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As the Kremlin Tightens the Screws, It Invites Popular Revolt

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

Iran Takes Another American Hostage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warmbier was Jewish.

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

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

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

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

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

Works every time. Sometimes the answer actually spooks people.

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

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

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

Trump Puts Squeeze on Beijing over North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine’s Risky Bid to Join NATO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Liberation, Will Mosul Fall to Iran?

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

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

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

Now comes the hard part.

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

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

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

Flurry of Kiev Assassinations a New Russian Front in Ukraine

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

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

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

Trump Dumping ‘China First’ Policies

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

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

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

Congress Considers Banning Tourism to North Korea

Congress may ban tourism to North Korea next month, so if you want to visit Pyongyang on holiday, you’d better hurry.

Actually, don’t. The Kim family regime has been kidnapping American citizens and using them as leverage against the United States government—what Korean experts call “hostage diplomacy”—for years. And on the off chance you haven’t heard, earlier this month it sent University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier home with a fatal brain injury after first sentencing him to fifteen years of slave labor.

The United States lifted most of the travel restrictions to Cuba last year, finally ending its absurd curtailment of Americans’ freedom of movement. Until then, it was okay to visit Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria as a tourist. Cuba alone was off limits. There was only one way to resolve that anachronistic contradiction—lift the Cuban travel ban or prohibit tourism to every hostile state in the world. The latter would have been both pointless and draconian, and Congress eased up on the Cuban ban last year shortly before the seemingly immortal Fidel Castro finally keeled over.

Prohibiting American tourism in Cuba was part of the long-standing sanctions package imposed after Castro nationalized American property in the 1950s. The proposed ban to North Korea is being considered for an entirely different reason—because North Korea is dangerous.

Vacationing in Havana has never been dangerous. Depending on where exactly you live, it’s probably less dangerous than staying home. The Castros don’t snatch random tourists out of hotels. And while the island nation has a host of debilitating problems, crime, at least, is not one of them. Cuba is poor and oppressive, but it’s one of the safest countries on earth.  

North Korea is actually dangerous, at least for Americans. “It does sound exotic to go to a Hermit Kingdom,” says one of the bill’s co-sponsor Representative Joe Wilson, (R-SC), “but it's not exotic, it's dangerous and you're dealing with a maniacal society."

Lots of countries are dangerous. Mexico is flooded with American tourists at all times, yet it’s the second-most violent country in the world after Syria. You can go to Syria, though, if you really want to. (Don’t.) You are also free to visit crime-ridden Venezuela. You can go to Iraq. (I went seven times.) You can go to Somalia. You can climb Mount Everest, which is even more likely to kill you. Earlier this month, Alex Honnold free climbed the near-vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope. If you want to put your ass on the line for adventure and kicks, have at it. It’s not the government’s business.

At least it usually isn’t. Congress could argue that it is the government’s business if North Korean authorities yank you off your plane at the airport so they can use you as a bargaining chip. The Israeli government bans its citizens from travel to Lebanon for a similar reason. Hezbollah likes to kidnap Israelis and swap them. In 2008, Israel released five Lebanese prisoners, including the convicted child-murderer Samir Kuntar. In exchange, Hezbollah returned the mutilated bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Israelis can and do visit other Arab countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Oman, but heading to Lebanon puts the entire country at risk, so it’s outlawed.

But that’s not why Congress is mulling a travel ban to North Korea. No, this is about keeping us safe. It’s more like the seatbelt law than Israel’s travel ban to Hezbollahland. It won’t even have the unintended side effect of preventing the Kim regime from using American hostages as weapons against the rest of us because the bill has a loophole. If you want to go there for a reason other than tourism, the Treasury Department will give you a permit. So when—not not if—Kim Jong-Un wants more hostages, he’ll just grab permitted travelers rather than tourists.

Unless the government thinks it’s right and proper to ban tourism in countries just because they are dangerous (which would logically begin with Syria and move directly to Mexico), Congress would be wise to drop this.

