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American Hopes to Return to Prison Camp in North Korea

Since the Korean War, no American has spent longer in confinement in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea than Kenneth Bae. Yet Bae, released in 2014, wants to go back to see the guards who kept an eye on him in prison. As he told Seattle radio station KUOW on the 19th of this month, “I consider some of them as friends.” 

So is this a particularly bad case of Stockholm Syndrome? 

It’s not. Bae, a missionary, is out to educate the North Korean people, starting with those who kept him under lock and key in particularly harsh conditions.

During his confinement, Bae, a Southern Baptist minister, learned just how isolated North Korea has remained. Jesus Christ? One of his guards had never heard of him before. “Where does Jesus live?” his captor asked. “In China or North Korea?”

Answering the Critics: Donbas Disengagement

What should Ukraine do about the occupied Donbas enclave?

As readers of this blog know, I have long been arguing for disengagement. Critics of my view generally emphasize some or all of the following three points:

First, won’t disengagement help promote Vladimir Putin’s strategic goal of destroying Ukraine?

Second, doesn’t Ukraine have a moral obligation to reannex this territory and its citizens?

Third, what exactly does disengagement entail and how would it be brought about??

All three are serious questions that deserve serious answers. I’ll address the first two questions in this blog and the third in the next one.

Venezuela Collapses, Colombia Rises

Venezuela and Colombia have swapped places.

When the Cold War ended, Colombia was a crime-infested war zone while Venezuela, its neighbor to the east, was an island of sanity and stability. Colombia is now one of the world’s hottest new tourist destinations while Venezuela is on the brink of collapse.

For more than a half-century, Colombia suffered a bewildering multisided conflict that killed more than 200,000 people—the vast majority of them civilians—and displaced roughly five million. It was a no-go zone fractured by a communist insurgency that kidnapped and murdered tens of thousands, right-wing death squads that butchered people with chainsaws, and murderous drug cartels that often wielded more power than the government.

Meanwhile, during most of that period, Venezuela held democratic elections and experienced considerable, if uneven, economic growth. Throughout Latin America, Soviet-backed insurgencies battled it out with military regimes sponsored by the United States, but Cuba’s attempt to foment communist revolution in Venezuela fizzled.

After the Berlin Wall fell, pro-Soviet forces all but evaporated everywhere except in Colombia where the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) swapped Moscow’s largesse with drug money.

If one had to choose where to invest at the time, the smart money would have been on Venezuela. It had a small middle class and a great deal of poverty, but that was hardly unique in South and Central America. What set it apart was its vast oil reserves—more than any other country on earth—and its relative political stability.

The current United Socialist Party government led by Nicolás Maduro, and formerly Hugo Chávez, could have done amazing things for the country with that vast oil wealth. Instead, the party has done its damndest to import Fidel Castro’s Cuban model of socialism— Chávez called Castro his mentor—and turn Venezuela into a totalitarian anthill.

They never quite pulled it off, never quite managed to create a state powerful enough to smother every human being under its weight. Rather than molding Venezuelan society into a Stalinist Borg-hive, both—but Maduro especially—presided over a near-total collapse into anarchy, squalor and crime.

Last week the Washington Post called Venezuela a failed state. “The government has tried to control the economy to the point of killing it — all, of course, in the name of ‘socialism’…Venezuela has gotten something worse than death. It has gotten hell. Its stores are empty, its hospitals don't have essential medicines, and it can't afford to keep the lights on.”

The inflation rate is almost 500 percent this year and is expected to exceed 1,500 percent next year. A hamburger costs 170 dollars. Everything is in short supply. “Venezuela reaches the final stages of socialism,” David Boaz writes. “No toilet paper.” Even hotels are asking guests to bring their own, which is almost impossible unless they’re coming in from abroad.

Violent crime has spread throughout the country, even to rural areas. Police officers don’t even attempt to suppress or solve crime, partly because they’re too busy protecting the crooked and oppressive government from its furious subjects, but also because crime is as ubiquitous in Venezuela right now as the heat and humidity. Last week, a fed up mob doused a man with gasoline and burned him alive for mugging another man and stealing the equivalent of five dollars.

