Quantcast

Blogs

How Do We Deal With a Self-Isolating China?

“It’s on China not to be isolated,” said Admiral Harry Harris to David Feith of the Wall Street Journal in an interview published this month. “It’s on them to conduct themselves in ways that aren’t threatening, that aren’t bullying, that aren’t heavy-handed with smaller countries.”

The chief of US Pacific Command is correct, of course. His comment, the WSJ noted, “raises a basic question.” As the paper asks, “At what point is it prudent to conclude that China is committed to the path of bullying and revanchism?”

As early as the beginning of the decade, Beijing has engaged in a series of hostile acts that, with abbreviated time-outs, has continued to this day. Even if one argues that China’s commitment to provocative conduct occurred later or has yet to be made, the country is roiling its periphery at this moment, most notably in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Trivializing Genocide: A Dangerous Distraction

What do the Polish Sejm and the Donetsk People’s Republic have in common? They’ve both contributed to the ongoing transformation of genocide into a term that has come to stand for little more than deplorable acts of violence.

On July 22, the Polish Sejm declared that the killing in 1943 by Ukrainian nationalists of “over 100,000” Polish citizens in Volhynia, in Ukraine’s northwest, was a genocide. On June 2, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the self-styled head of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, stated that “The public of Donbass initiates an appeal to the international organisations to stop the genocide of the people of Donbas by the Ukrainian authorities....”

Liberal Democracy and its Discontents

A set of disturbing essays and reports has landed on my desk over the summer that together paint a grim picture of the state of liberal democracy in the early 21st century—and the grimness is not restricted to the dumpster fire of an election we’re currently enduring in the United States.

Let’s start with political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk. They published an unsettling report in the July issue in the Journal of Democracy that portends a rough road ahead for nearly all the Western countries. 

“Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders,” they write. “Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated.”

Their chart on page 7 is alarming. They track attitudes toward and confidence in democratic government, and they’ve found that each generation currently alive is more authoritarian than older generations—with young Millenials the least democratic of all.

For those born in the 1930s, 75 percent of Americans and 53 percent of Europeans say it’s “essential” that they live in a country that is governed democratically. The percentage of those born in the 1980s who say this, by contrast, is in the low 40s in Europe and the low 30s in the United States.

A majority—a majority—of young people in the West no longer think of democracy as essential.

Their chart on page 9 therefore isn’t surprising. Twelve percent of Americans 65 or older think “having a democratic political system” is a “bad” thing while almost 25 percent of Americans under the age of 24 believe this.

Shockingly, only 32 percent of Millennials think it's “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.”

What on earth is going on?

Partly it’s a matter of historical experience. Those born in the 1930s were alive during Hitler’s conquest of Europe. Those born a bit later have no memory of World War II, but they do remember Stalinist Russia, a more distant threat, but one that was still frankly terrifying. Those born later still have no memory of the darkest days of the Soviet Union, but they do remember the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.

Those born as late as the 1980s have no memory of living in a world where democracy was threatened in any serious way. It is so much easier for youngsters to take democracy for granted. For them, it’s like taking oxygen for granted. They have fewer real-world foils to compare democracy with. Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others doesn’t resonate with them in quite the same way.

It’s easy to take oxygen for granted if no one is holding your head under water, but none of us, it’s safe to say, would argue that oxygen isn’t essential or that it’s a bad thing. Yet a quarter of young people think democracy is actually bad.

There’s a lot more going on, though, than an authoritarian youth generation. Mounk just published another piece, this time in Slate, called The Week Democracy Died.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

[…]

Across the affluent, established democracies of North America and Western Europe, the last years have witnessed a meteoric rise of figures who may not be quite so brash or garish as [Republican presidential nominee Donald] Trump and yet bear a striking resemblance to him: Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many of the leading Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. They too harness a new level of anger that is quite unlike anything liberal democracies have witnessed in a half-century. They too promise to stand up for ordinary people, to do away with a corrupt political elite, and to put the ethnic and religious minorities who are now (supposedly) being favored in their rightful (subordinate) place. They, too, are willing to do away with liberal political institutions like an independent judiciary or a free, robust press so long as those stand in the way of the people’s will.  Together, they are building a new type of political regime that is slowly coming into its own: illiberal democracy.

[…]

Political elites are understandably terrified by the speed with which illiberal democracy is coming into its own. But if the populists are pushing for a political system that does away with one half of liberal democracy, the truth is that a large number of establishment politicians are increasingly tempted to embrace a system that does away with the other half. Where Trump and Le Pen seek to establish an illiberal democracy, a lot of sensible centrists are quietly seeking their salvation in what I call “undemocratic liberalism.” If the people want to violate the rights of unloved minorities, setting up the prospect of democracy without rights, the political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands, opting for a form of rights without democracy.

