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This is What Imperialism Looks Like

The uprising in Iran has been tamped down, at least for now, by the Islamic Republic’s instruments of repression. The regime will one day fall, even so, if it does not reform itself out of all recognition — which seems unlikely to me.

A smaller and more deadly uprising has broken out in China. The Chinese Communist Party government will also one day fall or reform itself, yet again, out of all recognition. The deepest grievances of the Turkic Uighurs (pronounced WEE-goors) in the Xinjiang region, however, might never be fully addressed even in the event of regime-change.

Gordon Chang reports in Forbes:

This week, rioting left scores dead in Urumqi, the capital of China’s troubled Xinjiang region. The latest official death toll is 156, but that number undoubtedly understates the count of those killed. The disturbances are accurately portrayed as ethnic conflict–Turkic Uighurs against the dominant Hans–but they also say much about the general stability of the modern Chinese state.

That state says the Uighurs are “Chinese,” but that’s not true in any meaningful sense of the term. The Uighurs are, in fact, from different racial stock than the Han; they speak a different language, and they practice a religion few others in China follow. Of the 55 officially recognized minority groups in China, they stand out the most.

The Uighurs are a conquered people. In the 1940s, they had their own state, the East Turkestan Republic, for about half a decade. Mao Zedong, however, forcibly incorporated the short-lived nation into the People’s Republic by sending the People’s Liberation Army into Xinjiang.

As much as the Uighurs deserve to govern themselves again–and they most certainly do–almost no one thinks they will be able to resurrect the East Turkestan state. They have even lost their own homeland, as Beijing’s policies encouraged the Han to populate Xinjiang. In the 1940s, Hans constituted about 5% of Xinjiang’s population. Today, that number has increased to about 40%. In the capital of Urumqi, more than 70% of the residents are Hans. In short, the Uighurs are no match for the seemingly invincible Han-dominated state.

“Read the rest”:http://www.forbes.com/2009/07/08/uighur-riots-communist-party-opinions-columnists-china.html.

Child Abuse

During the Iran-Iraq war, the Khomeinist regime in Tehran used “human waves of children to clear Iraqi landmines”:http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/country,,CSCOAL,,IRN,,498805f02d,0.html by forcing them to run into minefields and explode themselves. Now the Taliban, according to CNN, is “buying child slaves and turning them into suicide-bombers”:http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2009/07/08/taliban-buying-children-for-suicide-attacks/.

The Real Quagmire in the Middle East

The Middle East is a hard place for idealists, especially for the Western liberal variety. My feelings of optimism for the region have been ground down over time like rocks under slow-moving glacial ice.

Last time I visited Israel, at the end of the Gaza war this past January, I met Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. He sounded no less despondent than the Israelis I spoke to. “Listen,” he said. “We must stop dreaming about the New Middle East and coexistence and harmony and turning this area into Hong Kong and Singapore…I don’t see a real peace emerging over here. We should stop talking about it.”

That’s what I hear from almost everyone I speak to over there now, whether they’re Muslims, Christians, Jews, or whatever. Arabs, Israelis, Kurds — most seem to have a dim view of the future. Optimists, for the most part, parachute in for a brief time and leave. I hate it. It depresses me. But that’s how it is.

Some writers and analysts are slightly less gloomy, and I frequently ask them to cheer me up and hope their relative optimism isn’t fantasy. Jeffrey Goldberg’s work at The Atlantic occasionally qualifies as less pessimistic than mine. His outstanding book Prisoners strikes just the right balance between world-weary pessimism and hope. He’s an American Jew weaned on Socialist Zionism who became an idealistic Israeli as a young adult. He sought out friendships with individual Palestinians with whom he could forge his own separate peace, if for no other reason than to prove to himself that peace was possible. It was much harder than he expected. But he managed, with some difficultly, when he worked as an IDF prison guard at Ketziot during the first intifada to kindle a rocky but enduring friendship with his prisoner Rafiq Hijazi.

I spoke with him a few weeks ago in Washington D.C.

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Jeffrey Goldberg

MJT: You don’t seem particularly optimistic that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved any time soon, but I notice from reading your work that you seem slightly less pessimistic than me.

Goldberg: (Laughs.)

MJT: My view is pretty bleak and yours is slightly less so. And I’m wondering if you can map a way out that’s realistic.

Goldberg: I think there’s a great opportunity right now for a Sunni-Jewish convergence. The Sunni Arab states and Israel have, for the first time, a common adversary. There’s some promise in that. If the Israelis are smart, they’ll exploit Arab fears of Iran. And if the Arabs are smart, they’ll exploit Israeli fears of Iran. The common fear of Iran might produce some more flexibility on both sides, even flexibility on the part of Saudi Arabia.

MJT: That’s true at the state level, but not at the street level.

Goldberg: That’s true at the state level, yes. The people of the Middle East aren’t the ones who make the decisions. But you need the people ultimately, right?

This is the central question. The settlements aren’t the central question. They’re a tragedy in part because they obscure the central question of this conflict. The only question is: can the world of Arab Islam accept the idea of Jewish national equality? That’s the question, and I don’t know the answer to that.

Naturally, I shade toward pessimism on that question. I’m recalling, among other things, that the Six Day War wasn’t started because of the settlements. If you study the history of the last one hundred years, you’ll see that this is the central animating cause of the conflict. And I don’t see much evidence that Arab Islam can assimilate this idea right now.

On the other hand, actions can create new realities. So I’m not totally immune to the idea that Israeli concessions on certain points can create a positive cycle rather than a negative cycle.

The question of Israel is the question of what happens to all minorities in the Middle East. The Arab Muslim Middle East has 300 million people. It has a very hard time treating Coptic Christians with equality, treating Maronites in Lebanon with equality, treating Southern Sudanese in an equal way, treating Kurds in an equal way, and dealing with Jews — not only in their national expression, but even as minorities within their own countries. There was never a golden era for Jews who lived in Arab countries. It wasn’t as bad as living in Poland, but that’s no great shakes.

MJT: You have talked to Hamas people. Should the Israelis or Americans talk to them?

Goldberg: I don’t know what they’d get out of it.

MJT: What did you get out of it when you did it?

Goldberg: A first-hand understanding of how they think. People in the United States find it hard to understand how people in Hamas and Hezbollah think. It’s alien. It’s alien to us. The feverish racism and conspiracy mongering, the obscurantism, the apocalyptic thinking — we can’t relate to that. Every so often, there’s an eruption of that in a place like Waco, Texas, but we’re not talking about 90 people in a compound. We’re talking about whole societies that are captive to this kind of absurdity.

So it’s very important — and you know this better than almost anyone — to go over there yourself and tape it, get it down on paper, and say “this is what they actually say.”

God Bless Hitler.jpg

MJT: It’s shocking to hear.

Goldberg: Of course it’s shocking to hear.

MJT: Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if they really even believe it or if they’re just saying it.

Goldberg: I was in Afghanistan in 1998, a week after the first fatwa to “kill all the Jews and Crusaders” came out. I was with a bunch of Americans. They were making light of it because it seemed so ridiculous. They were making light of it, I suppose, partly as a psychological mechanism to allow us to continue staying in Afghanistan.

MJT: (Laughs.) Yeah.

Goldberg: People also made fun of it because it seemed so ridiculous. But it’s not ridiculous. Just because a belief sounds ridiculous to you doesn’t mean it’s not sincerely held.

MJT: Yeah. I know it.

Goldberg: So I think it’s best to err on the side of taking people at their word. That doesn’t mean you can’t analyze it and break it down on the politics, break it down on the psychology, and break it down on the religion. But take them at their word. I believe Hamas when it says it wants to eradicate Israel. Why shouldn’t I believe them?

MJT: They act as though they’re serious.

Goldberg: Yeah. I understand their world view. I obviously don’t accept it, but I understand it. In their world view, this makes perfect sense. So, why not?

