China’s Never-Ending ‘War on Pollution’

On Monday, the Beijing municipal government announced it would close the last of its major coal-fired generating stations. By next year, China Huaneng Group’s 845-megawatt plant will cease operations. The capital city shuttered another one in 2014 and two more last week. The closed facilities will be replaced by four new ones powered by clean-burning natural gas. Beijing’s notoriously dirty skies—its air is more than twice as bad as the Chinese national standard—should be cleaner as a result of the closures. There is now a sense that Chinese leaders are starting to take the environment seriously. Premier Li Keqiang, for instance, at the National People’s Congress this month said he was reaffirming his March 2014 “declaration of war” against pollution. Liu Yuanju, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, points out that the leaders are now determined to do something about the environment. “A big difference in this year’s government work report is that the targets for energy conservation and emission reduction are put together with all the major targets of economic and social development,” he notes.

Dealing with Iran: Get It in Writing

On March 25th, the New York Times reported that Iranian negotiators are resisting putting onto paper the yet-to-be-finalized political framework for a comprehensive agreement on its nuclear program. Anyone who’s ever waited four months for a landlord to fix a leaky faucet he “promised” to fix “tomorrow,” knows the importance of the age-old adage, “Get It in Writing,” or as the seasoned diplomat and scholar Dennis Ross explains more eloquently, “As important as it is to forge conceptual understandings, they must still be translated into concrete agreements that get expressed in writing.”

Kremlin Election Fraud Revealed. Again.

NOVOYE DEVYATKINO, Russia — The most popular political myths of Vladimir Putin’s regime, too often uncritically repeated by Western commentators—that Putin and his United Russia party are “supported by the vast majority of Russians” and that the opposition is “weak” and “unpopular”—are rarely tested, since most of the time Kremlin opponents are barred from the ballot. Last Sunday offered a rare glimpse into the actual opinions of Russian voters.

On March 22nd, Novoye Devyatkino, a municipality north of St. Petersburg that has been referred to as “Russia’s New Hampshire” because its voting trends usually match the national ones, held a special legislative election. Uncharacteristically, a wide spectrum of candidates were allowed on the ballot, including Sergei Kuzin, the St. Petersburg coordinator of Open Russia, the pro-democracy movement established by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and member of the People’s Freedom Party, founded by the slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Responding to Kremlin Propaganda in the Baltics

How to counter Vladimir Putin’s propaganda? The EU is trying to decide on a strategy. Meanwhile—you read it here first—the Nordic and Baltics states are steaming ahead with a very concrete plan that will soon offer Russian-language television in the Baltic states, where Russian minorities today almost exclusively watch Kremlin-directed TV. Call it Nordic noir versus the Kremlin.

“The Russians have a lot of good TV shows, so the Baltic states need something that will convince Russian-speakers to switch over,” says Per Carlsen, Denmark’s ambassador to Latvia. Russia offers good television indeed, especially compared to the rather simple Russian-language fare provided by the Baltic governments. And between the compelling entertainment shows, the Baltic Russian-speakers watch compellingly produced news shows. How is a small country supposed to create an answer to that, and a rapid one at that?

Sweden, Finland, and NATO

What a difference a year makes. A year ago, the share of Swedes opposing NATO membership reached 50 percent, up by 10 percentage points from a year earlier. But now only 35 percent oppose NATO membership, compared to 48 percent who support it. That’s the first time NATO membership has been Swedes’ top choice, reports the Swedish news agency TT. According to the same survey, a majority of Swedes wants to reintroduce conscription, and, in a remarkable turn of events, almost 60 percent want to increase defense spending, a 100 percent increase compared to only three years ago.

Yemen Falls Apart

Suicide-bombers killed at least 137 people and wounded more than 350 in Yemen at two Shia mosques in the capital city of Sanaa on Friday. The very next day, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized control of the city of al-Houta, and the day after that, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel movement conquered parts of Taiz, the nation's third-largest city. Rival militias are battling for control of the international airport in the coastal city of Aden, and the US government just announced that American troops are evacuating Al Anad airbase.

ISIS is taking credit for the Sanaa attacks. “Infidel Houthis should know that the soldiers of the Islamic State will not rest,” it said, “until they eradicate them and cut off the arm of the Safavid (Iranian) plan in Yemen.” Al Qaeda has a much larger footprint in Yemen, so the ISIS claim is a little bit dubious, but ISIS is on the rise there and its attitude toward Shia Muslims is more bloodthirsty—more explicitly genocidal as the quote above shows—than Al Qaeda's.

Regardless of who committed the latest round of atrocities, everything in Yemen is about to become much, much worse. The region-wide storm of sectarian hatred has been gathering strength by the year for more than a decade, and it blew the roof off Yemen earlier this year when the Houthis, who are Shias, seized control of the capital and sent Sunni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi into semi-exile in Aden.