Here’s historian Jeffrey Herf in The American Interest echoing Mounk’s concern about the rising authoritarian tide on the political right:

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Trump phenomenon has been the bond he has created with, first, a third of Republican primary voters, followed by two thirds of them. Trump discovered what the classic demagogues of the 20th century understood: namely, that in a democracy it is possible to gain millions of votes by appealing to the worst in people. Trump, like Mussolini and Hitler but also like Stalin and Mao, understands that there are millions who enjoy hatred, who take pleasure in humiliating others, who find relief in giving a face and a name—Mexicans and Muslims today, Jews, capitalists and imperialists—to complex economic and social processes. The infuriating aspect of the Trump phenomenon was not only Trump but even more so that so many of our fellow Americans have proven to be suckers for his lies, and that the Republican Party political establishment, with some stunning exceptions, cravingly began to fall into line behind him or, in March, on the whole held back from taking him on with the ferocity and persistence that the defense of our democracy required. Donald Trump was not a fascist, but there was a whiff of fascism in the air around him. His rallies exuded menace and violence, and that too added to his appeal.

[…]

The Democratic Party is exasperating to those of us who opposed the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq, and his refusal to lead NATO into an intervention to stop the Syrian civil war. It is exasperating that the heart and soul of the Democratic Party gives no indication of being able and willing to carry on an ideological offensive against Islamism, or to explain how that perverted ideology is different from the religion of Islam. The rise of a genuinely leftist—not liberal but leftist—wing within the Democratic Party is also a source of concern. Yet in sharp contrast to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party establishment defeated [Bernie] Sanders’s effort at a hostile takeover. Its establishment held firm and defended its principles. The success of Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party, and Sanders failure to do the same to the Democrats, means that Hillary Clinton is now the only candidate running for President who supports the fundamentals of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus adopted by the United States since the Administration of Franklin Roosevelt. I look forward to voting for her!

Herf should heed Mounk before getting too excited. For indeed the establishment poses its own set of problems, which Myron Magnet exposes with ferocity in the pages City Journal:

We have lost the government we learned about in civics class, with its democratic election of representatives to do the voters’ will in framing laws, which the president vows to execute faithfully, unless the Supreme Court rules them unconstitutional. That small government of limited powers that the Founders designed, hedged with checks and balances, hasn’t operated for a century. All its parts still have their old names and appear to be carrying out their old functions. But in fact, a new kind of government has grown up inside the old structure, like those parasites hatched in another organism that grow by eating up their host from within, until the adult creature bursts out of the host’s carcass. This transformation is not an evolution but a usurpation.

What has now largely displaced the Founders’ government is what’s called the Administrative State—a transformation premeditated by its main architect, Woodrow Wilson. The thin-skinned, self-righteous college-professor president, who thought himself enlightened far beyond the citizenry, dismissed the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable rights as so much outmoded “nonsense,” and he rejected the Founders’ clunky constitutional machinery as obsolete.

[…]

[T]he Administrative State’s constitutional transgressions cut deeper still. If Congress can’t delegate its legislative powers, it certainly can’t delegate judicial powers, which the Constitution gives exclusively to the judiciary. Nevertheless, after these administrative agencies make rules like a legislature, they then exercise judicial authority like a court by prosecuting violations of their edicts and inflicting real criminal penalties, such as fines and cease-and-desist orders. As they perform all these functions, they also violate the principle of the separation of powers, which lies at the heart of our constitutional theory (senselessly curbing efficiency, Wilson thought), as well as the due process of law, for they trample the citizen’s Fifth Amendment right not to lose his property unless indicted by a grand jury and tried by a jury of his peers, and they search a citizen or a company’s private papers or premises, without bothering to get judge-issued subpoenas or search warrants based on probable cause, flouting the Fourth Amendment. They can issue waivers to their rules, so that the law is not the same for all citizens and companies but is instead an instrument of arbitrary power. FDR himself ruefully remarked that he had expanded a fourth branch of government that lacked constitutional legitimacy. Not only does it reincarnate the arbitrary power of the Stuarts’ tyrannical Star Chamber, but also it doesn’t even meet the minimal conditions of liberty that Magna Carta set forth 801 years ago.

This isn’t just an American problem. The European Union is an order of magnitude more bureaucratic and autocratic than the American administrative state, and it’s provoking a grotesque and dangerous backlash across the Atlantic. Back in June, Sohrab Ahmari wrote a chilling essay in Commentary about what he calls the worldwide crisis of rising illiberalism.

Trumpism (and Bernie Sanders-ism) are but the [parochial] American symptoms of a global phenomenon: the astonishing rise of illiberal movements of the far right and far left.

[…]

In France, President François Hollande’s Socialists and the center-right Republicans of former President Nikolas Sarkozy have had to resort to tactical voting alliances to shut out Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front. In Austria, the anti-immigration Freedom Party, or FPO, thumped the mainstream parties in the first round of elections to the presidency in April, forcing the center-left prime minister to resign. Norbert Hofer, the FPO candidate, lost the runoff in May, after the mainstream parties urged their supporters to back his Green Party opponent—lest Austria become the first country in Western Europe to elect a far-right head of state since World War II.

Next door in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing nationalist Fidesz Party has gradually hollowed out the country’s democratic institutions. He has politicized the judiciary, nationalized pensions by decree, proscribed “unbalanced” media coverage, and removed a slew of other checks and balances on his own power. The prime minister has mused about “building an illiberal new national state” on Turkish, Russian, and Chinese blueprints. His main opposition is the openly anti-Semitic Jobbik Party.

A new government in Poland is following Orbán’s footsteps with a restrictive media law, efforts to erode judicial independence, and a defense minister who thinks the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are real. Finland’s election last year brought the populist Finns Party into the governing coalition on a platform of opposition to the previous government’s liberal-Atlanticist agenda. Germany’s local elections in March resulted in the far-right Alternative for Germany Party making significant gains at the expense of the embattled Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats.

