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History Returns to Europe

The British decision to leave the European Union is the most momentous event across the Atlantic since NATO bombed Belgrade. 

If I lived in the United Kingdom, I would have voted to Remain in the EU, but it’s not hard to see why the majority voted to Leave. I wouldn’t want the United States to join the EU for the same reasons the Brexiters want out of it.

The EU is a brilliant idea. Unite splendidly diverse yet like-minded nations into a powerful bloc that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Provide minimum standards and guidelines for countries that aren’t as advanced (such as Greece and Romania). Pull down trade barriers and do business in a common market. Open up job opportunities and leg-stretching room for all. (I wouldn’t want to be confined to a place as cramped as Belgium for the rest of my life, but I’m one of those cosmopolitan “elites” everyone likes to complain about nowadays.)

The actually existing EU, though, isn’t so brilliant. It includes all the good stuff, yet it’s crushed by a staggering amount of centralized regulatory bureaucracy and a disregard for the wishes of its individual member states. It’s hardly a gulag empire, but it’s autocratic enough that Europe’s democracy deficit has its own Wikipedia page. And its internally borderless nature is bringing more immigrants than can be absorbed all at once without shocks to the system.

Here’s how my Canadian pal Terry Glavin put it, who also would have voted Remain if he lived in Britain. “You can’t tell the British people, as Tony Blair’s Labour government did a decade ago, that there will only be 13,000 new immigrants arriving in Britain every year in the absence of EU transitional controls and expect them to shrug it off when they discover, as they did last month, that last year’s arrivals numbered roughly 330,000. Racism doesn’t explain everything.”

No, it doesn’t. Every racist jackhole in Europe is whooping it up over the Brexit results and pining for more, but even the most welcoming people and nations can only take in so many strangers at any one time, and Europe has never been as good at assimilating immigrants as the US and Canada anyway. (We have a lot more experience on this side of the Atlantic.)

I’ve always been skeptical that the EU would survive beyond the medium-term. Uniting nations as diverse as Britain and Greece isn’t as daft as merging the United States and Mexico into a single polity, but it’s a lot less likely to work than marrying Maine and Texas—or even British Columbia and Quebec. It’s more like combining British Columbia and Argentina. That kind of arrangement can only work if the federation is incredibly flexible.

The EU is not incredibly flexible, and English people don’t appreciate having decisions made for them in Belgium any more than Canadians would enjoy decisions being made for them by Americans, and vice versa.

Britain would have been better off without joining the EU in the first place if it wasn’t going to stay. That would have been fine. Switzerland is flourishing outside the EU, and so is Norway.

It may be a bit premature to say the EU is dead just because Britain left. The British were always the most likely to leave. They never joined with the same enthusiasm as other people. Many have always felt that “Europe” is somewhere else, that it’s the Continent, not the islands, and they refused to scrap the Pound for the Euro.

That said, this could well mark the beginning of the end of the EU. Leaving is no longer unthinkable now that the UK actually did it. If one country can leave, any country can leave, and Euroskepticism has been on the rise all over the place for a while. The EU can get along just fine without Britain, and it would probably get along even better sans Greece, but it won’t survive if France and Germany head for the exits.

The United Kingdom itself may come apart. England and Wales voted to Leave, but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain. Scotland held its own independence referendum two years ago and narrowly voted to stay in the UK, but only because leaving the country would have meant leaving Europe, and Scotland doesn’t want to leave Europe. Within hours of the Brexit vote, officials in Scotland mulled a second referendum on independence. It’s far more likely to pass next time than last time.

People in Scotland don’t enjoy having decisions made for them in England any more than the English like having decisions made for them in Belgium. Nationalism in Britain cut both ways. English nationalists voted to Leave while Scottish nationalists voted Remain.

Cosmopolitan “citizens of the world” need to understand something: Nationalism isn’t necessarily bad. It can be—that’s for damn sure—but a lack of it can be just as destructive. Nationalism is exclusive, yes, but it’s also inclusive. It draws a line between those on in the inside and those on the outside, but it also binds those on the inside together.

Look at Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Precious little glue binds them. Huge numbers of people in all three identify more with their sect—Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Christian—than with their own country. They’ve formed military alliances with belligerent foreign states against people who live down the street. More than a million have been slaughtered because of it.

The two Baath Party regimes in Syria and Iraq attempted to gloss over their sectarian differences with a patina of pan-Arab Nationalism, yet they still butchered hundreds of thousands of people from enemy sects inside their own countries. Fractious Northern Ireland is as homogenous and pacifist as Japan by comparison.

But Northern Ireland is not homogenous, and it is not pacifist. Belfast is the most car-bombed city in the history of Europe. There is no “Northern Irish” identity that binds everybody together. The Catholic half of the population identifies with the Republic of Ireland while the Protestant half identifies with the United Kingdom. If the UK breaks apart after Brexit, what will become of Northern Ireland? It can’t be neatly partitioned any more than Baghdad can be neatly partitioned.

The European Union may have helped calm nationalistic furies in Belfast. It makes less of a difference if the region belongs to Ireland or the UK if it’s part of a larger transnational entity either way—if Brussels is its ultimate capital either way—but that pressure release valve is now closed.

I would have chosen to Remain if I were British. Better to reform and liberalize the EU than to scrap it. The uncertainty following Brexit is nothing compared to what could happen if the whole thing collapses. Those economic shockwaves will hammer us here in the US. I guarantee it.

And what would become of Eastern Europe? Romania is no longer a Third World country thanks in part to the European Union, while Hungary—which likewise hasn’t fully recovered from Soviet-style totalitarian government—is lurching in an increasingly disturbing direction even from within the EU. “The era of liberal democracies is over,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared in Romania recently. “Copying Western models is a kind of provincialism that will kill us.” There’s only so much Brussels can do to prevent a nation like Hungary from descending into a Putin-esque hell of its own making, but it will have even less ability if the EU doesn’t exist.

This could be the beginning of a slow-motion and potentially ugly collapse, but who knows? The future isn’t yet written.

I can say this, though, with confidence: history is not over. The next quarter-century in Europe will not be the same as the last quarter-century. History never stands still for long, nor does it move in a straight line for long. It’s always turning corners, and it’s always surprising.

Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Radical Islam

Americans have been arguing about Islam since 9/11. It was perhaps inevitable that our presidential candidates would bicker about it eventually.

It finally happened last week when Donald Trump slammed Hillary Clinton for refusing to say the words “radical Islamism.” Clinton responded by saying the words “radical Islamism.”

President Barack Obama is a little more stubborn about it. He even insists that ISIS, or ISIL as he and other government officials call it, “is not Islamic” at all.

Of course ISIS is Islamic. The first letter in ISIS stands for “Islamic.”

Every literate person who knows what letters and words mean must at the absolute minimum recognize that ISIS claims to be Islamic. It sure as hell isn’t Christian, nor is it Jewish. It is not Buddhist, Hindu or Zoroastrian. No human being on this planet thinks ISIS is atheist.

Obama comes off like he’s living in an airy fairy fantasy land. “Unless,” Trump said last week, “you're willing to discuss and talk about the real nature of the problem and the name of the problem radical Islamic terrorism, you're never going to solve the problem.”

“What exactly would using this label accomplish?” Obama angrily said in response. “Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away…Not once has an advisor of mine said, man, if we use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around. If someone seriously thinks we don’t know who we’re fighting, if there’s anyone out there who thinks we’re confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we’ve taken off the battlefield.”

Of course Obama knows who we’re fighting and why. He’s been bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq for more than a year now. He’s been doing it half-assedly, sure, but he’s not bombing the Middle East’s Christians, Jews, Druze, Yezidis or Alawites.

And he’s quite right that we aren’t losing because he doesn’t use the phrase “radical Islam.” He could change his mind and use the phrase every day for the rest of his term and it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference on the battlefield.

What he’s doing here is picking up where former President George W. Bush left off when he repeatedly called Islam “a religion of peace.”

Trump says this is political correctness and that it’s killing us, but this is something else. It’s diplomatic correctness.

“There are good reasons why Obama—and President George W. Bush before him—did not describe jihadists in explicitly Islamic terms,” Eli Lake writes in Bloomberg. “It was not because they are cowed by political correctness. Rather it was because the wider war on radical Islamic terrorism requires the tacit and at times active support of many radical Muslims.”

Lake’s case in point is the Anbar Awakening during General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, when every tribal leader in the western Anbar Province aligned themselves with American soldiers and Marines against Al Qaeda.

“These sheiks were pious Muslims,” Lake writes. “Many believed that apostates should be punished by the state and that fathers had an obligation to arrange marriages for their daughters.”

