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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.

 

The Man Who Punched Christopher Hitchens

Adonis Nasr, the Lebanese facsist who attacked me and Christopher Hitchens on the streets of Beirut in 2009, has been killed fighting for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Nasr was an intelligence officer in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, an imperialist gang of Assad enthusiasts who brazenly sport a spinning swastika on their flag and wish to conquer Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Cyprus and forcibly attach them all to Damascus.

Here’s my account of what happened when Hitchens and I violently encountered Nasr and his goon squad in Beirut.

A Syrian-sponsored militia once attacked me and Christopher Hitchens on the streets of Beirut.

Yes, that Christopher Hitchens. The famous polemical journalist who went after Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and even God himself with hammer and tongs. Many considered him the greatest living writer in the English language before esophageal cancer killed him in 2011.

He and I were traveling together in Lebanon with our mutual British friend Jonathan Foreman. The three of us set out from our hotel, the Bristol. Christopher needed a new pair of shoes. Jona­than needed a shirt. I needed a coffee. And I led the way as the three of us strolled down to Hamra Street, where we could buy just about anything.

Christopher hadn’t been to Beirut since the civil war ended in 1990 and Jonathan had never visited. I used to live there, though, between the Beirut Spring in 2005 and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

My old West Beirut neighborhood of Hamra wasn’t the same anymore. It looked the same on the surface, but it had been violated. Hezbollah invaded the previous May, in 2008, with its two sidekick militias, Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The city’s most cosmopolitan and international district felt much like my house once did after a burglar had broken in. What happened to Hamra, though, was much worse than a mere breaking and entering. Hezbollah and its militant allies shot the place up and killed people.

On our way down to the main shopping street I told Christopher and Jonathan how the Syrian Social Nationalist Party had a serious presence there now. During the invasion in May, its members had placed their spinning swastika flags up on Hamra Street itself. Those flags stayed there for months. No one dared touch them until Prime Min­ister Fouad Siniora ordered city employees to take them down.

It was a warning of sorts—or at least it would have been heeded as such by most people. I didn’t go looking for trouble, Jonathan was as mild-mannered a writer as any I knew, but Christopher was brave and combative, and just hearing about what had happened riled him up.

When we rounded a corner onto Hamra Street, an SSNP sign was the first thing we saw.

“Well, there’s that swastika now,” Christopher said.

The militia’s flags had been taken down, but a commemora­tive marker was still there. It was made of metal and plastic and had the semipermanence of an official No Parking sign. SSNP member Khaled Alwan shot two Israeli soldiers with a pistol in 1982 after they settled their bill at the now-defunct Wimpy cafe on that corner, and that sign marked the spot.

Some SSNP members claimed the emblem on their flag wasn’t a swastika, but a hurricane or a cyclone. Many said they couldn’t be National Socialists, as were the Nazis, because they identified instead as Social Nationalists, whatever that meant.

Most observers did not find this credible. The SSNP, according to the Atlantic in a civil war-era analysis, “is a party whose leaders, men approaching their seventies, send pregnant teenagers on suicide missions in booby-trapped cars. And it is a party whose members, mostly Christians from churchgoing families, dream of resuming the war of the ancient Canaanites against Joshua and the Children of Israel. They greet their leaders with a Hitlerian salute; sing their Arabic anthem, ‘Greetings to You, Syria,’ to the strains of ‘Deutsch­land, Deutschland über alles’; and throng to the symbol of the red hurricane, a swastika in circular motion.”

They wished to resurrect ancient pre-Islamic and pre-Arabic Syria and annex Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, and parts of Turkey and Egypt to Damascus. Their vision clashed with Hezbollah’s, but the two militias had the exact same list of enemies and they were both Syrian proxies, so they worked together.

Many Lebanese believed members of the SSNP were the ones who carried out many, if not most, of the car-bomb assassinations in Lebanon on behalf of the Syrians since 2005. In December of 2006 some of their members were arrested by the Lebanese army for storing a huge amount of explosives, timers, and detonators amid a large cache of weapons. Then-party leader Ali Qanso responded, saying, “We are a resistance force, and we use different methods of resisting, among which is using explosives.”

Christopher wanted to pull down their marker, but couldn’t. He stuck to his principles, though, and before I could stop him, he scribbled “No, no, Fuck the SSNP” in the bottom-right corner with a black felt-tipped pen.