Spain and Greece have seen the rise of Syriza and Podemos respectively—far-left parties with roots in the anti-globalization movement. Underscoring Greece’s Weimar-esque conditions, the Golden Dawn Party (with a Hellenic swastika for a logo) came third in 2015’s election. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s project to transform the country’s parliamentary democracy into an Ottoman sultanate is nearly complete.

Then there is Britain, where the hard-left wing of Labour has taken over the party. Rising to the leadership in the aftermath of last year’s electoral rout, Jeremy Corbyn has broken the party’s peace with free enterprise and individual responsibility—the main reformist achievement of Tony Blair’s New Labour. The party once again longs for socialism and speaks the language of class warfare at home, while anti-Americanism, pacifism, and blame-the-West attitudes dominate its foreign policy.

You may notice that these writers hail from both sides of the political spectrum, from the center-right as well as the center-left. There’s plenty to be alarmed about no matter where you sit if you aren't part of the problem.

Still, Mounk takes a deep breath. “Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed,” he writes. “Not once.” He adds, though, that throughout this period of stable consolidated democracies, living standards have been rising, the world’s most powerful nation has been a liberal democracy, and that most democracies have been relatively homogenous.

What will happen in a world where those things are no longer true, especially when rising generations care less for democracy than their elders? And what will happen, as we continue to pass through the transition we’re clearly in now, if Western democracies suffer sustained French-style terrorist campaigns by Middle Easterners with the warped minds of medieval genocidaires?

Nobody knows, but it’s probably safe to say at this point that the relative tranquility the West has enjoyed now for decades in ending. 

Comments are Temporarily Closed

This election year is a dumpster fire. Political discussion boards all over the Internet are more abrasive than usual—and the baseline is plenty abrasive already.

So I’ve decided to turn off my comment section for the time being. It’s better for the state of my nerves and mental health if I avoid the discussion threads for a while, and if I’m not there as a moderator, no one will be there as a moderator. If nobody is moderating the comment section, it will be taken over by trolls who will drive every half-way reasonable person away. This isn’t a maybe. It’s a virtually guaranteed outcome.

Better, I think, if we all just take a break for a while.

Xi Jinping Purge of Military Brass Continues

Two former Chinese generals were taken into custody in recent weeks, according to a report that appeared in the South China Morning Post. The detentions look to be in connection with General Secretary Xi Jinping’s campaign to clean house in the Communist Party’s sprawling People’s Liberation Army.

According to “a source close to the military,” former Generals Li Jinai and Liao Xilong were escorted out of meeting of retired senior cadres in July by “PLA disciplinary officers.” The report states the two generals, who both retired in the first part of 2013, were detained for possible “violations of party discipline,” the ruling organization’s code for corruption.

Iran Payment Wasn’t Ransom, but it Was Ransom

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that an American plane carrying 400 million dollars in cash landed in Iran at the precise time the Iranian government released four American hostages.

Critics claim the 400 million was a ransom payment. The White House and State Department deny it emphatically.

They’re right. The 400 million wasn’t a ransom payment, but it was a ransom payment.

The United States sort of owes Iran money. In 1979, the previous government of Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi paid 400 million dollars for weapons. The US never shipped the purchased weapons because Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah’s government and took 52 Americans hostage.

We could have given the money back, but the new Iranian government declared war on us and kidnapped our diplomats, so we didn’t. The Obama administration says we’re just paying Iran back, but the Iranians insist otherwise.

“Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies,” Iranian General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, commander of the Basij militia, said on Iran’s state-run television.

Only the willfully ignorant would claim the American government never lies about anything. Still, Washington is more honest and reliable than Tehran. And State Department spokesman John Kirby insists this is nonsense.

“The negotiations over the settlement of an outstanding claim…were completely separate from the discussions about returning our American citizens home,” he said. “Not only were the two negotiations separate, they were conducted by different teams on each side, including, in the case of The Hague claims, by technical experts involved in these negotiations for many years.”

That’s probably true as far as it goes. If the US owes Iran money, paying it back isn’t the same as paying a ransom because ransom money is extorted rather than owed. Fine.

But that’s not the whole story.

“American victims of Iranian terrorism won judgments against the Islamic Republic in U.S. courts,” Lee Smith writes in the Weekly Standard, “and the Clinton administration, as a Newsweek article reported in January, promised that the settlements would be paid out of the $400 million. But the Clinton White House never reimbursed the Treasury Department, nor did the Bush administration. The $400 million that Obama aides say belongs to Iran should have long ago been distributed to Iran's American victims and their families. Instead, it was U.S. taxpayers who compensated the victims of Iranian terror. And then we paid $400 million a second time, in January, to the Iranians themselves. The $1.3 billion of interest that the United States is supposed to have owed the Iranians is simply a fiction the Obama administration contrived to sweeten the pot, since the United States was under no legal obligation to pay Iran money that was no longer Iran's.”

But let’s put that aside for the sake of discussion. It’s not the whole story either. Assuming the United States legitimately owed Iran this 400 million, what’s up with releasing four American hostages at the very same moment the money arrived?

Did Iran’s ruler just up and decide to release these people because he had a guilty conscience?

