Quantcast

Blogs

Can Japan's Abe Bridge the Duterte-Washington Divide?

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Philippines Thursday and Friday last week. He is the first head of government to pay a call on President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office at the end of June.

The meeting between the two leaders reminds one of Abe’s common touch and how valuable he could be to help bridge the divide that has grown between the US and a most troublesome ally.

America’s Moment of Truth About Russia

Donald Trump finally acknowledged that Russia most likely hacked the Democratic National Committee and turned over stolen files to WikiLeaks. “I think it was Russia,” he said for the first time at a press conference earlier this week, though he angrily denied that Russian shenanigans swayed last year’s election. He’s right on both counts.

Until this week, though, the president-elect seemed to trust Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and WikiLeaks founder and fugitive Julian Assange more he trusted than the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. One can only imagine what Republicans would have said if Trump were a Democrat. The Ann Coulter wing would have cried treason—and worse.

“The GOP nominated the most pro-Russian U.S. presidential candidate since Henry Wallace,” Jamie Kirchick writes in the Washington Post, “whose 1948 bid on the Progressive Party ticket was largely run by communists.” Indeed. Yet Trump has flipped both parties on their heads, not just the Republicans. Every Democrat from the east coast to the west is now talking about Vladimir Putin as if he’s the worst person on earth, yet they jeered when the previous Republican Party nominee for president Mitt Romney said Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Barack Obama said during a presidential debate in 2012.

It’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of Republican primary voters did not choose Trump because they’re pro-Russia. They’re fed up with the bipartisan political class. They’re sick of illegal immigration. They are tired of being told what they can say and even think. Many appreciate his stance against trade. Working class folks in the Rust Belt feel relieved that somebody is finally paying attention to them. Virtually none of these people clicked “like” on Vladimir Putin’s Facebook page.

Trump is an anomaly. If any other Republican had won the primary and the general election, we would not be having the conversation that never seems to end about Russia. Can you imagine Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio getting defensive on Putin’s behalf? It wouldn’t happen. The Republican Party has been more hawkish on Russia than the Democratic Party for 100 years. Donald Trump is the only Republican that Putin would prefer over a Democrat, and he’s the only Republican who would even briefly take Russia’s side against the FBI and the CIA.  

I doubt Trump even looks at it that way. Mostly he’s just being defensive. He feels like the legitimacy of his election is being called into question, but no one with much sense thinks he won because of anything Russia did. He won because he flipped Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania from the Democratic column to the Republicans for parochial reasons that are almost unique to those states. Under what theory would Russia’s DNC hack and the exposure by WikiLeaks affect votes in a handful of Rust Belt states but nowhere else?

So let’s get two things clear. Donald Trump did not hack the DNC. Vladimir Putin did. Trump is entirely innocent of that crime. Nor did he win the election because of that crime.

But no mainstream critic of WikiLeaks and the Kremlin is saying Trump did it or that he won because of it. That’s certainly not what the FBI and the CIA have been saying, nor is it what critical Republican senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are arguing.

Trump did not need to be so prickly and defensive, and he still doesn’t seem to grasp that Putin isn’t his friend. “If Putin likes me, that’s an asset,” he said. No. It is not. Putin wants what’s good for Russia, not what’s good for the United States. Putin doesn’t “like” Trump anyway. He certainly doesn’t like Trump in the same way Trump’s base does.  

The president-elect seems to find it a shame that we can’t get along with a white Christian country with its capital in Europe at a time when we’re both facing threats from radical Islamists. It is exasperating, but everyone needs understand something. Yes, Russia is Christian and white, and the smaller part of that country is on the European continent, but it does not belong to the West. Russians have defined themselves against the West for longer than any of them have been alive. When they say “the West,” they are referring to us, not to themselves. In the Russian mind, the West is a hostile Other.  

Our next president won’t be any more successful resetting America’s relations with Russia than the last two presidents were, and it won’t be his fault. “Russia does not aspire to be like us,” writes Russia expert Molly McKew in Politico, “or to make itself stronger than we are. Rather, its leaders want the West — and specifically NATO and America — to become weaker and more fractured until we are as broken as they perceive themselves to be. No reset can be successful, regardless the personality driving it, because Putin’s Russia requires the United States of America as its enemy.”

Russian propaganda has been among the most effective in the world for at least a century. The communists used it (along with money, advisors and guns) to export their deranged revolution to Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, and to this day some their tropes still poison the minds of far-leftists all over the world.