I blinked several times. Was he really insulting the Syrian Social Nationalist Party while they might be watching? Neither Christo­pher nor Jonathan seemed to sense what was coming, but my own danger signals went haywire.

An angry young man shot across Hamra Street as though he’d been fired out of a cannon. “Hey!” he yelled as he pointed with one hand and speed-dialed for backup on his phone with the other.

“We need to get out of here now,” I said.

But the young man latched onto Christopher’s arm and wouldn’t let go. “Come with me!” he said and jabbed a finger toward Chris­topher’s face. These were the only words I heard him say in English.

Christopher tried to shake off his assailant, but couldn’t.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” he said.

We needed to get out of there fast. Standing around and trying to reason with him would serve his needs, not ours. His job was to hold us in place until the muscle crew showed up in force.

“Let go of him!” I said and shoved him, but he clamped onto Christopher like a steel trap.

I stepped into the street and flagged down a taxi.

“Get in the car!” I said.

Christopher, sensing rescue, managed to shake the man off and got into the back seat of the taxi. Jonathan and I piled in after him. But the angry young man ran around to the other side of the car and got in the front seat.

I shoved him with both hands. He wasn’t particularly heavy, but I didn’t have enough leverage from the back to throw him out. The driver could have tried to push the man out, but he didn’t. I sensed he was afraid.

So my companions and I got out of the car on the left side. The SSNP man bolted from the front seat on the right side. Then I jumped back in the car and locked the doors on that side.

“He’ll just unlock it,” Jonathan said.

He was right. I hadn’t noticed that the windows were rolled down on the passenger side. The young man reached in, laughed, and calmly unlocked the front passenger door.

I stepped back into the street, and the young man latched once again onto Christopher. No one could have stopped Jonathan and me had we fled, but we couldn’t leave Christopher to face an impending attack by himself. The lone SSNP man only needed to hold one of us still while waiting for his squad.

A police officer casually ambled toward us as though he had no idea what was happening.

“Help,” Christopher said to the cop. “I’m being attacked!”

Our assailant identified himself to the policeman. The officer gasped and took three steps back as though he did not want any trouble. He could have unholstered his weapon and stopped the attack on the spot, but even Lebanon’s armed men of the law feared the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

A Lebanese man in his thirties ran up to me and offered to help.

“What’s happening?!” he said breathlessly as he trembled in shock and alarm.

I don’t remember what I told him, and it hardly matters. There wasn’t much he could do, and I did not see him again.

“Let go of him!” I said to the SSNP spotter and tried once more to throw him off Christopher.

“Hit him if you have to,” I said to Christopher. “We’re out of time, and we have to get out of here.”

“Back to the hotel,” Christopher said.

“No!” I said. “We can’t let them know where we’re staying.”

Christopher would not or could not strike his assailant, so I sized the man up from a distance of six or so feet. I could punch him hard in the face, and he couldn’t stop me. I could break his knee with a solid kick to his leg, and he couldn’t stop me. He needed all his strength just to hold onto Christopher, while I had total freedom of movement and was hopped up on adrenaline. We hadn’t seen a weapon yet, so I was pretty sure he didn’t have one. I was a far greater threat to him at that moment than he was to us by himself.

Christopher, Jonathan, and I easily could have joined forces and left him bleeding and harmless in the street. I imagine, looking back now, that he was afraid. But I knew the backup he’d called would arrive any second. And his backup might be armed. We were about to face the wrath of a militia whose members could do whatever they wanted in the streets with impunity. Escalating seemed like the worst possible thing I could do. The time to attack the young man was right at the start, and that moment had passed. This was Beirut, where the law of the jungle can rule with the flip of a switch, and we needed to move.

I saw another taxi parked on the corner waiting for passengers, and I flung open the door.

“Get in, get in,” I said, “and lock all the doors!”

Traffic was light. If the driver would step on the gas with us inside, we could get out of there. Christopher managed to fling the man off him again. It looked hopeful there for a second. But seven furious men showed up all at once and faced us in the street. They stepped in front of the taxi and cut off our escape.

None wore masks. That was an encouraging sign. I didn’t see any weapons. But they were well built, and their body language sig­naled imminent violence. We were in serious trouble, and I ran into the Costa Coffee chain across the street and yelled at the waiter to call the police.