Why did the Iranian government snatch these four in the first place? These people had no connection to each other. They were arrested—kidnapped—at different times and in different places. They were all charged with crimes.

Yet they were all released at the same time on the same day and went home on the same plane.

Why?

Something happened. If it wasn’t the 400 million dollar cash payment, what was it?

Only conspiracy theorists believe there are no coincidences, but some kind of a quid pro quo is a far more plausible explanation than a long chain of extraordinary coincidences. 

A letter from the Iranian government that says, in effect, “you have something of ours and we have something of yours,” isn’t exactly the same as a traditional ransom note, but it’s close enough for horseshoes, hand grenades and government work.

The fact that the United States sort of owes Iran money gives Washington a face-saving way to half-plausibly say it did not pay a ransom demand, but let’s keep in mind why American policy forbids paying ransom demands in the first place. If kidnapping American citizens is profitable, more American citizens will be kidnapped. If kidnapping American citizens is a waste of effort, money, and time—if, instead, it is punished—far fewer American citizens will be kidnapped.

Paying a ransom that isn’t technically a ransom encourages hostage-taking almost as much as paying a regular ransom. Which is why we shouldn’t do it.

One of the freed hostages, Saeed Abedini, said that he and the other three were ready to go at 10:00 pm but had to spend the night in the airport, and he complained to his captors about it. “The reason they said you’re here in the airport,” he said, “is because we are waiting for another plane.” The Iranians didn’t mention that there was money on the plane they were waiting for, but the hostages’ own plane was already gassed up and ready to go. It had been parked at the airport all night. They were waiting for another plane, but they weren’t waiting to switch planes.

State Department Spokesperson Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau disputes Abedini’s claim even though he was there and she wasn’t.

“I’m not going to get into the tick-tock of specifics,” she said in a press conference on Monday, “but claims that our freed Americans were not allowed to depart Iran until a plane full of cash landed anywhere are false. As U.S. officials have previously publicly discussed, there was a delay in our citizens being released that day that had nothing to do with the Hague settlement and was related to resolving some last-minute issues solely related to the prisoners – most importantly, locating and ensuring all of the individuals who were involved with the prisoner swap were on the plane and ready to depart – Mr. Rezaian, Mr. Abedini, Mr. Hekmati. Suffice it to say getting all the pieces put into place, making sure our citizens were released, and with our reciprocal goodwill gesture of providing relief to certain Iranian citizens here in the United States, required delicate diplomacy up to the end. So I think that answers your question.”

Matt Lee from the Associated Press found that an unsatisfactory answer and continued to badger Trudeau.

LEE: I just want to know -- I just want to try and get this cleared up. Am I ever going to get an answer to the question about the planes?

TRUDEAU: I've given you the answer I can give.

LEE: So there is no attempt on your part to uncover more information about what...

TRUDEAU: We've given you what we can give, Matt.

LEE: So it's basically a waste of time to keep asking about it? Is that what you're saying?

TRUDEAU: Pretty much. Yeah. I appreciate the question. As we've said, we're not going to get into a tick-tock. We've explained what the delay was for the plane with the Americans leaving, and I'll leave it at that.

We all need to be clear about something. As Lee Smith writes, “Hostage-taking is a key instrument of Iranian statecraft. Tehran has found it useful for its adversaries to understand that it is willing to violate international political and diplomatic norms to have its way…It's simply how the Iranians do things. Hezbollah, Iran's praetorian guard in Lebanon, took plenty of Americans and other nationals hostage in Beirut in the 1980s. In order to free them, the Reagan administration gave weapons to Iran, Hezbollah's patron.”

Even so, let’s just say for the sake of argument that this didn’t even resemble a ransom payment. Let’s pretend, for the sake of discussion, that Iran released its hostages because it had a guilty conscience and that the arrival of the 400 million in cash was a total coincidence. And let’s also pretend—while acknowledging that we’re venturing deep into an alternative universe here—that the 400 million shouldn’t have gone to the American victims of Iranian terrorism and hostage-taking.

Washington was still wrong to pay Iran the 400 million.

Why?

Because the United States shouldn’t give money to any nation for any reason that we aren’t at peace with. Would Washington have paid back a loan to Nazi Germany in 1943? Of course not. Would the US have given diddly-squat to the Taliban after 9/11? No way. Nor were Osama bin Laden’s 100 million dollars in assets ever unfrozen.

Far fewer Americans would have problem returning 400 million dollars to Iran if the payment came at the absolute end of hostilities and the beginning of an era of peace and cooperation, but that’s not even close to what’s happening.

Look. Refusing to pay a ransom isn’t about the money. Governments can afford it. Taxpayers won’t even feel it. It’s about refusing to endanger the life and liberty of American citizens abroad by refusing to make kidnapping profitable.

“The trouble is,” says NPR reporter Michele Keleman, “since then, Iranian authorities have arrested more Westerners. They're now holding three Iranian-Americans as well as dual nationals from the U.K. and Canada.”

Why shouldn’t the Iranian regime continue taking American hostages? It pays.

China's Coming Population Crisis: Guns vs. Canes

“It completely baffles me why they are pushing for taking all those islands now,” a friend wrote to me late last month, referring to Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea.