Palestinians, over the years, have proven that they’re willing to sacrifice generations of people to achieve their goal of a Jewish-free Palestine.

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Children in Gaza

I understand that. I don’t agree with the goal. It’s extremist and self-defeating and racist and everything else, but I try to put myself in their shoes, and I can understand their arguments.

There’s two stages. One, collect the documentary evidence. That’s why I hung out at Hezbollah’s “Al Manar TV station for a couple of days and just listened”:http://www.jeffreygoldberg.net/articles/tny/a_reporter_at_large_in_the_par.php. There’s nothing insincere about their goals and their desires. I don’t think they’re motivated by poverty. If poverty were the motivation, Zambia would be the world headquarters of terrorism. So why not believe them?

It doesn’t mean that nothing changes. I think it’s true that a moderated Hamas would no longer be Hamas. If you’re a Muslim Brotherhood organization, or if you’re Hezbollah, if you’re an arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and you begin to accept the idea of the presence of Israel in the Middle East, you’re no longer a part of that movement. So I don’t think the organizations are capable of changing, but individuals are capable of changing.

MJT: What percentage of the Palestinian population do you suppose might be flexible enough to change in the way you just described?

Goldberg: I assume it’s fluid like everything else. That’s what I meant when I said that new realities on the ground can shape public opinion.

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Graffiti in Tel Aviv, April, 2006

MJT: We have seen some who have changed their views, and there will always be hardliners who won’t until they die.

Goldberg: Look. Another thing people here don’t understand is that it’s a hot region. It’s an emotionally hot region. Israel, too. The amount of yelling in Israel over things that don’t have to be yelled about is extraordinary. Blood runs hot. Maybe it’s the desert. I don’t know. People are governed by their emotions.

In my book, I trace this relationship I had with one particular Palestinian. When things were going relatively well during the peace process, he was against suicide bombing. When things weren’t going well, he was for suicide bombing. This is the reality.

Prisoners Cover.JPG

That’s why I think there was a missed opportunity around the time of the Gaza withdrawal. To buttress the Palestinian moderates — moderates being a relative term — maybe Israel should have given them something so they’d have greater sway among the population. My point is that I don’t think we’re dealing with entirely immutable forces.

MJT: I don’t either, but it often looks that way with Hamas.

Goldberg: Yeah. (Sighs.) Do all Palestinians wish for the disappearance of Israel? Probably. But it doesn’t matter what you wish. It matters what you do.

MJT: There is a difference between wishing Israel would just go away and actively working to destroy it.

Goldberg: I have a lot of wishes, too, that I don’t act on.

MJT: A lot of Israelis wish the Palestinians would just go away.

Goldberg: Of course. Why would you want people who hate you around you? That’s fine. It’s all about what you do. And it’s about creating conditions so that people who have negative and violent impulses will be reined in.

MJT: Here, I think, is the big question: what should be done about Iran’s nuclear weapons? Would it be better to use military action — whether it’s American, Israeli, or both — or learn to live with the Iranian bomb?

Goldberg: I suspect we are going to be learning to live with the Iranian bomb.

MJT: Is that a good idea?

Goldberg: No. It’s terrible. But also striking Iran would be terrible.

This is an interesting question right now, at this moment in history. This might be a place where American interests and Israeli interests diverge somewhat. I think the Iranian nuclear weapons program does pose an existential threat to Israel. It doesn’t pose an existential threat to America. It poses a unique set of terrible challenges for America, but it doesn’t mean our existence here is in peril. So it might not be in America’s best interests right now to strike militarily — for any number of reasons, including the fact that it might not work. And if it does work, it would almost seem to justify, in a way, Iran seeking nuclear weapons. And the program might continue.

The thing we hope for is that Iran moderates itself, that the people of Iran who are more moderate than its leaders figure out a way to moderate this. The problem isn’t whether or not Iran has the bomb, it’s whether or not the mullahs have the bomb.

MJT: Sure.

Goldberg: As I wrote in a New York Times op-ed a few weeks ago, there are two Israeli strategic doctrines in confrontation right now. The first is: never do anything that harms the strategic relationship with the United States of America. The second is: prevent, at all costs, the possibility of a Second Holocaust. What if these two things come into conflict?

I tend to think that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu understands better than almost anyone else the imperative of maintaining a strong strategic relationship with the United States of America. But I also think he’s governed by his understanding of Jewish history.

If you are the de-facto leader of the Jews in a post-Holocaust world, what is the absolute worst thing you could do? Allow the formation of an existential threat to half the world’s remaining Jews. It’s a hard job.

MJT: It is. Sometimes I wonder if there’s an agreement that we’ll never hear about between the U.S. and Israel, that Israel can go ahead and take out Iran’s nuclear weapons and we’ll pretend to be upset about it. Because look: Iran can retaliate against the United States inside Iraq and Afghanistan.

Goldberg: That’s the problem.

MJT: And it’s not in our national interests to provoke that. We have over 100,000 guys in Iraq and Afghanistan who can be retaliated against.

Goldberg: And here’s the thing. Netanyahu doesn’t want to endanger the lives of American soldiers. Not because he’s so great or moral or whatever, but because he knows that’s disastrous.

MJT: It could threaten the entire American project in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Goldberg: Yes. Exactly.

I imagine that if this situation gets more dire, America will say to the Iranians, secretly, in no uncertain terms, that “if you do anything to Israel, we will destroy you.” That just seems prudent to do. “Go ahead and have your dreams and desires, but don’t even think about transferring your nuclear technology to attack Israel in some way, because we will wipe you out.”

MJT: Do you think the U.S. would actually do that?

Goldberg: It depends on the president.

MJT: I can’t see Barack Obama nuking Tehran.

Goldberg: I didn’t say he has to nuke it, I said he has to threaten to nuke it.

MJT: Sure, but the threat has to be credible.

Goldberg: Right. So you make it credible.

MJT: Bush could have done that.

Goldberg: Bring the Iranian ambassador to the Strategic Air Command and show him all the missiles that are pointing at Iran. “This one is going to go here, and this one is going to go there. You’re wiped out. You’re finished. You’re done. You are exterminated.”

Obama doesn’t have to actually do it.

We’re getting into the realm of insanity here, but if Israel is ever attacked with nuclear weapons, I think there would be quite a demand from Americans as a whole to retaliate for it.

MJT: Probably.

Goldberg: It wouldn’t really matter, though, because the Israelis would already be dead.

MJT: They can retaliate themselves anyway. They have nuclear weapons in submarines out in the Mediterranean.

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Israeli submarine

Goldberg: And in the Persian Gulf. They’re German subs. History is great that way, isn’t it?

MJT: (Laughs.)

Goldberg: Jews are floating around in the Persian Gulf with nuclear weapons in German subs that are aimed at the new Hitler. If you step away from your personal feelings about it, it’s just fascinating.

MJT: Can you imagine the Israeli relationship with Palestinians evolving that much over the next 50 or 60 years?

Goldberg: If I were a Palestinian right now, I’d just wait. I’d keep the pressure up and not agree to a rump state. I’d just keep up the pressure for another few generations. They might eventually achieve it that way.

MJT: But look at how much things can change in a few generations.

Goldberg: All the leaders are ego maniacs by definition. All of them are soaked in history. Yasser Arafat wanted to be Salah ad-Din. Bibi Netanyahu wants to be Judah Maccabee. There is so much history there to exploit. These people are all measuring themselves against historical role models. And when you’re measuring yourself against a historical role model like Salah ad-Din, you wait, and you keep trying to devise new strategies to make the Jews leave, or to kill enough of them that the survivors leave.

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Khaled Meshaal, Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

MJT: Waiting is tricky, though. Imagine if Hitler had decided to wait a few generations to go after the Jews. Europe has changed. Hitlerism won’t fly in the Europe of 2009.