The Kremlin’s propaganda in the 21st century is less brazen and obvious. It’s more insidious because it’s less overtly ideological. Russia sometimes uses it to promote the positions of right-wing populists like France’s Marine Le Pen in Europe. Some of it, meanwhile, is aimed at the Western left. The very same intelligence report that details Russia’s hacking of the DNC reveals that the Kremlin broadcasts bogus anti-fracking propaganda in the United States for a reason that ought to be obvious—American fracking hurts Russia’s oil and gas industry, the only industry in the entire country that’s healthy. Some Russian propaganda, like many of the fake news stories that circulated last year, doesn’t even appear on the surface to come from Russia at all.

The purpose of the Kremlin’s disinformation is not to export Putinism to the rest of the planet. Its purpose, instead, is “to erode our values,” McKew writes, “our democracy and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.”

At some point, Vladimir Putin is going to stab Donald Trump in the front. He’s a scorpion, and that’s what scorpions do. He doesn’t have much of a choice. He’ll have to stab Trump in the front or reverse Russia’s national interests. He’d have to pitch his entire worldview over the side, a worldview that was nurtured in the Soviet Union and hardened in the KGB’s Directorate S. Which do you think is more likely?

American politics is supposed to stop at the water’s edge. It seems an almost quaint notion nowadays, but we need to find our way back. Donald Trump and his Republican allies should always unite behind the Democratic Party against a hostile foreign actor like Vladimir Putin for one simple reaon. Because the Democratic Party is ours. Likewise, even the most strident anti-Trump progressives need to rally behind the incoming president when the choice is between an enemy and one of ours.

Russia is using an ancient strategy against the United States—divide and conquer, or at least divide and disrupt.

Resist.

US Blacklists Top Putin Lieutenant

MOSCOW—Earlier this week, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced five new additions to the Specially Designated Nationals List under the Magnitsky Act—a federal law that provides for visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in human rights abuse. This decision brought the number of people sanctioned under the Act to forty-four. It also shattered an unspoken glass ceiling that had been in place ever since the Magnitsky Act was passed by strong bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, and over objections from the Obama administration, in 2012. All of those placed on the sanctions list—at least in its unclassified section—have been low- or mid-ranking officials well outside of Vladimir Putin’s close circle.

Until now. Among the new names announced on January 9th was General Alexander Bastrykin, chairman of Russia’s Investigative Committee and a close confidant of Putin’s since their university days in Leningrad.

Turkey Goes Off the Rails

Last year was a gruesome one for Turkey, and this year is getting off to the worst possible start.

On the very first day of the new year, not six months after a botched military coup and an almost Stalinist-style purge of the army, the courts, the academy and the bureaucracy by its authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ISIS declared open war.

A terrorist crossed the border from Syria and shot his way into Istanbul’s posh Reina nightclub and murdered at least 39 people with an automatic rifle. He stalked and killed the wounded on the floor, then lined up and shot some of the initial survivors execution-style in the head.

Unlike most ISIS killers, this one escaped.

The Turkish government says it has identified the man but they haven’t released his name yet, nor have they caught him.

Journalist and Turkey expert Claire Berlinski lived in Istanbul for years and wrote this about Reina.  “I’d never go to Reina on my own. Too expensive, music too loud. But if you’d visited me when I was living in Istanbul, and if I knew you were on an expense account, I might have taken you there. It would be high on my list of places — top five, say — to take visitors who were only in the city for a day or two and who needed to be dazzled.”

That’s one of the reasons Reina was targeted. Every single person who visits places like that is an enemy of the Islamic State. Take a look at this video shot inside Reina four years ago. No such establishments exist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa, I assure you.

“Reina’s one of those places,” Berlinski continues, “where you’d sit with friends from out of town and, dazzled by the Bosphorus and its skyline, think, ‘This city makes every other city seem like a village.’ You’d watch your friends’ faces with pleasure because no one ever forgets the first time they see that skyline. Seeing someone see that for the first time is a delight of Istanbul in itself.”

I have never visited Reina, alas, but I can attest to the fact that Istanbul makes almost every other city on earth (aside from New York and possibly Tokyo) feel like a village. Claire is right. Even Paris feels like a delightful large village compared with Istanbul.

An enormous cosmopolitan megacity like Istanbul could never be ruled by the likes of ISIS unless it was first bombed out and mostly evacuated of its 14 million inhabitants. It isn’t as secular and hedonistic as Amsterdam, but it’s a lot closer to Amsterdam culturally than it is to Riyadh. I’ve been there three times, and each time I thought to myself I could live there.