China’s provocations are frequently attributed to President Xi Jinping’s nationalism, and another reason, almost always ignored, is the ascendance of the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing policymaking circles. Howard French, former bureau chief of the New York Times in Shanghai, suggests another often overlooked factor fueling Beijing’s expansionist impulse—China’s accelerated demographic decline.

Kremlin Tightens Grip on Devastated Donbas

Mykhaylo Pashkov, co-director of the Foreign Policy and International Security Program of the highly respected Razumkov Center in Kyiv, has written an exceptionally timely, sober, and important report on current conditions, as well as an astute analysis of the future of the Russian-occupied Donbas. It should be required reading for all Ukrainian policy makers. Once translated into English, it should also be required reading for Western policy makers.

Pashkov has no illusions about the occupied enclave’s return to Ukraine anytime soon. He has even fewer illusions about the likelihood that the Minsk accords will lead to anything. After all, the key stumbling block is Russia, whose “maximally simplified position vis-à-vis regulating the Donbas amounts to this: we will continue killing your soldiers until you change your Constitution according to our wishes.” 

Russia Hacks the Republican Party

If Ronald Reagan could come back from the dead, he’d kick Donald Trump in the balls. Because somehow, astonishingly, the Republican candidate for president of the United States is pro-Russian and anti-NATO.

“NATO is obsolete and it's extremely expensive for the United States, disproportionately so,” he said in March. “And we should readjust NATO.” In July, he told the New York Times that he would only assist European nations during a Russian invasion if they first “fulfilled their obligations to us.”

“Look at Putin,” Trump said in 2007. “Whether you like him or don't like him—he’s doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.” “I think I'd get along very well with Vladimir Putin,” he said last year. “I just think so.” “Will he become my new best friend?” he tweeted in 2013.

Many assumed he was joking last week when he called on Russia to hack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

His tone of voice didn’t suggest he was kidding, and he doubled down on it the next day on Twitter. It wouldn’t be funny even if he were kidding, though, because it’s precisely in line with everything he has ever said about Russia and its dictator Vladimir Putin when nobody thought he was joking.

His respect for the Russian strongman is even creeping into his policies, such as they are. A few days ago he said he will “look into” recognizing Russian sovereignty over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and dropping sanctions. And his campaign edited the Republican Party platform, substantially softening criticism of Russia’s invasion and dismemberment of its neighbor and weakening its support for the embattled pro-Western government in Kiev.

Trump supporters who are willing to admit that their man doesn’t know the first thing about world affairs—every single person in my comments section knows more about the subject than he does, including the trolls—say it’s okay because he’ll hire advisors who do. Well, his campaign chairman Paul Manafort spent much of the past decade working for Putin’s Ukrainian pawn Viktor Yanukovych until the revolution toppled him a couple of years ago. Trump advisor General Michael Flynn is a regular guest on Kremlin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today) and even sat next to Putin at RT’s anniversary celebration. And Trump’s foreign policy advisor Carter Page has close ties to the Kremlin and Russian gas giant Gazprom.

“If you're not familiar with Gazprom,” Josh Marshall writes, “imagine if most or all of the US energy industry were rolled up into a single company and it were personally controlled by the US President who used it as a source of revenue and patronage. That is Gazprom's role in the Russian political and economic system. It is no exaggeration to say that you cannot be involved with Gazprom at the very high level which Page has been without being wholly in alignment with Putin's policies. Those ties also allow Putin to put Page out of business at any time.”

Josh Marshall is a partisan Democrat. If you don’t like hearing it from him, you can get it from Robert Zubrin at the staunchly conservative National Review. “Carter Page is an out-and-out Putinite. A consultant to and investor in the Kremlin’s state-run gas company, Gazprom, Page has a direct financial interest in ending American sanctions against the company. Not only that, but Page is tight with the Kremlin’s foreign-policy apparatus and has served as a vehement propagandist for it.”

These are the people Donald Trump hired to hold his hand and tell him what’s what.

He’s not a Russian “Manchurian” candidate. He doesn’t take orders from Moscow, nor is Vlad bankrolling the Donald. There is no conspiracy here. There doesn’t need to be. Their interests and opinions align organically. Trump genuinely likes Putin, and the feeling is mutual.

Still, as Franklin Foer reports in Slate, Putin doesn’t sit back and passively prefer various Western candidates for political office over others. He actively promotes them.

There’s a clear pattern: Putin runs stealth efforts on behalf of politicians who rail against the European Union and want to push away from NATO. He’s been a patron of Golden Dawn in Greece, Ataka in Bulgaria, and Jobbik in Hungary. Joe Biden warned about this effort last year in a speech at the Brookings Institution: “President Putin sees such political forces as useful tools to be manipulated, to create cracks in the European body politic which he can then exploit.” Ruptures that will likely multiply after Brexit—a campaign Russia’s many propaganda organs bombastically promoted.

[…]

Donald Trump is like the Kremlin’s favored candidates, only more so. He celebrated the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. He denounces NATO with feeling. He is also a great admirer of Vladimir Putin. Trump’s devotion to the Russian president has been portrayed as buffoonish enthusiasm for a fellow macho strongman. But Trump’s statements of praise amount to something closer to slavish devotion. In 2007, he praised Putin for “rebuilding Russia.” A year later he added, “He does his work well. Much better than our Bush.” When Putin ripped American exceptionalism in a New York Times op-ed in 2013, Trump called it “a masterpiece.” Despite ample evidence, Trump denies that Putin has assassinated his opponents: “In all fairness to Putin, you’re saying he killed people. I haven’t seen that.” In the event that such killings have transpired, they can be forgiven: “At least he’s a leader.” And not just any old head of state: “I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A.”

