Mission' was to Dump Magnitsky Act

Largely overlooked in the heated discussion of last summer’s meeting between Natalia Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump’s campaign executives, and whether or not it constituted “collusion,” is the reason the Kremlin-connected lawyer and lobbyist sought the meeting in the first place. By her own admission, it was to try “to get the United States to reverse the Magnitsky Act” in the event of a Trump victory. Whatever else this story reveals, it is an important reminder of the Kremlin’s priorities—and of its continued attempts to undermine the 2012 US law that authorized targeted visa bans and asset freezes for Russian officials complicit in “gross violations of human rights.”

Ukraine’s Risky Bid to Join NATO

Ukraine is about to begin a slow-motion process to join NATO as early as 2020. It’s probably not going to happen, and it would be way too late to save the country from the violence Russia has already inflicted, but we can hardly fault the Ukrainians for giving it the old college try.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenerg and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko held a joint press conference in Kiev this week. “Today,” Poroshenko said, “we clearly stated that we would begin a discussion about a membership action plan and our proposals for such a discussion were accepted with pleasure.”

“We are also here to demonstrate NATO's solidarity with Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said, “and our firm support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of your country.”

What a difference five years can make. In 2012, when asked if and how they would vote in a referendum, just 26 percent of Ukrainians said they would vote “yes” to join NATO. Today, 78 percent say they’d vote “yes.”

Charting a neutral third path between Russia and the West used to make sense, up to a point. Ukraine is more liberal and democratic than Russia and a bit less corrupt, but it shares a great deal of culture and history with the leviathan next door. Now that Vladimir Putin has invaded, annexed the Crimean Peninsula and backs a violent insurgency in the eastern Donbass region, splitting the difference between Moscow and Brussels seems daft. No serious person can believe the West would ever attack Ukraine or lop off parts of its territory.

The Ukrainians should have joined the North Atlantic alliance a long time ago. Their country would almost certainly still be intact right now if they had.

Russia has never invaded a member of NATO. While I’d like to say Russia probably never will, just about anything can happen if you wait long enough. Years from now, decades from now, generations from now, the entire world may be unrecognizable. Given enough time and enough change, there’s no telling what Russia might do in Europe. So far, though, Russia has never invaded a member of NATO. Membership in the Western alliance is the closest thing to guaranteed safety that exists in this world. NATO expansion at least semi-permanently restricts the zone that Russia can destabilize and wreak havoc upon with impunity. It’s a good thing all around if you’re not a Kremlinist, which is one of the reasons Vladimir Putin hates NATO expansion so much.

The other reason is that he, like so many of his countrymen, for reasons of both geography and history, inherently fears foreign invasion. Look at a relief map. The Russian heartland around Moscow and St. Petersburg is bang in the middle of one of the earth’s vastest stretches of flat land, unprotected by mountains and water and wide open to attack from every direction except from the Arctic. Few otherwise powerful nations are so vulnerable.

The reason Russia has expanded so far from its major populations centers (historically as far as Berlin and Alaska) is because it has been brutally invaded from both the east and the west, most disastrously by the Mongols, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Nazis. Russians can’t hide behind mountains as the Swiss can or behind oceans like the Americans, so instead they seek to build a “moat,” so to speak, of vassal states that they’ve conquered or can control from a distance. Such states would bear the brunt of a foreign invasion and force an enemy army to disintegrate ahead of impossibly long supply lines.

Russia’s need to surround itself by a ring of vassals is perfectly understandable, but it means occupation and war for the vassals and a constant state of anxiety for the vassals’ neighbors. It’s in the West’s interest, then, for Ukraine to join NATO, but Russia has far more to lose in Ukraine than the West does. Ukraine is one of Russia’s last buffer states to the west. Nearly all the rest have joined NATO already. And while Ukraine is not Russian, it is the place where Russia’s proto-civilization Kievan Rus was born in the 9th century.