“Go away!” he said and lightly pushed me in the shoulder to make his point. “You need to leave now!”

This was no way to treat a visitor, especially not in the Arab world, where guests are accorded protection, but getting in the way of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party could get a man killed, or at least beaten severely. Just a few months before, the SSNP attacked a journalist on that very street and sent him bleeding and broken to the hospital in front of gaping witnesses. A Lebanese col­league told me he was brutally assaulted merely for filming the crew taking down the SSNP flags as the prime minister had ordered. “He didn’t do anything to them,” she said. “He just filmed their flag.”

Christopher was encircled by four or five of them. They were geared up to smash him, and I reached for his hand to pull him away. One of the toughs clawed at my arm and left me with a bleeding scratch and a bruise. I expected a punch in the face, but I wasn’t the target.

Christopher was the target. He was the one who had defaced their sign. One of the guys smacked him hard in the face. Another delivered a roundhouse kick to his legs. A third punched him and knocked him into the street between two parked cars. Then they gathered around and kicked him while he was down. They kicked him hard in the head, in the ribs, and in the legs.

Jonathan and I had about two and a half seconds to figure out what we should do when one of the SSNP members punched him in the side of the head and then kicked him.

Christopher was on the ground, and Jonathan and I couldn’t fend off seven militiamen by ourselves. I was reasonably sure, at least, that they weren’t going to kill us. They didn’t have weapons or masks. They just wanted to beat us, and we lost the fight before it even began. I could have called for backup myself, but I didn’t think of it—a mistake I will not make again in that country.

Then the universe all of a sudden righted itself.

Christopher managed to pull himself up as a taxi approached in the street. I stepped in front of the car and forced the driver to stop. “Get in!” I yelled. Christopher got in the car. Jonathan got in the car. I got in the car. We slammed down the locks on the doors with our fists. The street was empty of traffic. The way in front of the taxi was clear. The scene for our escape was set.

“Go!” I said to the driver.

“Where?” the driver said.

“Just drive!” I said.

One of the SSNP guys landed a final blow on the side of Chris­topher’s face through the open window, but the driver sped away and we were free.

I don’t remember what we said in the car. I was barely scathed in the punch-up, and Jonathan seemed to be fine. Christopher was still in one piece, though he was clearly in pain. Our afternoon had gone sideways, but it could have been a great deal worse than it was.

“Let’s not go back to our hotel yet,” I said. I covered my face with my hands and rubbed my eyes with my palms. “In case we’re being followed.”

“Where do you want to go?” our driver said.

“Let’s just drive for a while,” Jonathan said.

So our driver took us down to the Corniche that follows the curve of the Mediterranean. He never did ask what happened. Or, if he did, I don’t remember him asking. I kept turning around and checking behind us to make sure we weren’t being followed.

“Maybe we should go to the Phoenicia,” Jonathan said.

The Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel was one of the priciest in the city. Management installed a serious security regime at the door. This was the place where diplomats and senators stayed when they were in town. I doubted the guards would allow thugs from any organization into their lobby.

“He deserves a huge tip,” Jonathan said as our driver dropped us off.

“Yes,” I said. “He certainly does.”

The three of us relaxed near the Phoenicia’s front door for a few minutes. We would need to change cars but first had to ensure we hadn’t been followed.

“You’re bleeding,” Jonathan said and lightly touched Christo­pher’s elbow.

Christopher seemed unfazed by the sight of blood on his shirt.

“We need to get you cleaned up,” Jonathan said.

“I’m fine, I think,” Christopher said.

He seemed to be in pretty good spirits, all things considered.

“The SSNP,” I said, “is the last party you want to mess with in Lebanon. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you properly. This is partly my fault.”

“I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “But I would have done it anyway. One must take a stand. One simply must.”

Even after being forced out during the Beirut Spring of 2005, Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus still wielded some of its occupation instruments inside Lebanon. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party was one of those instruments, and it counted the regime as its friend and ally. The geographic “nationalism” of the SSNP differed from the racialist pan-Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Baath Party, but it conveniently meshed with al-Assad’s imperial for­eign policy in the Middle East. It logically followed, then, that the SSNP was also allied with Hezbollah.