He’s right. I spent more time than was good for my health in the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. These places are painfully, even brutally, backward. Not every Muslim who lives there is a fanatic, but virtually none can be described as liberal or cosmopolitan with a straight face.

Then there is Saudi Arabia. The United States has had a transactional alliance with the House of Saud since the 1930s. The Saudis provide the world with oil in exchange for American security. Since then, Washington and Riyadh have drawn closer together for other reasons. We share many of the same geopolitical interests, especially when it comes to Iran.

The Saudis are kinda sorta allies, yet they preside over and promote the most puritanical sect of Sunni Islam in the world—that of the Wahhabis, founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century. The Saudis spend enormous amounts of money spreading this noxious and dangerous brand of Islam all over the world. It’s a serious problem, and it’s long past time for the United States to demand they halt it or else, but the Saudis are nevertheless helpful in other ways and have been for almost a hundred years. 

So yes, we have fanatical as well as moderate and liberal Muslim allies, and Obama, like Bush before him, is reluctant to alienate them. American presidents have to weigh the diplomatic consequences of their words. Journalists, intellectuals, activists and historians don’t.

The downside is that people don’t like or trust leaders who appear disconnected from reality. And Obama is far more worried about this than he needs to be. All he needs to do is be honest and reasonable. He just needs to make it clear, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did when he was bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan, that “the war against terrorism is not a war against a religion.”

Middle Easterners are among the least “politically correct” people in the entire world. The very idea of Western-style “political correctness” in the Middle East is absurd. They are far less “sensitive,” in the progressive sense of that word, than virtually anyone in the United States. And they know damn well that ISIS is Islamic. We’re not earning any points with our allies in the Muslim world by denying this, nor would we alienate any of them by acknowledging it.

The United States government surely would alienate our friends and allies over there if we had a bombastic bigoted blowhard in the White House, but calling the Islamic State “Islamic” isn’t even in the same time zone as bigoted or bombastic.

Whatever Obama and Trump say, the rest of us need to get something straight. At one end of the American spectrum is the notion that Islam is a religion of peace while the other end insists that it’s a religion of war and jihad. They’re both right, and they’re both wrong. Islam is not a single monolithic thing any more than Christianity is.

Former Muslim and Somalia-native Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains this better than almost anyone in her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, which I reviewed last year for Commentary.

She divides Muslims into three groups, ignoring the theological and cultural distinctions between Sunnis and Shias and smaller sects like Wahhabis and Sufis. She also sets aside national differences between countries like Kosovo and Azerbaijan, where almost everybody is secular, and ultraconservative realms like Saudi Arabia where almost nobody is.

First there are those she calls Mecca Muslims, traditional and largely peaceful people inspired by Mohammad’s benign example during the religion’s early years when he lived in Mecca and politely invited others to follow him. The majority of the world’s Muslims fall into this camp.

Then there are the Medina Muslims, the often violent minority that follows Mohammad’s example when he lived in Medina and assaulted those who refused to convert. Medina Muslims include the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, and the ayatollahs in Iran.

Both types of people are authentic Muslims. Both can cite the Koran to back up their beliefs and behavior. Both can say they’re following Mohammad’s example. 

Hirsi Ali’s third group are the dissidents like herself. Some are ex-Muslims while others are reformers—including imams and respected scholars—who are doing everything they can to modernize the religion and discredit the Medina Muslims.

Insisting that the Medina Muslims aren’t Muslims is as pointless as it is wrong. It may be defensible as a diplomatic fiction, but it’s also unnecessary. The dissidents and the reformers know damn well who and what they’re up against. They wouldn’t need to reform the religion if it did not need reforming. They also know perfectly well that the Islamic State is Islamic. These people are our best friends in the Islamic world, and they won’t be the least bit offended if Obama or anyone else calls a radical Islamic terrorist a radical Islamic terrorist. 

The Saudis wouldn’t sever the alliance either if the White House calls a spade a spade. They need us more than we need them, after all. People like the sheikhs of Iraq’s Anbar Province wouldn’t refuse to work with an American president for using phrases like “radical Islam” either as long as the White House made it clear we’re not at war with an entire religion.  

Obama is far more worried about this than he needs to be, and Trump isn’t worried enough. A commander-in-chief who bares his teeth at 1.2 billion Muslims in the world would be a catastrophe for a reason that ought to be obvious: winning wars against radical Muslims without enlisting the help of friendly moderate Muslims is impossible.

Banning Guns and Muslims Isn’t the Answer to Orlando

The United States suffered the worst act of terrorism since 9/11 over the weekend when ISIS supporter Omar Seddique Mateen killed 50 people and wounded another 53 with a handgun and a .223 rifle at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Americans are good at solving problems. We’ve put men on the moon, cured countless diseases, and invented nearly all modern technology from televisions and telephones to microchips and the Internet. We created a durable democracy that has lasted more than 200 years, ended slavery, destroyed Hitler’s Nazi regime, and bested the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Surely, then, we can solve terrorism, or at least drastically reduce it, but let’s get one thing clear. There is no such thing as The Answer. There is no silver bullet, no magic wand, no perfectly calibrated piece of legislation that Congress can pass to make terrorists leave us alone.

Even if there were such a thing, a government ban wouldn’t be it. If it were so easy, we’d just ban terrorism and be done with it. Yet a large swath of the left wants to solve this with a gun ban, and a large swath of the right wants to ban Muslims.

We’ve never solved any of our great problems with bans. Bans always backfire. Remember Prohibition? How’s the drug war coming along? What does the underground sex industry look like?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says she wants stricter gun laws after Orlando. Reasonable people can disagree about the particulars of this or that piece of proposed gun regulation, but Clinton is kidding herself or pulling a fast one on voters by suggesting that better background checks, closing the loopholes at gun shows, or an “assault” rifle ban will prevent terrorists from getting guns.

The Orlando shooter worked as a security guard. He passed all kinds of background checks. He didn’t need to exploit any loopholes at gun shows. If the rifle he used had not been available in stores, he could have bought one on the black market.

France has strict gun laws. France has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. That didn’t stop ISIS from getting its hands on automatic Kalashnikovs seven months ago in Paris and tripling the Orlando shooter’s body count.

Ban guns in stores and at gun shows all you want—it will affect law-abiding citizens, not terrorists. Anything and everything banned by governments just moves to the black market, from guns and drugs to prostitution. According to the National Observatory for Delinquency, the number of illegal weapons in France has been increasing by double-digit percentages for years. Criminals and terrorists don’t need to pass background checks, nor do they need Wal-mart. They buy their guns on the street.

Even a draconian absolute gun ban wouldn’t work. Under what theory would a war on guns work any better than the war on drugs? Does anyone seriously believe that the government could ever take so many weapons away from so many people that terrorists would have to resort to running around with butter knives? Come on.

The French gun ban accomplished a grand total of jack squat last year when ISIS hit Paris. And Mohammad Atta’s crew killed thousands of people on 9/11 armed with nothing but box cutters.

Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States is even more ludicrous. The vast majority of guns are never used in mass shootings, and the vast majority of Muslims never commit acts of terrorism.

Almost three million Muslims live in the United States. The percentage who have blown up or shot anyone is only slightly more than one in a million.

The Muslim world is enormous and varied. A ban on all Muslims would be a de-facto ban on the Kurds, and the Kurds are America’s best friends in the entire Middle East. They’re more militantly anti-ISIS than anyone else in the world, and they’ve supplied most of the ground troops against ISIS.

Here’s what my Kurdish friend Ejder Memis wrote on Facebook today. “Let me offer my commiserations to the LGBT community for the savage murder of 50 and the maiming of as many in [an] Orlando gay club by an Islamofascist terrorist.” After getting that out of the way, he goes after the Orlando shooter’s father who said that what his son did had nothing to do with religion. “Where were you when ISIS killed, raped and pillaged their way across Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan? Where were you when they attempted a genocide on Yazidis, enslaved 'infidel' girls and women, cut off heads and burnt prisoners? Where were you when they blew up worshipers in churches and peaceful protesters in Suruc and Ankara? Where were you when they threw gays off the roof tops? Pray tell you were not at a 'No to Islamophobia' march rubbing shoulders with those who would rather see you dead.”

Raise your hand if you think America will be safer if the man who wrote that can’t come here.

Should the United States be more careful about who it lets in? Absolutely. But here’s a not-so secret secret about Middle Easterners—many of them are more clear-eyed than Westerners are about the likes of ISIS.

Banning all of them with a blind and blunt instrument probably wouldn’t directly help ISIS recruitment as much as Clinton alleges. Psychopathic totalitarians are not provoked by Western illiberalism. They are, on the contrary, provoked by Western liberalism. Who thinks the Orlando shooter just randomly chose a gay night club?

