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What the West Bank Actually Looks Like

Last week, the New York Times published an article about “signs of hope” in the West Bank (and in the city of Nablus in particular) that “refreshingly breaks with the standard narrative”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/17/world/middleeast/17westbank.html?_r=2&hp of Palestinian desperation and misery. The Israeli military recently closed down its checkpoint into the city, along with other checkpoints elsewhere in the territories. The economy is growing instead of contracting. Downtown is full of shoppers. Islamist scolds have backed off. Police make sure passengers have fastened their seat belts.

It sounds like Nablus has more or less become a normal Middle East city.

Earlier this year in Jerusalem, Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh told me how much the West Bank surprises visitors now. “The other day,” he said, “someone came for the first time ever to this part of the world, and he called me and asked me to take him to Ramallah. So I drove him to downtown Ramallah, and we stopped there. The man was shocked. He said, ‘Where are the refugee camps? Where are the mud houses? Where’s the poverty?’ I said, ‘Why are you asking me these questions?’ He said, ‘I’m shocked. Look how nice it is.’ ”

I laughed out loud because I had a similar experience myself three years ago before the recent improvements. I didn’t expect to see “mud houses.” As far as I know, no one has ever reported the existence of “mud houses” in Ramallah. The usual Palestinian narrative, though, seems to encourage some people’s vivid imaginations.

But I was still startled by what Ramallah actually looked like. I expected to see, and to write about, squalid living conditions. I had already seen the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and the awfulness of those places is hard to describe.

I figured Ramallah wouldn’t be that bad, but I didn’t expect it to look so much better than lots of cities, and not just refugee camps, that I’ve seen in the region.

It was in early 2006, shortly after Hamas won the election, when I took a taxi from the Qalandia checkpoint outside Jerusalem to Ramallah with a Palestinian man named Sufian. “Here, in part, is what I wrote at the time”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2006/05/the-other-side-of-the-green-li.php:

I stepped out into a surprisingly pleasant urban environment.

“No offense, Sufian, but this city is a lot nicer than I expected,” I said.

“Ramallah is beautiful,” he said with pride.

I didn’t think it was beautiful, exactly, but it did not look even remotely like the Third World war zone it’s reputed to be. I noticed no visible poverty once we left the squalor around the checkpoint. I was, however, warned by Israelis that Ramallah and Bethlehem are much nicer than the rest of the West Bank and need to be judged accordingly.

[...]

Ramallah is also in much better physical condition than the parts of Lebanon ruled by Hezbollah, even though Ramallah has experienced war a lot more recently. In fact, Ramallah is in better condition than any Shia region of Lebanon whether it’s ruled by Hezbollah or not. The only Sunni part of Lebanon that looks nicer than Ramallah is West Beirut.

Ramallah didn’t have the glitz of Beirut or the French-Arab Mediterranean charm of a city like Tunis. But it beat the pants off Cairo, one of the biggest tourist destinations in the whole Arab world. It looked a lot like Amman — an Arab city with a pretty good reputation. It was so much nicer than Baghdad, it’s pointless to even make the comparison.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/73851.

The Gulag of Our Time

I’m about a third of the way through Bradley K. Martin’s epic tome Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

Under the Loving Care.jpg

Just about everything you ever wanted to know — and a whole lot more — about the most oppressive country on the face of the earth can be found in that book. Sometimes it’s hard to believe a country so thoroughly totalitarian still exists in this world.

Not much journalism comes out of the so-called “hermit kingdom.” The Washington Post, though, just published “a gruesome expose on its forced labor camps”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/19/AR2009071902178.html?hpid=topnews&sid=ST2009071902186s.

A distillation of testimony from survivors and former guards, newly published by the Korean Bar Association, details the daily lives of 200,000 political prisoners estimated to be in the camps: Eating a diet of mostly corn and salt, they lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they age, they hunch over at the waist. Most work 12- to 15-hour days until they die of malnutrition-related illnesses, usually around the age of 50. Allowed just one set of clothes, they live and die in rags, without soap, socks, underclothes or sanitary napkins.

The camps have never been visited by outsiders, so these accounts cannot be independently verified. But high-resolution satellite photographs, now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, reveal vast labor camps in the mountains of North Korea. The photographs corroborate survivors’ stories, showing entrances to mines where former prisoners said they worked as slaves, in-camp detention centers where former guards said uncooperative prisoners were tortured to death and parade grounds where former prisoners said they were forced to watch executions. Guard towers and electrified fences surround the camps, photographs show.