The SSNP was first and foremost a Syrian proxy, and Hezbollah was first and foremost an Iranian proxy, but during the previous May when various militias invaded Beirut, the SSNP established itself simultaneously as a de facto Hezbollah proxy.

I still shudder to think what might have happened to Christo­pher, Jonathan, and me if we were Lebanese instead of British and American.

“If you were Lebanese,” said a longtime Beiruti friend, “you might have disappeared.”

The next morning I awoke to find more than a dozen e-mails in my inbox from friends, family, and acquaintances, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in a long time, asking me if I was okay.

None of us had written about the incident yet, so I wondered what on earth must have happened while I was asleep. Did another war just break out? Did another car bomb go off? I hadn’t heard any explosions or gunshots.

As it turned out, the incident on Hamra Street with the SSNP made the news on at least four continents, and possibly six.

Great, I thought. Now I’m the story. Christopher was the nearest thing the journalism world had to a celebrity, so pretty much every­thing he did was news.

Every single reporter without exception got the details wrong. In one version, we got in a bar fight. In another, we were attacked by foppish shoe shoppers. In almost every version, Christopher was drunk or had been drinking. Not one of the reporters who wrote up the story bothered to ask any of us who were actually there what had happened. Some even claimed they had “confirmed” this or that detail, but all they were doing was publishing rumors. It made me think, not for the first time, that first-person narrative journalism, whatever its faults, was far more reliable than the alternative.

Some of my politically connected Lebanese pals were furious when they heard what happened. One friend, whom I’ll just call Faisal so he won’t get into trouble, said it was time to retaliate.

“They attacked guests in our country,” he said as his blood pres­sure rose, “and they can’t get away with it.”

I appreciated that my friends were looking out for me, but I felt distinctly uneasy about where he was going with this. A retaliation could easily end badly and might even escalate. Still, I couldn’t dis­suade him, and he called his bosses and asked for a posse.

Party leaders turned him down, which disappointed him but relieved me. And it occurred to me later that what Faisal had in mind was likely much more serious than tit-for-tat payback.

“What, exactly, did Faisal mean by retaliate?” I asked a mutual Lebanese friend.

“He wanted to shoot them, of course,” she said.

He wanted to shoot them!

I later sat down with Christopher over coffee in the hotel lobby and asked him to reflect on the recent unpleasantness.

“When I told you that I should have warned you,” I said, “that I take partial responsibility, you said. . .”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said. “Thank you, though, for giving me a protective arm. I think a swastika poster is partly fair game and partly an obligation. You don’t really have the right to leave one alone. I haven’t seen that particular symbol since I saw the Syrianization of Lebanon in the 1970s. And actually, the first time I saw it, I didn’t quite believe it.”

“You saw it when you were here before?” I said.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “But it was more toward the Green Line. I did not expect to see it so flagrantly on Hamra. Anyway, call me old-fashioned if you will, but my line is that swastika posters are to be defaced or torn down. I mean, what other choice do you have? I’d like to think I’d have done that if I had known it was being guarded by people who are swastika fanciers. I have done that in my time. I have had fights with people who think that way. But I was surprised first by how violent and immediate their response was, and second by how passive and supine was the response of the police.”

The men of the SSNP had to use force to maintain a hold in West Beirut. Many of its members were Orthodox Christians, as was its founder Antun Saadeh, while most West Beirutis were Sunni Muslims. They would hardly be any less welcome in Tel Aviv. If its enforcers didn’t jump Christopher in the street, their commemorative sign would not have lasted.

“But I was impressed,” Christopher said, “with the response of the cafe girls.”

“What was their response?” I said. “I missed that.”

“Well,” he said, “when I was thrown to the ground and bleeding from my fingers and elbow, they came over and asked what on earth was going on. How can this be happening to a guest, to a stranger? I don’t remember if I was speaking English or French at that time. I said something like ‘merde fasciste,’ which I hope they didn’t misinterpret.”

I did not see the cafe girls. Or, if I did, I don’t remember them. Once the actual violence began, it was over and done with in seconds.

“By then,” Christopher said, “I had become convinced that you were right, that we should get the fuck out of there and not, as I had first thought, get the hotel security between them and us. I thought no, no, let’s not do that. We don’t want them to know where we are. The harassment might not stop. There was a very gaunt look in the eye of the young man, the first one. And there was a very mad, sadistic, deranged look in the eyes of his auxiliaries. I wish I’d had a screwdriver.”