That, however, was before the Syrian war, the rise of ISIS, and the widescale internal repression from President Erdogan.  

The attack at Reina in Istanbul is a hinge moment in Turkey for a couple of reasons. It’s not the first time ISIS has struck the country, but it is the first time ISIS has admitted it openly. A press release says the hit was personally ordered by “the prince of the believers,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Second, most previous ISIS massacres in Turkey targeted Kurds and leftists associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK), whose allies in the People’s Protection Units (or YPG) are fighting ISIS in Syria. Those attacks could be plausibly described as a spillover of the Syrian war.

The attack at Reina cannot. This time, wealthy secular ethnic Turks in the capital were the targets. Massacring party-goers at a nightclub is categorically identical to the mass murder at the Bataclan theater in Paris in 2015.  

ISIS hates bourgeois Turks for the same reason it hates Americans, the French, the Israelis and pretty much everyone else. They spell it out so plainly in their magazine Dabiq that there can be no excuse for misunderstanding it.

“We hate you because your secular, liberal societies permit the very things that Allah has prohibited while banning many of the things He has permitted, a matter that doesn’t concern you because you separate between religion and state, thereby granting supreme authority to your whims and desires via the legislators you vote into power.”

In other words, they hate us for our freedoms. That isn’t a Republican talking point. It’s an ISIS talking point.

Turkey isn’t as free as the West, but it’s a libertarian’s utopia compared with totalitarian Raqqa in Syria. Next to just about anywhere in the Arab world, Istanbul looks like Europe. It feels like Europe. The Western half of the city is actually in Europe, or at least on it.  

“Even if you were to stop fighting us,” ISIS continues in Dabiq, “your best-case scenario in a state of war would be that we would suspend our attacks against you – if we deemed it necessary – in order to focus on the closer and more immediate threats, before eventually resuming our campaigns against you. Apart from the option of a temporary truce, this is the only likely scenario that would bring you fleeting respite from our attacks. So in the end, you cannot bring an indefinite halt to our war against you. At most, you could only delay it temporarily.”

Erdogan used to think he could keep Turkey off ISIS’ hit list with an implicit non-aggression pact. He thought that if he postured against Syria’s criminal Assad regime, bombed the Kurds and left ISIS alone that ISIS would leave him and Turkey alone.

It didn’t work out. Not for long anyway.

“The Islamic State has now formally ended its separate peace with Turkey,” Graeme Wood writes in The Atlantic. “Turkey has, up till now, been unique among victims in never having its victimhood acknowledged by its assailant. Whatever value this fiction held, it has now ended.”

Erdogan should have read Dabiq magazine.

Why is this happening now instead of later? Because Turkey is finally bombing ISIS positions in Syria. Erdogan’s bizarre and stupid ambivalence toward ISIS was never going to last. He has always viewed Kurdish insurgents as the greater of evils—the Turkish state has been at war with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party for decades while ISIS is the spry newcomer in the region—but ISIS is at war with the entire human race, and Turks are part of that race. And Turkey shares a long border with Syria. There was never any chance that ISIS could forever resist lashing out at the decadent nature of the Turkish society that’s right on its doorstep.

Erdogan is an Islamist, sure, but he’s hardly an ISIS-style Islamist. Turkey is awash in liquor, stylish women, bikinis on beaches and all the other trappings of a Western liberal society. Roughly half the Turkish population is secular, and plenty of religious folks take a mild approach to their faith.

Nothing in Turkey is going to end well, not its war against ISIS, not its war against the Kurds, and not the government’s war against its opponents. Within a matter of weeks after the coup attempt last summer, Erdogan fired 21,000 private school teachers and 9,000 police officers. He suspended almost 3,000 judges and arrested more than 10,000 soldiers. He canned more than 21,000 officials from the Ministry of Education and ousted 1,500 university deans. He closed more than 100 media outlets and suspended more than 1,500 officials in the Ministry of Finance.

And he blames the botched coup on a reclusive exile who lives in the Pennsylvania mountains and, by extension, the United States government for refusing to extradite him for a kangaroo trial. Erdogan blames the United States for assassinating the Russian ambassador to Turkey last month even though a Turkish policeman pulled the trigger while screaming “Don’t forget Aleppo!” Pro-government newspapers are even blaming the United States for the New Years Day ISIS attack.

A normal country comes together after being assaulted from the outside. US President George W. Bush’s approval ratings climbed to a staggering 90 percent shortly after September 11, 2011. Nothing like that is happening in Turkey.