The Houthis see their takeover of the city and government institutions as a natural progression of the revolution in 2011 that toppled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but it isn't, not really. While they enjoy some backing beyond their Shia support base, the sectarian dimension is inescapable. Shias make up almost half the population, and the Sunni majority is keenly aware that minorities in the Middle East are capable of seizing power and lording it over everyone else—especially if they're sponsored by a regional mini superpower like Iran. Syria has been ruled by the Iranian-backed Alawite minority for decades, and Saddam Hussein used brute force to bring the Sunni minority to power in Iraq.

Still, the Houthis have virtually no chance of ruling the entire country. Their “territory,” so to speak, is restricted to the northwestern region surrounding the capital. Previous governments had a rough go of it too. South Yemen was a communist state—the so-called People's Democratic Republic of Yemen—until the Soviet Union finally ruptured, and four years after unification with North Yemen, the armed forces of each former half declared war on each other.

Far more likely than a comprehensive Houthi takeover is a new and more dangerous phase of Yemen's endless self-cannibalization—more dangerous because this otherwise parochial and irrelevant conflict has been internationalized, with ISIS, the Saudis, and Iran squaring off against each other in yet another regional proxy war.

The Houthi movement is named after Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, an insurrection leader killed by the former government in 2004. They are Shias, but unlike the “Twelver” Shia Muslims of Iran—who revere eleven imams and await the birth of the occluded twelfth—most of Yemen's Shias are “Fivers.” Iran doesn't mind. From its point of view, better the odd “Fiver” Shias than Sunnis, but all that really matters is that the Houthis are willing to say yes to Tehran, its weapon shipments, and its top-notch military advisors and trainers. 

The next-door Saudis, of course, are backing what's left of Hadi's former government down in Aden. They've been Yemen's primary patron since the 1930s and won't sit back and idly watch as Iran's Islamic Revolution is exported to their back yard any more than the United States would have allowed the Moscow to conquer Canada during the Cold War.

Yemen's conflict is tribal, sectarian, and political at the same time, and it's becoming increasingly internationalized even as the US is leaving. It's also a little bizarre. Last month, President Hadi declared Aden the new capital, though no one in the world, not even his allies, recognize it as such. A few days ago a Houthi-commanded military jet flew over the city from Sanaa and fired missiles at his residence.

The US has few friends and even less leverage, especially now that it's all falling apart, so Washington is washing its hands and bringing everyone home. All we can really hope for there is less instability, not so much because Yemen's local squabbling affects us—until now it hardly registered outside the country—but because dangerous adversaries that threaten the West are hoping to expand their base of operations and their ability to export malfeasance everywhere else. Let's not forget that Osama bin Laden's family is of Yemeni origin, as was Anwar Al-Awlaki, one of Al Qaeda's chief propagandists before the Pentagon vaporized him with a Hellfire missile in 2011. The deadliest bomb-maker in the world plies his trade with Yemen's branch of Al Qaeda and has planned at least three attacks against commercial airliners. And now that Iran is involved in the Saudi family's sphere of influence and the Sunni majority is backsliding, ISIS and Al Qaeda are gaining even more traction.

Consider the city of Radaa. Al Qaeda briefly seized power there in 2012, but local tribesmen and government troops drove them out. Now that the Houthis are in the saddle in Sanaa, however, the tribes in Radaa are siding with Al Qaeda again. Al Qaeda's takeover of al-Houta three days ago shows that Radaa is anything but an isolated case.

All this parallels events in Iraq. The Sunni tribes of Anbar Province forged an alliance with American soldiers and Marines against Al Qaeda in the mid-2000s, but after the US withdrew and President Nouri al-Maliki ruled the country as a heavy-handed Iranian proxy, many tribes in Anbar switched their allegiance to ISIS.

Yemen may well turn into the Iraq or Syria—take your pick—of the Arabian Peninsula. All the US can really do at this point is watch in horror as the Middle East continues to chew its own leg off and malefactors with global ambitions thrive in the chaos.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Is There Economic Reform in Ukraine?

If you listen to Ukrainians tell it, there’s been absolutely no reform within the last year. Their frustration is understandable—they want the positive effects of major change now—but their perception just doesn’t correspond to the facts.

The much awaited reform process is actually under way—though quietly and unobtrusively. The Education Ministry and the Ministry of Internal Affairs have led the way with restructuring universities and the police force, probably because they don’t deal directly with high-stakes corruption and the power of the oligarchs. Some personnel cuts have been introduced in the presidential administration and the government bureaucracy; more are forecast. A law (albeit flawed) on lustration has been adopted and has already led to some high-level resignations and prosecutions. An Anti-Corruption Bureau has been approved, and a head is currently being sought.