Hellish Colombia, meanwhile, has improved so dramatically over the same period of time that it’s hardly even recognizable anymore.

Only a fool would have bet on Colombia during the 1990s. Medellín, the county’s second-largest city, was the homicide capital of the world back then. More than 6,000 people were murdered there in 1991—almost twenty per day in a city of less than two million people. Not even Baghdad has been that violent lately. Barbet Schroeder’s 2000 film, Our Lady of the Assassins, portrayed Colombia, and Medellín in particular, as a terrifying place where casual violence was as routine as breakfast. 

The fool who would have bet on Colombia, though, would have been right.

The Medellín drug cartel no longer exists, nor does the Cali cartel. There’s not much left of FARC anymore, and the remnants are engaged in peace talks with the government. The right-wing AUC paramilitary units demobilized a decade ago.

By 2015, Medellín’s crime rate dropped by as much as 95 percent. In 2013, the Wall Street Journal named it the most innovative city in the world. The Urban Land Institute described the city’s transformation this way:

Few cities have transformed the way that Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, has in the past 20 years. Medellín’s homicide rate has plunged, nearly 80% from 1991 to 2010. The city built public libraries, parks, and schools in poor hillside neighborhoods and constructed a series of transportation links from there to its commercial and industrial centers. The links include a metro cable car system and escalators up steep hills, reducing commutation times, spurring private investment, and promoting social equity as well as environmental sustainability. In 2012, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy recognized Medellín’s efforts with the Sustainable Transportation Award.

But a change in the institutional fabric of the city may be as important as the tangible infrastructure projects. The local government, along with businesses, community organizations, and universities worked together to fight violence and to modernize Medellín. Transportation projects are financed through public-private partnerships; engineering firms have designed public buildings for free; and in 2006, nine of the city’s largest firms funded a science museum. In addition, Medellín is one of the largest cities to successfully implement participatory budgeting, which allows citizens to define priorities and allocate a portion of the municipal budget. Community organizations, health centers, and youth groups have formed, empowering citizens to declare ownership of their neighborhoods.

“The place has gone from adventure location to dream family holiday,” Bee Rowlatt writes in the Telegraph. “Tourists are heading this way like never before, and it’s not just the hairy ones who like an illegal puff, or the conflict-zone junkies seeking out a boastably tough destination. No, these days it’s pretty much anyone.” And why not? Colombia’s scenery is spectacular, its literary and arts scene world class, its biodiversity unmatched by any nation on earth. While it still has a moderately high crime rate in some areas, the homicide rate is now as low as Portland, Oregon’s. 

It’s almost as if whatever dark force consumed Colombia for so many decades picked up and moved to the country next door. Today, Caracas, Venezuela, has the dubious distinction as the murder capital of the world, followed closely by San Pedro Sula in Honduras, and it’s suffering the worst economic decline in its history.

Two-thirds of Venezuelans want Maduro out of power this year. There’s virtually no chance his United Socialist Party can hold onto power indefinitely under current conditions. Protests have been so widespread and violent during the last two years that they can be plausibly described as an insurrection.

Venezuela looks hopeless, but Colombia looked that way, too, not long ago. Latin America veers far more wildly from the extreme left to the extreme right than the West does, but it’s not the Middle East. Every Latin American country so far except Cuba has reverted to democratic rule after a period of dictatorship.

One way or another, Venezuela will get there eventually. Maduro isn’t at all likely to die in bed while in office like Chávez did in 2013. He’ll lose an election, the army will put him in jail, or he’ll be strung up, Mussolini-style, from a Caracas lamppost.

Whenever it finally happens, though, that country will face a long dig-out.

China’s Coming Demographic Crash

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reports that Beijing’s obstetrics wards are overflowing. The city, according to the Health and Family Planning Commission, expects  300,000 births this year, an increase of twenty percent or 50,000 over 2015. Xinhua estimates that 22 million babies will be born nationwide in 2016.  