Goldberg: Now we’re really getting into the realm of hyper-speculation.

MJT: I wonder, though, if Palestinian society is really capable of evolving the way European society has in the last 60 years.

Goldberg: I don’t know. The argument is that Arab society is somewhat stagnant.

MJT: It is stagnant compared with Europe.

Coexist sticker.jpg

Goldberg: It’s more static. It’s a region of the world that lags on a lot of the usual indicators for success and progress. But hell if I know. The whole idea is just so improbable. But so was the idea that the Jews, after 2,000 years, could reclaim their ancient homeland. There was nothing in history that suggested that would be possible.

And going back to the destruction of Israel — Arabs are misreading history if they believe Israel is a temporary phenomenon. Nothing like this has ever happened in history. A dead tribe came back and seized the land it had, and did so after a devastating tragedy. Jews are also good at waiting, apparently. They’re a small group, but there’s a survival impulse that’s embedded in many Jews, and certainly in the Jews of Israel today. It says: “You want to wait? We’ll wait, too.” Jews were an ancient people already when Mohammad appeared on the Arabian peninsula.

I wonder all the time if two people just like us will be having the same conversation a hundred years from now. “Well, what do you think? Will Israel make it?”

MJT: It’s possible.

Goldberg: Anything’s possible. Anyone who acts like they’ve figured out the entire Middle East doesn’t know anything.

MJT: Yeah. It’s a humbling place.

Goldberg: People who tell you they understand and know the answer? Demagogues. They’re either idiots or demagogues. Nobody can understand this. You can’t apply rationality to it either.

This is why I’m negative about the intentions of Palestinians. If their goal were statehood, they could have had statehood. Therefore, you have to give serious credence to the idea that their goal is not statehood, that it’s more important to rid the Arab world of Jewish nationalism than it is to have a Palestinian state that would improve the lives of individual Palestinians now.

MJT: Lots of them say that explicitly. They aren’t demanding a state in the West Bank and Gaza. They want to liberate all of Palestine, so to speak, “from the river to the sea.”

Goldberg: But just because they want that doesn’t mean it can happen.

MJT: Right. But it’s clear that some of them want the whole thing and won’t accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza. From their point of view, it’s like Israel being offered Tel Aviv and the beach. It isn’t enough.

Goldberg: Ben-Gurion was smart. He took what they offered him and hoped for better. He hoped for Arab mistakes that would allow him to get more territory. The Arabs provided the mistakes, and he took the territory.

Don’t you find this debilitating after a while?

MJT: Yeah.

Goldberg: The reality in Israel is that it’s a fun place, a great place. It’s a vibrant society.

MJT: I like being there.

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Tel Aviv, Israel

Goldberg: It’s not all as dreary as this. Maybe this is a story about individualism. The demand of the collective on the Palestinian side is such that it ruins the lives of millions spread over several generations.

MJT: You wrote during the Gaza war that Operation Cast Lead would probably work, but that nothing in the Middle East seems to work for very long. Why do you suppose that is? It seems to be true, but I’m not exactly sure why.

Gaza City Wikipedia.jpg

Gaza City several years ago

Goldberg: I don’t know.

MJT: We’ll see progress for a while, but then the progress gets erased.

Goldberg: That’s progress by our definition of progress, by people who understand the world differently.

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Gaza City from Sderot, Israel, at the end of Operation Cast Lead

I think there’s a long strategy. And the long strategy of some Arabs is impervious to short term interventions. Short of packing up Palestinians and bussing them to Egypt, the impulse to defeat the Jews will remain there.

The reason American minds can’t really grasp the Middle East is because our minds are trained for concepts that are at variance with the mindset of Middle Eastern fundamentalists — and by that I mean both Muslims and Jews. The importance of today, the importance of pleasure, the importance of compromise, the importance of pragmatism, the relative unimportance of land. We have a house, we sell it, and then we move to another house. We don’t build our houses on top of our fathers’ houses.

As a sort of aside, you see how settlers talk about settlement freezes. There’s a kind of Middle Easterness to it. Part of it is manipulation. “If we aren’t allowed to add to our house, our children will have to move to Tel Aviv.” They’re telling me that it’s a punishment to have to move to Israel? It’s a tiny place. Their kids will be an hour away. Or a half hour.

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Maale Adumim settlement, West Bank

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Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem, an area considered a “settlement” by the United States government

But there’s also a sincere Middle Easterness to it. According to them, it really is a sin to force their children move a half hour away when they could live right next door or in the same house. It’s as if they have imbibed the Arab love for the place of their father and their father’s father. There are so many concepts we just can’t relate to because we’re Americans. It’s a barrier to understanding.

MJT: It is. Americans also believe there is a solution to every problem.

Goldberg: Yeah. Solutionism is an American religion. That’s the most dangerous one. The other aspects of this are the misunderstandings. We can’t understand why a Palestinian would want his son to become a suicide bomber.

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Hamas

It’s because his son is not an individual in the same way Americans are. He’s a valuable instrument in the deliverance of salvation for his people. His desires, dreams, and goals are all selfishness. That’s just Western selfishness. I don’t know. I’ve been trying to work these things through for years.

There’s something admirable about Palestinian steadfastness.

MJT: We don’t have that sort of steadfastness.

Goldberg: No, we don’t.

MJT: But our society is better off without it.

Goldberg: Of course, it is! (Laughs.) What are they getting out of it? But our categories of success and failure are not their categories of success and failure.

It leads to the immorality of narcissism, that their collective need is so important that they can kill children with moral impunity. That’s one place it leads. The importance of remaining steadfast to the cause gives them license to do anything. Man, but when you’re licensed to do anything, it gives you power.

When I talk this way, when we think about it this way, I have a hard time seeing a Western-style state flourishing there over the long term in that climate.

Allah Will Destroy Sign.jpg

MJT: There’s only one that exists. Israel is the only one. None of the Arab states are. We’re over there in Iraq trying to help them build one, but I have my doubts that it’s going to happen. Lebanon is a hybrid. It’s only partly a Western-style state.

What do you think about Lebanon? The 2006 war was a disaster for everybody involved. But what if Hezbollah starts firing rockets again? What should the Israelis do? What would you do if you were prime minister?

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Hezbollah fires Katyusha rockets at Israel, July, 2006

Goldberg: If you’re the Israeli prime minister, or the leader of any country, you can’t accept conditions in which your enemy forces the depopulation of a third of your country. It’s not acceptable. It’s national suicide. And while there’s a record of national suicide in Jewish history, I don’t think the current Israeli leadership is going to acquiesce to that. So you do what you have to do.

Is that helpful? No. It will cause a lot of people in London to go demonstrate on behalf of Hezbollah. It will anger the United Nations. But what’s the choice? You’re not a serious country if you allow an enemy to fire rockets at your civilians and cause the depopulation of your territory. If you allow that to happen, you’re ceding sovereignty over whole chunks of your country.

Having Hezbollah in the Lebanese politcal process has some kind of utility in this regard. It knows full well that if it does launch some new adventure against Israel that Israel will retaliate against Lebanon as a whole. That won’t help Hezbollah’s position in Lebanese society.

But I’m not a military strategist. I don’t know how to stop the rockets.

MJT: There has been talk of shooting back at Syria instead of Lebanon. Syria has a return address. It’s a state and is therefore accountable.

Goldberg: This brings up an interesting strategic shift that might be coming in Israeli thinking, which is: forget the proxies. What is Hamas without its weapons suppliers?

MJT: Not much. And the same goes for Hezbollah.

Goldberg: So Israel says to the two states that supply Hamas and Hezbollah: “If you support these proxies, and if Hezbollah fires rockets at Haifa, we’re not going to attack Hezbollah. We’re going to attack Damascus.”

MJT: That’s what I thought they should have done back in 2006.