A Guilty Verdict in Nemtsov Trial, But Impunity Reigns

On Thursday, the 12-person jury sitting at the Moscow District Military Court rendered its verdict in modern Russia’s most high-profile political assassination. By a majority vote, the jurors found five men—all of them linked to the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov—guilty of the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down on a bridge in front of the Kremlin on February 27, 2015. Zaur Dadayev, a Kadyrov associate and, at the time of the murder, an officer serving in Russia’s Interior Ministry, was convicted of pulling the trigger. The sentence will be handed down in early July.

Why China Hasn’t Stopped North Korea and Probably Won’t

Senators John McCain and Al Franken are right. North Korea murdered Otto Warmbier, the 22-year old University of Virginia student sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel and shipped home last week with a fatal brain injury. It doesn’t matter whether or not the North Korean government killed Otto on purpose. Under American law, if you even accidentally kill someone during the commission of a serious crime, you will be charged with felony murder. If enslaving a tourist for a minor infraction he may not have even committed isn’t a felony, we might as well drop the word from our vocabulary and laws.

American officials met with a Chinese government delegation in Washington this week to discuss the burgeoning missile crisis on the Korean Peninsula with Warmbier’s grotesque treatment at the hands of North Korea’s Caligula added to the list of American grievances. We air those grievances to China because it’s the only country with any serious leverage over North Korea short of gunboat diplomacy.

China is North Korea’s largest trade partner—virtually its only trade partner. North Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world that China can exert a significant amount of economic pressure, but it can only work if it hurts “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-Un and his inner circle. The regime has already proven itself staggeringly indifferent to widespread human suffering inside its borders. Hundreds of thousands of people starved to death in the 1990s, and hundreds of thousands more toil away in Stalinist-style slave labor camps where 25 percent of the population dies every year.

The Chinese tend to oppose crippling sanctions, however, not because they value their trade deals with Pyongyang –they don’t—but because they think the status quo is just peachy. They don’t want a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula for obvious reasons (look at a map), but they want to maintain a strident and bellicose anti-American regime there as long as possible. If they could have their way, they’d freeze Korea’s politics in amber forever.

Sure, Pyongyang is a pain. Worse, though, from Beijing’s point of view, is Korea going the way of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with pro-Western unification following a collapse on the communist side. China is the natural hegemon in East Asia. Having a virulently anti-Western, anti-Japanese and anti-South Korean sore in the region keeps China’s competitors preoccupied and in check. Beijing has leverage over Pyongyang at the moment, but if the Kim dynasty falls, Pyongyang may not be the capital of anything any longer.

The Chinese likewise don’t want a substantial portion of North Korea’s 25 million people surging over the border if the regime collapses and isn’t replaced at once by something stable. And let’s not kid ourselves. A post-communist North Korea would barely resemble post-communist East Germany. Compared to North Korea, East Germany circa 1989 was practically Switzerland. Even post-Saddam Iraq and post-Qaddafi Libya were more advanced than North Korea is now.

And the Chinese government doesn’t give a flying fork about human rights abuses there or anywhere else. Its own human rights record is plenty dismal enough. The only reason Otto Warmbier’s death even registers is because it’s prompting the United States to ratchet up pressure on China to ratchet up its own pressure  on North Korea.

Last month, my colleague Gordon Chang showed that Beijing is still protecting its client from the United States and the rest of the world. In late May, Chinese fighter jets intercepted an American WC-135 plane in international airspace “sniffing” for radiation following a possible North Korean nuclear test. “The incident,” he wrote here at World Affairs, “is totally in keeping with China’s long history of insincerity characterized by empty, false, feigned, and betrayed promises to rein in the Kim regime.”

He also argues that the Chinese government’s deportation of asylum-seeking North Korean refugees as “economic migrants” violates the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention which it has agreed to. These people aren’t economic migrants, nor would they put the least bit of strain on China’s economy. They want the Chinese to deport them—to South Korea rather than back to the North where they will be imprisoned or executed.

Why won’t Beijing ship them to Seoul? Simple. China’s rulers want North Korea’s would-be refugees to stay right where they are. A critical mass of them could pose an existential threat to their client. Both governments understand this perfectly well. After all, on the rare occasions when Beijing is sufficiently disgruntled with Pyongyang, it does allow refugees to pass through its territory to Seoul.