Yet the talk about newborns seems to me a feeble attempt to mask a population crash that looms.  

Effective the beginning of this year, the Chinese central government relaxed the notorious one-child policy to permit two children per couple. The liberalization will increase the birth rate nationwide, but, apart from state media, few think the increase will halt a severe decline in population.

“It’s already too late,” says Yi Fuxian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a critic of Chinese population policies. “China’s population is aging quickly and will start to shrink soon."

Dying for the Donbas?

Just about every day, soldiers die. Sometimes, it’s as many as three or four. Sometimes, it’s two or three. Usually, it’s only one.

Only one young life snuffed out—for what?

For the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave. That is to say, for nothing.

I can understand, intellectually, at least, dying for your family or friends, for your country or city or community, for democracy or peace or your nation.

But dying for a piece of crummy land populated by 3 million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom hate Ukraine and everything it stands for? That makes no sense.

Most Ukrainian policymakers and most Ukrainian people appear determined to win back the Donbas territory occupied by Vladimir Putin’s troops and proxies. At the same time, they appear to be equally determined to lead normal lives, as if the war—and make no mistake, it is a war—were taking place in some distant land.

Kim Announces Vague Five-Year Economic Vitalization Plan

In his three-hour speech Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced his plan to vitalize the country’s beleaguered economy. “It is imperative to carry through the five-year strategy for the state economic development from 2016 to 2020,” he said, according to Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s most authoritative newspaper.

Kim’s plan provides no tangible goals or overarching strategies, but the young leader, speaking at the Korean Workers’ Party 7th Congress, seemed to signal he was serious about economic development. His plan is the first since the Third Seven-Year Plan, which ended—two years late—in 1995.

Regardless of the absence of detail, Kim, by emphasizing the economy last week, essentially made himself accountable to a largely impoverished population that values prosperity far more than ideology. As is said these days, the North now has a “money culture.”

Washington’s Idiotic Echo Chamber

David Samuels’ long-form essay last weekend in the New York Times Magazine about President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser and spokesmen Ben Rhodes has sent the media into a tizzy. 

Rhodes had to sell the Iranian nuclear deal to a skeptical American public. He freely admits that he did so by manipulating a select group of reporters that he and staff think are idiots and molded them into his own personal echo chamber.

It wasn’t difficult. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he told Samuels. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

What a gob-smacking couple of sentences.

First, though, it’s true that the vast majority of newspapers no longer have foreign bureaus. Foreign correspondence is spectacularly expensive to produce. Newspapers can’t afford it. Hardly anyone subscribes anymore, and one of their biggest old cash cows—the classified ads section—has been outsourced to eBay and Craigslist. Money is tight and foreign bureaus were always the most expensive part of a news operation. 

If you want to blame someone or something, blame the Internet.

This sentence, though, is incredible: “They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo.”

What on earth could a White House official possibly know about what’s happening in Moscow or Cairo? Journalists should only call Ben Rhodes if they want to know what’s happening in the White House.

If you’re a reporter who wants to know who’s who and what’s what in Russia or Egypt, you should get on a plane. It will set you back thousands of dollars, though, and your editors will pay you a couple hundred bucks at most for a story, so it’s not a viable option if you don’t have a trust fund. The media business ain’t what it used to be. That’s for damn sure.

But you can call people in Moscow and Cairo. You can talk to them on Skype. You can email them. You can interview Egyptians and Russians who live here. They usually know how to explain things in clear English with references that make sense to Americans.

And you damn well better read books about Russian and Egyptian history so that you’ll have some background and context. You don’t need to know the name of the pharaoh who preceded Cleopatra, but you should at least familiarize yourself with what happened there during the last century or two.

I spent more than a decade interviewing people all over the world, sometimes on the phone and via email, but most of the time in person on the other side of the world. I’ve interviewed every type of person imaginable, from military commanders and heads of state to war refugees and homeless people who sleep outside in slums.