Banning all Muslims would, however, sour America’s good relationships with moderate Muslims and their governments from Morocco and Tunisia to Jordan and Azerbaijan. And it would profoundly alienate the Muslims who already live here, which could make them more susceptible to radicalization down the road.

In any case, the Orlando shooter was born in America. Trump’s proposed Muslim ban wouldn’t have touched him. 

So what’s the answer? The answer is that The Answer doesn’t exist.

We can start, though, by destroying the Islamic State. That would do a lot more good than preventing me from buying a gun, and it would do even more good than preventing my Kurdish friends from visiting Washington. ISIS can recruit and inspire people far more easily if it looks like it’s winning rather than losing. Even if it isn’t winning per se, if it simply looks durable and permanent, it can and does recruit and inspire people.

Destroying the ISIS “state” in Syria and Iraq won’t kill the ideology, obviously. The ideology will live on, almost certainly for the rest of our lives. Nazis and Communists still exist, after all. They are, however, a lot less dangerous now that Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union are buried.

The Third Battle of Fallujah

The third battle of Fallujah is on.

The assault began in the early hours on Monday when the Iraqi Army and Iranian-backed Shia militias stormed the city in Iraq’s Anbar Province under British and American air cover to expel ISIS once and for all.

Brace yourself for atrocities.

More than 300,000 people live there. The vast majority have fled, but roughly 50,000 are still trapped inside. ISIS is holding hundreds of families and using them as human shields.

Human shields can work against Western armies that hold their fire when possible to avoid killing civilians. The Iraqi Army doesn’t care about killing civilians, and the Iranian-backed militias care even less.

ISIS is also deploying suicide bombers, including suicide car bombers.

Organizations and diverse as Human Rights Watch and the US Department of Defense are worried about war crimes, not only from ISIS—which commits war crimes as a matter of course and of policy—but also from “our” side.

Last year, Iraqi and Iranian-backed forces took back the ISIS-held city of Tikrit, and they’ve been under investigation for war crimes ever since. Allegations include the massacring of civilians, torturing and summarily executing captives, and displaying human heads.

The US and Britain are in a terrible spot here. There is no getting around this: we’re militarily assisting gangs of vicious murderous bastards. The only reason it’s even remotely defensible is because the guys on the other side are even more vicious—the most vicious, in fact, in all of the world.

It’s safe to say at this point that ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq is the most oppressive place on the face of the earth. Cities like Fallujah and Raqqa make even North Korea seem mild.

People have been eating grass to survive.Executions of civilians for “crimes” as minor as shaving and smoking cigarettes is rampant, and residents are forced to watch. One resident says ISIS videotapes the executions and personally delivers DVDs to every house in the city.

ISIS is even forcing men to commit domestic violence. “Our husbands and fathers were pushed to discipline us,” an Iraqi woman told Al Jazeera. “Husbands would be forced to hit their wives for not wearing the niqab properly. If our men did not obey the orders of ISIL, they would face punishment.”

“Our biggest fear was to be caught by ISIL fighters,” she added. “They have no mercy; they will execute anyone whom they catch or even suspect of trying to flee.”

This is the third time in twelve years Fallujah has faced all out war. It was relatively quiet for a brief period after the US invaded in 2003. There wasn’t much looting. The mayor was pro-American. Resentment simmered, though, and then exploded in 2004 when a mob murdered and mutilated four Blackwater security contractors and strung their bodies up on a bridge.

The US military went in to clear the city the following month, but for political reasons they pulled back before finishing the job. Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by the psychopathic Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, gained total control of the city and imposed Taliban-style rule on the populace.

If something like this was going to happen in only one place in Iraq, Fallujah be it. “Fallujah is strange, sullen, wild-eyed, badass, and just plain mean,” Bing West wrote in his book, No True Glory. “Fallujans don’t like strangers, which includes anyone not homebred. Wear lipstick or Western-style long hair, sip a beer or listen to an American CD, and you risk the whip or a beating.”

Fallujah has been Iraq’s no-go zone since at least the time of the British in Mesopotamia. Even back then, everyone was warned to stay out, and it’s where Saddam Hussein recruited many of his regime’s most brutal enforcers.

I spent a month there during the war, and the only thing I can say in its favor is that it’s only the second-most broken and hopeless place I’ve ever seen. (The first-most is Baghdad, which is better educated and more open to the world, but it’s also where adjacent Sunni and Shia neighborhoods can hardly stop car-bombing each other even when they’re separated by walls.)

After losing the first battle of Fallujah, American soldiers and Marines went back in and fought the massive epic battle known as Al-Fajr, or Dawn.

Al Qaeda in Iraq proved itself so monstrous that the residents of Fallujah, who surely ranked among the most anti-American people in the world, forged an alliance with the hated enemy superpower to vomit the terrorists out.

The Iraqis claim they are not going to stop until they expel ISIS completely. If they manage to pull it off—and at this point that’s still a big if—they’d better learn from their earlier mistakes. ISIS would never have managed to take over that city two years ago if residents didn’t initially see its fighters as lesser evils compared with Baghdad’s central government. That’s extraordinary in and of itself since Fallujans had plenty of experience already with Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was just ISIS under a different name and different management.

Fallujah is a Sunni Arab city in a country where Sunni Arabs makes up only around 20 percent the population. The previous Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki ruled Iraq like an Iranian-backed warlord hell-bent on subjugating the minority. Incredibly, compared to him, ISIS looked sort of okay and tribal leaders opened the door.

It was the worst decision in the long history of deplorable decisions in that city. Only in the feverish dreams of insanely bigoted anti-Shia reactionaries was Nouri al-Maliki even as remotely bad as ISIS, let alone worse.

Maliki governed badly. No question about it. He purged Sunnis from the government, jailed dissidents, spuriously accused his political opponents of being terrorist supporters, and aligned himself with Iranian-backed militias. We should all be glad he’s out of power. But more oppressive than ISIS? Please.

It’s not clear that any Shia-led government will ever seem legitimate in the eyes of many of Iraq’s Sunnis—especially not if Baghdad re-takes Fallujah with Iranian backing. What drives Sunni sectarianism more than anything else is the perception that Iraq’s Shias are in cahoots with Tehran.

On the other hand, ISIS is so unspeakably awful that the residents of Fallujah and other Sunni cities in Iraq may see how wrong they were when they thought they’d be better off oppressed by “their own” than by the other.

On the third hand, they should have known better already. The Sunnis of Anbar Province suffered under ISIS before, and apparently they learned nothing from the experience. 

So who knows where this is heading? I certainly don’t.

I will say this, though. If Baghdad and its Iranian friends manage to purge ISIS in Western Iraq, they’d better get the hell out and stay out when they’re finished or a fourth battle of Fallujah is all but inevitable.

Venezuela Collapses, Colombia Rises

Venezuela and Colombia have swapped places.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington’s Idiotic Echo Chamber

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

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

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

What a gob-smacking couple of sentences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran Recruits Child Soldiers – Again

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

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

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

The goal is not just to free Iraq and Syria;

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

… I don’t regret parting from my country;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran Unleashes the Morality Police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cold Arab-Israeli Alliance Against Iran

Israel and the Sunni Arab states inched closer together diplomatically and geopolitically last week when Egypt transferred control of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.

It’s not initially obvious why the control of two uninhabited islands moving from one Arab country to another would even affect Israel let alone suggest that Israel’s relations with its neighbors might be improving. The answer lies in the past. These islands have been flashpoints a number of times during the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they won’t be anymore.

They have no value in and of themselves—no resources, no people, no nothing—but look at a map. The two islands bottleneck the Straits of Tiran between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. Any ships that want to reach Israel or Jordan from the south have to pass through there, and the passage is only a few miles across. A fit person could swim from one side to the other without too much trouble.

In 1950, during the early days of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Saudis asked the more-powerful Egyptians to take control of these islands because they feared the Israelis might seize them. Just as the Saudis feared, six years later the Israelis took Tiran Island during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and again in 1967 when Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser blockaded the straits and precipitated the Six Day War. The Saudis wouldn’t have been able to hold the Israelis back, but as it turned out, neither could the Egyptians. 

Things have settled down in the meantime. The Egyptians and Saudis aren’t worried about Israel anymore. There’s no point. The Israelis are spectacularly uninterested in another war with Egypt, and they’ve never fought a war with the Saudis. Cairo and Riyadh—like most Arab capitals—are far more worried about Iran, especially now that Washington is letting Tehran come in from the cold as part of the nuclear “deal.”