“You know these guys are widely suspected of setting off most or all of the car bombs,” I said.

“They weren’t ready for that then,” he said.

“They weren’t,” I said, “but they’re dangerous.”

“Once you credit them like that,” he said, “you do all their work for them. They should have been worried about us. Let them worry. Let them wonder if we’re carrying a tool or if we have a crew. I’d like to go back, do it properly, deface the thing with red paint so there’s no swastika visible. You can’t have the main street, a shopping and commercial street, in a civilized city patrolled by intimidators who work for a Nazi organization. It is not humanly possible to live like that. One must not do that. There may be more important problems in Lebanon, but if people on Hamra don’t dare criticize the SSNP, well fuck. That’s occupation.”

“It is,” I said, “in a way. They have a state behind them. They aren’t just a street gang; they’re a street gang with a state.”

“Yes,” Christopher said. “They’re the worst. And also a Greek Orthodox repressed homosexual wankers organization, I think.”

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party spokesman denied the attack ever took place. He lied.

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.

New Book Release

My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.

Here’s the description from the back of the book.

Prize-winning author and award-winning foreign correspondent Michael J. Totten returns with a riveting tour of some of the worst places on earth in the early 21st century.

From crumbling Havana, Cuba—still stubbornly communist decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall—to a comparatively upscale Hanoi, Vietnam, still struggling to free itself from Chinese-style authoritarian rule.

From a nightmarish Libya under the deranged Moammar Qaddafi, to an exhausted, polarized and increasingly fanatical Egypt before the Arab Spring finally ripped the region to pieces.

From the Lebanese border during the devasting war between Israel and Hezbollah, to Iraq in the grips of an insurgency mounted by the murderous precursor to ISIS.

Partly a collection of Totten’s best previously published work, Dispatches includes plenty of new material from Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the dysfunctional quarters of Europe. He goes to rough places so you don’t have to, and his dispatches are by turns entertaining, harrowing and occasionally even hilarious despite the dark subject matter. Whether you're an established fan or discovering the author for the first time, this one is not to be missed.

“Totten…practices journalism in the tradition of Orwell: morally imaginative, partisan in the best sense of the word, and delivered in crackling, rapid-fire prose befitting the violent realities it depicts.” Sohrab Ahmari, Commentary

“It is extremely rare to read such an accurate account of anything to which one was oneself a witness.” – Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great

“One of America’s premier foreign correspondents.” – Damien Penny, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Of all the journalists now alive and writing in English, ther are few whose reporting interests me more than Michael Totten’s—in fact, none that I can think of offhand.” – Claire Berlinski, author of Menace in Europe

“Michael J. Totten is one of a rare breed. Moving from front to front, he brings experience and context and the willingness to go where few men dare.” – Michael Yon, author of Moment of Truth in Iraq

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

Moscow on the Tigris

My latest long-form piece is in the Winter issue of the print edition of World Affairs, and it’s now available online.

Here’s the first part.

America is tired of being America, so Russia is being Russia again.

While an exhausted and burned out United States wishes international migraines like the Syrian civil war would just go away, Russia is energized by the prospect of filling the vacuum and thus once again playing a major role on the world stage. Aggressively intervening on behalf of his ally in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad, and projecting force well beyond even the frontier states in his“near abroad,” Vladimir Putin audaciously aims to change political outcomes in a region that has been out of his country’s sphere of influence for a generation.

The telegram to President Obama has arrived: “The Iranian-Syria-Hezbollah axis—by far the world’s most powerful terrorist nexus and the bane of American servicemen and policymakers for more than three decades—is now officially the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Details to follow.”

*

Syria became a Russian client state in 1966 when the Arab Socialist Baath Party seized power in a coup d’état, overthrowing the relatively moderate Aflaqites and establishing a far more brutal regime influenced heavily by Marxism-Leninism.

The relationship atrophied, of course, after the Soviet Union collapsed. For a long time, Moscow could barely hold its own country together, and Syria found its international support from the Islamic Republic of Iran and its terrorist army in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

But Russia is back on its feet again, Assad needs some help, and four and a half years into the Syrian civil war, it’s obvious that the United States is largely uninterested in any serious attempt to resolve the conflict one way or another. Russia can do whatever it wants.