Trust me on this: government officials are almost always the worst sources and interview subjects. That’s true everywhere in the world. They live in rarefied bubbles. They lie. They leave things out, sometimes because they want to and sometimes because they have to. They’re often incompetent and even more often shockingly ignorant. Everyone has opinions, and lots of people have agendas, but nobody has an agenda the way government officials have agendas.

It has never even occurred to me to interview a government official in one country about what’s happening in another country.

There are exceptions. Occasionally I’ve been delighted by government officials in the most unlikely places, including in Cairo. In general, though, they’re the least interesting and the least reliable.

The last person you should be talking to, in other words, is Ben Rhodes.

“We created an echo chamber,” he said when Samuels asked him about the “onslaught of freshly minted experts” who explained the Iran deal to the American public. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

This wouldn’t be the big deal that it is if Rhodes gave honest information to the journalists in his little chamber, but he didn’t. “I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he told Samuels. “But that’s impossible.”

It’s not impossible. Saying it’s impossible is his excuse for being part of the problem instead of the solution.

According to him, the Obama administration began negotiating with the Iranian government in 2013 after the moderate Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election on a campaign based in part on mending ties with the West. It was a nice story. It convinced a lot of people who know little or nothing about the Iranian government. Even so, it failed to convince most. Even after Rhodes’ full court press, only 21 percent of Americans thought Washington’s deal with Tehran made any sense. That’s still far higher than the percentage of Americans who have a good opinion of the Iranian government. At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, that number was only eight percent, and it’s not much better now. Still, Rhodes’ tale had an effect.

There are a couple of things wrong with his story, however. First, as Samuels reports, “Obama’s closest advisers always understood him to be eager to do a deal with Iran as far back as 2012, and even since the beginning of his presidency.” Second, Rouhani isn’t even a moderate by Middle Eastern standards, let alone international standards. Third, Rhodes didn’t even believe his own story. “I would prefer that it turns out that Rouhani and [foreign minister Mohammad] Zarif are real reformers who are going to be steering this country into the direction that I believe it can go in…” he admitted to Samuels, “but we are not betting on that.”

All this was obvious to the Iranian opposition, Middle East experts, and professional Iran watchers. The know-nothing reporters Rhodes cultivated could have easily found real sources of information about what was really happening in Iran and how Iran’s political system really works. This is not secret knowledge. You don’t have to be some kind of an insider. You can find this information by Googling it.

You can find just about anything by Googling it, and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t when you’re unfamiliar with a subject as complex as Iranian politics, but under what theory is Ben Rhodes the wise man on the mountain who can make sense of it all?

Ben Rhodes has no more experience with arms control or Iran’s internal political system than the 27-year old reporters who, according to him, “literally know nothing.” He’s familiar with his own policy, of course, and he knows how to communicate, but all the rest of it is out of his wheelhouse. 

“It was, ‘Are you with us or are you against us?’” said David Albright, an arms control expert with the Institute for Science and International Security in an interview with US News. “The White House was looking for sound bites that beat the opposition, not necessarily sound bites that captured the truth of what was going on. I wish they were just putting out facts. They exaggerated and overstated to sell the deal.”

“Like Obama,” Samuels writes in the New York Times Magazine, “Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.”

It’s okay that Rhodes has a creative writing background. Creative writing is my field too. I studied it and practiced it long before I became a journalist, a travel writer, a foreign policy analyst and a Middle East “expert.” I’ve written two novels. My second, Resurrection, has been optioned for film. The sequel is now almost finished. I’m perfectly capable of learning how to do more than one thing. Most people are.

Arthur C. Clarke is most well known for his fiction writing—especially 2001: A Space Odyssey, but by using his technical and scientific knowledge he played a vital role in establishing our global system of geostationary telecommunications satellites. Michael Punke, author of The Revenant—made last year into the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio—is currently the U.S. Representative and Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Switzerland. Novelist Caleb Carr, author of the best-selling novel The Alienest, is also a military historian, a terrorism expert and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

So we shouldn’t think for a moment that Rhodes’ background in creative writing disqualifies him from his job as a foreign policy maker. Creative writing isn’t finger-painting. It cannot be mastered. Not even William Shakespeare pulled that off. A background in creative writing by itself, however, is no more relevant to successfully negotiating an agreement with a hostile totalitarian power than a degree in dentistry. Samuels is quite right to be startled that Rhodes leapt from fiction writing to foreign policy without much in between.