So Egypt returned control of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.

Egypt’s dictator General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has turned out to be a staunch champion of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, not because he loves the Israelis—surely he doesn’t—but because, like all Egyptian Army officers, he’s painfully aware that another war with Israel would be just as stupid and pointless as the previous wars with Israel and that Egypt would get its ass kicked all over again for nothing. And he’s realistic enough to know that the Israelis won’t wake up some random morning and decide to bomb Cairo just for the hell of it.

The transfer of the islands back to the Saudis “relates to us and it does not bother us,” Israeli Knesset member Tzachi Hanegb said. “The Saudis, who are committed to freedom of shipping under international law, will not harm the essence of the agreement between Egypt and us in this regard, and freedom of shipping in Aqaba and Eilat will remain as is.”

The Saudis are congenitally incapable of saying anything friendly about Israel in public—behind closed doors, the Saudis get along with Israel fine—but Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir nevertheless said, “There is an agreement and commitments that Egypt accepted related to these islands, and the kingdom is committed to these.”

He’s referring to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1979, which guarantees passage of Israeli ships through the Straits of Tiran.

By publicly agreeing to respect Israel’s right to this particular international waterway, the Saudis are implicitly agreeing to at least part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty despite the fact that no formal peace treaty exists yet between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

How far those two little islands have come. They started out as pieces on the board in the region-wide Arab-Israeli conflict, and now they symbolize a long overdue thaw. 

Israelis and Arabs may never like each other, but they don’t have to. Look at the Greeks and the Turks. They’ve hated each other’s guts for hundreds of years, they ethnically cleansed each other in 1923 and again on the island of Cyprus in the 1970s, but the Soviet Union was a lightning rod during the Cold War, and they set aside their longstanding hostility and agreed to work with each other within the framework of NATO.

Israel was similarly a kind of lightning rod in the Middle East that unified the Arabs, but today Iran is the lightning rod. The real threat from Iran is uniting most of the Arab states, and it’s triggering a serious rethink about the non-threat from the Jewish state. 

It’s the Iranian government’s greatest diplomatic and propaganda failure. When the revolutionary regime seized power from the Shah in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini attempted to rally the Arab world behind him by singling out the so-called Zionist Entity as a threat to all Muslims. He had his work cut out for him. Hatred of Jews was never as strong a force in Persian culture as it historically has been in Arab culture. For Persians, Arabs—not Jews—were and are the ancient implacable foe. Iran had excellent relations with Israel until 1979 and would still enjoy excellent relations with Israel today if the Khomeinists had not taken over.

The most intractable fault lines in the Middle East are between Sunnis and Shias and between Arabs and Persians, and Iran has both a Persian and a Shia majority. Iran’s rulers can’t easily become the hegemons of an entire region that hates them. Their best bet, perhaps their only bet, was to unite all Muslims—Sunni, Shia, Arab and Persian—against the Jews.

So Khomeini abandoned Iran’s alliance with Israel and threw its support behind terrorist armies like Hamas and Hezbollah.

In The Persian Night, Amir Taheri sums up Khomeini’s pitch to the Arabs this way: “Forget that Iran is Shia, and remember that today it is the only power capable of realizing your most cherished dream, the destruction of Israel. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood promised you it would throw the Jews into the sea in 1948, but failed. Pan-Arab nationalists, led by Nasser, ushered you into one of your biggest defeats in history, enabling Israel to capture Jerusalem. The Baathists under Saddam Hussein promised to ’burn Israel,’ but ended up bringing the American infidels to Baghdad. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian ’patriots’ promised to crush the Jewish state, but turned into collaborators on its payroll. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda never gave two hoots about Palestine, focusing only on spectacular operations in the West to win publicity for themselves. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Hamas did all they could to destroy Israel but lacked the power, like flies attacking an elephant. The only force now willing and able to help realize your dream of a burned Israel and drowning the Jews is the Islamic Republic as created by Khomeini.”

It was a clever plan, but it failed, and its failure is a little more obvious with each passing year. Israel could have been the lighting rod that brought Arabs and Persians, and Sunnis and Shias, together. Instead, the Semitic tribes are slowly inching together. Not warmly—that’s for damn sure—but the Greeks and Turks, along with the Americans and the Saudis, showed the world a long time ago that cold alliances can work almost as effectively.

The Rise of the Pirate Party

After the release of the so-called Panama Papers led to the downfall of Iceland’s prime minister, the Pirate Party is poised to take his place in the next election. In a multi-party nation, 43 percent of voters are now backing the Pirates.

They sound dangerous, but they’re not named after the murderous brigands off the Horn of Africa and in the South China Sea. The Pirates are basically a libertarian protest party, and they’re capitalizing on a wave of anti-establishment outrage.

Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned last week when a law firm in Panama City revealed that he and his wife set up a company in the British Virgin Islands that allegedly has a conflict of interest with Icelandic banks. Gunnlaugsson’s Progressive Party—which is actually center-right and classically liberal rather than leftist—is in disarray and will likely collapse, at least temporarily.

Europe has never been fertile ground for libertarians. It is not Montana, and it isn’t Wyoming. But the Pirate Party defies conventional labels and isn’t entirely sure whether it belongs on the left, on the right, or anywhere in particular. It’s not even entirely libertarian. It’s a hodgepodge of libertarians, centrists and left-wing activists. The classically liberal center-right could join in theoretically, but it’s poised to go down with the prime minister.

Iceland’s Pirate Party is one of several in the West. The first was founded in Sweden in 2006 as a protest party. They all started as protest parties, including the Icelandic branch. The Pirate Party also has an American branch.

Its various incarnations differ somewhat from country to country, but most have a core set of ideas in common. Those ideas are these, as cited on the website of the American Pirate Party.

  1. We stand for open culture. No one should have the power to prevent the free exchange and expression of ideas, tools, or works.
  2. We stand for transparency and openness. Government activities should not be hidden from the public.
  3. We stand for individual privacy. The amount of oppression in a society is inversely proportional to its privacy protections. Individuals must be free to make personal decisions that do not harm another person.
  4. We are anti-monopoly. No monopoly should be able to prevent works, tools, or ideas from: being freely used, expressed, exchanged, recombined, or taught; nor to violate individual privacy or human rights. A creator’s right to be compensated for their work or idea is only acceptable within these limitations.
  5. We stand for individuals over institutions. Universal human rights apply only to human beings, and not to corporations, limited liability organizations, or other group entities.
  6. We are a post-ideological values-based meritocracy. We place all options on the table. We choose a specific approach because the available evidence shows that it is the best way to promote our values. We do not make decisions based merely on tradition, popularity, authority or political expediency.
  7. We are egalitarian. We believe in equality and a level playing field. We accept input from all sources, and we value all people equally.
  8. We actively practice these values. We hold ourselves accountable for our own adherence to these principles.

Most Americans have never heard of this party. But if the Pirate Party wins an election in Iceland, the other branches may not look so much like protest parties anymore. They might suddenly appear viable everywhere.

Birgitta Jonsdottir founded the Icelandic branch in 2006. She’s a former Wikileaks activist and calls herself a poetess. One of the planks in her party’s platform is granting immediate citizenship to Edward Snowden, who leaked massive amounts of information from the National Security Agency (NSA) about its global surveillance system. Yet in her campaign video, an unidentified man is quoted saying, “information in Icelandic servers would be very much like money in Swiss banks.”

That doesn’t exactly square with Edward Snowden and Wikileaks. The Pirate Party says it wants to protect data, but Snowden and Wikileaks have done precisely the opposite.

She could try to resolve that contradiction, I guess, by saying everyone except government and corporate officials have the right to privacy, but government and corporate officials are citizens too. It ought to go without saying that they shouldn’t be above the law, but they can’t very well be below the law. Either everybody deserves privacy or nobody deserves privacy. (Should Hillary Clinton have released the password on her email account to the public, or should she have used a secure server?) We should expect Jonsdottir’s views on these questions to “evolve,” as she might later put it, if her party wins an election and she find that she’s now the target of leakers. 

The Pirate Party is aptly named in at least one way. It openly supports Internet piracy. “The Pirate Party affirms that current copyright law is not good for the public or for creative professionals,” says the American Pirate Party’s website, “and only actually benefits a small minority of corporate executives.”

Sorry, guys, but that’s bullshit. I am no corporate executive. Royalties from my book sales make up a significant portion of my income. Without it, I’d lose my house. Take my intellectual property away, and you owe me a salary for the rest of my life. Just pay for your books and music and movies like everyone else. All of these things are cheaper than ever. Music costs half of what it cost twenty years ago, and that’s without adjusting for inflation. The same goes for e-books.