So in early September, Moscow began shipping military personnel and tons of matériel, including battle tanks and mobile artillery pieces, on huge Antonov-124 Condor flights into the Bassel al-Assad International Airport outside the Mediterranean city of Latakia.

According to at least one American defense official, as of September 14th—two weeks before the intervention officially began—Russia’s deployment was already the largest since the Soviet days. In late September, Moscow began launching airstrikes against the smorgasbord of Syrian rebels fighting the government in and around the cities of Homs and Hama, well outside territory held by ISIS, supposedly the target of the intervention. And by early October, Russia was launching cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and coordinating its attacks with Hezbollah.

Putin offered the prospect of a coalition against terror. But while the US and Russia agreed to a memorandum of understanding to avoid accidentally shooting each other out of the skies over Syria, Washington and Moscow otherwise aren’t cooperating.

“We’re not able at this time to associate ourselves more broadly with Russia’s approach in Syria because it is wrongheaded and strategically shortsighted,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said. “It attempts to fight extremism while not also at the same time working to promote the political transition” away from Assad.

Putin doesn’t care about Assad personally. Assad visited Moscow in late October for a meeting that according to all reports was as frosty as the temperature outside. Putin only cares about the Baath regime, its institutions, and its armed forces. It makes no difference to him which personality sits at the top of that structure. If some military commander were to shove Assad aside and rule like General Sisi in Egypt, Russia wouldn’t even blink.

The US is right to oppose both ISIS and the Assad regime. Syria’s government has sponsored terrorism not only against every single one of its neighbors, but also against the United States in Iraq. But let’s be honest: There will be no nonviolent political transition in Syria. The regime is overwhelmingly dominated by members of the non-Muslim Alawite minority, who will never negotiate with jihadists who want to impale them as infidels, nor with the ragtag “democratic forces” (now largely driven by Kurdish fighters) theoretically backed by the US.

Whatever is left of the moderate Sunni Muslim community would probably go along with a smooth transition of some sort, as long as it’s genuine. It’s what they wanted at the very beginning before the nonviolent protest movement escalated to war. But the regime wouldn’t be negotiating with passive moderates who have fled the country or are hiding under their beds. If there were negotiations, they would have to be with the men who have guns, almost all of whom at this point are battle-hardened extremists.

A proper transition to an inclusive and even quasi-civilized government in Damascus would first require the destruction of both the regime and the extremists, and right now no one is making any attempt to bring that about.

Fighting an insurgency with airstrikes, artillery, and cruise missiles is for losers. The US has been pinpricking ISIS from the skies for more than a year now with little to show for it. The Israelis thought they could beat Hezbollah from the air in 2006 and failed even more spectacularly.

Want to fight an effective counterinsurgency? Call General David Petraeus. He pulled it off smashingly in Iraq, but it required billions upon billions of dollars, tens of thousands of ground troops, substantial support from the local population, and years of determined effort and battlefield casualties.

And his gains evaporated almost instantly after he and his fellow soldiers went home.

Vladimir Putin is not going to call David Petraeus. At least for now, he’s only interested in a low-risk, low-budget intervention. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Moscow Times newspaper, Russia’s Syrian campaign is costing $4 million a day. That’s just $1.5 billion a year. Which sounds like a lot until you consider that the United States spent roughly $1.4 trillion in Iraq—a thousand times as much.

Will Russia be able to pacify an entire country while spending just a fraction of a percent as much as the US spent to pacify Iraq only temporarily? Probably not.

But no matter. Putin has three goals in Syria, and none of them involve permanent pacification.

First and most immediately he wants to prop up Russia’s sole ally in the Arab world.

The second goal is announcing that he wants America’s job as the world’s superpower now that we’re sick of it.

Putin wants America’s job because, why not? Russia is not Belgium, and it is not Canada. It was one of only two superpowers until the Soviet Union imploded under the weight of its own belligerent imbecility, and it has been wallowing in a post-imperial funk—“malaise” in Jimmy Carter’s lexicon—ever since.