“We have this system of slavery right under our nose,” said An Myeong Chul, a camp guard who defected to South Korea. “Human rights groups can’t stop it. South Korea can’t stop it. The United States will have to take up this issue at the negotiating table.”

But the camps have not been discussed in meetings between U.S. diplomats and North Korean officials. By exploding nuclear bombs, launching missiles and cultivating a reputation for hair-trigger belligerence, the government of Kim Jong Il has created a permanent security flash point on the Korean Peninsula — and effectively shoved the issue of human rights off the negotiating table.

“Talking to them about the camps is something that has not been possible,” said David Straub, a senior official in the State Department’s office of Korean affairs during the Bush and Clinton years. There have been no such meetings since President Obama took office.

“They go nuts when you talk about it,” said Straub, who is now associate director of Korean studies at Stanford University.

Nor have the camps become much of an issue for the American public, even though annotated images of them can be quickly called up on Google Earth and even though they have existed for half a century, 12 times as long as the Nazi concentration camps and twice as long as the Soviet Gulag. Although precise numbers are impossible to obtain, Western governments and human groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have died in the North Korean camps.

You can read the whole thing “here”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/19/AR2009071902178.html?hpid=topnews&sid=ST2009071902186s. Even better, you can buy Martin’s exhaustive book here.

“Marg Bar Fascism”

Iran’s 1979 revolution devoured its children, as revolutions so often do.

At Open Democracy, “Fred Halliday suggests”:http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/iran-s-tide-of-history-counter-revolution-and-after the current upheaval in Iran is, in some ways, an attempt to do it all over again — and perhaps even get it right this time.

Many who know the modern history of Iran – be they Iranian or someone like myself who followed (and in part witnessed) the events of 1978-79 when the Islamic Republic came into being – will be struck by the many parallels, insights, warnings and differences offered by that earlier moment and the post-election upsurge of 2009. The apparel, slogans and precise demands may seem far apart, but at heart the opposed forces are similar.

The urge to repress, and above all the contempt for the peacefully and democratically expressed views of others, were evident in the first months of the Islamic Republic; they reached a critical point in the mobilisations of summer 1979, when left and liberal forces – seeking to defend press freedom, the rights of women and of ethnic minorities – were confronted by gangs of hizbullahi thugs, mass pro-Khomeini demonstrations, and the newly established pasdaran forces, all determined to subdue the yearnings for such freedom and rights.

I recall, in particular, an educative encounter in August 1979 with a Revolutionary Guard who had come with his colleagues to close down the offices of the independent newspaper Ayandegan. When I asked this pasdar what he was doing, he replied: “We are defending the revolution!”. “Why are you therefore closing the paper?”, I asked. “This newspaper is shit”, he declared. When I suggested that 2 million people read the paper, he replied, without reservation: “All right, then these 2 million people are shit too!” Thus was my induction into the political culture of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

[...]

In the same way that Lenin and the Bolsheviks pushed aside not only their Czarist opponents, but also Russian liberals, social-revolutionaries and Mensheviks, so Khomeini and his associates set out to monopolise the post-revolutionary state and extinguish both their political rivals and the very memory of their contribution to a history that belongs to all Iranians. It is the great contribution of the brave citizens of Iran who took to the streets in June 2009, and affirmed their rights in peaceful and dignified fashion, to have reclaimed this truth.

Their demonstrations thus have opened a door to Iran’s past as well as the future. Another slogan of the epic popular tide of 1978-79 – marg bar fascism, marg bar irtija (death to fascism, death to reaction) – may yet combine with the marg bar dictator of the marches of 2009 in a way that heralds the end of the demagogic clique that now rules Iran. The people of Iran, and their friends and admirers the world over, can only hope that this day comes sooner rather than later.

Time for a Re-Think

“This”:http://rothkopf.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/07/17/jerusalem_post_poll is really extraordinary:

Throughout the political campaign Barack Obama argued that he was a staunch friend of Israel. In Cairo, in his ground-breaking speech to the Islamic world, he asserted America was committed to the security of Israel. Wherever he goes he says he is committed to upholding America’s long history of supporting the Jewish state.