Goldberg: They can say “You’re the sponsors. So you either stop this or we’re going to destroy your military infrastructure.” Why have a proxy war? What do proxy wars get you other than bad publicity?

MJT: A bunch of dead people.

Goldberg: Were you there during the 2006 war?

MJT: Yeah.

Goldberg: There were a lot of dead bodies from Israeli air strikes, right?

MJT: I didn’t see any dead bodies. I was on the Israeli side of the border.

Goldberg: Right. I’m surprised we didn’t meet. I was there, too, traveling with Noah Pollak.

MJT: I was there with Noah Pollak, too, just on different days.

Goldberg: I was also there with Michael Oren.

MJT: Yep, so was I. On different days. We must have just barely missed each other.

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Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, author, historian, and former Israel Defense Forces Spokesman

Goldberg: Hezbollah is a proxy army of Syria and Iran. So why aren’t Israelis fighting back against Syria and Iran?

MJT: That’s what Michael Oren thought, too, after he was no longer working as a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. I talked to him about this during his book tour when he could say what he really believed.

You can’t defeat a guerilla army in six weeks with an air force. It’s absurd.

Goldberg: You can destroy its ability to fight.

MJT: Except the Israelis didn’t.

Goldberg: I mean, you can destroy its ability to fight by denying its weapons supplies.

MJT: Right.

Goldberg: Hezbollah can’t fight Israel without its rockets, right?

MJT: Right. I mean, they could fashion together home-made pieces of crap like Hamas used to. Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets are much more formidable.

Goldberg: I think this is getting better now that Egypt understands the threat of Shia radicalism. And Israel can say “stop this smuggling completely, or we’ll have to do it ourselves on your territory. We won’t attack you, but you’re allowing your territory to be used as a launching pad for people who want to kill our citizens.”

I think the doctrine needs to be rewritten. Every time a rocket comes into Israel from Hamas, Israel should figure out who’s helping Hamas and deal with them.

MJT: But if Iran gets the bomb…

Goldberg: …everything changes.

-

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A Sunni-Israeli Alliance?

In the current issue of The Atlantic, the indispensible Jeffrey Goldberg wonders if “a tacit alliance of sorts might develop between Israelis and Sunni Arabs”:http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200907/israel-sunni against the Persian Islamic Republic regime in Iran.

If Tehran’s government is overthrown, of course, a very different relationship would likely develop between Israel and Iran. In the meantime, though, Goldberg may be correct. According to the Times of London, Saudi Arabia has quietly given Israel “permission to use its airspace”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article6638568.ece on the way to Iranian nuclear weapons facilities.

UPDATE: The Saudi government officially denies the Times story, which was expected. The Israeli government “also denies it”:http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3742313,00.html, however.

Comments are Fixed

The comments section was broken during the last couple of days, but it seems to be fixed now.

A Conversation with Robert D. Kaplan

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There are few places in the world Robert D. Kaplan has not visited and written about in his books and magazine articles. He travels to countries hardly anyone else even considers — to Turkmenistan, for instance, during the time of the lunatic “Turkmenbashi” who transformed his post-Soviet republic into the North Korea of Central Asia. He has an uncanny ability to see conflicts looming on the horizon well in advance and — reversing the standard relationship between journalists and officials — U.S. defense policy professionals often ask him for briefings about what he has seen.

His regular dispatches in the Atlantic ought to be required reading for anyone interested in foreign affairs, as should his numerous books.

I met him a few weeks ago in Washington D.C. while he was briefly in town after returning from a month-long trip to post-war Sri Lanka. We discussed Colombo’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign there against the Tamil Tigers, what China has been up to while no one was looking, Russia’s revived imperial project in its “near abroad,” the geopolitcal ramifications of a more liberal Iran, Israel’s difficulty in fighting effective counterinsurgency warfare, and our new man-hunting General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan.

MJT: So you just got back from Sri Lanka. What did you see there? What did you learn?

Kaplan: The biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won. And the Chinese won because over the last few years, because of the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government, the U.S. and other Western countries have cut all military aid. We cut them off just as they were starting to win. The Chinese filled the gaps and kept them flush with weapons and, more importantly, with ammunition, with fire-fighting radar, all kinds of equipment. The assault rifles that Sri Lankan soldiers carry at road blocks throughout Colombo are T-56 Chinese knockoffs of AK-47s. They look like AK-47s, but they’re not.

What are the Chinese getting out of this? They’re building a deep water port and bunkering facility for their warships and merchant fleet in Hambantota, in southern Sri Lanka. And they’re doing all sorts of other building on the island.

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Hambantota port design

Now, why did the Chinese want Sri Lanka? Because Sri Lanka is strategically located. The main sea lines of communication between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, and between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. It’s part of China’s plan to construct a string of pearls — ports that they don’t own, but which they can use for their warships all across the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka defeated, more or less completely, a 26 year-long insurgency. They killed the leader and the leader’s son. But there are no takeaway lessons for the West here. The Sri Lankan government did it by silencing the media, which meant capturing the most prominent media critic of the government and killing him painfully. And they made sure all the other journalists knew about it.

MJT: Wow.

Kaplan: There are a thousand disappearances a year in Sri Lanka separate from the war. Journalists are terrified there. The only journalism you read is pro-government. So that’s one thing they did.

The Tamil Tigers had human shields by the tens of thousands, not just by the dozens and hundreds like Al Qaeda. They put people between themselves and the government and say “you have to kill all the people to get to us.” So the government obliged them. The government killed thousands of civilians.

MJT: Tamil civilians?

Kaplan: Yes. They killed thousands of civilians in the course of winning this war. It acted in a way so brutal that there are no lessons for the West.

MJT: Would you say it was as brutal as Russia’s counterinsurgency in Chechnya?

Kaplan: Yeah. It was. The U.N. is investigating whether as many as 20,000 civilians have been killed during the last few months.

MJT: I didn’t know it was that brutal. I’ve read accusations that there were human rights violations, but we’re so used to hearing that no matter what happens.

Kaplan: The West thinks of Sri Lanka as unimportant, whereas for the Chinese and the Indians it’s very important. And I consider Sri Lanka part of the new geography. It’s part of the new maritime geography, and that makes it very important.

MJT: Until China started helping Sri Lanka, where was Sri Lanka geopolitically?

Kaplan: It’s a place that registers the geopolitical reality between China, India, and the Indian Ocean. The Indians have a very checkered record in Sri Lanka. They sent in a peacekeeping force in 1987 and got their asses kicked by the Tamil Tigers. They came in to help the Tamils, but the Tigers wanted no part of any force there. They came in to help the Tamils, and they wound up fighting the Tamil Tigers.

MJT: Sri Lanka’s government naturally isn’t aligned with India, though.

Kaplan: Right. But it has reasonably good relations with India. It’s now at a point where it’s balancing between India and China.

MJT: Sri Lanka has been fighting this counterinsurgency for decades. Have they slowly made progress all this time and have now finally finished it off, or was there a tipping point recently where a seemingly endless conflict just ended almost suddenly?

Kaplan: The Sri Lankan government was elected in 2005 to win the war. And it has done that. Extremely brutally. It’s a government that’s very nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist. These are not the Richard Gere’s “peace and love” Buddhists. These are the real blood and soil Buddhists, where Buddhism is like any other religion when it’s threatened and it’s defending a piece of territory. It can be very brutal.

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Buddhas, Colombo, Sri Lanka

It was elected to win the war, which it interpreted from the voters as a right to silence the media and to fight without any restrictions.

MJT: It does work, though, doesn’t it?

Kaplan: It does work, yeah.

MJT: Not that we should do it, of course.

How popular were the Tamil Tigers among the Tamil population?

Kaplan: Not particularly popular. The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of suicide bombers. They pioneered the use of human shields, of fighting amidst large numbers of civilians. They had their own navy and air force.

MJT: They had an air force?