If creative professionals can’t make a living, the creative professions the Pirate Party wants to steal from will cease to exist.

Anyway, loosening copyright enforcement isn’t what’s mobilizing huge masses of people in Iceland. They’re mobilized by disgust with the status quo generally.

Jonsdottir says her party is part of the same international wave of change represented by Bernie Sanders in the United States and the Syriza party in Greece, but that only makes sense up to a point. Sanders is a socialist—the opposite of a libertarian—and Syriza has Maoists, Trotskyists and other revolutionary communists in its ranks. Bernie Sanders is Jeb Bush next to these people. Libertarian, they are not. They are, on the contrary, the ne plus ultra of statists.

What Syriza has in common with the Pirates, however, and with Bernie Sanders and also Donald Trump, is that they are all anti-establishment.

Much of the Western world is in an anti-establishment mood. Some people gravitate toward the botched ideologies of the past while others are marinating in new ideologies that haven’t yet proven themselves one way or the other.

Why now and what’s going on?

There may be no single cause. John Podhoretz at Commentary thinks the American mood is a delayed reckoning from the financial crash in 2008.

In September 2008, after months of uncertainty following the collapse of Bear Stearns, the financial system went into its terrifying tailspin. A disastrous recession shrank the overall economy by 9 percent, and the unemployment rate rose to 10 percent a year later.

Now imagine that the meltdown had taken place not in September 2008 but rather in September 2006. Imagine that housing prices and stock prices had fallen in the same way—such that the wealth invested in the 63 percent of home-owned American households and in the stocks owned by 62 percent of all Americans had declined by 40 percent.

Further, imagine that serious proposals arose that the 8 percent of homeowners who had defaulted on their home loans be forgiven their debts—the very proposal in 2009 that led investor Rick Santelli to call for a new “tea party” uprising on the part of the 92 percent who paid their bills on time. Only this time Santelli’s comments had been spoken in 2007. Imagine all these things. And then imagine the presidential race that would have followed. Does the rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders suddenly make all the sense in the world? Of course.

But of course the meltdown didn’t happen in 2006. It took place a mere seven weeks before an election.

That’s as good an explanation of any I’ve read for why the United States is a hair’s breadth away from an election between a fake Democrat (Sanders) and a fake Republican (Trump.)

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. The 2008 primary elections were finished before the financial crash hit. Barack Obama and John McCain were chosen for the general election in an earlier era, before the tsunami of economic anxiety that still hasn’t washed out yet.

There were warnings. The anti-establishment mood on the right began with the Tea Party, and on the left with Occupy Wall Street. Pirate Parties have been popping up all over the place, mostly under the radar, in the meantime. Syriza, of course, is a product of problems unique to Greece, which are so catastrophic that hardly anyone will be surprised if the European Union sends it packing.

We shouldn’t read too much into what’s happening in any one place. Every country has its own unique set of problems, and Iceland is hardly representative of anywhere else. There are more people in Omaha, Nebraska, than in all of Iceland.

Still, no one can say that it’s business as usual right now in the politics of the Western Democracies. What the landscape might look like ten or twenty years after an international and trans-ideological spasm of anger and disgust is anyone’s guess.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal Keeps Getting Worse

The nuclear deal with Iran is not going well.

Last month, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps fired two ballistic missiles that landed almost a thousand miles away. The US objected, but the Iranians are defiant.

“The reason we designed our missiles with a range of 2000 kilometers is to be able to hit our enemy the Zionist regime from a safe distance,” said Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh.

The Saudis don’t buy it. None of the Arab states buy it, except for the Assad regime in what’s left of Syria and the Iranian-aligned Shia government in Iraq. The rest of the Arab states rightly see Iranian muscle flexing as part of Tehran’s ever-expanding regional hegemony, not just over the Jewish state, but over the entire region, most of which is Sunni and Arab.

It ought to go without saying why nearly every nation on earth, whether or not they’re named “Israel,” ought to be concerned about Iran’s ballistic missile program. Ballistic missiles can carry nuclear warheads. Enough ballistic missiles can ravage cities even if they aren’t equipped with nuclear warheads. That’s why the Secretary of State John Kerry insisted last year that squashing Iran’s ballistic missile program was part of the deal.

But maybe it wasn’t part of the deal. It’s not entirely clear what is in the deal or if the deal is even entirely settled.

“Like most of Washington,” Eli Lake writes in Bloomberg, “I was under the impression that the nuclear negotiations with Iran ended in July…I should have been more suspicious when no one actually had to sign anything at the end of the negotiations or when the ‘deal’ was not submitted to the Senate as a treaty for ratification.”

A ballistic missile test ban certainly is part of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which informally codified the nuclear deal into international law and passed unanimously last July. It clearly states in Annex B that United Nations restrictions will only be lifted if the Iranian government agrees “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.”

Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes acknowledges that Iran’s ballistic missile tests violate Security Council Resolution 2231, but not the JCPOA struck between the United States and Iran. “Iran has complied with the JCPOA,” he said at the Nuclear Security Summit when a reporter asked him if the ballistic missile tests violate the agreement.

So the United Nations now takes a harder line on Iran than the United States does.

This sort of thing doesn’t play well in America. A deal with a government as hostile and duplicitous as Iran’s is controversial, to say the least. Last year, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a resolution opposing it. One might assume American support for the deal or lack thereof breaks down on party lines, but it doesn’t. A survey conducted last September by the Pew Research Center shows that only 21 percent of Americans think it’s a good idea.

It may not be long for this world, but earlier this week, the Obama administration warned the next president not to scrap it. Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said that an American rejection “would be grasped by hardliners in Iran to assert that we were an unreliable interlocutor.”

The Iranian government already thinks that. It’s already accusing the United States of violating the agreement, so what difference does it make?

“The Americans are now acting in violation of the nuclear agreement,” Iran’s judiciary chief Sadeg Amoli Larijani said on Monday because, according to him, Washington is dissuading American companies from doing business over there. “The Americans should know that the Islamic Republic of Iran would never compromise its interests and would never agree with investment of foreign firms in the country at any price, while it enjoys rich resources and abundant talents.”

You might think the Iranians would be grateful that Ben Rhodes is carrying their water, but nope. Iran’s Deputy Chief of Staff Brigadier General Maassoud Jazzayeri is directly accusing President Barack Obama of violating the agreement because of Washington’s non-existent push-back over the missile tests. “The White House should know that defense capacities and missile power,” he said, “specially at the present juncture where plots and threats are galore, is among the Iranian nation's red lines and a backup for the country's national security and we don’t allow anyone to violate it.”

Think about that for a second. Iran tests ballistic missiles. The United States says it’s unhappy about the test, but gives Iran a clean bill of health on the nuclear agreement anyway. And Iran responds by saying the United States is violating the agreement! Up is down and black is white and one plus one equals 125.

“There is barely a day that goes by,” Lake writes, “when [Iran’s] leaders don't affirm that they have a sovereign right to test as many missiles as they choose. And in case the message wasn't clear, Iranian television made sure to broadcast images of those missiles emblazoned with Hebrew words that said ‘Israel must be wiped off the earth.’”

Secretary Kerry promised Congress that Iranian ballistic missile tests would violate the nuclear deal, but that promise has passed its expiration date.

“We recognize that Iran remains a threat to stability in the Middle East,” Kerry wrote last summer in the Washington Post. “That danger is precisely why this deal is so necessary and why we fought so hard for the multilateral arms embargo to remain in place for five years and the embargo on ballistic missiles for eight.” [Emphasis added.] Those are John Kerry’s own words in an article with his own name on it.

At some point between then and now, the deal was altered. Or at least the administration is pretending it has been altered. It’s not hard to figure out why. If the deal collapses, or appears to collapse, we’re on the road to war again with Iran. And that’s the last thing our current president wants.

It’s the last thing anybody should want, but a deal with the current Iranian government is no more valuable than a deal with Darth Vader. You may recall when, in The Empire Strikes Back, Vader convinces Lando Calrissien to betray his old friend Han Solo. As is his nature, Vader reneges. When Calrissien complains, Vader turns to him, hisses, and says, “I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further.”

Europe on the Brink

Europe appears to be falling apart.

Last week, an ISIS cell killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds more in twin suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and in the Maalbeek metro station, and the following weekend, a proposed March Against Fear was cancelled due to “security concerns,” which no doubt amped up the city’s anxiety even more.

On Sunday, riot police clashed with a mob of hundreds of angry men wearing black, some with shaved heads, who stormed into the square carrying an anti-ISIS banner and screaming Nazi-like slogans.