It could theoretically regain some of its lost power as the West’s partner, but being one of many is not how Russia rolls. Whenever Washington makes a friendly overture to Moscow, Russians interpret it the way Luke Skywalker heard Darth Vader say, between bouts of heavy mechanical breathing, “Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”

Because he’s instinctively paranoid, as well as filled with ressentiment for what happened to his country after 1989, Putin does not trust the West, not even remotely. He is sure that NATO is coming to get him.

It sounds nuts from our point of view, and it is, but look at it Putin’s way. When he was still a lieutenant colonel in the KGB’s Directorate S, Europe was more or less evenly divided between NATO in the west and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in the east. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and NATO gobbled up just about everything in the old Communist bloc except Serbia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Imagine how it would look from the West’s point of view if the Warsaw Pact rolled westward in the 1990s and swallowed up everything except Britain, Ireland, and the Netherlands. Would we believe Russia if it said he wasn’t coming to get us?

Nope. And we’d be right not to.

Putin is projecting his own ideas and values onto us. He’s asking himself what he’d do in our place, and doing it.

His third reason for intervening in Syria is because it’s good for him personally. During the Communist era, many Russians took pride in the fact that their nation was powerful even though it was poor. Putin can’t raise Russian living standards to Western levels, but he can revive some of the motherland’s former glory, and he can do it without the slave labor camps. The man is no Joseph Stalin. Secretary of State John Kerry was right to compare Putin to a 19th-century czar born two centuries late. His ratings are far better than those of any Romanov: Shortly before Halloween, less than a month into his Syrian bombing campaign, Putin’s approval ratings in Russia exceeded 90 percent.

*

What is the US take after Russia’s intervention? Shortly after it began, President Obama told 60 Minutes that it was a “sign of weakness.” He bristled when interviewer Steve Kroft insisted Putin was challenging American leadership. “If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in,” he said, “in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.”

But like it or not, Putin is taking the lead in Syria. He’s the chief power broker. Everything has to go through him.

Sure, he might fail. (He’s plunging headfirst into the Middle East, after all.) And he may well run Russia’s economy into the ground before he’s finished, but since he’s doing the whole thing on the cheap, on a lousy $4 million a day, he probably won’t.

A weak nation couldn’t even consider doing what he’s doing. Only strong nations can project hard power beyond their own borders. Belgium can’t do it. Canada and Mexico can’t do it. None of the Arab states can do it.

Aside from running guns and money to various proxy militias, the Arab states can’t do anything about Syria, even the ones right there on Syria’s borders. Lebanon and Iraq can’t even handle the militias in their own countries let alone in somebody else’s, which is why they’ve spent the last four and a half years wringing their hands on the sidelines of the Syrian catastrophe and asking for American help.

But America isn’t interested, so Russia is “helping” instead. And the Obama administration is responding by carping at itself.

“We’re just so reactive,” one current official complained to Politico anonymously. “There’s just this tendency to wait.” Another one said of the Pentagon: “They’re on their back feet. It’s not like we can’t exert pressure on these guys, but we act like we’re totally impotent.”

Feeling a little defensive, US Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney told a stunned audience of Syrian-Americans that the “Russians wouldn’t have to help Assad if we didn’t weaken him.”

“He should be on Saturday Night Live,” Republican Senator John McCain told the Daily Beast in response. “I strongly recommend it. I guess if Russia takes all of Syria and Iraq, then that shows they’re really weak. It’s ridiculous. . . just delusional.”

The administration has had trouble with Russia right from the start, beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s much lampooned “reset” with Moscow, which seemed to treat Putin’s intransigence as a hangover from the Bush administration.

The “reset” obviously failed. Badly. Putin is who he is. George W. Bush didn’t make him that way. The Soviet Union and the KGB made him that way. Any viable “reset” would have to come from the Russian side. The idea that Putin would play well with others if we simply acted nice and smiley was as delusional as calling Assad a reformer.

The problem begins at the top. In January of 2014, Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick that he didn’t need a grand new strategy, adding that where Russia was concerned he didn’t “really even need George Kennan right now.”