Kaplan: Yeah. They had a few planes that they used for bombing missions over Colombo. It was the only insurgent terrorist outfit that had a navy and air force.

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Colombo, Sri Lanka

MJT: That’s fascinating.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: Not even Hezbollah has either of those, and Hezbollah is the most sophisticated Islamist terrorist group in the world.

The Tamil Tigers didn’t care much for the Arab and Islamist terrorist groups, did they?

Kaplan: No, they didn’t.

MJT: I read a quote from one of the Tamil Tiger leaders who said he refused to train Islamist terrorists because he didn’t want to help anyone kill Americans.

Kaplan: They didn’t want to create a situation where the West would aid this Sinhalese government under the guise of fighting international terrorism.

MJT: It makes sense. They were off our radar almost entirely.

Kaplan: In Sri Lanka you have a majority Sinhalese Buddhist population that thinks like a minority. They have a minority sense of oppression. Although they have 75 percent of the population while the Tamils have only about 18 percent, there are 60 million more Tamils nearby in southern India. So they’re kind of like the Iraqi Shias and the Serbs, other majorities who feel like minorities, and can be twice as brutal because of it.

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Sri Lanka ethnic map

MJT: So there are no lessons at all? Nothing for the U.S., Israel, or Pakistan?

Kaplan: No.

MJT: Only moral lessons, perhaps. Yes, this works, but it would take an awful lot to get us to fight that way again.

Kaplan: The only lesson is that while we’re obsessed with Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese have a fully developed world view. They’re thinking about many countries all at once.

MJT: What’s China’s ultimate objective?

Kaplan: They’re putting a lot of money into their navy, more than their army. Their ultimate objective is to project sea power, and not just in the western Pacific which makes them a great regional power, but also in the Indian Ocean which makes them a great power in total.

MJT: Do you get the sense that China is becoming more ambitious as it gets more powerful?

Kaplan: I think as their economy develops, and as they have more and more economic interests around the world, they suddenly have more national interests. As they trade more, they have more things to protect. So they develop a world view and their military expands accordingly. It’s very similar to the U.S. military expansion in the late 19th century and the early 20th century before World War I.

MJT: That’s what I thought.

Kaplan: Between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I, our economic expansion made us a great power. We suddenly were dealing with Latin America, with the Pacific, and with Europe in ways we hadn’t before the Civil War. And that led to a corresponding military expansion. We very quietly and unobtrusively became a great power.

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MJT: I don’t think the U.S. ever consciously intended to become the most powerful country in the world.

Kaplan: No.

MJT: We just slowly, step by step, ended up there.

Kaplan: Right. It just happened. And that’s how I look at China.

MJT: Russia was more deliberate about it. Soviet Russia, I should say.

Kaplan: Russia is a land power. And land powers are much more insecure than sea powers.

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Tanks in Moscow

MJT: They can be conquered much more easily.

Kaplan: Russia’s only coast to speak of is in the frozen wastes of the Arctic. It’s a polar ice cap. It’s useless.

When you’re threatened on land, you’re much more insecure than if you’re threatened an ocean away. We’re virtually an island nation.

MJT: Russians seem to feel genuinely threatened by NATO expansion.

Kaplan: Yeah, they do.

MJT: Way more than they should.

Kaplan: They’ve been invaded by the French under Napoleon. They’ve been invaded by the Germans. They’re insecure about their Western frontier. That was the whole purpose behind the satellite states of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. It provided a buffer region for the Russians, a buffer region that was under their total control. So what the Russians want to do is somehow, some way, create another buffer on their Western border. So there’s a lot of pressure on the Baltic states, on Poland.

MJT: It looks like Ukraine is in danger.

Kaplan: It’s endangered perpetually. Russia as a land power can’t tolerate an independent Ukraine.

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Vladimir Putin

MJT: It doesn’t look good for them after what happened in Georgia. I’ll be surprised if nothing much happens there over the next couple of years.

Kaplan: Russia has to be able to control Ukrainian politics behind the scenes.

MJT: They were doing it before the Georgian incident when they poisoned the current president, Viktor Yukoshenko.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: I can see it from their point of view to an extent. It’s as if the U.S. suddenly lost Florida. That’s how the Russians look at Ukraine. They lost a nice place with a warm climate and a beach on the Black Sea. Almost everywhere else is winter for eight months of the year. Almost half of Ukraine is ethnically Russian.

Kaplan: And they lost the Caucasus. The Caucasus figures large in Russian literature, in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writing and in others’. They write about the beauty of the Caucasus. It was Russia’s Wild West, its romantic Wild West, except it was to the south. And it’s deeply embedded in the Russian psyche. So the loss of the Caucasus, especially Georgia, really hurt.

MJT: Have you been there lately?

Kaplan: No.

MJT: It’s interesting.

Kaplan: And who knows? They may get it back.

MJT: They got pieces of it.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: I doubt they’ll get Tbilisi back.

Kaplan: There’s a good chance they’ll get a government there that’s, quote unquote, “friendly.”

MJT: It’s looking that way.

Kaplan: A “friendly” regime.

MJT: Saakashvili isn’t too popular these days.

Kaplan: No. He miscalculated.

MJT: Yeah. But he’s not a bad guy. He’s certainly better than Shevardnadze and Gamsakhurdia.

Kaplan: Yeah. The problem, though, with Georgia, was the Bush Administration. It spoke loudly and carried a small stick rather than the reverse. They promised Saakashvili all this aid and support. The two presidents had a hug fest and all that. But there was little we could do if the Russians called the bluff.

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George W. Bush and Mikheil Saakashvili

MJT: And what could we do? We aren’t going to war with Russia over, well, anything, let alone Georgia.

Kaplan: Right.

MJT: If they tried to conquer Western Europe that would be a different story, but of course they won’t.

Kaplan: I thought the body language between Bush and Saakashvili was bad. It was the kind of public friendship that indicated we would back him up. It sent the wrong message.

MJT: To Saakashvili, you mean?

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: There wasn’t much we could do. Likewise, if the U.S. moved into South Ossetia — which of course wouldn’t happen even in an alternate universe — Russia couldn’t have done anything. With Russia and the U.S. right now, the winner is whoever moves first.

Kaplan: Yes. And keep another thing in mind. The Obama Administration is trying to find a way to get Russia’s help with Iran. And what is Russia’s price for that? My guess is they want control of Georgia.

MJT: Do you think that would be enough?

Kaplan: It might be. And keep something else in mind. Since the days of Gorbachev, the Iranians and the Russians have had an unspoken agreement about stability in the southern tier of the former Soviet Union. The Iranians are not mucking about in Georgia and Armenia and other places right on their border the way they’re mucking about in Iraq.

MJT: Right.

Kaplan: And that is something Russia really appreciates. So Russia’s friendship with Iran, and it’s willingness to have Iran’s back at the United Nations, is born of geopolitical and geographical realities.

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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin

MJT: They aren’t messing with Azerbaijan all that much either, even though Azerbaijan used to be part of the Persian Empire. There was a Hezbollah terrorist attack foiled there recently against the Israeli embassy, but that only took place in Azerbaijan. It didn’t have much to do with Azerbaijan itself.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: I was there last August.

Kaplan: How’s the government under Aliyev?

MJT: Not great.

Kaplan: Yeah. That’s what I would expect.

MJT: They have the right idea about where the country should go, but the government is autocratic.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: I have to say, though, that I was impressed with the physical condition of the country. At least the capital Baku. Outside Baku it started to look a bit like Iraq.

Kaplan: Yeah. That’s always been the truth. There is a syndrome in a lot of these countries where the capitals are really city-states. All the money flows into the capital and there’s nothing outside. This is true in Bulgaria, in some other places. It’s going to take a long time for the money to flow to the countryside.

MJT: It will. It’s true in Georgia, too, to a lesser extent. It isn’t doing as well as Eastern Europe. Baku, though, in Azerbaijan, is very pleasant.