Sri Lanka Pushes Back on China's Influence

On March 5th, Sri Lanka’s new government suspended a $1.4 billion development in downtown Colombo, the capital city. The stated reason was procedural. A review board had determined the project was not properly approved. The real explanation has to do with Sri Lanka’s recent elections. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president, who sought this and other Chinese investments in this Indian Ocean nation of 20 million, was turned out of office on January 8th.

Rajapaksa’s welcome mat for Chinese influence was a major issue in the campaign, as was his creeping authoritarianism, stifling of dissent, and erosion of the rule of law. Sensing his support ebbing, Rajapaksa called for the poll two years early, in hopes of locking in an unprecedented third term. It was too late. He had lost support from loyal constituencies, and members of his government defected to the opposition, including the man who defeated him, the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, formerly general secretary of Rajapaksa’s political party.

China's Infrastructure Bank Proposal Gains Traction

On Tuesday, France, Germany, and Italy announced they will participate in the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The trio follows Britain’s decision to do so and precedes expected announcements by Australia and South Korea.

The Irresponsibility of the Iran Letter

Last week, in an unprecedented political move, 47 US Senate Republicans addressed a public letter to the leadership of Iran, promising to oppose and undermine American negotiations with that country. Our diplomats are in the final stages of securing an agreement that would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. This obvious effort by some members of Congress to undercut national security policy is not only unconstructive and embarrassing—it is irresponsible.

As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and like a clear majority of Americans, I support negotiations that have a real chance of keeping America and her allies safe and preventing another uncertain war in the Middle East.

Egypt Wants to Junk Cairo

Egyptian officials want to dump Cairo as their capital and build a new one out in the desert. Can’t say that I blame them. These people have to live in Cairo—with 18 million people, it's far too large to commute in from outside—and the city is awful.

I can't hardly think of Cairo without remembering a passage from Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British Arabist expat who lives in Yemen.

Few visitors have liked Cairo on first sight. “Uff!” exclaimed an eight-century caliph, “She is the mother of stenches!” Later, a geographer wondered why anyone should have wanted to build a city “between a putrid and mephitic river, the corrupt effluvia of which cause disease and rot food, and a dry and barren mountain range devoid of greenery.” The ground teemed with rats, scorpions, fleas, and bugs, the air with miasmas. In Cairo Symon Semeon buried his companion Brother Hugo, who had succumbed to an attack of dysentery and fever “caused by a north wind.” My guidebook, compiled a century after I.B.’s visit, was disturbingly frank about the dangers of living in a polluted high-rise city where light and air rarely penetrate the dark alleyways. Its author, al-Maqrizi, warned that “the traveler approaching Cairo sees before him a depressing black wall beneath a dust-laden sky, from which sight his soul shrinks and flees away.”

Yes. Alas, that is Cairo. And it's actually worse now than it was. Parts of downtown look almost European at night if you squint at them just so, but the decades-long progression of rot and decay are unmistakable in the daylight. Much of the city that has been built in the meantime is clotted with communist-style garbage architecture. One looming hulk near Tahrir Square resembles nothing so much as a Kafka-esque Ministry of Bureaucracy.

Roughly half of Egyptians earn less than two dollars per day, so you can imagine what the slums look and smell like, but even the “fancy” neighborhoods like Zamalek are drab and depressing.

So it's easy to understand why the nation's rulers want to pick up and leave and start over. Cairo will sink even further if that ever happens, but what do they care? They use a crooked military dictatorship to lord over the country like it's their own private plantation.

They want to build a 270 square mile city—large enough to house five million people—in just five to seven years. It would be paid for by wealthy investors from the Gulf region. If they actually build this thing in such a poor country where hardly anyone has any money, it will likely turn into a lonely government compound surrounded by a North African version of China's spooky ghost cities.

Cairo is a disaster, but it's at least theoretically fixable. Most cities in Eastern Europe were in similarly horrendous condition during the communist era, but political and economic reform transformed most of them over time into the gems they used to be before the catastrophic mid-20th century had its way with them.

That kind of change won't likely sweep Egypt any time soon, though, so the elite for the time being will be either be trapped in the urban hell that is Cairo or stranded in a botched utopian scheme in the middle of nowhere. Everyone else will continue to suffer right where they are.

The Decline of the Russian Empire

The following is an interview with Rein Taagepera, professor emeritus of the University of Tartu, in Estonia, and the University of California, Irvine.


MOTYL: Professor Taagepera, you were the first social scientist to have studied the rise and fall of empires in a rigorous social-scientific manner. So let’s start with a big-picture question. Why do empires decay?

TAAGEPERA: Empires rarely stand still. They initially outrun their internal flaws through external expansion. Once they stop growing, these flaws accumulate. Expansion is self-reinforcing, and so is decay. To change course, one must give up on past glory and start anew.