The entire country seems to be turning into a distorted funhouse mirror version of itself. “With each passing day,” Tim Arango writes in The New York Times, “public life descends deeper into what many Turks concede is a mix of darkness and seeming absurdity, with growing fears of violence and expressions of xenophobia set next to repressions on civic life.” He quotes Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Turkey is so deeply polarized around the powerful persona of Erdogan that, instead of asking why terror attacks are happening and how they can be stopped, the pro- and anti-Erdogan blocks in the country are blaming each other.”

Turkey’s government should respond by championing the values of civilization against totalitarianism and barbarism, but no. Instead, its president is championing Erdoganism, Islamism, and Neo-Ottomanism. He believes everything, even ISIS, is part of a sinister plot by the West. And he’s embracing the leader of the unfree world, Vladimir Putin.

Conspiracy theorists never govern well. Their analyses are cartoonishly flawed, so it follows that their solutions will be as well. When they inevitably fail, they continue to blame the wrong people, become more paranoid than they were before, and triple-down after doubling down. Erdogan has been trapped in this spiral for more than a decade. After a few more ISIS massacres in Turkey’s largest city, he may go completely over the edge—if it isn’t already over it.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned after spending more than a decade on and off in that part of the world it is this: there is virtually no limit to how far a Middle Eastern country (or any country, for that matter) can fall. Much of Iraq is a hellscape. Syria has gnawed itself down to rubble. Afghanistan imploded its way to the stone age.

Unlike the others, Turkey is a magnificent country. It is a long way down, and there are no parachutes.

Will North Korea Conduct Intercontinental Missile Test?

Within hours of Kim Jong Un’s televised New Year’s address, the Pentagon issued a statement urging countries to impose “consequences” on North Korea should it test a ballistic missile. The North’s leader suggested his regime will soon conduct an “intercontinental ballistic rocket launch,” which appears to be code for a missile test prohibited by the UN Security Council. 

Donald Trump also reacted. On Monday, he suggested the young Kim will not make good on his first boast of 2017. “It won’t happen!” declared the president-elect in a tweet.

Kim has three missiles—the Taepodong-2, the KN-08, and the KN-14—capable of reaching the lower 48 states. None of them is thought to be reliable or accurate. But a test firing, especially an unsuccessful one, will provide Kim’s technicians with data to help them correct deficiencies.

Deconstructing the Conventional and Simplistic Take on Ukraine

To travel through Ukraine is to journey through hundreds of years of history, the remnants of divergent diasporas, forced famines, Nazi and Communist atrocities, and not an insignificant number of now-defunct empires.

In his new book “In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine,” (Deckle Edge, Oct 2016) former Balkan War correspondent Tim Judah tours a modern Ukraine where history keeps returning with a vengeance. After Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and launched an armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Mr. Judah began reporting from the country, bringing his considerable expertise and critical eye to the only active conflict on the European continent. Writing in 2014 when the war between Ukraine and Russia was at its hottest, his series of vignettes from across Europe’s largest country beautifully tell the story of a country that has finally embarked on a journey of self-discovery after 25 years of independence.

Did Trump Renew the Nuclear Arms Race?

“Can a tweet start an arms race?” asked Joseph Cirincione of the Plowshares Fund. “This one may just have done that.”

Arms-control advocate Cirincione was referring to President-elect Donald Trump, who declared last Thursday on Twitter that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Trump’s statement was right on the mark, even if it lacked months of interagency review. And, no, it did not start another competition to build the world’s most destructive weapons. That contest, unfortunately, is already under way.

Many wonder why the president-elect, seemingly out of the blue, would tweet about this subject.

Ankara Assassination Puts Erdogan at Putin’s Feet

The assassination in Ankara should come as no surprise amid the security chaos of Recep Erdogan's Turkey and the internal conflicts he has sown. In my last blog, I pointed out how Erdogan himself has stoked the confusion with his U-turns and mixed signals. First Israel is the great enemy, now the indispensable ally. Then Moscow gets the same treatment. Currently, it's NATO's turn in the sin bin, for allegedly abetting the failed coup in July. On the domestic front, the cleric Fethullah Gulen's profile went from silent partner to all-purpose terror master. Military officers and police brass and intelligence personnel can't tell who's friend or foe from one day to the next. No wonder, then, that all manner of armed individuals and groups with affiliations to various dark currents now coursing through Turkey appear to operate unimpeded.

China’s Smog Refugees Flee Poisonous Air

Much of northeastern China was under an air emergency the early part of this week, with 460 million people affected according to one estimate. On Tuesday, 24 cities had posted the red alert signal.