While China is potentially part of the solution, it’s still part of the problem. Short of extraordinary American pressure, that’s not going to change.  

Russian Opposition Protests in Twice as Many Cities Than in March

For those in the Kremlin who hoped that anticorruption protests on March 26 were a random episode, June 12 must have come as an unpleasant surprise. On Russia’s national holiday—marking the 1990 parliamentary declaration of sovereignty from the Soviet Union—tens of thousands of people went to the streets across the country to repeat their “No” to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and corruption. Just as in March, most of those who took part in the rallies represented Russia’s young generation—university and high school students; those in late teens and early twenties; those who were raised (and in many cases born) under Putin but who are increasingly rejecting the nepotism, the lack of accountability, and the sheer arrogance of the small group that has now held power for nearly two decades.

Assad Still Must Go

My latest long-form essay in The Tower magazine is live. Here's the first part.

Like it or not, the United States is getting more involved in the Syrian war despite President Donald Trump’s promise to stay out of it.

First, on April 6, after Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad again massacred civilians with chemical weapons, Trump ordered two American battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean to strike Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase with Tomahawk missiles. According to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the U.S. damaged or destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s air force in ten minutes.

Then, on May 18, American warplanes bombed a vehicle convoy belonging to a pro-government militia that encroached upon a restricted area where American and British soldiers are training local fighters to battle ISIS.

America’s Syria policy is just as incoherent now, though, as it was when Barack Obama was president. In August of 2013, the former president refused to enforce his own “red line” when Assad murdered over 1,400 people and wounded thousands more in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with chemical weapons. He meekly called for Assad’s removal but did virtually nothing to bring it about, choosing instead to lift sanctions against Assad’s staunchest ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran, in exchange for a temporary halt to its nuclear program.

The Trump administration hasn’t figured out what to do either. “Our priority,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in April, “is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said more or less the same thing at the same time. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” he said, “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

Both reversed themselves within a week. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson later said, followed by Haley who said, “It’s hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”

Since then, though, little has happened and less has changed. Like the Obama administration, the Trump foreign policy team recognizes that Assad is bad news but is unwilling to do much more than talk about it. At some point, though, we’re all going to have to come to grips with an unpleasant truth: If the invasion of Iraq proved to the American public how dangerous intervention can be, the Syrian apocalypse should have proven by now to the American public that non-intervention can be equally perilous.

Eventually, one way or another, Assad has to go.

One could make the case on humanitarian grounds. Assad, after all, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. One could also make the case on geopolitical grounds. The Syrian war, after all, triggered the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The strongest case, though, is on national security grounds. Whether or not most Americans realize it, replacing the Assad regime with just about anything but a radical Islamist terrorist state will make the U.S., Europe, the greater Middle East, and even most of the world safer places than they are now.

Destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria is our first priority. That’s not going to change. ISIS has conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks on every inhabited continent except South America, and that’s without factoring its brutal conquest of Syrian and Iraqi cities; its medieval punishments such as amputation, crucifixion and stoning; its cultural and historic erasure of ancient sites like the Roman-era city of Palmyra; and its genocidal extermination campaign against Iraq’s Yezidi minority.

The last thing the U.S. should do, though, is partner with the Assad regime. Never mind the fact that Assad is allied with Iran, America’s principal foe in the Middle East, and with Russia, America’s principal geopolitical foe. ISIS itself is a creature of Bashar al-Assad.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

What the Qatar Blockade is Really About

The blockade against Qatar, Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday this week, referring to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate, is “a very complex situation.” It certainly is. Taken at face value, it doesn’t even make any sense.

It started late last month when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain severed diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar. They said it’s because of the latter’s funding of Islamic extremism, but that doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

The Saudis have spent billions of petrodollars funding mosques all over the world to promote their extreme Sunni Wahhabi sect. Cutting off the Qataris for financing extremism is like prosecuting an apparatchik for “corruption” in a crooked police state where everyone is corrupt. Something else is going on.