Rhodes at least learned something about the Iraq war before tackling Iran. As an aid to Representative Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana), he took notes during the Iraq Study Group meeting and wrote parts of the report. He never went to Iraq, though. The Iraq Study Group report was mostly a set of policy prescriptions, some of them smart and some of them boneheaded, crafted by people who were, as military personnel like to put it, “echelons above reality,” too far removed from what was actually happening on the ground in Iraq. None of the eight people in the Iraq Study Group were idiots, but Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor and businessman Vernon Jordan have no more business crafting American foreign policy than Robert DeNiro does. If you want to know what went on in Iraq, and how American policy affected that country for good and for ill, you’ll have to learn it from Iraqis who live there and American soldiers and Marines who served there.

Rhodes hates the foreign policy establishment. He calls it, for whatever reason, the Blob. Its members are all, according to him, a bunch of “morons.” “According to Rhodes,” Samuels writes, “the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.”

Aggressive intervention in Iraq failed to make the Middle East a better place. No question about it. So did light intervention in Libya. So did non-intervention in Syria. Nothing seems to work over there. Whether you’re hawkish or dovish, interventionist or isolationist, the last decade of history should be embarrassing. 

Foreign policy is excruciatingly hard. It requires us to choose the least horrible option, and the least horrible option is never obvious, especially not in an unpredictable and often nonsensical place like the Middle East. Ghastly things happen no matter what we do, even if we do everything right. That wouldn’t change if we launched every member of the Blob into orbit.  

We are all anti-establishment now (except those of us who are not). Even President Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor is anti-establishment now, even though, as Eli Lake put it in Bloomberg, Obama's foreign policy guru is the 'Blob' he hates.

Hatred of the establishment, whether it’s genuine or affected, is a reaction against the inadequacies and failures of the past and present, and it’s perfectly understandable. Sometimes it’s tempting to think a plumber from Poughkeepsie or a real estate agent from Des Moines might handle world affairs better than George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but replacing the old Blob with a fresh one produces the same result as a revolt against knowledge and experience.

Postscript: My seventh book, Dispatches, is out now. You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

Kyiv’s New Leadership and Ukraine's Economic Prospects

MOTYL: Mr. Monyak, as Executive Vice President for Eurasia at WorldBusiness Capital, how would you assess existing investment opportunities in Ukraine?

Great Power Confrontation in the South China Sea

On Friday in Beijing, Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, presented a united stand against the US on a host of issues in their joint press conference.

Among the topics were Beijing’s territorial claims. “We are of the same view with Minister Lavrov that the disputes around the South China Sea should be settled peacefully through negotiations among the directly involved countries,” declared Wang. “We discussed the situation in the South China Sea,” Lavrov noted. “The Russian stance is invariable—these problems should not be internationalized—none of the external players should try to interfere in their settlement efforts.”

The irony, of course, is that Russia, a non-claimant, was involving itself by telling others not to involve themselves.

The US and Russia are not the only non-South China Sea states believing they have an interest in that contested body of water. India and, more recently, Japan have also made their presence felt, sending ships through what they consider to be a part of the global commons.

Iran Recruits Child Soldiers – Again

The Iranian government is broadcasting a music video made by the Basij militia recruiting children to fight in Syria’s civil war.

The original is in Persian (Farsi), but the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) translated some of the lyrics.

“On my leader [Ayatollah Khamenei’s] orders I am ready to give my life.

The goal is not just to free Iraq and Syria;

My path is through the sacred shrine [in Syria], but my goal is to reach Jerusalem.

… I don’t regret parting from my country;

In this just path I am wearing my martyrdom shroud.”

Iran’s regime has done this before. During the Iran-Iraq War, which killed around a million people between 1980 and 1988, the Basij recruited thousands of children to clear minefields.