Under the alert, Tianjin closed all roadways leading to the city but one. In next-door Beijing, more than 700 enterprises stopped production. Airports cancelled flights as planes could not land in the goop. Governments warned people not to go outside. Even short travel to North China, a friend wrote to me this week, is a “Death Warrant.”

No surprise North China’s residents are temporarily leaving the region, making them “smog refugees.” As the South China Morning Post reports, “Legions of Beijing residents are fleeing the capital and heading south in search of cleaner air as the year’s worst smog lays siege to the city.”

Will China Retaliate Over Trump’s Taiwan Moves?

American businesses seem concerned they could be subject to Chinese retaliation for the recent pro-Taiwan moves of President-elect Donald Trump.

And there is reason for apprehension. On December 2, Trump took a call from Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen. The Trump staff summary of the conversation reports the president-elect called Tsai “President of Taiwan,” suggesting he considered the island a sovereign state, a position anathema to Beijing.

Moreover, on Sunday in comments to Chris Wallace of Fox News, Trump questioned whether he was bound by America’s One-China policy, thought to be the foundation upon which relations have developed since 1979 when Washington broke off formal relations with Taipei.

Tiny Estonia Takes Tall Stand Against Russian Rights Abusers

MOSCOW, RUSSIA—“The adoption of the Magnitsky law in Europe would be an absolute catastrophe for Putin,” Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Russian opposition, said soon after the United States barred corrupt Russian officials and human rights abusers from entering its territory and using its financial system. “He finds the American law disagreeable, but he’s aware that it’s in Europe that the overwhelming majority of corrupt functionaries have assets, children, property and bank accounts...So tremendous force is being exerted to defeat the adoption of the Magnitsky law in Europe.”

Indeed, in the four years that have passed since the US Magnitsky Act came into effect in December 2012, no European country dared follow the example. There were motions, statements, recommendations, resolutions—but no practical steps.

The Fall of Aleppo

The Syrian city of Aleppo has fallen. Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime have won.

Long known as Syria’s Stalingrad, the Battle of Aleppo has raged since July, 2012, when the Free Syrian Army opened fire on Assad’s security forces in the Salaheddine district.  

Four and a half years later, after being held by checkboard of various rebel factions, Assad’s army has retaken the city with a rogue’s gallery of international allies.

It’s just about the last place on earth you’d want to be right about now.

“Mass murder by chlorine gas,” Terry Glavin writes in Canada’s National Post. “Massacres of innocents. Bombardments by Russian jet fighters. The deliberate targeting of hospitals and clinics. The firing of mortar rounds into crowded neighbourhoods. The terror of barrel bombs dropped from Syrian army helicopters. The starvation siege that followed the city’s encirclement by Shia death squads and Assadist militias on Sept. 8.”

It’s not fashionable to care about Aleppo anymore or even anything that happens in Syria aside from the eradication of ISIS. Even so, millions of people all over the world not named Gary Johnson believe that the Assad regime and the Russians have been fighting ISIS in Aleppo, but nope. ISIS is not in Aleppo. ISIS has never been in Aleppo. ISIS is just about the only armed group in the entire country that hasn’t been fighting in Aleppo.

Aleppo is, however, the epicenter of foreign involvement in Syria. Which brings us to Hanin Ghaddar’s excellent point in the Washington Post. We should stop calling the Syrian war a “civil war.” I’ve been calling it that for years, but I take her point. Yes, various factions inside Syria are fighting each other, but the overwhelming majority of the dead are on the anti-Assad side. The governments of three different countries, plus a Lebanese terrrorist army, are fighting in Syria. The war is basically a war against all waged by the government with assistance from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Assad has managed to transform himself from a totalitarian Baathist into a what we might call a brutalitarian like Vladimir Putin when he laid waste to Grozny in Chechnya.

Here’s Ghaddar:

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Assad’s forces have killed 95 percent of Syrian victims. Additionally, Assad controls the army, including tanks, planes and barrel bombs. He has shelled areas that witnessed peaceful protests. Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. He controls the intelligence, security and military apparatus that have diligently and systematically worked since 2011 to arrest, torture and kill all nonviolent activists.

Assad also released dangerous Islamists from prison and allowed them to organize and build armed groups. He did this not by accident, but as a part of a strategy to create a civil war and radicalize what remained of the revolution. His strategy has been to shift the narrative from reform to sectarianism by emphasizing Islamic terrorism, thereby presenting himself as a partner in the global war on terror.