Putin wants it a lot more than Americans do, which is why his soldiers are there and ours aren’t. And it’s the reason his soldiers—or at the very least his proxies—are going to stay. There is virtually no chance Ukraine will be admitted to NATO while it’s fighting a Russian-backed insurgency in the east. Nor will Ukraine be admitted while Kiev has a disputed territory conflict with Moscow. Putin may have lost Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution in 2014, when a mass protest movement dislodged the Kremlin’s puppet President Viktor Yanukovych, but war in Ukraine and Putin’s annexation of Crimea ensure that Russia’s loss is not the West’s gain.

The insurgency would have to end, one way or another, before Ukraine could join NATO. Russia would also have to return Crimea to Ukraine, or Ukraine would have to cede Crimea to Russia.

Since Russia will almost certainly never give up Crimea—it is desperately short of warm water coastline—Ukraine’s only viable option is surrendering territory.

The Ukrainians might go for it. They might think it’s worth it. They’re never going to get Crimea back anyway. They’d be well advised, though, not to let the Russians know in advance that it’s going to happen lest they provoke Putin or his successor to lop off even more territory. If he thinks he’s on the verge of losing a Ukrainian rump state to NATO, you can bet your bottom dollar that Putin will seriously consider invading it first. So it’s all fine and good if Ukrainians want to join NATO, but at some point, preferably sooner rather than later, they ought to say no more about it in public until it’s a fait accompli.

After Liberation, Will Mosul Fall to Iran?

My latest column in The Tower magazine is live. Here's the first part.

After a brutal nine-month war, the Iraqi Army has liberated Mosul from ISIS. The city, Iraq’s second largest, is all but destroyed.

The butcher’s bill tallies 30,000 people dead and counting. Another 600,000, roughly a third of the population, have been displaced. Roughly three-fourths of Mosul’s buildings are in ruins, two-thirds of its electrical grid is shredded, and much of what’s left of the water system is booby-trapped. The price tag for reconstruction will be tens of billions of dollars that Iraq doesn’t have.

Now comes the hard part.

Anyone with sufficient weapons and training can kill terrorists, and it’s much harder to rebuild a city than level it. Harder still in a fractious sectarian place like Iraq is establishing enough political trust and goodwill that hardly anyone will be interested in picking up a rifle and shooting at the neighbors again.

It’s not an impossible task, but if past behavior best predicts future behavior, what has happened during the last couple of years in Saddam Hussein’s hometown isn’t encouraging. ISIS fighters conquered Tikrit, 87 miles northwest of Baghdad and home to roughly 160,000 people, in June of 2014. They began their reign of terror the very next day by executing more than 1,500 Iraqi Air Force recruits and burying them in mass graves. They captured the whole thing on video and uploaded it to the Internet. The Iraqi Army didn’t take back the city until the following March and was only able to do so with help from Shia militias backed by Iran.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

Flurry of Kiev Assassinations a New Russian Front in Ukraine

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the wild 90’s were back in Kyiv. A recent spate of car bombings, brazen assassinations and attempted murders are reminiscent of the immediate post-Soviet years when politicians, businessmen, and mafiosos grappled with each other—often bloodily—for power in their countries.

Since July 2016, when the Belarusian-turned-Ukrainian investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet was killed by a car bomb detonated in the middle of a Kyiv street, the flood gates have opened. Although Sheremet’s colleagues believe that he was murdered for his journalistic endeavors, most of the deaths that have followed look as though they were orchestrated by Russia as part of their ongoing campaign to destabilize Ukraine.

That the Ukrainian government proved themselves useless in finding Sheremet’s killers and bringing them to justice made it clear to Russia that they too could act similarly and do so without impunity.

Trump Dumping ‘China First’ Policies

It looks like America has a new China policy. On Thursday, the US sanctioned a Chinese bank and approved an arms sale to Taiwan, angering Beijing. Does the Trump administration care?

Probably not. Reuters reports that US officials believe President Trump is unhappy with Beijing and is thinking of trade actions against China. His frustration follows more than two months of generally unsuccessful attempts to get the Chinese to help Washington disarm North Korea.

“They did a little, not a lot,” said a US official, speaking anonymously to the news organization. “And if he’s not going to get what he needs on that, he needs to move ahead on his broader agenda on trade and on North Korea.”

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