After lengthy cult-like brainwashing sessions, the poor kids placed plastic keys around their necks, symbolizing martyrs’ permission to enter paradise, and ran ahead of Iranian ground troops and tanks to remove Iraqi mines by detonating them with their feet and blowing their small bodies to pieces.

Children have been fighting in wars as long as there have been wars, but shoving them into the meat grinder in the 21st century is a war crime expressly prohibited and sometimes even punished by all civilized governments. The International Criminal Court in The Hague, for instance, convicted Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of war crimes in 2012 for “conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities.”

The Basij is a paramilitary branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or Pasdaran, and it’s commanded by the iron-fisted head of state, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It's mostly used for internal repression and provided many of the shock troops who brutally suppressed non-violent demonstrations during the Green Revolution in 2009.

“Parallel institutions” (nahad-e movazi) is how Iranians refer to the quasi-official organs of repression that have become increasingly open in crushing student protests,” writes Human Rights Watch, “detaining activists, writers, and journalists in secret prisons, and threatening pro-democracy speakers and audiences at public events. These groups have carried out brutal assaults against students, writers, and reformist politicians, and have set up arbitrary checkpoints around Tehran. Groups such as Ansar-e Hizbollah and the Basij work under the control of the Office of the Supreme Leader, and there are many reports that the uniformed police are often afraid to directly confront these plainclothes agents. Illegal prisons, which are outside of the oversight of the National Prisons Office, are sites where political prisoners are abused, intimidated, and tortured with impunity.”

The Basij is also known, ludicrously I should add, as the Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed. These people are superpredators. They attack unarmed civilians with knives, motorcycle chains and axes. They rape young women and boys. They have raped and murdered women who don’t adhere to strict Islamic dress codes.

If these people behaved this way in most parts of America, they’d be tried for capital murder and executed, but they’re above the law in Iran, answering only to the Supreme Leader, and now that they’re recruiting children again, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate them from ISIS.

“Deception of children by the mullahs and demagogy such as reaching Jerusalem via Aleppo point to two realities,” Shahin Gobadi, who’s on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the NCRI said to me in an email through an intermediary. “First, despite deploying more than 60,000 forces from the IRGC, foreign mercenaries, and even its regular army, the clerical regime is facing a complete deadlock in Syria. Its forces have sustained heavy casualties in Syria and as such are totally demoralized. For instance, at least 40 IRGC generals have been killed there. In order to fill this vacuum, the regime has resorted to deceiving children to be dispatched to the war fronts. This is what it used to do during the Iran-Iraq war, but it ultimately failed miserably.

“Second,” he continued, “the war in Syria and keeping the dictator Bashar Assad in power is so crucial for the Iranian regime's supreme leader Ali Khamenei that he is willing to pay any price for this objective.  In February in a meeting with the families of the regime’s forces who were killed in Syria, Khamenei said that if we did not fight in Syria, we would have had to fight with our opposition in major Iranian cities. Resorting to the tactic of mobilizing teenagers only leads to one conclusion, the mullahs are facing a deadly impasse in Syria.” 

The Iranian government desperately needs the Assad regime in Damascus and the Abadi government in Iraq because they’re Iran’s only allies in the entire Arab world. A moderate and democratic Iran would have no trouble forging normal and friendly relations with moderate Arabs governments like Jordan’s, Tunisia’s, Morocco’s and possibly even Egypt’s, but the revolutionary state that’s been entrenched there since 1979 isn’t tolerated any better in capitals like Cairo and Riyadh than it is in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

By cutting deals with the Iranian government, the United States is increasingly out of step with the region, but if the Basij actually sends children into battle in Iraq and Syria—where ISIS crucifies and beheads its enemies and detests no one on earth as much as Iranian Persians and Shias—it’s going to be harder for Washington officials to explain themselves without going red in the face than it has been in a while.

Kremlin Leaves Nothing to Chance as Election Nears

MOSCOW—As Russia’s September 18th parliamentary election draws closer, the Kremlin is busy preparing the groundwork. In the last few weeks, the Duma—itself a product of the fraudulent 2011 election that drew more than 100,000 protesters to the streets of Moscow—rubberstamped a slate of new draconian laws targeting the electoral process, from campaigning to observation.