Assad can never be a partner in the global war on terror. He’s the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the Arab world, and his staunchest ally is the Iranian regime, which is the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the entire world.

And ultimately, this is Iran’s victory.

“Aleppo was liberated thanks to a coalition between Iran, Syria, Russia, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah,” says Iranian defense minister Seyed Yahya Rahim-Safavi. “Iran is on one side of this coalition which is approaching victory and this has shown our strength. The new American president should take heed of the powers of Iran.” [Emphasis added.]

“The Syrian army as a fighting force is largely spent,” writes Michael Weiss in the Daily Beast. “Without Russian air support and the some 6,000 to 8,000 Iranian-run paramilitaries Assad now relies on to wage war for him, Aleppo would never have been recaptured.”

An Iranian victory against ISIS would be one thing. We could plausibly shrug and take Henry Kissinger’s view of the Iran-Iraq War. It’s too bad they can’t both lose.

We could take a half step toward the point of view in Aleppo. Many of the rebels are Islamic extremists. Some of them, like the Nusra Front, are aligned with Al Qaeda, though as of two months ago they only had 1,000 fighters in all of Aleppo.

The truth is that rebels aren’t even “the rebels.” There are more factions than most of us can keep track of, and many of them are mutually hostile.

And they aren’t all Islamists. Secular leftist Kurds have been fighting in Aleppo, too, alongside non-political elements in the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, and the Syrian Democratic Forces that advocate a democratic, secular and federal Syria.

If the Assad regime were to fall instead of Aleppo, the war wouldn’t end. Everyone left standing would still have to battle it out. Lord only knows what would happen or how long that would last. It would depend in part on whether or not “the international community,” such as it is, felt motivated enough to do anything to prevent the worst factions from seizing power. In the worst-case scenario, the entire country could become a Sunni Islamist terrorist state, which is why so many people are rooting for an Assad victory even though he is a monster.

An Islamist-controlled Syria would be only one possible outcome, however, if Assad were to fall. I’ll go out on a limb and say it would be the most likely outcome. Terrorists thrive in failed states, after all, and Syria is drawing them from all over the world.

Still, millions of people in Syria have no interest whatsoever in living under a Taliban-style regime, and the only reason many of them are throwing their support behind the extremists is because they want Assad and the Iranians out of power more than anything else. Hardly any of these people would join a deranged revolution if there wasn’t a modern-day Caligula in Damascus to revolt against.

In any case, what the world is getting instead of the possibility of a Sunni Islamist regime in Syria is the certainty of a terrorist state backed by the full weight and power of the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. So don’t go popping any champagne corks.

“[President-elect Donald] Trump has made it clear he wants to join the Russian side in this war,” Weiss writes, “while he is adamantly opposed to the Iranian side. But in the world of real reality they are the same side.”

The Obama administration didn’t want to do anything that threatened Assad’s stranglehold on Syria because he didn’t want to scotch his nuclear deal with Iran. Donald Trump doesn’t want to do anything that threatens Assad’s stranglehold on Syria because he wants to team up with Russia and Assad to fight ISIS, even though Russia and Assad have had little or no interest in fighting ISIS.

Trump could very well convince Assad and Russia to go after ISIS once the rebels are defeated, however. And since fighting alongside Russia and Assad means fighting alongside Iran and Hezbollah, the latter will bolster their victory and influence in the Middle East no matter who’s president, and they will do so at America’s (and Israel’s) expense.

Trump’s Taiwan Call Wasn’t a Blunder

President-elect Donald Trump took a phone call last week and created an international incident before even being sworn into office.

He spoke with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen for ten minutes, which must seem entirely innocuous to almost everyone in America, but professional diplomats went immediately into pearl-clutching mode. And they weren’t the only ones. Several US military generals—including reliably conservative generals—made stern-faced appearances on CNN and said the call was incredibly dangerous.

Millions of Americans heard that and said, really? What on earth is the problem?

China is a bully. That’s the problem. 

Even speaking to the government of Taiwan violates Beijing’s so-called “One China Policy,” which the United States grudgingly accepted under Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

Two countries call themselves China—the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is the Republic of China. The mainland is the People’s Republic. Mainland China will not allow any country on earth to maintain diplomatic relations with both.

So when Trump spoke to Tsai, he kicked over the checkerboard.

“Uh oh,” former Bush administration White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted.  “I wasn't even allowed to refer to the gvt ‘of’ Taiwan. (I could say gvt ‘on’ Taiwan.) China will go nuts.”