So how come a Jerusalem Post poll conducted late last month says only six percent of Israelis think the Obama administration is pro-Israel, down from almost five times that in the early weeks of the administration? This is such a low number that it clearly cuts across all parties, demographic and social groups within Israel. It effectively says that something that Obama has done in his first six months in office has convinced virtually all the Israeli people (at least to the extent the poll is truly representative of the people of Israel) that he’s not what he said he was.

I was in Israel when President Obama was inaugurated. I watched the inauguration on television in Jerusalem at the American Jewish Committee office. Most Israelis in the room seemed deeply moved, much more so than I was. Some were nearly in tears. I wonder how they feel now.

Precious little, if any, good is likely to come from this. Michael Doran “lays it all out”:http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mesh/2009/07/obamas-opening-gambit/ at the Middle East Strategy at Harvard Web site. I strongly suggest you read the whole thing, but here’s the bottom line:

The White House has sacrificed some credibility on the Israeli side, but it surely must have recouped its losses by garnering Arab goodwill. Think again.

[...]

The American engine is revving loudly, but the administration cannot put the car in gear, because significant obstacles block the way. President Obama will soon realize, if he hasn’t already, that the map that his advisers handed him does not match the terrain of the region. He can take some consolation in the fact that every president before him has reached a similar point in the road. Some of them, like Eisenhower, developed new maps as they went along. Others, like Carter, never did. Their place in history has, in part, been determined by their ability to chart a new course.

Don’t Forget Iran

Iran is in turmoil again. I’m busy with something else at the moment, but “Nico Pitney is on it”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/13/iran-uprising-blogging_n_230402.html.

A Microcosm of World Politics

Iranians like to shout “death” at countries and governments they oppose. “Death to America” and “death to Israel” have been staples of the bombast belted out by hard-line ruling authorities for three decades. “Death to the dictator” is a recent addition to Iran’s political discourse.

Even more recently, enemies and opponents of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Ali Khamenei “began chanting”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/greenwald/73632 “death to Russia” and “death to China” to counter the regime’s incessant bleatings of “death to America,” and to highlight the Islamic Republic’s alliance with Beijing and Moscow.

Iran’s internal divisions look more like a microcosm of world politics than they have for some time. Each side is declared a proxy of powerful foreigners. Natrually, each side’s “patrons” oppose each other geopolitically. Whether the White House likes it or not, and whether it’s a good thing or not, the reformist and revolutionary side in that fight will continue to be associated with the United States and the West.

Arguing for Uncertainty

Andrew Bostom — pal of Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller — bizarrely accuses me of being “an uninformed dogmatist”:http://www.andrewbostom.org/blog/2009/07/14/don%e2%80%99t-know-much-about-history-or-reality/ for publishing a “roseate view” of Iraq, even though my article in question was dedicated to quoting Iraqis and American soldiers with a gloomy view of Iraq. “The Future of Iraq Part III”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/07/the-future-of-i-2.php just wasn’t dogmatically down-beat enough for old Andy Bostom, I guess.

The Future of Iraq Part IV will be published here shortly. Everyone I’ll quote in that piece is also pessimistic about what’s likely to happen in Iraq now that American troops are withdrawing from urban areas. For more optimistic assessments, see “The Future of Iraq Part I”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/05/the-future-of-i.php and “The Future of Iraq Part II”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/05/the-future-of-i-1.php.

The reason I’m publishing competing narratives about the future of Iraq is because anything’s possible and I’m no longer arrogant enough to think I have it all figured out.

James Fallows politely argues with his colleague Robert Kaplan, whom I recently interviewed “here”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/07/a-conversation.php, in The Atlantic. “Arguing for uncertainty,” “he wrote”:http://jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/07/jim_fallows_is_a_very_polite_m.php, “or for many possible futures that will in fact be shaped by real choices by real human beings, may seem weak and unsatisfying. On the other hand: it conforms to the facts….”

Jeffrey Goldberg, also at The Atlantic, agrees. I interviewed him “here”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/07/the-real-quagmi.php recently, too. “Anyone who acts like they’ve figured out the entire Middle East doesn’t know anything,” “he said”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/07/the-real-quagmi.php. “People who tell you they understand and know the answer? Demagogues. They’re either idiots or demagogues.”

*I removed a gratuitous insult from this post.

Blumenthal Feels the Hate

Max Blumenthal, “son of former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Blumenthal, made quite a splash on the Internet recently when he posted a video portraying drunken Americans in Israel hurling racist epithets against President Barack Obama. One of his subjects even shouted “white power!” Blumenthal titled his video “Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem,” as if inebriated ugly Americans abroad reflect in any way on the opinions of people who live in Jerusalem. You can’t watch the video because YouTube removed it due to a “terms of service violation.”