China’s ‘Triple Bubble’ Economy Poised to Burst

After a nearly disastrous start to the year in January and February, China’s economy steadied itself in March. Now, the early April indicators suggest a continuation of the uptick.

The China bulls, however, are premature in their projections of a sustained recovery. To the contrary, the economy appears poised to be a default or two away from a world-shaking crash.

When economic indicators look too good to be true, as China’s now do, they signal trouble ahead. There are two principal reasons why the present circumstances are cause for alarm. 

Iran Unleashes the Morality Police

Just at the moment sanctions are being lifted on Iran, and even Saudi Arabia’s medieval government is easing up on internal repression, Iran’s “morality police” are back in force. This time they’re going undercover.

7,000 new officers have been unleashed into the streets to ensure everyone—especially women—adheres to strict Islamic codes of morality when they’re out in public. The officers don’t wear uniforms. They don’t identify themselves in any way. Instead, they blend in and mix with people as much as possible, then report the “criminals” they find, such as women who wear fingernail polish or have too much hair showing under their headscarves, to uniformed authorities.

“On Sunday,” Yara Elmjouie reports in the Guardian, “195 members of the Iranian parliament signed a letter warning moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to get serious about confronting women failing to properly observe modest Islamic covering - or hijab - or else, the letter reads, Iranian society will face ‘irreversible consequences’ from a western cultural onslaught seeking to ‘change the Iranian people’s way of life vis-à-vis hijab and chastity.’”

It ought to go without saying that there’s nothing inherently Western about women refusing to cover their heads when they go out in public. Japanese women don’t cover their heads. Neither do women in South Africa, China, or Mexico. Neither, for that matter, do women in Muslim-majority Kosovo.

Iranian women are retaliating against all this nonsense by defiantly publishing photographs of themselves taking off their hijabs on websites like Facebook, but the regime is fighting back.

“For weeks state TV has drawn attention to the hijab in televised debates,” Elmjouie continues, “and pro-hijab posters likening badly veiled women to unwrapped candy bars preyed on by flies made the rounds on social networks.”

Naifs the world over applauded when the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani replaced the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2013, but this guy was never going to make much of a difference. The Iranian presidency is not quite a ceremonial role, but it’s not a very powerful one either.

Ali Khamenei, the self-styled “supreme leader,” is the head of state. He and his Revolutionary Guard Corps control foreign policy absolutely, and he mostly directs internal policy. Rouhani asked the hardliners to stop interfering so much in everyone’s personal life like the totalitarians they are, but there’s not much he can do about it. He could be a pot-smoking libertarian transgender rights activist, and it still wouldn’t change anything in Iran—except, of course, that he’d be flogged and tortured in Evin Prison if he were any of those things.

He’s not, of course, and he’s not even meaningfully moderate. Khamenei hand-picked him and just a few others to run for the presidency a couple of years ago. Khamenei selects every candidate for the presidency, and he’d rather chew off his own legs than choose anyone who is moderate by any definition of that word outside Iran.

Khamenei’s people don’t even qualify as moderate by Middle Eastern standards, let alone global standards. Iran is one of only two countries in the entire Middle East where women are required by law to cover their heads when they go outside. Even foreign women who aren’t Muslims have to cover their heads in Iran. That’s completely unnecessary everywhere in North Africa and the Levant. It’s not even required in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon. It’s only the law in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Just north of Iran in Azerbaijan, which would be part of Iran today if Russia hadn’t conquered it roughly 200 years ago, more than 99 percent of women dress like women everywhere else in the world. I spent a week there and saw fewer Islamic headscarves than I see in Seattle—just two during the entire week. I assumed the young women wearing them were probably foreigners. If they were locals, they were as far out of the mainstream as Zoroastrians are in America. There’s a statue in the capital that shows a woman removing her headscarf. It has been there for more than 100 years.