MOTYL: How do empires react to decay?

TAAGEPERA: It is psychologically easier to give up on overseas holdings than on territorially contiguous ones, however disparate these may be ethnically. While losing vigor, Poland-Lithuania and Austria-Hungary largely maintained their territory, until their final collapse. In contrast, the Ottoman Empire began to lose ground slowly already in the 1700s.

Drums of War or Pipes of Peace?

In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro has called on his followers to march to the drums of war against a political plot, allegedly backed by the United States, to provoke the overthrow of his increasingly unpopular authoritarian regime. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos is cautiously testing a partial cease-fire in the conflict with leftist FARC guerrillas in the hopes of clinching a peace deal ending five decades of warfare that has cost 220,000 lives. The contrast could not be greater, and the different ways Venezuela and Colombia view the options of war and peace reveal a deep contradiction in Latin America over how to respond to violations of basic human rights and democratic political guarantees.

Lithuania's Independence Day and American Soldiers

This blog is called “Transatlantic Connection,” and this week in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, I experienced true transatlantic connections in action. As two colleagues and I jostled for a spot in the crowded Parliament Square for the country’s 25th anniversary celebrations, we found ourselves next to a group of young American soldiers. “Are you just here today or are you staying for a while?” one of my colleagues, a veteran Moscow correspondent from Soviet times, asked them. “We’ll be here for a while, sir,” one of them replied. American soldiers are currently serving in the Baltic states on permanent rotation.

“For a while”: that’s music to Lithuanian and other Baltic ears. The polite young men and women, not yet born when Lithuanians bravely dared to declare independence on March 11, 1990, despite their Parliament being surrounded by Soviet tanks, may just think of their Lithuanian sojourn as another overseas posting—they’re based in Germany, they informed me—but to Baltic leaders and citizens, these young Americans form a security guarantee. European solidarity with the Baltic states notwithstanding, it’s a US commitment that really counts.

A Real Downside to Any Deal With Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a stir last week when he blasted President Barack Obama’s attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. American television media covered little else for 24 hours. The prime minister and the president are still bickering about it this week on Twitter. Both have ignored a disturbing reality: any deal with Iran, good or bad, is likely to benefit ISIS.

President Obama is pursuing an agreement for understandable reasons. Far better to resolve the West’s differences with Iran diplomatically rather than violently. Prime Minister Netanyahu, likewise, is wary of the president’s plan for understandable reasons. A bad deal may be worse for Israel than no deal at all. Yet neither Obama nor Netanyahu seem to notice how an agreement, regardless of its content and efficacy, will be viewed by the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs, who are as alarmed as the Israelis are by Iranian ambitions.

The war against ISIS is being fought on two fronts in two countries, and the Middle East’s Sunni-Shia conflict rips right through the center of both. ISIS is the bloodthirsty wing of the Sunni jihadist movement, while Iran and its Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese allies make up the Shia resistance. In no way do average Sunni Arabs view ISIS as their standard bearer. Tens of thousands have lit out from its territory for squalid refugee camps abroad. But at the same time, most Sunni Arabs tremble at the rise of Iranian power and are reluctant to stand against the maniacs on their own side, especially when the U.S. and Europe appear to side with the Persians and Shia against them.

That’s not how it is, but that’s how it looks. Consider this: Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qasem Soleimani is personally leading the Iraqi operation to wrest control of the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from ISIS. When Iraq’s Sunnis see Shia militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops gunning for their territory, they feel a looming threat to their very existence. And at the same time, the West is bombing ISIS positions in both Syria and Iraq, while Washington is at least nominally allied to Baghdad and trying to cut a deal with Tehran. The Sunnis see the world’s only superpower teaming up with their enemies and gearing up to smash them to pieces.

It looks little better from a Sunni’s perspective in Syria. The U.S. hardly supports the malignant Assad, but all of Washington’s air strikes have landed on Sunni jihadist targets even after President Obama accused Damascus of deploying chemical weapons in civilian population centers. Like the government in Baghdad, the House of Assad is firmly in the Iranian camp. The state, along with the ruling family, is heavily packed with members of the Alawite minority, adherents of a heterodox religion that fuses Shia Islam, Christianity, and Gnosticism.

The Assads have had their boots on the necks of Syria’s Sunni majority since 1971, when the late Hafez al-Assad seized power, and they’ve been the Arab world’s staunchest Iranian allies ever since. Assad is also, along with Iran’s clerical regime, a patron and armorer of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, by far the deadliest Shia terrorist organization in the world and one which is actively and effectively fighting against Syria’s armed Sunni opposition on behalf of its masters. In light of all that, ISIS has an easier time presenting itself as the defender of the region’s Sunni Arab majority against an axis of Persian-Shia-Alawite perfidy.

Read the rest in City Journal.


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