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Baku, Azerbaijan

Kaplan: It has a beautiful old section by the waterfront. You should have seen it in 1993. It was a trash heap.

MJT: I’ll bet.

Kaplan: It was hideous. And then I went back in 1999, and it was a different world. I can’t even imagine it now.

Eastward to Tartary.jpg

MJT: So you’re working on a book about the Indian Ocean.

Kaplan: Yeah. I’m deep into it. One day we’re going to wake up from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re going to see a changed world. We’re going to see a world where there are still geopolitical contests, but they’ll be between China and India. We’ll see the emergence of China on the world’s seas with less U.S. dominance. We’re going to see a more maritime world. We may live in an era of globalization, but 90 percent of all goods travel by sea in containers. It’s container shipping that allows for the whole globalization, the clothes we wear, the prices we pay for them, etc. Those who control the sea lanes are going to be crucial.

Now, we’ve seen a little of this already in the news with the piracy issue. When does piracy thrive when you read about piracy historically? It thrives when trade is thriving. Pirates are parasites. The more international trade is thriving, the more hosts are available for parasites. So piracy is an indication that things are good, in a way.

MJT: Right.

Kaplan: And we see how critical these sea lines of communication are if just a few hundred pirates can get ships to divert from using the Suez Canal and instead choosing to go around southern Africa. Which is what’s happening.

So I think we’re going to make up more of a maritime world where the rim line of the world is going to be between the Horn of Africa and the Sea of Japan with the Strait of Malacca as sort of the Fulda Gap of the 21st Century. The Fulda Gap, you know, was a valley in West Germany during the Cold War where Soviet tanks would come through if there was ever a confrontation.

MJT: Right.

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Chinese Navy

Kaplan: Global warming could change things a bit, if it’s true. If the seas really are warming and the ice is freeing up, land-locked Russia will no longer be land-locked. It has this vast coast to the north that it could suddenly use for shipping across the Arctic to North America, Japan, and elsewhere. That would bring a whole new advantage to Russia.

Now, of course you could say that Russia is losing population, the health statistics are terrible, and that’s true. That’s also something we’ll have to take into account. Russia is deteriorating greatly in social and medical terms. But if the ice really is melting, that’s going to provide a great benefit for Russia in the decades to come.

We don’t even look at that geography now. But we would start looking at it in an age of ice melt in the Arctic.

MJT: A lot of Americans will listen to what you’re saying about the Indian Ocean, that India and China are going to ramp up their navies, and they’ll be in charge of policing the Indian Ocean area, and say “Great. Finally. Someone else is finally doing this work. Why do we have to do it all the time?”

Kaplan: That’s a good point.

MJT: Would they be right? I mean, neither India nor China is an ideological power.

Kaplan: Right. Excellent. Look, not only that, our differences with China are much less than our differences with the Soviet Union.

MJT: Much less.

Kaplan: And India is a democratic country that’s inferentially pro-American. So your average American would be right. This is a way for us to gracefully retreat from global domination, by leveraging other powers to take up responsibility.

Either way, this is the world that will confront us after Iraq and Afghanistan. We will still be a great power, and an indispensable power. We’re the only great sea power operating in Asia that does not have territorial ambitions in Asia. We’re half a world away.

MJT: I don’t feel threatened by China policing sea lanes to protect their commercial interests. I don’t care for its support of nasty regimes in Burma and North Korea, but I’m not sure this will have much affect on any of that.

Kaplan: China practices what I’d call a very bleak form of realism. It’s classic realism with no light at the end of the tunnel or any kind of sentimental or humanistic outlook.

MJT: It’s very bloodless, isn’t it?

Kaplan: Yeah. They will deal with a democratic power, and they’ll deal with Burma and Zimbabwe and Sudan and Sri Lanka. They’re hungry for energy, for oil. It’s a very bloodless form of realism.

MJT: I don’t like it, but it worries me less than Russia’s outlook.

Kaplan: It should. I agree with you. I’m not painting a disastrous world after Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m painting a different world.

MJT: How does Iran fit into all this? We’re all familiar with how Iran interferes with countries to its west, in the Arab world. What does Iran do on its eastern side?

Kaplan: Iran is so beneficially placed between the two oil-rich regions of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. They border both. What’s interesting is that when you travel to Turkmenistan and through Central Asia, Iran is like a cultural lode star. All these countries are influenced by Persian language and culture.

But the current Iranian regime is very unappetizing for all these countries. If Iran loosens up, and I think it might…

MJT: I’m sure it will eventually.

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A church in Northern Iran

Kaplan: Yeah. It’s going to be an incredibly attractive power in all of Central Asia. And then we will really see a greater Iran. Iranian influence will increase with a more moderate regime for cultural reasons.

MJT: Because of its soft power.

Kaplan: Exactly. Because of the soft power of Persian culture.

MJT: Persian culture, without Khomeinism on top of it, is very appealing. Not just to Central Asians, but also to me.

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At an anti-regime demonstration in Iran

Kaplan: It’s very attractive.

MJT: Many Kurds in Iraq have told me the same thing. They admire Persian culture much more than they admire Arab culture, which they detest.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: But Iran doesn’t appeal to them much now because it’s smothered under this awful Khomeinism.

Kaplan: Yes. You’ve explained it. You don’t need me to explain it. That’s exactly it.

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Tehran, Iran

MJT: But I pay much more attention to what’s going on to the west of Iran. What is Iran up to in its east, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and so on? Are the Iranians mucking around over there like they are in the Arab countries?

Kaplan: Western Afghanistan is now essentially an Iranian satellite.

MJT: They speak a version of Persian there.

Kaplan: The Iranian currency freely circulates in Herat. Iran is supplying electricity to Herat and much of Western Afghanistan. So while Western Afghanistan is relatively quiet and free of violence, the reason it is so is because of the influence of Iran.

MJT: I assumed it was quiet more because it’s outside Pashtunistan, so to speak. But I guess what you’re saying is the flip side of that.

Speaking of Pashtunistan, you have written before that Afghanistan and Pakistan are best thought of as a single political entity.

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A map of “Pashtunistan,” where the ethnic Pashtuns live in both Pakistan and Afghanistan

Kaplan: Yes.

MJT: And that’s much more obviously true now than it was when you first wrote it.

Kaplan: Yes.

MJT: Because now we’re seeing a Taliban insurgency in both countries. Do you think this insurgency is beatable if the U.S. can only really operate on the Afghanistan side of it?

Kaplan: I think the U.S. is able to influence both sides. The recent offensive in the Swat Valley by the Pakistani government has been pretty successful. And who do you think is behind all that? Uncle Sam. We really put pressure on them to solve their own problems. They transferred their military resources from the Indian border to the Swat Valley.

MJT: Is the Swat Valley ethnically Pashtun or Punjabi?

Kaplan: It’s more Pashtun than Punjabi, I think. It’s where they overlap.

I traveled all throughout the Swat Valley in the mid-1990s. It was beautiful, touristy, and peaceful. There was no problem. All this is very recent.

I find it interesting that after all this pressure was put on Pakistan by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the Pakistanis really started a major offensive.

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MJT: How much of Pakistan’s response was because of U.S. pressure, and how much because the Taliban got so close to Islamabad?

Kaplan: It was both. Probably both. And they’ve really pursued this seriously. Much more seriously than they’ve pursued anything else.

MJT: It was quite striking, actually, how quickly they turned around.

Kaplan: Yeah. It is.

You know what’s interesting? The Israelis. They’ve been great at defeating structured Arab armies, but they haven’t figured out how to deal with a few thousand insurgents in South Lebanon or in Gaza. What did their wars in 2006 and 2009 in Lebanon and Gaza get them?

MJT: It got them fewer rockets for a while, but it’s temporary.

Kaplan: Yeah.