Iran probably wouldn’t be that aggressively secular if it had a genuinely representative government—unlike Iran, Azerbaijan spent more than a half century under communist rule—but it would almost certainly look like Lebanon or Turkey where there’s a healthy balance between the secular and the devout. The Iranian government wouldn’t need to send thousands of undercover “morality police” into the streets in the first place if adherence to strict Islamic codes was what everybody actually wanted.

Iranians, when left alone, are far more liberal-minded and modern than Saudis. The Iranian and Saudi governments, though, are remarkably similar in their fanatical absurdity. The Saudi government has always been more severe, but just at the moment when the Iranian regime is tightening the screws again, Saudi Arabia’s own morality police are being stripped of some of their powers.

The Muttaween, or the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, are no longer allowed to question, ID, chase, arrest or detain people suspected of any “crime,” such as mingling with members of the opposite sex. As of two weeks ago, that’s the job for the regular police. According to the Cabinet, the Muttaween must “encourage virtue and forbid vice by kindly and gently advising as carried out by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his rightful successors.” They are also required to show their identity cards.

Iran’s “morality police,” meanwhile, do not have to show their identity cards. Instead, they’re blending into the civilian population and ratting out their friends and neighbors like a Middle Eastern version of East Germany’s Stasi.

The regime has proven itself remarkably durable since seizing power in 1979. All tyrants fall in the end, but the hardliners are feeling confident in the meantime. Why shouldn’t they? They put down the Green Revolution in 2009. The United States just cut a world historical deal and will even cover for them when they cheat. There’s hardly any external pressure on Tehran whatsoever to grant its citizens even an iota of freedom or dignity. Like most people on earth, Iran’s people have to seize it by force for themselves. When it finally happens, the country will be all but unrecognizable.

The truth, though, is that it will simply be reverting to normal. It’s easy to find photographs from the 1970s that show no women at all wearing the hijab, as if they were living in the United States, Europe or Israel rather than any nation anywhere in the world with a Muslim majority.

“The name Iran,” Iranian writer Reza Zarabi wrote a decade ago, “which used to be equated with such things as luxury, fine wine, and the arts, has become synonymous with terrorism. When the Islamic Republic government of Iran finally meets its demise, they will have many symbols and slogans as testaments of their rule, yet the most profound will be their genocide of Islam, the black stain that they have put on this faith for many generations to come.”

Putin Celebrates Unrepentant Fascist Zhirinovsky

This time, Vladimir Putin has out-Putined himself.

On April 18, Russia’s erratic, though consistently anti-democratic, leader awarded the Russian Federation’s prestigious “For Service to the Fatherland Order, Class II,” to none other than Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Zhirinovsky, who is the head of the bizarrely named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, has been an unabashed promoter of Russian illiberalism, fascism, and imperialism since he first made a splash in the Duma elections of 1993, when his party garnered 23 percent of the vote.

Zhirinovsky has never minced his words. To his credit, he’s never pretended to be anything but an imperialist and a fascist. Indeed, he’s been so brazen, so outrageous, and so unapologetic that not even Putin Russia’s most ardent Western apologists apologize for him.  

Here’s a classic Zhirinovsky statement threatening Eastern Europe with war, from August 2014:

Ukraine’s New Cabinet

How should we evaluate Ukraine’s just-completed process of forming a new coalition and cabinet?

For starters, coalitions and cabinets are routinely changed in democracies. Devious presidents, devious prime ministers, and devious parliamentarians are also business as usual. So, too, are horse trading, smoke-filled rooms, shady deals, opportunistic bargains, and outrageous demands. Although these things usually dismay and demoralize non-politicians like most of us, their presence actually signifies that a democratic process is taking place.

That said Ukraine isn’t a run-of-the-mill democracy. It’s a transitional democracy mired in economic crisis and war. While other elites can squabble to their hearts’ content, those in Ukraine have a political and moral obligation to set aside personal ambitions and animosities and, in the national interest, find effective solutions quickly. When time is of the essence, one can’t waste two months, as the Ukrainians just did, trying to come up with a new coalition and cabinet. That’s criminal.

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