Blumenthal is back with a sequel, however. This one is called “Feeling the Hate in Tel Aviv”:http://www.philipweiss.org/mondoweiss/2009/07/feeling-the-hate-in-tel-aviv-.html. The Huffington Post pulled the plug, but it’s still available on “YouTube”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ze5dbxPO8cU&feature=player_embedded at the time of this writing.

This time around, he features Israelis, not foreigners, who might even live in Tel Aviv. But just like in the first installment of his juvenile series, he goes out of his way to showcase Israelis with offensive opinions. While attending the White Night music festival, for instance, he managed to find two individuals who don’t like Iranians. “I hate them,” said one. “I hate them all,” said another. If he asked anyone else what they thought of Iranians, their response did not make the cut.

It might have been interesting if Blumenthal had aired the opinions of a large number Israelis about their feelings for Iranians when Israel and Iran are in a state of cold war — especially now that millions have risked beatings and worse while taking to the Iranian streets and screaming “death to the dictator.” (It would also be worthwhile for a reporter to canvass Iranian public opinion among those attending anti-regime rallies and ask what they think about the people of Israel.) The “Green Revolution” broke out in Iran after Blumenthal shot his footage. But he apparently doesn’t care whether he makes Israelis look like anti-Iranian bigots at a time when most of the world has just learned that Iranians detest the deranged Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as much as everyone else.

After editing out or ignoring the opinions of thousands of reasonable Israelis at the White Night festival, he proceeded toward Tel Aviv University, where he edited out or ignored the opinions of reasonable people on campus.

“Do you think they [Israeli Arabs] are traitors?” he asked a student. “Yeah,” said the student. Another said he wants to see Israelis of Arab descent at the university deported to Gaza. “If you want to keep democracy,” said yet another, “you can’t let people protest against the country.” And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with quoting extremists. And there’s nothing wrong with focusing exclusively on extremists if they’re the subject. I’ve done it. Lots of journalists do it. Responsible journalists, though, make it clear to their audience that extremists are, well, extremists.

Here’s the problem with Blumenthal’s series: I’ve met exactly one person in Israel who talked like the people he featured in his videos. And I’ve been there twice when tempers were flaring, when Israel was under mortar, rocket, and missile attack. It’s certainly possible that I’ve met more than one person like Blumenthal’s crowd without knowing it. Perhaps a few of my interview subjects had the good sense to keep their bigoted thoughts to themselves. I don’t wander around Israel, or any other country, trying to bait people like Borat. In any case, since Blumenthal can’t be bothered to acknowledge that he went quote shopping, those of us familiar with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv ought to point out to everyone else that his videos don’t remotely represent average people who live there.

Author, historian, and Jerusalem resident Yaacov Lozowick “didn’t take kindly to the first episode”:http://yaacovlozowick.blogspot.com/2009/06/mondoweiss-agitprop.html Blumenthal shot in his home town. “Say you’re interviewing the locals at Time Square about some matter,” he wrote, “so as to figure out what Americans think. Inevitably, you’ll come across a lot of tourists, it being Time Square, but what are the chances you’ll find not a single card-carrying American? And if that happens, and you then post your video to Youtube to castigate America, what does that tell us about you?”

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/73331.

Problem with the Comments Section

All comments, including my own, that include links are instantly deleted by my publishing software. Anyone who writes something in the comments section with even a single embedded link will see a message claiming the comment will be published after I approve it. But that isn’t actually happening. These comments are being deleted straight away before I even have the chance to look at them, let alone approve them. I’m not sure what the problem is. This is not a feature. It’s a bug. Any ideas?

A Smoldering Disaffection with the President’s Policy

Marty Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, voted for President Barack Obama as you’d expect from the boss at a left-leaning magazine. But he has “some complaints”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_spine/archive/2009/07/14/obama-s-chutzpah-sorry-only-israelis-have-chutzpah-so-it-s-obama-s-haughty-condescension.aspx about the president’s foreign policy, as do I. (I more or less approve so far of Obama’s handling of Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan.)