The overwhelming majority of conservatives everywhere in America have always been horrified by this sort of thing. Until now, heaping praise on thuggish anti-American dictators has been almost entirely the purview of people who make Bernie Sanders look like George Will—anarchists, flag-burners, useful communist idiots, radical ignorami with their Che T-shirts, Marxist professors and fatheaded celebrities like Sean Penn and Oliver Stone who can’t get enough of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.

There are a few famous exceptions. George W. Bush made a damn fool of himself in 2001 when he said of Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straight-forward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

“I looked into Putin’s eyes and saw three letters,” Senator John McCain said in response. “K, G, and B.”

That pretty much settled it on the right. The only holdouts are Pat Buchanan and his small claque of far-right dead-enders. “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?” Buchanan wrote in 2013. “In the culture war for mankind's future, is he one of us?”

Mitt Romney spoke for the center-right when he (correctly, in my view) slammed President Barack Obama for his refusal to take Putin’s anti-American hostility seriously. “There's no question but that the president’s naiveté with regards to Russia, and his faulty judgment about Russia's intentions and objectives, has led to a number of foreign policy challenges that we face,” he said on Face the Nation in 2014.

Compare that statement to what former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said last week when he defended Trump’s dissing of NATO. “I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place [Estonia] which is the suburbs of St Petersburg.”

Gingrich is a Trump surrogate, not the president, but a crack like that from a government official would constitute a de-facto green light for a Russian invasion of Europe.

Reagan’s ghost would kick Gingrich in the balls, too, if he could.

Estonia is no more a suburb of St. Petersburg than Texas is a “suburb” of Ciudad Juarez, but never mind that. NATO was forged as a Western alliance to protect Europe from Russian aggression at a time when Russia occupied half of Europe. That’s what it’s for. If NATO members won’t protect each other from Russia, of all countries, then it might as well disband now. Alternately, if Estonia is somehow a lesser member of NATO due to its unlucky geography, then we might as well give it the boot.

Gingrich knows all this. Unlike Trump, he’s an intelligent man. (He used to be a history professor.) If Marco Rubio had won the Republican nomination, no doubt Gingrich would be lambasting Hillary Clinton for being too soft on Vladimir, and especially for her embarrassing SmartPower (™) “reset” with Moscow in 2009.

There should be no doubt that if any other Republican candidate won the primary election this year, we wouldn’t be where we are right now, that the Democrats would still be the soft-on-Russia party and the Republicans would still be the hard-nosed realists. Trump won, though, so the two party’s positions have been reversed.

It’s probably safe to say that virtually nobody on the Republican side of the aisle voted for Trump in the primary because of his positions on Russia and NATO. No, the two parties have swapped places, at least for now, because of the whimsical attitudes of a single Republican-in-name-only. But it’s worse than that, really, because the Democratic Party, for all its faults, at least isn’t pro-Russian, nor is it anti-NATO.

What we’re seeing here is basically a covert hostile takeover. The rest of the GOP will need to loudly resist this for as long as it takes or face a serious risk that Trump’s message will become normalized and entrenched—especially if he wins the election. If enough Republicans follow Gingrich’s lead and toe the new party line, they’ll transform themselves for the worse into a party that nobody recognizes.

The End of World’s Rules-Based Order?

On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry, standing next to Perfecto Yasay, his Philippine counterpart, gave strong rhetorical support to the effort by Manila to negotiate with China over their sovereignty and other disputes.

Kerry’s words followed Monday’s statement issued by Australia, Japan, and the US calling for compliance with the July 12 award of the arbitral panel in The Hague on the South China Sea in Philippines vs. China. The ruling, now known in China as the “7.12 Incident,” essentially invalidated Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim to approximately 85 percent of that vital body of water.

25 Years of Ukraine’s Independence

Ukraine’s biggest achievement since independence in 1991 is to have confounded its critics, ill-wishers, and the Kremlin by surviving as a democratic state. Many expected Ukraine to be short-lived. And many others expected it to follow in the footsteps of its post-Soviet neighbors and abandon democracy. Instead, 25 years after independence, Ukraine survives as a democratic state, albeit an imperfect one.

Hanging with the People's Mujahadeen of Iran

In 1997, US President Bill Clinton added Iran’s People’s Mujahadeen (Mujahideen Khalq in Persian, or MEK) to the list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, and in 2012 his wife Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took them off.

One of them erred and erred badly.

The MEK fought hard against the Shah Reza Pahlavi before and during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Afterward, when the Islamist faction led by Ayatollah Khomeini emerged the strong horse in the ensuing struggle for power, they fought the new government alongside Iran’s leftist movements and lost.

Iran’s government insists on calling them terrorists and convinced Bill Clinton to do so as well.

They’re based in France now. They have to base themselves somewhere outside Iran because they’ll be tortured and executed if they go home. And they’ve formed a larger umbrella organization that includes other opposition movements called the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Every year they hold a huge rally in Paris that’s broadcast live on television (via satellite, of course) into Iran.