MJT: I don’t know what they should do. They can’t put a David Petraeus in Gaza or Lebanon. It won’t work.

Kaplan: No.

MJT: And they can’t fight a counterinsurgency from the air because that’s just absurd.

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Bombed house, South Lebanon, 2006

Kaplan: Yeah. They haven’t been able to solve this problem at all.

MJT: I’m glad it isn’t up to me what Israel should do. There aren’t any good options. Maybe they should hold Syria accountable. Syria is at least a state with a return address and national interests. I don’t think the Syrian government is particularly ideological. It isn’t like the Iranian government. Syria isn’t an ideology, it’s a state.

Kaplan: It wants to survive.

MJT: Maybe the Israelis should lean on Assad. They can’t lean on Hamas or Hezbollah. They can’t lean on Beirut because Beirut is too weak to do much.

Kaplan: Yeah. I mean, the idea of bombing highway overpasses near Beirut to punish Lebanon for Hezbollah is ridiculous.

MJT: There is no way they could have pulled that off in Lebanon in 2006, no matter how brilliantly they might have fought.

Kaplan: And they didn’t fight brilliantly.

MJT: Even if they did…

Kaplan: Well, as you said, they can’t do what Petraeus did.

Speaking of Petraeus, this appointment of General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan is really interesting.

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General Stanley McChrystal

MJT: What do you think of him?

Kaplan: Oh, he’s got it. He’s another Petraeus. He’s larger than life. I’ve interviewed General David McKiernan, the man he’s replacing. He’s a good guy, but he’s no lightning. He has no great ideas.

I think deep down the real reason the Obama Administration fired McKiernan and wants to bring in McChrystal is because McChrystal is a man hunter. He got Zarqawi in Iraq. And Obama desperately wants to kill Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri to show that they can do this better than the Republicans.

So the White House said, “we want to get these people.” And Secretary Gates said, “well, if you want to get them, McChrystal’s your man.” He ran the Joint Special Operations Command for five years. It conducts all the secret operations — Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, the best Ranger battalions. It’s all very secret. And they go out on man hunting missions and kill people.

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Georgia’s Hard Slog to Democracy

By Michael Cecire

Editor’s note: The following article by Michael Cecire is a necessary follow-up to my coverage of Russia’s invasion of Georgia last August, and it’s written by a former resident who knows the country much better than I do. — MJT

The events swirling within Iran have been nothing short of startling, taking the world by surprise by its speed and intensity. Perhaps it’s testament to the “Army of Davids”:http://www.amazon.com/Army-Davids-Technology-Ordinary-Government/dp/1595550542 globalization schema that, for weeks, the top two trending topics on the surprisingly super-relevant Twitter were about the events in Iran. While most have been vocal in their support for the protestors in Iran, other ‘pragmatic’ voices have ranged from cautious to dismissive. Among some of the comments have been some who cynically compare the rather withered, unclearly-supported opposition protests in Georgia “with the proto-revolution in Iran By extension, these analogies imply equivalence between Georgia’s temperamental president Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili and the apocalyptic lunacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Suffice to say that this is gross skewing of realities that needs to be put to bed immediately.

“The last time I wrote on these pages”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/10/a-free-georgia.php, shortly following Russia’s invasion into Georgia, I cautioned that the United States should be wary not to invest its hopes in Caucasus democracy solely in the person of Saakashvili. While the United States and much of the world rightly condemned Russia’s bald-faced militarism, the reflexive fawning over Saakashvili’s Western credentials and crisp American English was decidedly two-dimensional. Saakashvili, even before the August war, faced mounting challenges to his vertical style of rule. From property rights violations to media blackouts and straining centralization, Misha at times seemed on a path to resembling the coterie of Central Asian strongmen to which the West has become more or less resigned.

Of course, a lot has happened since last August. The same brewing chorus of opposition is now camping in the streets of Tbilisi and daily demanding Saakashvili’s immediate resignation. At the same time, Misha himself seems to have undergone a decided shift. Credit where it’s due: the twin ravages of the Russian blitz and the debilitating global recession may have revived the pluralistic tendencies that catapulted the young Columbia-educated lawyer into the highest echelon of Georgian politics in 2003’s Rose Revolution. Since the war, Saakashvili has invested considerable political capital into a bevy of reforms, much of which are at the expense of his own political power, to satisfy NATO conditions and reassure a neo-realist United States tilting leftward.

Even at the onset of a crush of opposition street protests that began on April 9th, the Georgian government has been remarkably quiescent, allowing tremendous latitude to the fiery protestors whose singular platform was Misha’s removal. Now in its third month, one cannot imagine any other country, even in the democratic West, which would tolerate such an aggressive protest regime that has erected street barriers, strangled businesses, attacked “police stations”:http://www.rferl.org/Content/Georgian_Opposition_Police_Clash_In_Tbilisi/1622998.html and “parliamentarians”:http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=21102, and been cold to generous outreach from the government. Keen on metaphor, the opposition has erected a constellation of “cells” that sit along Tbilisi’s main roads, blocking traffic for months and starving local businesses. The steepest irony is that the prison cells sit mostly empty, sometimes outnumbering the opposition activists themselves. It’s thus no surprise that Saakashvili’s “popularity has risen”:http://georgiandaily.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=11804&Itemid=133.

Concurrently, evidence has begun to emerge of a startling nexus between elements within the radical opposition and Moscow, which has “directed expatriate Georgian oligarchs”:http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews%5btt_news%5d=35175&cHash=b721344c85 loyal to the Kremlin to fund and, in some cases, “escalate the already tense situation”:http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5btt_news%5d=35047&tx_ttnews%5bbackPid%5d=7&cHash=92e2686177. All of this against the backdrop of eerily reminiscent provocations from Russia and its proxies lends to the possibility that a “re-ignition of conflict may be on the horizon”:http://www.tcsdaily.com/Article.aspx?id=051209A.

To be sure, the opposition is by no means monolithic and the vast majority has no more wish to assist Russia than Misha himself. But the clashing of personalities and the extremist approach embraced by some of the opposition leaders have largely rendered Saakashvili positively moderate in comparison. At the same time, Misha has wisely expended his re-appreciating political capital by reaching out to the opposition “in talks”:http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gk5ajtGAIs0qPaXWJy-hhL6hI5WwD98NVIOO1, “in church”:http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=20811, and even offering “government posts”:http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=21084. Perhaps most significantly, Georgia has embarked on a comprehensive “economic development and reform agenda”:http://www.cegstar.ge/index.php?lang_id=GEO&sec_id=1&lang_id=ENG for the regions outside Tbilisi. While it’s tempting to write this off as calculated maneuvering by a besieged Saakashvili, the opposition strategy of protesting-at-all-costs is largely backfiring. Georgia remains intact and largely free of the large-scale violence many analysts feared before the protests began in April.

Saakashvili deserves credit for this approach. As the specter of war continues to haunt the small Caucasian republic, the maintenance of stability is as important as ever. While the effects of the August war might have even made the prioritization of sovereignty over liberty understandable, the Georgian government has struck an impressive balance between resisting persistent Russian provocations and advancing an agenda of political reforms to reinvigorate its democracy, which is easily the freest in the Caucasus and Central Asia region.

Yet as the summer marches forward and Russia replays its pre-invasion war games as the opposition becomes increasingly desperate, the threat of conflict — whether internally, externally, or in some combination — “will loom larger”:http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5btt_news%5d=35140. The real test for Saakashvili, and the opposition as well, will be during the same general time frame during which the last war erupted. Though much of the responsibility for averting renewed conflict will lie on the savvy of the Georgian government and the cooperation of the opposition, the United States and the West have a real role to play here.