But with Putin in the Kremlin, Kennan is exactly who the United States needs. As a US diplomat (later ambassador) in Moscow during the Truman administration, Kennan first advocated the policy of “containment,” writing that the Soviet Union should be “contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may have been wrong in 2012 when he said Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe. Given the fact that ISIS didn’t exist at the time, Iran would have fit the bill better. Never mind, though. In hindsight it’s clear that Obama was a little too dismissive when he said, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”

Yes, the Cold War is over, and yes, Putin is spectacularly unlikely to ever attack the American homeland or any of America’s allies in NATO or elsewhere. But it’s obvious—isn’t it?—that Russia is brazenly expanding its role in the world, and that it’s doing so at America’s expense.

Read the whole thing.

 

No, Iran is Not a Democracy

Vox magazine just published a video on YouTube narrated by Max Fisher that supposedly explains how the next Iranian election could make history.

He starts by saying that Iran is confusing because it has “an unelected Supreme Leader at the top” and a president who is chosen in “far from perfect” elections. “So is Iran a dictatorship, or is it a democracy?” he asks before answering, “as it turns out, it’s both.”

No, it’s not. Max Fisher answered the question correctly before he answered it.

The head of state isn’t elected.

And his description of the elections as “far from perfect” is the kind of condescending euphemism that’s only ever used to describe somebody else’s problems.

Let’s leave aside the blatant vote-stealing in Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in districts that opposed him as overwhelmingly as San Francisco opposes Dick Cheney. Nevermind that disgraceful episode.

Elections in Iran are rigged even when they aren’t rigged.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hand-picks everybody who runs for president. Moderates are rejected routinely. Only the less-moderate of the moderates—the ones who won’t give Khamenei excessive heartburn if they win—are allowed to run at all. Liberal and leftist candidates are rejected categorically.

Imagine Dick Cheney as the overlord of America allowing us to choose which one of his friends will be in the co-pilot’s seat. That’s not democracy. That’s not even a fake democracy.

The Iranian system is worse, though. The president isn’t even the co-pilot.

He’s not quite a figurehead. He can tinker with a few things around the edges. But the country is run by the unelected Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is officially designated as a terrorist organization.

Fisher thinks the upcoming election may be a game-changer, though, because the so-called Assembly of Experts is an elected body, it will choose the next Supreme Leader, and the current Supreme Leader acknowledges that he’s likely to die soon. Therefore, if “moderates” win the election, the next Supreme Leader will almost certainly be a moderate.

That would be great. Really, it would. I’d pop a champagne cork. Iran would still be a dictatorship/democracy hybrid in Fisher’s formulation, but at least it would be a less extreme one. It could be like post-Maoist China, perhaps, or post-Soviet Russia. Unfree, but no longer totalitarian. It would be progress. No doubt about it.

But “moderates” in the Iranian regime aren’t moderate by any objective international definition. Everyone who gets to run in the election for the Assembly of Expert will be hand-picked by the Supreme Leader. And every single one of them will be an Islamic theologian. That’s what the Assembly of Experts is. A theocratic institution of Islamic theologians.

None of the “experts” are atheists. None of them are secularists. None of them are agnostic. None of them are liberals under any conceivable definition of the word liberal. Certainly none of them are Christians, Jews or Baha’is. They’re all Islamic theologians or they wouldn’t even be in the Assembly of Experts.

So let’s run another thought experiment here. Let’s say Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson is the dictator-for-life in America. He’s more powerful than the White House. We get to vote for the president even though he isn’t our head of state, but Pat Robertson decides all by himself who’s on the ballot. And he chooses Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. Those are our options.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio is unemployed, Hillary Clinton is under house arrest and Bernie Sanders is languishing in an orange jumpsuit at the Camp X-ray prison in Guantanamo Bay. Liberal activists who complain in the streets vanish into dungeons forever.

Meanwhile, Pat Robertson is going to die soon, so he hand-picks hundreds of Evangelical Christians that we get to vote for or against. The winner will choose who replaces him.

Does that sound even remotely like a democracy? Like a system that has authoritarian elements alongside democratic elements?

Not to me, it doesn’t. And I’d bet my bottom dollar that Max Fisher wouldn’t think so either if he had to live in such a distorted version of America. He’d call it fascist, or something similar, and he would be right.

Vox uploaded the video to Facebook as well as to YouTube, and the comments are overwhelmingly hostile. Huge numbers of Iranian grownups are chiming in and schooling the Vox kids. It's fascinating and educational—hopefully for Max Fisher as well as the rest of us. 

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