They invited me this year, so I went.

I was a little bit skeptical at the outset. Hillary Clinton only took them off the terrorist list a couple of years ago. Their roots are quasi-Marxist and Islamist. Their most strident critics insist that the MEK is some kind of a cult and that nobody inside Iran likes them. But I went anyway because…why not? I don’t work for them or answer to them. I can write whatever I want. I could denounce them as a gaggle of hysterical charlatans and propagandists and nothing bad would happen to me.

And they get that. “We won’t tell you what to write,” said Ali Safavi, the man who invited me. “We wouldn’t dare.”

He isn’t stupid. If they pressured me to write anything positive—or even anything in particular—I’d bust them for it in public and warn my colleagues in the media to avoid them.

I won’t, though. Whatever they were when they started out back in the 70s, they’ve gone mainstream in the meantime—not by Middle Eastern standards, but by Western standards.

They were squishily Marxist at the beginning, though they were never communist or even socialist, really. Mostly they belonged to Ali Shariati’s school of wild-eyed anti-imperialism. Since the United States backed the Shah, they were anti-American.

In the 1970s, when the Shah was still in power, they violently attacked Iranian targets. Some accuse them of attacking Western targets as well. Supposedly they bombed American-owned buildings and assassinated US military personnel in Iran. They insist, however, that they never attacked Westerners, that those hits were carried out by the communist splinter faction Peykar.

I don’t know who’s right. Maybe they didn’t do it. Maybe they pretend that they didn’t because they’re pro-American now and need American help. Either way, the 1970s were almost half a century ago. It’s not clear to me how much it should matter today even if they’re guilty.

What else was going on during the 1970s? Vietnamese officials were executing landlords and sending dissidents to “re-education” camps. Their soldiers killed tens of thousands of ours. (Ours killed many times more of theirs, of course.) America’s relations with Vietnam today are outstanding, though, because the past is the past. People change, parties change, governments change and history rolls ever onward.

Likewise, our relations with the MEK are outstanding. They haven’t even allegedly done anything bad to America for at least three and a half decades. Why would they? We have common enemies now. They’ve been ruthlessly persecuted by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Khomeinists insist the MEK is “contaminated” with atheism and the “Western plague.”

Here’s another reason the regime hates them so much: the MEK is the only major Middle Eastern political movement led by a woman, Maryam Rajavi. She is Iran’s Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled woman who wishes to overthrow an illegitimate government by rallying forces around her from abroad. (Unlike our Game of Thrones heroine, Rajavi is not angling to be queen, nor does she command any dragons.)

During the 1980s and 1990s, the MEK assassinated a number of regime officials and military officers inside Iran. Hence Iran’s designation of the MEK as a terrorist organization.

There is a difference, though, between guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Declaring that any and all violent action against a tyrannical regime is terrorism ignores the vast moral and political differences between the likes of Osama bin Laden and Thomas Jefferson. The imbecilic answer that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is not going to cut it. Crashing civilian airliners into the World Trade Center was an act of terrorism by any and all definitions while the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation was in practice and spirit its opposite.

Bill Clinton didn’t designate the MEK a terrorist organization because of what it did during the 1970s or even the 1990s. He added it to the list because he was trying to improve relations with the Iranian government after the alleged “moderate” Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election in 1997 and Khatami asked him to do it. Never mind that Khatami wasn’t a real moderate or even Iran’s head of state. Iran’s head of state, then as now, was “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei. Iran during Khatami’s time was no more “moderate” than it was with the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as its president. 

Want to know what real Iranian moderates look like? Take a look at the MEK’s 10-point platform for a future Iran.

1.                  A republic based on universal suffrage.

2.                  Individual freedoms, including free expression and a free press.

3.                  The abolition of the death penalty.

4.                  Separation of mosque and state.

5.                  Gender equality.

6.                  The rule of law.

7.                  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

8.                  Private property and a market economy.

9.                  A foreign policy based on peaceful coexistence.

10.              A non-nuclear Iran.

There’s nothing Marxist or Islamist in there. Those ten points read like the first draft of a constitution in a modern liberal democracy.

Under what theory should the West spurn these people in favor of a government that tortures dissidents, supports terrorist armies all over the Middle East and hangs homosexuals from cranes in the capital?

It’s disgraceful that the United States called them terrorists at the behest of a totalitarian regime, but that’s the kind of thing that happens when we try to make peace with our enemies before they’re ready to stop being our enemies. At least Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, had the decency to reverse what her husband did, but not until after a years-long legal battle finally forced her.

*

The event in Paris was a grand spectacle. It lasted eight hours.

Roughly 100,000 people attended, the vast majority of them Iranians living in exile. Never in my life have I seen so many human beings in one place. The MEK may not be popular inside Iran, but it sure as hell is in the European diaspora, which suggests its popularity back home may not be quite so near the floor as its critics allege.

The gathering was out by the airport. It couldn’t be held anywhere near the center of Paris. None of the Haussmann-era buildings are even remotely large enough to hold so many people.

Honestly, I thought I’d be bored. I was jet lagged and exhausted, and if I’m going to spend a few days in France, I don’t want to be stranded in the suburban asteroid belt near the airport. I want to hang out at a café in the Latin Quarter and peruse the Musee d’Orsay.