As a first order, the West should reject the “Kremlin-approved revisionism”:http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=042709A being bandied by the Russophiles and neo-Detentists and should not fall into the trap of “respecting Russian interests” for its own sake, as though this were a goal in itself. Meanwhile, President Obama, who is scheduled to visit Moscow on July 6th, “must strongly endorse Georgia’s sovereignty”:http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5bswords%5d=8fd5893941d69d0be3f378576261ae3e&tx_ttnews%5bany_of_the_words%5d=pavel&tx_ttnews%5btt_news%5d=35174&tx_ttnews%5bbackPid%5d=7&cHash=a058badc8c to avert what may be renewed Russian preparations for invasion. At the same time, a higher level of Western engagement may be the leverage that is needed to create conditions for resolution between the more moderate blocs of the opposition and the government. Ensuring the stability and independence of Georgia, a geopolitical linchpin between Asia and Europe, has long term implications for Europe’s energy security, Russia’s behavior towards its neighbors as well as the United States, and democracy promotion overall.

Saakashvili remains a flawed man, but in an area of the world where ‘benign’ dictatorships are seen as the best of options, Misha’s Georgia is a relative oasis of civil liberties and electoral participation. Though many areas require serious reform and the West should challenge the Georgian government to live up to its democratic obligations, the last year has demonstrated that Saakashvili can still be a constructive partner in the region. If anything, the protests in Iran should stand to highlight the kid-gloves approach of Saakashvili’s government toward the mostly unelected opposition, where dialogue between contrasting viewpoints is a real option forward. If a tiny fraction of the outreach and transparency existed in Iran as in Georgia, our Twitter feeds would be churning out different messages.

Michael Hikari Cecire is an independent analyst, freelance writer, and economic development practitioner. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia, he is currently finishing graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and regularly comments on the Black Sea region and economic development policy issues. A regular writer for “Bacon’s Rebellion”:http://baconsrebellion.com/ and “TCS Daily”:http://www.tcsdaily.com/, he has also been published in the London Telegraph and the “Democracy Project weblog”:http://democracy-project.com/. Cecire is also a long-suffering Mets fan.

Home from the End of the Earth

Next Services 240 Miles.JPG

I’m home again after a nine-day road trip from Anchorage, Alaska, to Prudhoe Bay on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. It was an extraordinary journey beyond civilization, during the time of the midnight sign, on “the last and loneliest road”:http://wikitravel.org/en/Dalton_Highway that doesn’t stop until the end of the world.

I need a day or so to re-acquaint myself with the land of life, darkness, and warmth.

Thanks to Howard Baskerville for keeping the blog going while I was off the grid. I have two dispatches from Iraq to knock out before they’re out of date. Then I’ll publish a photo-rich travel essay from the end of the earth.

Not over yet

The protests in Iran have subsided because of regime violence. Despite that, some people are willing to take the risk of demonstrating. Here is footage of the latest protest from “Raye man kojast? Where is my vote?”:http://raymankojast.blogspot.com/.

Iran’s abuse of technology

Graham in the comment box below mentioned a useful article on Iran’s use of high-end AMD chips for missile “research”:http://www.tomsguide.com/us/AMD-Iran-Rocket-Research,news-4116.html. The presence of western high-tech in Iran is sadly not a new development. In late 2007 it emerged that Amir Kabir University in Tehran had built a super computer using sanctioned AMD Opteron chips. Computerworld had a great story on “this”:http://www.abdolian.com/thoughts/?p=1574.

There is a world of difference between AMD, on the one hand, and Nokia and Siemens, on the other. The Iranians purchased AMD products illicitly. Nokia and Siemens directly and knowingly did business in Iran, aided a country that they knew was a serial human rights violator. More on Nokia and Siemens “here”:http://128.100.171.10/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=2385&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0.

More on Nokia and Siemens

Eli Lake had a great “story”:http://washingtontimes.com/news/2009/apr/13/europe39s-telecoms-aid-with-spy-tech/ in _The Washington Times_ about Nokia and Siemens in Iran. If you have a 401k (or equivalent) or own mutual funds, then you probably own Nokia and Siemens. For example, Vanguard Global Equity Fund (ticker: VHGEX) has holdings in Nokia and Siemens. If you own this, then you own Nokia and Siemens. Nokia investor relations can be contacted through this “page”:http://investors.nokia.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=107224&p=irol-newContact and Siemens Investor Relations is “here”:http://w1.siemens.com/investor/en/.

An important campaign

The American Islamic Congress is a serious human rights organization. Headed by Zainab al-Suwaij, they have run a series of important campaigns. Their latest is against “Nokia”:http://campaigns.aicongress.org/nokia, which has been assisting Iranian regime repression.

They only know the languages of menace and violence

The foreign ministers of the G-8, meeting in Italy, have something to say about the atrocities in Iran. The Italian foreign minister said: “We will adopt a particularly tough and clear position.” The Iranian ambassador in Japan, Seyed Abbas Araghchi, warned them not to “saying”:http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=D99271580&show_article=1 it would be “their biggest mistake.” He also said that there is “no legal problem” with what Iranian police have been doing, such as this (thanks to “Raye man kojast? Where is my vote?”:http://raymankojast.blogspot.com/). The key footage begins 56 seconds in.

More on Roger Cohen

There have been some very interesting comments on Roger Cohen. His support for ordinary, decent Iranians is welcome. What is interesting is how he covered Iran previously, which is separate from the question of why he covered it that way (a question that too easily becomes _ad hominem_).

Here is the example of when he covered Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech in March, during which Khamenei responded to President Obama’s Iranian New Year message. Roger Cohen wrote “that”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/23/opinion/l23cohen.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&pagewanted=all:

bq. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded to Obama with a scathing speech at the country’s holiest shrine in Mashad, recalling every past U.S. misdeed, describing prerevolutionary Iran as “a field

for the Americans to graze in,” and demanding concrete steps — like a lifting of sanctions — rather than words.

bq. View all that as an opening gambit. Khamenei also quieted the crowd when it began its ritual “Death to America” chant and he said this: “We’re not emotional when it comes to our important matters. We make decisions by calculation.”

bq. That’s right: the mullahs are anything but mad. Calculation will demand that Iran take Obama seriously.

Here is Khamenei’s speech from his official website. What is interesting is that official English translation changes “Death to America” to “Down with America.” Here is the relevant “section”:http://english.khamenei.ir//index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1076&Itemid=4 (Persian is “here”:http://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=6082 and clearly includes the words “Marg bar Amrika”):

bq. The new US President insulted the Iranian nation and the Islamic Republic right after he was inaugurated as President and delivered his inaugural address. Why? If you really believe there has been a change, show us. We cannot see any change. I would like to tell everybody – including US government officials as well as others – that the Iranian nation will neither be deceived nor intimidated.

bq. First of all, verbal change is not enough. Of course I have not noticed much verbal change either. There must be genuine change. I would like to tell American government officials that the kind of change to which they only pay lip service is a necessity for them. You have no other choice: You must change. If you do not change, the divine laws of nature will force you to change. Nature will force you to change. You must change, but this change must not be in words only and there must be no ulterior motives. You cannot talk about change if you only change your policies and pursue the same goals. This kind of change does not constitute genuine change: That is deception. If there is any genuine change, it must manifest itself in action. I advise the US government officials or whoever makes the decisions there – be it the President, the Congress, or other people – that the situation in which the US government is involved is harmful to the American nation as well as the US government. You ought to know that you are one of the most hated countries in the world. Other nations burn your flag. Muslim nations shout “Down with the US” throughout the world. [Howard Baskerville note: at this point the crowd shouted “Death to America”]

bq. What is the reason behind so much hatred? Have you ever tried to investigate this issue? Have you ever scrutinized it? Have you learnt any lessons?

That’s right. Khamenei did not quieten his listeners’ chants of “Death to America.” He incited them.

Ouch!

Emanuele Ottolenghi simply and effectively takes apart a newly minted friend of “Iranian democracy”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/ottolenghi/71191.

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