The trigger was a fake news story planted by Russian hackers with a fake quote by Qatar’s ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. A story appeared on the state-run Qatar News Agency quoting Al Thani saying nice things about Israel and Iran while criticizing President Donald Trump. The emir supposedly made these remarks in a speech at a military ceremony, but he did not deliver a speech at that ceremony, let alone a speech that included those words. The incident was entirely fabricated. It seemed legit, though, since it appeared on a news site controlled by his government.

“Intelligence gathered by the US security agencies indicates that Russian hackers were behind the intrusion first reported by the Qatari government two weeks ago,” CNN reported on June 7. Russia, as always, is using cyberwarfare to open up rifts within the Western alliance and between the West and its Middle Eastern allies, once again to smashing success. This Qatar News Agency story, unlike press reports critical of the White House, is actual fake news. Real fake news, if you will. Weaponized propaganda by a hostile power.

Even so, there’s a lot more going on than a single fake news story. A single fake news story wouldn’t blow up the Gulf if Qatar’s neighbors weren’t already nearing the breaking point.

Here’s the real story: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE think Qatar is too soft on Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re fed up with relentlessly negative press coverage from Qatar’s state-run media organ Al Jazeera.

They aren’t wrong. Qatar really is soft on Iran. For starters, the two countries share the world’s largest liquefied natural gas field—which just so happens to threaten the Gulf’s petro economy—so they’re forced to get along to a certain extent. More importantly, though, Qatar, like many small and weak states throughout history that lack a powerful and reliable patron, is taking great pains to foster good relations with everyone in the neighborhood. Small and weak states that double down on the losing side in a regional conflict tend to get smashed, and Iran, like it or not, is a force to be reckoned with.

We know Al Jazeera is part of the problem because the Saudis and the others have been grousing about it for years and because almost immediately after the fake news story hit the Internet, the Saudis blocked Al Jazeera. That network is emphatically not CNN. It’s a state-run media enterprise that at times savagely criticizes Middle Eastern governments yet, for reasons that ought to be obvious, always spares Qatar’s government. Since the emir exerts considerable pressure over the channel’s coverage, it’s generally safe to assume that what Al Jazeera anchors and reporters say is the government line.

The Saudis are pulling a fast one here when they say this is about Qatar’s supposed funding of Islamic extremism. They figured that angle would get President Donald Trump on their side, and it worked.  

“During my recent trip to the Middle East,” the president tweeted, “I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!” “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he said in another tweet. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

Others in the administration can’t be fooled quite so easily. They know this is bad news for the United States, partly, though not entirely, because Qatar hosts an enormous military base from which the US is fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. “We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockade on Qatar,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday.

The US military is also contradicting the president and continues to praise Qatar as if Trump’s tweetstorm never happened.  “We continue to be grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support for our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis said at a news briefing. When a reporter asked about how that squares with what the White House has been saying, Davis said, “I can’t help you with that.”

The United States has plenty of reasons to be disgruntled with Qatar, and they just so happen to be the same reasons the Saudis and the others are disgruntled with Qatar. This diplomatic spat has been a long time coming. We’ll have to wait and see if the emir will change his behavior. One way or another, though, the Qataris need to come back in from the cold. Otherwise, for the sake of survival, they will probably draw themselves into the Russian-Iranian orbit. It’s what small and weak states do when they have no other options.  

Generation Putin Takes to the Streets

There are no official statistics about the actual numbers or demographic makeup of those who joined the June 12 anti-corruption protests around Russia, but the anecdotal evidence of a burgeoning youth movement is strong. High school students who had been rounded up by police sent out pictures of themselves and their friends smiling broadly in paddy wagons. Tweets from reporters dotted around the country noted how many teenagers seemed to have brought their parents to the events, not the other way around.
 
This stands in rather stark contrast to the protest wave that stirred Russia in 2011 and 2012. It was largely, though not wholly, confined to the two major cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the participants were from the so-called “creative class” of educated Russians who had benefitted economically from the Putin years but now wanted more participation in their own government.
 

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