“It was important for us to be here symbolically,” a woman named Samia Orosemane said, but “there were lots of men who were here and doing the Nazi salute, shouting 'death to Arabs,' and so we weren't able to get through.”

Adam Liston told the BBC that the atmosphere in the square was “really positive” at first. “Then a bunch of skinheads just turned up, marched into the square, and started a major confrontation with the peace protesters. They got in the face of the protesters and police. They set off flares and chanted and it was getting quite ugly.”

There were no violent Nazi-like demonstrations in the United States against Arabs or Muslims, not even on or after September 11, 2001, when ten times as many people were murdered in the most spectacular terrorist attack in world history. But as Tom Wolfe famously put it, the dark night of fascism is forever descending on the United States and landing in Europe.

We can only imagine the violent convulsions that will wrack the continent if something on the scale of 9/11 ever happens on that side of the ocean. And it’s more likely to happen over there in the short and medium term than it is over here. Europe is already under much greater attack than the United States, and it has a far larger problem with Islamic radicalization.

There are five times as many Muslims in the United States as there are in Belgium, but the United States is not a hotbed of homegrown Islamic extremism. We’ve suffered some acts of terrorism since 9/11—the mass shooting in San Bernardino, the Boston Marathon bombing and the massacre at Fort Hood. If American Muslims and European Muslims were equally predisposed to jihadism, we’d experience roughly five times as many attacks.

But we don’t, mostly because Muslims feel more at home in the United States than they do in Europe.

The United States has always been better at assimilation than Europe. Ours is a nation of immigrants and always has been. Most of us on this side of the Atlantic have a civic identity, but Europeans, by and large, still have a national blood-and-soil identity.

Americans don’t want immigrants to self-segregate in cultural ghettoes. It happens to a certain extent anyway, but less so than in Europe. We not only welcome immigrants, we expect and encourage them to join us rather than live separately alongside us. In Europe, by contrast, Muslim immigrants are forever “the other.”

American Muslims are also more interested in joining mainstream American culture. Those who immigrate here must go through a rigorous selection process, and they can’t expect to just show up and live on state benefits in perpetuity like they can in Europe. They must work hard and assimilate to some extent, or they’ll fail. They have, on average, done a very good job of it.

American Muslims are actually a little richer on average than the general population. European Muslims, by contrast, are much poorer on average.

This is not, however, the reason Europe has a bigger problem with Islamic radicalization. Poverty is not a trigger for religious fanaticism. Islamic terrorists tend to be educated and financially successful. “Economists have found a link between low incomes and property crimes,” David R. Francis writes at The National Bureau of Economic Research. “But in most cases terrorism is less like property crime and more like a violent form of political engagement.” And political engagement requires education and the ability and wherewithal to engage in activities beyond mere economic survival. In that sense, American Muslims fit the terrorist profile better than European Muslims.

Yet Europe is still having more trouble.

Arab Muslims born and raised in the United States are just as American as I am, but Arab Muslims born and raised in Belgium will never be Belgian. They may or may not be citizens of the state of Belgium, but they won’t have a Belgian identity. A Belgian identity scarcely even exists. Most Belgians identify first and foremost as Dutch-speaking Flemish or French-speaking Walloons.

A Pew Research Center survey of 55,000 American Muslims in 2011 found that they are “largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world… On balance, they believe that Muslims coming to the U.S. should try and adopt American customs, rather than trying to remain distinct from the larger society. And by nearly two-to-one (63%-32%) Muslim Americans do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.”

A majority of American Muslims view themselves as Americans first, rather than as Muslims first, whereas 81 percent of British Muslims view themselves as Muslims first. French Muslims are as likely as American Muslims to identify first with the nation-state they live in, but France is the only country in Europe that has seriously attempted to nurture a French identity among its immigrant populations.

Europe’s Muslim population feels far more alienated from the general society, so it's easier for a violent anti-Western ideology to find traction. And when trouble erupts, as it is now, Europeans react far more harshly than Americans do.

“The Trump-Cruz police state exists,” Eli Lake writes in Bloomberg. “It's called France.”

Imagine if Ted Cruz or Donald Trump proposed a policy to monitor thousands of Muslim citizens even if they had no specific ties to terrorist groups. Then, for good measure, they called for a new law to allow the police to search the homes of suspected terrorists without a warrant and to place terror suspects under house arrest without a court order.

Sounds like a nightmare. One can imagine the indignation. Pundits and politicians of good conscience would intone against the politics of fear. Some on the right would respond that political correctness should not be a barrier to counterterrorism.

But what I have just described is not a Republican sound bite. Rather, it is the current counterterrorism posture of France.

France’s policies were put in place by a left-wing socialist government. It’s not hard to imagine the far-right shoving France over the edge if it ever wins power—and it might if Europe continues to be terrorized.

And Europe will continue to be terrorized. In The Observer, John R. Schindler argues that Europe now has so many ISIS-supporting extremists in its midst that it isn’t facing mere terrorism any longer, that the problem has been upgraded, if that’s the right word, to a guerrilla war or an insurgency.

The threat is now so great, with Europe possessing thousands of homegrown radicals bent on murder, that mere spying cannot prevent all attacks “left of boom” as the professionals put it.

Maintaining 24/7 human and technical surveillance on just one target requires something like two dozen operatives, and even the larger European security services can effectively watch only a few handfuls of would-be terrorists at one time.

[…]

Simply put, Europe has imported a major threat into its countries, one that did not exist a couple generations ago. It can be endlessly debated why this problem has grown so serious so quickly—for instance, how much is due to Europe’s failures at assimilation of immigrants versus the innate aggression of some of those immigrants (and their children)?—but that the threat is large and growing can no longer be denied by the sentient.

We should expect more guerrilla-like attacks like [in] Brussels yesterday: moderate in scale, relatively easy to plan and execute against soft targets, and utterly terrifying to the public. At some point, angry Europeans, fed up with their supine political class, will begin to strike back, and that’s when the really terrifying scenarios come into play. European security services worry deeply about the next Anders Breivik targeting not fellow Europeans, but Muslim migrants. “We’re just one Baruch Goldstein away from all-out war,” explained a senior EU terrorism official, citing the American-born Israeli terrorist, fed up with Palestinian violence, who walked into a Hebron mosque in 1994, guns blazing, and murdered 29 innocent Muslims.

When that violence comes, a practically disarmed Europe will be all but powerless to stop it.

Americans won’t likely ever forget how the supposedly “sophisticated” European opinion-makers said America’s chickens were coming home to roost when Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center, and how we—for one brain-dead reason or another—had it coming.

I wonder what Europeans think of that attitude now.

In Cuba, Prosperity is a Crime

So Barack Obama went to Havana, the first time in almost ninety years that a sitting American president visited Cuba, and the first time in more than fifty that the Cuban government would even allow it.

On Monday, his first full day down there, he said he spoke “frankly” to President Raul Castro about human rights behind closed doors. Most likely he did. But then the two men emerged for a chummy joint press conference. It looked a little unseemly, as if Obama was willing to whitewash the Cuban dictatorship in front of the cameras.

It matters, and it matters a lot. If Cuban dissidents think the United States government doesn’t care about them, that it only cares about diplomatic relations and business deals with the dictatorship, they’re more likely to lose hope and give up. It’s a lot harder to overthrow or reform a regime that’s backed by the United States that one that is not.

But if they see that the United States government does care about them and their problems, if they know that the United States will put pressure on the regime to get its boot off their necks, they’ll keep on keeping on. The government, not the dissidents, will clearly be on the wrong side of history.

Tuesday was different. Obama gave a speech that was broadcast live on Cuban television to 11 million people. He spoke in the Great Theater of Havana, built in 1838 when Cuba was a rich country, long before the communist bulldozer immiserated the overwhelming majority. This was his chance to show everyone whose side he’s on, and he took it.

“We should not ignore the very real differences we have about how we organize our governments, our economies and our societies,” he said. “Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state. The United States is founded on the rights of the individual.”

Indeed. In Cuba, only the state has rights. Individuals are treated as the property of the state the way slaves were treated as the property of the plantation.

“To President Castro,” Obama said, “I want you to know that I believe my visit here demonstrates you do not need to fear a threat from the United States. And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders.”

Castro should fear them, actually. No communist government has ever survived a free and open multi-party election. Even so, it was the right thing to say. Cuba will survive free and open elections. Cuba will thrive with free and open elections. It was once a rich nation. It has far more in common with Eastern Europe in the waning days of the Cold War than it has with failed states like Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s still ailing, though, the way East Germany was ailing when the Berlin Wall still slashed through what is now Germany’s capital.

"In the United States," Obama said, "we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build: it’s called Miami."