China isn’t going nuts, exactly, but Beijing sure isn’t happy. The Chinese government says the episode highlights Trump’s inexperience and diplomatic bufoonery. Plenty of people in Washington said the same thing over the weekend.

Trump himself tried to blow it off as if it were one big nothing-to-see, as if he simply picked up the phone when it rang. A telemarketer could have been on the line for all he knew, but surprise. It was the woman who isn’t supposed to exist. “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency,” he tweeted.

It could have happened that way. The unusual nature of Trump’s transition gave him some plausible deniability. When Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wanted to call Trump to say congratulations, he had no idea how to contact the president-elect. Professional golfer and Trump pal Greg Norman gave Trump’s private cell phone number to Turnbull.

That was way out of the ordinary, but it happened. When Turnbull called, Trump just picked up and said, “hello.” Anyone in the world could have been on the other end of the line, including the president of Taiwan.

That’s not what happened with Tsai, though. According to her office, both sides arranged the call in advance.

It wasn’t a blunder, then. It was on purpose.

The Washington Post reports that the call “was the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Trump’s advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan that began even before he became the Republican presidential nominee, according to people involved in or briefed on the talks.”

Why are we only hearing about this days later? Perhaps the Trump team wanted the Chinese to think it was a blunder at first to give them time to slowly come to grips with the fact that there’s a new sheriff in town.

Is poking China on Taiwan a good idea?

I have no idea. It depends on what happens. As Ross Douthat put it on Twitter, “it’s all fine until there’s an actual crisis and then it won’t be fine.”

China might suck it up and move on. China also might be a gigantic pain in the ass about it.

Nobody knows. The Chinese probably don’t even know. They’ll have to hold emergency meetings and yell at each other in private first.

They might get over it. The United States trades with Taiwan. The United States sells weapons to Taiwan. In 1996, President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait when China tested missiles in nearby waters.

China’s rulers hate these things and wish we would stop, but they accept them. They’ll accept Trump’s phone call too because by itself it’s not a big deal, and in any case it’s a done deal.

They might even accept a new American policy after they spend a respectable amout of time wailing and gnashing their teeth, but they could make the world a much more difficult place for us if they don’t.

The US needs China’s help to keep nuclear-armed North Korea boxed in. China can veto UN Security Council sanctions against Iran or anyone else. China might strong-arm other East Asian countries into cooling their relations with the United States and moving closer to Beijing, especially now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which excluded China) is dead in the water.

I’d love to see the United States recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation as long as the Pacific Rim doesn’t blow up. For one thing, Taiwan is a sovereign nation whether or not Beijing and Washington say so. It has its own democratically elected government and its own institutions. It makes its own domestic, foreign and trade policies with zero input from the Chinese Communist Party. Its citizens have their own passports with "Republic of China" written across the top. Recognizing these facts is just an acknowledgement of reality. Ari Fleischer might not have been allowed to refer to the government of Taiwan, but those of us who don’t work for the government are free to recognize, talk about and write about reality.

“Reality,” science-fiction writer Phillip K. Dick once wrote, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.”

Also: come on. China is autocratic. Taiwan is democratic. China is the big China. Taiwan is the good China.

“We have had a status quo of sorts in the Taiwan Strait that has kept the peace,” says Orville Schell, the director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, “but it recently has not looked all that durable, nor was it very agreeable to most citizens of democratic Taiwan.”

It’s not very agreeable to lots of Americans either, including my wife. She used to live there.

Beijing wants to impose its rule on Taiwan like it has in Hong Kong, Tibet and East Turkestan. If any half-way moral and sensible person had their way, the reverse would happen and Taiwan would export its democratic Chinese model to its 900-pound cousin. That’s probably what will eventually happen anyway, even if China militarily conquers Taiwan in the meantime.

We all have to deal with the world as it is, but sacrificing Taiwan to the wolves is outrageous. Taiwan had a “permanent” seat on the United Nations Security Council until Richard Nixon, neverminding tens of millions of corpses, gave it to Mao Zedong. Nixon told Taiwan that the US was engaging instead with the mainland Chinese “not because we love them. But because they’re there.” Fine. It may have been necessary, but it was a nasty business. A bully got its way for four decades not because it is right but because it is bigger. Professional diplomats may have to bite their tongues but the rest of us don’t.