Frankly, I am sick and tired of President Obama’s eldering–more accurately, hectoring–Israel’s leaders. It is, after all, they whose country is the target of an armed and ideological cyclone that Obama has done precious little to ease. He brought nothing back from Riyadh and Cairo, absolutely nothing except the conviction of the Arab leaders that they need do nothing but sit and wait until the president squeezes one concession after another out of Jerusalem. Oops, I apologize. Maybe I should still say Tel Aviv. In any case, waiting is exactly what they are doing. Palestinian President Abbas has prided himself in doing just that. He had said so, as I pointed out in this “space”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_spine/archive/2009/06/02/an-inconvenient-truth.aspx a few weeks ago.

Maybe you weren’t offended by Obama’s advice to Israel, via some 15 American Jewish leaders, that it had to “engage in serious self-reflection,” as if it took its perils frivolously. But I know many Democrats who are; they’re just a bit intimidated to say so.

I also know Democrats who voted for Barack Obama who think his Israel policy is obnoxious and are afraid to say so out loud. We’ll see how much longer that lasts.

Abbas Goes to Eleven

David Hazony has a must-read piece in Commentary about the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

One of the clearest indicators as to whether you are negotiating with someone who actually wants to reach a deal, or alternatively has no intention of closing but is negotiating for other reasons, is how your partner responds to concessions on your part. Let’s say you’re trying to buy a baseball card for five dollars, and the seller wants ten. If you up your offer to seven, and he really wants to cut a deal, then he might lower it to nine. If he insists on sticking to ten, it probably means that either he’s a tough negotiator, or he thinks he can get ten from someone else.

But what if he responds by raising the price? What if he, to quote a great movie, “goes to eleven”?

Crazy as it sounds, this is what often happens in negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. According to widely held rumors, the main reason Netanyahu did not succeed in cutting a deal with Syria on the Golan during his previous term of office was that each time the Israelis raised their offer, the Syrians raised their demands, with the definition of the “Golan” moving increasingly West until it hit the Sea of Galilee. With Jordan and Egypt, however, it was the opposite: An agreement could be reached because both sides wanted it.

So, what about the Palestinians? All too often it seems as though the more Israel gives, the greater the demands. Everyone seems to think that the final outcome of the deal will be somewhere between what Netanyahu is saying and what Obama is saying: A sovereign Palestinian state taking up between 97 and 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, maybe some part of Jerusalem, and some kind of formula invented to deal with the “right of return,” the unity of Jerusalem, and so on.

Now that Netanyahu has conceded the biggest part of this — the idea of statehood itself — we might have expected Abbas to show a little give on his position. Instead, the demands have suddenly increased. The Palestinian leader is now insisting on “territorial continuity between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

Okay, now look at a map. Once Israelis toyed with the idea of bridges and tunnels, some way of moving safely between the two parts of Palestine. But something about the phrase “territorial continuity” suggests more than this. It means actual land. In other words: Slicing Israel in half.

“Read the rest”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/hazony/73031.

We Are Not at War with Nouri al-Maliki

Robert Spencer, founder and lead writer for Jihad Watch, has a bit of trouble telling the difference between friend and foe in Iraq and still thinks, despite everything, that “the United States is losing the war”:http://www.jihadwatch.org/archives/026887.php.

Instead of referring to me by name, he sarcastically dismisses me as a “learned analyst,” “as he does with President Barack Obama”:http://www.jihadwatch.org/archives/026904.php and his advisors, while scoffing at “a long dispatch I published last week”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/07/the-future-of-i-2.php. “No insurgent or terrorist group can declare victory or claim Americans are evacuating Iraq’s cities because they were beaten,” “I wrote”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2009/07/the-future-of-i-2.php. Spencer acknowledges that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki isn’t the leader of an insurgent or terrorist group. But “he maintains that my statement”:http://www.jihadwatch.org/archives/026887.php is “breathtaking in its disconnect from reality” because Maliki declared the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq’s cities “a great victory.”

We are not, and never have been, at war with Prime Minister Maliki. Everyone with even a pedestrian familiarity with events in Iraq during the last couple of years knows that American soldiers and Marines have fought alongside Maliki’s Iraqi soldiers and police against common enemies — Al Qaeda in Iraq and the various offshoots and branches of Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.

Not even in an alternate universe have Maliki’s men fought Americans and forced them to withdraw. They fought, bled, and died alongside Americans. The United States military recently withdrew from most of Iraq’s urban areas as stipulated by the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush Administration, but they’re still training and working closely with Iraqi security forces.