Snap.

Two years ago, he said he would only visit Cuba if he could confidently say “we’re seeing some progress in liberty and freedom. If we’re going backwards, then there’s not much reason for me to be there. I’m not interested in just validating the status quo.”

Well, we’re not seeing much progress. He is more or less validating the status quo, but he also kicked back against it. What happens to the status quo from here is anyone’s guess.

*

Most of Havana is in an advanced state of decay and collapse, as if it had been carpet-bombed from the air and abandoned. Only it isn’t abandoned. People actually live in the rubblescape.

Most foreign visitors avoid the vast slums. They stay in the tourist bubble. The refurbished part of Old Havana is really quite pleasant nowadays, but it’s just that. A bubble.

A single tidied-up corner wasn’t good enough for the first visiting American president in almost nine decades, so government workers painted over a huge number of rotting buildings during the last couple of weeks. They repaved roads and filled potholes. They could have done this earlier and made the city a little more livable, but Castro couldn’t be bothered. He cares more about Obama’s impression of Cuba than Cubans’ experience of living in Cuba. Why should he care what they think and feel? As far as he’s concerned, they’re his property.

He knows they’re unhappy, though. How could he not? Quality of life is so excruciatingly awful in Cuba that hundreds of thousands of people have thrown themselves into the ocean and risked death by drowning and dehydration and exposure and shark attacks to escape.

Fidel and Raul Castro have never taken responsibility. Instead, they’ve insisted for decades that American sanctions—or its preferred term, the blockade—are the cause of Cuba’s immiseration and poverty, but that’s nonsense on stilts.

“Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow,” Obama said to the live audience in Havana, “Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.”

Of course sanctions have a negative effect on the economy, but the main cause of Cuban poverty is communist economics. Every communist country in the history of the world has been impoverished. It’s a bankrupt system that has never worked and never can work.

Here’s just one reason why: The United States has a minimum wage while Cuba has a maximum wage. And that maximum wage is a paltry 20 dollars a month. No one can get ahead. It’s impossible. It’s illegal. When prosperity is a crime, there can be no prosperity, and that’s entirely the fault of Cuba’s communist party.

For decades, one of Cuba’s famous propaganda billboards has boasted that “The changes in Cuba are only for more socialism.” If Cuban officials want their fellow citizens to prosper, they know what they need to do. They need to turn that billboard around and declare that, at this point, the changes in Cuba are only for capitalism.

They know this, too, because they’re experimenting a little bit around the edges. Raul Castro is a bit less doctrinaire than his brother Fidel. He has implemented some microcapitalist reforms. The emphasis for now, though, still belongs on the micro. As Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes in the Wall Street Journal, Castro has “legalized a narrow number of economic activities for the purpose of putting to work millions of Cubans the bankrupt state can no longer ‘employ.’ But these businesses, such as selling fruit and shining shoes, are not allowed to hire employees, and they are only legal as long as they remain the urban equivalent of subsistence farming.”

Castro is still blaming it all on the United States, though, and he says relations cannot be fully normalized until the US leaves Guantanamo Bay and lifts the embargo.

The Cuban government may eventually relent on Guantanamo Bay—the United States Navy has been leasing it since 1903—but of course sanctions have to be lifted before relations between our two countries are normal. No one imposes or maintains sanctions on friendly countries. (Imagine American sanctions against, say, Ireland, Canada or Japan.)

If Castro were honest with himself and with Cubans, he’d add that relations cannot be fully normalized until Cuba conforms to the human rights norms in the Western Hemisphere. Lifting sanctions is up to Congress, not the White House, and there has been a bipartisan consensus on sanctioning Cuba since 1960. The reason that consensus still holds is because Cuba is still a police state. Congress won’t budge until Castro budges, and Castro admits that he is not going to budge.

There are, the dictator says, “profound differences that will not disappear over our political model, democracy, human rights, social justice, international relations, peace and stability.”

He says that as if the United States is the one with the human rights problem, but Cuba, not the United States, is the one-party state. Cuba, not the United States, is the one that does not hold elections. Cuba, not the United States, is the one with no civil liberties whatsoever. Cuba, not the United States, is the one that forces people by law to be poor. 

The Cuban people, Castro says, won’t “relinquish what they have gained through great sacrifice.” What he really means is that the government won’t relinquish the power it has gained through bloodshed and repression.

No serious person believes there will be riots in the streets of Havana if people are allowed to earn more than 20 dollars a month. Not even the most ardent Castro apologist thinks Cubans will go into open rebellion if they’re allowed to vote for more than one party. Not a soul fears they’ll yearn to relocate to North Korea if they suddenly find themselves with freedom of speech and assembly.

During Monday’s press conference, Castro lashed out when CNN journalist Jim Acosta asked him about political prisoners. “If there are political prisoners,” the dictator said, “give me a list, right now. What political prisoners? Give me their names, and if there are political prisoners, they will be free by tonight.”

Oh, please. Just yesterday—a few hours before Obama landed in Havana—the regime arrested more than 20 people at a Ladies in White demonstration. Secret policemen dragged women to a police bus and threw men onto the ground and handcuffed them. The Ladies in White is an all-women movement of sisters, wives, and daughters of male political prisoners. What does Castro expect us to believe they’re protesting for?

“The group and their supporters have held regular Sunday marches for more than 30 consecutive weeks,” Amnesty International wrote in December, “to call for the release of Cuban political prisoners and human rights protection. These peaceful demonstrations have been met with a pattern of arbitrary arrests and other harassment by the authorities.”

And it’s not just the Ladies in White. Activist José Daniel Ferrer says a bunch of his comrades have also been arrested in the last week.

Obama is scheduled to meet with Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White. The fact that this is even possible is progress of a sort. If Fidel were still ruling the roost, all members of the Ladies in White organization would be in prison. No foreign leader, let alone the president of the United States, would be allowed to meet with them.

Still, Amnesty International says the number of political arrests and detentions is increasing lately. So don’t get excited.

 “The Obama administration boasts that it negotiated the liberation of 53 political prisoners in 2014,” O’Grady writes. “But more than half of those have been rearrested, and four who received multiyear sentences were exiled last week. In 2015 there were more than 8,600 political detentions, and in the first two months of this year there were 2,555.”

The ball is in Raul Castro’s court. The United States and Cuba can fully restore warm relations tomorrow if he does the right thing. The question for him is simple: Would he rather share or lose power in a free and prosperous country, or go down in history as the Caribbean’s unrepentant Caligula?

He might change. He’s old enough now that history’s judgment may outweigh the benefits of a few more years at the top. It’s possible. Against all expectations, the far more oppressive regime in Myanmar/Burma has done a near-complete about-face. But if past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, Cuba won’t be rich, free, and in from the cold until Fidel and Raul Castro are dead.

Postscript: My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.

You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

Putin Declares Victory in Syria

Mission accomplished. So says Vladimir Putin. Less than six months after embarking on his adventure in Syria to bolster his ally, President Bashar al-Assad, most of his forces are on their way home.

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” Putin said.

Yeah, right.

Oh, there’s a cease-fire in place, but there is virtually no chance it’s going to hold. Sporadic fighting persists, and it’s only a matter of time before it mushrooms again.

In the meantime, negotiators are supposed to meet in Switzerland under the auspices of the United Nations to hammer out an agreement for “a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance in Syria.”

Again, yeah right.

The government is controlled by secular non-Muslim Alawites who make up only 12 percent of Syria’s population. They’ve been in power since Hafez al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party mounted a coup in 1970, and they’re spectacularly unlikely to give it up. They’ll never get it back if they do. (Imagine if Coptic Christians took over in Egypt. Think they could pull that off and get away with it twice?)

Minorities in the Middle East get eaten alive, especially when the majority is represented, if that’s the right word, by armed Sunni Islamists.

A “peace process” in Switzerland sounds noble and makes a lot of people feel better, apparently, but it’s a roadmap to nowhere. We’re not talking about Northern Ireland here. The Syrian war is a Thunderdome, where two men enter, one man leaves. Only unlike the original Thunderdome in the third Mad Max movie, this one’s a three-way between Assad, the rebels and ISIS. You might as well have a peace process between Siamese fighting fish in a cramped aquarium.

“We will not negotiate with anyone on the presidency,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said. Assad, he insists, is a “red line and belongs to the Syrian people.”

So good luck creating an inclusive non-sectarian government with Assad in the saddle. And if he falls, good luck creating an inclusive non-sectarian government with armed Sunni Islamists in power. That’s about as likely as dope-smoking Deadheads sharing a hippie commune with the Taliban.