“Until recently,” Isaac Stone Fish writes in The Atlantic, “Taiwanese and Chinese diplomats regularly traveled the world fighting for diplomatic recognition, while China sat quietly in the UNSC seat it took from Taiwan in October 1971, using its veto largely as a cudgel against countries that recognized Taiwan. Now it doesn’t need to; the fight is over, and Taiwan lost. South Africa, the last major country to recognize Taiwan, switched over in 1998. Taiwan lost Gambia, the smallest nation in continental Africa, in March 2016, dropping the number of states that recognize it to 22, the most important of which are the Vatican and Nicaragua.”

Plenty of officials in both the Democratic and Republican parties would go along with a policy change, including many who spent the last several days wigging out about the Trump team’s unconventional methods. Whether we like it or not, though, the unconventional is about to become the new normal, not just in the United States but everywhere populist political parties take power, from the United Kingdom, Poland and Hungary to the Philippines and possibly France.

The entire world is going to have to get used to it. 

Will China Shrink in 2018, Ten Years Ahead of Schedule?

The South China Morning Post recently reported that Chinese demographers expect their country’s population to peak in 2018. That year is a full decade earlier than the highpoint projected in the UN’s most recent estimates and is yet another indication that China’s demographic problems are accelerating.

And there is little relief in sight. The official National Bureau of Statistics reports that China’s total fertility rate or TFR, the number of births per woman living through childbearing age, was a stunningly low 1.05 last year, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

Springtime for Morsi

I reviewed Eric Trager's book, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days for Commentary magazine.

Almost everyone got the Arab Spring wrong.

At a casual glance, the Middle East and North Africa appeared to be sprouting political liberals like daisies at the tail end of 2010, when a nonviolent revolution in Tunisia spread to Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Tunisia’s autocratic Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell in a matter of weeks, followed a month later by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Rebellions then broke out in Libya against the tyrannical Muammar Qaddafi and in Syria against Bashar al-Assad.

Tunisia came through fairly well. It is now governed by a secular democratically elected government. But elsewhere, the Arab Spring failed spectacularly. Syria is ground zero for ISIS, and it’s suffering its fifth year of catastrophic civil war. Libya is disintegrating into a terrorist war zone. Egyptians first elected a theocratic Muslim Brotherhood government, then cheered when the army toppled their first and only elected president—the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi—and replaced their fledgling psuedo-democracy with yet another military dictatorship.

The Arab Spring failed for different reasons in each place, but in no country were expectations so violently dashed as in Egypt.

With Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, academic and journalist Eric Trager has written the definitive account of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise and collapse, beginning with the revolt against Mubarak, the elections that brought the Brotherhood to power, Morsi’s inept and ill-fated reign, and its decimation at the hands of the army.

“What looked like a democratizing ‘Arab Spring’ to many foreign observers,” Trager writes, “was in fact a deeply uncertain ‘Arab Fall’ for many Egyptians, in which the political climate grew colder and colder as time wore on.”

How did so many journalists, diplomats, academics, and analysts get Egypt so wrong? It was partly the result of hope and naiveté. But the Muslim Brotherhood also waged a brilliantly effective campaign of deception at home and abroad, hoping to convince as many people as possible that it was a politically moderate organization with a broad and diverse base of support. It wanted to earn the trust of Egyptians who weren’t yearning for an Islamist theocracy, and it feared a hostile reaction from the West, so it mounted a full-court press in the Egyptian, European, and American media. The Washington Post even published an op-ed from one of its leaders, Abdel Moneim Abouel, who wrote that the Brotherhood “embraced diversity and democratic values.”

Its media-savvy spokesmen touted this line at every opportunity to every journalist and diplomat who would listen, but the Brotherhood’s decades-old motto revealed what they truly believed. “Allah is our objective,” it reads, “the Prophet is our leader, the Qur’an is our constitution, jihad is our way, and death for the sake of God is our highest aspiration.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood was never a moderate organization or a democratic one in any sense of that word,” Trager writes. “It is a rigidly purpose-driven vanguard that seeks total control over its members so that it can mobilize them for empowering [founder] Hassan al-Banna’s deeply politicized interpretation of Islam as an ‘all-embracing concept.’ It accepts electoral institutions as a mechanism for winning power, but its ultimate goal is theocratic: It seeks to establish an Islamic state and ultimately establish a global Islamic state that will challenge the West.”

Trager saw what others did not in part because the Brotherhood blacklisted him and forced him to seek access beyond its smooth media handlers. “My goal was to interview the Brotherhood’s lesser-known leaders at every level, the individuals who attended the same meetings as their more prominent colleagues but who were less media-trained and therefore less guarded in sharing information,” he writes. “These folks, as it turned out, hadn’t received that blacklist memo.”

Read the rest in Commentary.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - blogs