Yet I wasn’t bored for even five minutes. The organizers managed to keep things interesting and engaging with a splendid diversity of programming, including thunderous speeches, riveting films, and music and dance.

Most of the speakers weren’t Iranian. They were high profile officials from the United States, the European Union and the Middle East, including Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal. He delivered a real stemwinder in Arabic, opening with heartfelt praise of the high accomplishments of Persian civilization since the time of the Zoroastrians—Persians are not accustomed to hearing this sort of talk from Arabs—and ending with a clarion call for regime-change in Iran.

Thanks to the MEK’s reputation and past, I expected the event to be strange, perhaps even a little surreal, but it was as conventional as the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, partly because the organization is so wired into Washington now.

Here is but a sample of who attended from the American side of the Atlantic:

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia)

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (Democrat)

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (Democrat)

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island.)

Former Senator Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey)

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (Republican)

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Republican) was also scheduled to be there, but couldn’t make it.

How far the MEK has come. From an officially designated “terrorist organization” to an organization with bipartisan clout inside Washington rivaling Britain’s.

Every single one of those speakers flew to Paris not only to support the Iranian opposition, but also regime-change in Iran. “The regime is doomed,” Howard Dean said during a pre-event panel discussion, “and we’d like to help it along on its path to doomsday as fast as possible…It stands for everything that is evil and bad about humanity. Our job is to make sure they don’t succeed, and the faster we get them out of there, the better.”

It was refreshing to see so many American officials from across the political spectrum on the same stage agreeing with each other about something so fundamental. They all made the current occupant of the White House and our current White House contenders look pale by comparison. Nice to see Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich, but it would have been even better if Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump decided to come.

Unlike Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich, Clinton and Obama are not calling for regime-change in Iran. Clinton almost certainly privately wants it, but there’s no real evidence that Obama does. Clinton is more skeptical than Obama about Washington’s new arrangement with Tehran, but she’s campaigning in part on his nuclear deal.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, would have prohibited every single one of the MEK’s members and supporters from even entering the United States on a tourist visa before he finally climbed down from his ludicrous proposition to ban every foreign Muslim on earth from setting foot on American soil. 

Critics say the MEK has little or no support inside Iran, in part because it opposes the nuclear deal. That deal is extremely popular on the Iranian street. It partially ends Iran’s international isolation and should, at least in theory, boost Iran’s anemic economy. Perhaps the critics are right. Honestly, I have no idea.

What I do know, without any doubt whatsoever, is that whatever these people were in the 1970s, today they’re genuine liberals and moderates. They are not the fake moderates of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Iranian presidency. Nor do they resemble, in any meaningful way, Turkey’s false moderate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is rapidly transforming himself from the Middle East’s Hugo Chavez into its Stalin. No, these Iranian folks are the real deal, and it’s nice to see Western capitals treat them accordingly.

Karaganov Shows Pathology of Putin’s Realism

Sometimes, Vladimir Putin snarls and reveals his true self to the world. More often than not, one of his minions shows his teeth. This time, it was Sergey Karaganov’s turn to terrify the world with a short interview in the German weekly, Der Spiegel.

Karaganov is no bit player. Here’s how Der Spiegel identifies him: “Sergey Karaganov, 63, is honorary head of the influential Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which develops geopolitical strategy concepts for Russia. ... Karaganov is an advisor to Vladimir Putin's presidential administration and deacon of the elite Moscow college National Research University Higher School of Economics.”

In a word, Karaganov is speaking for Putin. And what he has to say reveals the full and frightening extent of the Putin regime’s chauvinism, imperialism, and paranoia.

China Defiant in Wake of Int'l Ruling on South China Sea

On the 12th of this month, an arbitral panel in The Hague rendered its award in the landmark case of Philippines vs. China. The decision, interpreting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, was a sweeping rebuke of Beijing’s position, invalidating its expansive “nine-dash line” claim to about 85 percent of the South China Sea.

Many are hoping that China will bring its claims into line with UNCLOS, as the UN pact is known, and some even think it has actually begun the process of doing so. Unfortunately, a series of hostile reactions in the last few days, including an implied threat to use nuclear weapons to defend its outposts in that body of water, suggest Beijing’s reaction will not be benign.  

China maintains it has sovereignty to all the features—islands, rocks, and low-tide elevations—inside its now-famous dotted boundary. Five other states—Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—also claim those features, and China’s nine-dash line impinges on the exclusive economic zone of a sixth, Indonesia.

Slow Blogging For Now

This isn’t exactly a slow news week with another ISIS massacre in France and an aborted coup attempt in Turkey. It is, however, a slow writing week for me.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran invited me to an Iranian opposition conference in Paris last week. I’m still in Paris at the moment, cat-sitting and house-sitting for my friend and colleage Claire Berlinski while she travels away from home to research her next book about Europe.

I’ll write about the Iranian opposition when I get home in a couple of days. It was a fascinating event attended by roughly 100,000 people, including Newt Gingrich, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (whom I was lucky enough to have dinner with, though our chat was off-the-record), Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, and too many other big shots to keep track of.

I won’t be home for long, though, because City Journal is sending me to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I’d cover the Republican convention also except that I’ll still be in Paris when it begins and, alas, I haven’t yet developed the ability to be in two places at once.

So please stand by while I pack and head (briefly) home.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - blogs