This conflict resembles no other as much as the Lebanese civil war. Syria’s war has lasted five years now, but Lebanon’s lasted fifteen. Roughly three times as many people have been killed in Syria in only one-third the time, though, which makes it almost ten times deadlier.

The Lebanese civil war wasn’t really even one war. It was more like a series of wars punctuated by false endings and failed cease-fires. It began with the initial clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias and morphed into a war between the Israelis and Palestinians—which wasn’t a civil war at all, but a foreign war hosted on Lebanese soil. After the Iranians got involved, another war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, and between Hezbollah and the secular Shias of Amal. Late in the civil war, Christian factions slugged it out with each other up north. The Syrian army fought pretty much everybody in Lebanon at one point or another, including the Israelis.

It was a bewildering conflict that confounded almost everybody who tried to make sense of it at the time, but its basic outline was simple: Lebanon’s multitude of sects went for each other’s throats, and all enlisted the help of foreign interventionists against their internal enemies. Israel and the West backed the Christians, Iran backed the Shias, and the Arab world backed the Sunnis and the Palestinians. At one time or another, Syria’s Assad regime backed everyone and opposed everyone.

Observers all over the world thought the Lebanese civil war was finally over during one botched cease-fire after another, but it never truly ended until the Assad regime conquered the entire country and forced everyone to disarm.

Don’t expect anything different in Syria. The same basic dynamic is at work there. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are backing the Alawites, Sunni Arab regimes are on side with the rebels, the West is half-assedly supporting the Kurds, and the creepiest elements in the Muslim world are throwing their weight behind ISIS.

Like the Lebanese civil war, there are wars within the larger war. Unlike the Lebanon war, which mostly turned out to be pointless, the Syrian war is truly a death struggle. Each side poses an existential threat to the other. Whoever loses will almost certainly be massacred. Wars of that nature are never settled in the lobbies of hotel rooms in Europe.

Leaving at a time of relative quiet is a wise decision on Putin’s part. Syria is a smoldering crater right now, but it’s calmer than usual, and his ally Assad is safe for the moment. Withdrawing today doesn’t look like a defeat. On the contrary, he’s made everybody opposed to him look like a chump. No one beat his forces or his proxies on the battlefield. He can plausibly say that the next round of chaos isn’t his fault, that Syria was more stable when he left then when he arrived.

But a peace process? Get real. We won’t be seeing any of that until either Assad or the rebels are defeated definitively and ISIS is obliterated from the face of the earth.

New City Journal Essay

A few weeks ago I published a short op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about the homelessness problem in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. It was adapted from a much longer essay in the winter issue of City Journal.

The City Journal essay is online now. Here’s the first part.

My hometown, Portland, Oregon, has a homelessness problem. Portland is often called the City of Bridges—more than a dozen cross the Willamette and Columbia Rivers—and beneath almost all, at one time or another, one sees miserable-looking camps constructed of tents, plastic tarps, and shopping carts. It’s impossible to avoid running into homeless people downtown, where ragged people sleep on park benches and in doorways, and where you can’t walk long without being hit up for spare change. You can hardly drive near the city center without encountering men or women holding up cardboard signs asking for money at an intersection.

Roughly 620,000 people live in Portland, and the suburbs push the metro area population to more than 2.3 million. As of January 2015, Multnomah County, which includes most of the city proper and all the city center, had 3,801 homeless people. Of these, according to the county’s biennial count, about 800 live in temporary shelters, 1,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 1,800 are “unsheltered”—that is, sleeping under bridges, in parks, and on sidewalks.

Almost everyone who visits me asks what’s wrong with this place. Portland is a prosperous, high-tech Pacific Rim city, so why does it have so many street people? Is something uniquely the matter with the city? Not necessarily. But Portland is a better place to be homeless than most American cities. The weather is mild, the citizens are generous—Portlanders spend millions yearly in private donations and tax dollars trying to help the homeless—and public officials are blocked by the courts from regulating vagrancy in ways that are routine elsewhere. Some homeless actually move to Portland from other cities. Homelessness is so visible here that it has encouraged not only expansive nonprofit relief efforts, some of which seem to be doing real good, but also, in at least one case, an innovative approach that may truly ease the problem—and that other cities might consider adopting.

Homelessness is not a new issue in American life, but it started getting much worse everywhere—not just in Portland—beginning in the 1970s, thanks to the deinstitutionalization movement, which closed many state psychiatric hospitals. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia, by 2010, the number of beds per capita in psychiatric hospitals had plunged to 1850s levels. When the most severely mentally ill patients were freed from a system discredited by 1960s social movements and books like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they were ill-prepared for normal life. Many found themselves relegated to a Hobbesian existence on sidewalks.

“Dammasch State Hospital closed 20 years ago,” says David Willis, the homeless-services coordinator at Union Gospel Mission, a Christian nonprofit. “Some went into adult foster care, but others stayed on the streets. The people who work in foster care don’t have a background in psychiatric counseling or care. They can’t handle these people. And mentally ill homeless people can’t help themselves. Somebody has to take care of them. Somebody has to make sure they bathe, change their clothes, and take their medications.”

Portland city councilman and housing commissioner Dan Saltzman agrees. “That did increase the homeless population on the streets of Portland and a lot of other cities,” he says of deinstitutionalization. “It’s a nationwide problem, and it really pulled the rug out from underneath a lot of people. Community resources were supposed to be put into place when we closed the big institutions, but the second part didn’t happen.”

About three-fourths of Portland’s homeless are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and roughly half have a mental illness of one kind or another, though many remain undiagnosed. “We see people with schizophrenia, depression, and trauma,” says Alexa Mason at the Portland Rescue Mission, another Christian nonprofit that provides food, blankets, and temporary shelter downtown. “Women on the streets are likely to be assaulted within 72 hours. Men get beat up. Just living outside is traumatizing. . . . When you add that on top of schizophrenia or dissociative disorders, people keep getting worse. This is one thing that everybody in government, social services, and the business community agrees on.”

Not everyone on the streets is mentally ill, and not all are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some just lost their jobs, slipped through the cracks, and found themselves in a maze from which they couldn’t escape. What almost all of them share, however, are weak social and family ties. “Almost everyone we help here is struggling without any support network,” says Mason. “A lack of family support is the one common denominator that unites almost everybody.”

But these problems aren’t confined to the American Northwest; why does Portland seem to have so many more homeless people than elsewhere? One reason may be simple: Portland is a relatively “easy” place to be homeless—or, at least, it’s less brutal than elsewhere. Portlanders are indeed tolerant, and so are the police—not necessarily because they want to be but because they have to be. The city has repeatedly passed anti-panhandling statutes and so-called sit-lie ordinances, which ban sitting and lying on sidewalks, but they’re tough to enforce, thanks to reliably libertarian interpretations of Oregon’s constitution by the state supreme court and lower-level circuit courts. The result is that homeless people are more visible—and more numerous—here than in many other cities.

Portland’s gentle climate is another factor. Contrary to popular belief, Portland gets a third less rain than New York City, and the temperatures are milder year-round. Snow falls and sticks only once every few years. Sleeping outside in January’s 40-degree weather may not be comfortable, but it sure beats sleeping on the sidewalk in, say, Chicago, where one night in subzero weather can be fatal.

Portland’s nonprofit homeless services are extensive. “Portland Rescue Mission provides emergency services including meals, showers, clothing, and shelter for people living on the streets,” says Mason. “It’s open 24/7. We have mail service for about 1,000 people. From November 1 through March 31, we offer a free blanket exchange every night.” Though it doesn’t have beds for everyone—those get awarded by daily lottery—Portland Rescue Mission never runs out of food. “We have really good food here,” says Stacy Kean, the communications director at Union Gospel Mission, “food that you would want to eat. Having breakfast here is like going out to brunch. We have fresh scrambled eggs, bacon, and pancakes.” “You wouldn’t believe how much food they have in the freezer,” a friend who volunteered at the Oregon Food Bank told me. When homeless people in downtown Portland ask passersby if they have any spare change, most of us assume that they need money for food. They don’t.

Are the homeless coming to Portland from elsewhere? “I don’t really believe these stories about other jurisdictions buying homeless people bus tickets to Portland,” says Commissioner Saltzman, but then he concedes: “Portland is a tolerant city and has a moderate West Coast climate, so I think there’s some truth to it.” “Most of the homeless people I know are from Portland or another West Coast city,” says Mason, “but I have met people who said they were homeless somewhere else and moved here intentionally to take advantage of Portland’s services and milder weather.” Agrees Willis of Union Gospel Mission: “They’re from Seattle. Texas. Alabama. People are coming here because we make it comfortable to be homeless.”

Read the rest in City Journal.

 

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