Maliki’s “great victory” statement was an attempt to suck up to the anti-Americans in his electoral constituency who are unhappy with his close relationship with the United States. Iraq’s most sectarian Sunni Arabs regularly accuse Maliki of being an Iranian puppet prime minister when they aren’t contradicting themselves by joining radical Shias and saying he’s an American puppet prime minister. Maliki is closer to Iran than Americans and Iraq’s Sunnis would like, but he’s much closer to the United States where it counts most. He has never sent his men into battle against Americans. But he did order his soldiers into battle alongside Americans last year against Iranian-backed Shia militias in Sadr City and Basra. He also put the Sons of Iraq — whom he used to decry as an anti-Shia Sunni militia — on his government’s payroll.

I don’t know if throwing a rhetorical bone to Iraq’s most strident anti-Americans to shore up his nationalist bona fides is a good idea or if it isn’t. Either way, it’s not hard to see that’s what he’s doing. And it’s frankly ridiculous for Spencer to write as though I have no idea what’s going on in Iraq when he thinks a political speech for domestic consumption overrides the fact that for years Maliki has been at war not against us but with us against our mutual enemies.

Does Spencer believe that, all of a sudden and for no apparent reason, Maliki sympathizes with the terrorists and insurgents he recently crushed?

“In any case,” Spencer writes, “any ‘victory’ the Americans won in Iraq was sure to be undone as soon as the troops were gone, and we are already seeing that. Sunni will go after Shi’ite and vice versa, the Iranians will press forward to create a Shi’ite client state, the non-Muslims will be victimized more than ever…”

Iraq has made a fool of just about everyone, including me, who has claimed to know in advance what the future would look like. The entire Middle East makes fools of its prophets. Most of us who work there eventually learn this the hard way. Nobody can know what’s going to happen in Iraq now that the U.S. is pulling back.

Spencer’s view might by chance be correct. Around half the Iraqis and half the Americans I’ve spoken to in Iraq think the country is more likely than not to disintegrate. The other half don’t. And the optimists who live and work over there, just like the pessimists, know more about Iraq than Robert Spencer and I do combined.

UPDATE: Maliki was “interviewed a few days ago”:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124715056156618319.html?mod=googlenews_wsj in the Wall Street Journal:

WSJ: What message do you want to convey during your visit to America, especially since it comes after the June 30th withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraqi cities?

Mr. Maliki: The message will be to ensure the basis of our relations and our friendship, which is a long-term strategic relationship. There are many parts to that, like trade and investment. I will convey the wish of Iraq for friendship with the U.S. We have a combined victory against terrorism, and there have been sacrifices from both sides that brought fruitful results and democracy to Iraq. Also, we will emphasize the two agreements, the strategic framework agreement and the withdrawal [security] agreement. Also, I’ve met a lot of officials from the U.S. but I still need to meet many of them because friendships must be clear. If we increase the number of meetings and we have questions in our minds, we can ask them and answer them in person so that our friendship is clear.

“It’s the Militia or Me”

I’ve never believed politics should get in the way of romantic relationships. My parents are political opposites, and so are my in-laws. My wife and I have our disagreements as well as our similarities.

But sometimes, in certain contexts, politics should be an issue. Iran in 2009 is one of those places and times. I almost feel sorry for “this guy in the head-cracking Basij militia”:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124726981104525893.html#mod=todays_us_page_one, but I don’t really:

For Mr. Moradani, the biggest shock during the election turmoil came in his personal life. He had recently gotten engaged to a young woman from a devout, conservative family. A week into the protests, he says, his fiancée called him with an ultimatum. If he didn’t leave the Basij and stop supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad, he recalls her saying, she wouldn’t marry him.

He told her that was impossible. “I suffered a real emotional blow,” he says. “She said to me, ‘Go beat other people’s children then,’ and ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with you,’ and hung up on me.”

(Hat tip: “Gene at Harry’s Place”:http://www.hurryupharry.org/2009/07/12/iranian-woman-tells-fiance-basij-or-me/.)

The Least Free Places on Earth

Foreign Policy magazine rates “the least free places on Earth”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/07/02/the_least_free_places_on_earth?print=yes&hidecomments=yes&page=full. North Korea “tops” them all, naturally. Libya, the most thoroughly totalitarian place I’ve ever visited, makes the grade. Some of the pet countries of fools, such as Cuba and “liberated” South Ossetia (in Georgia), are listed, too.

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.

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