Opposition Surprises with Gains in Moscow’s Local Elections

Not so long ago, local and regional elections in Russia would have been closely watched, speculated and commented upon by Kremlin watchers outside the country. Would this be the year major cities would turn against Vladimir Putin? How many deputies unaffiliated to the regime’s four approved political parties would be elected to local councils? Will Russia ever again elect a regional governor who is a member of the besieged political opposition? How many votes will Putin’s party steal this time?

Cuba’s Dig Out from Hurricane Irma Could Take a Generation

It’s going to take a long time for Texas and Florida to fully recover from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—years, more likely than not—even though the United States is one of the world’s richest and most capable countries. God only knows how long it’s going to take Cuba and its people to fully recover after Irma cut through the island like a buzz saw. Probably not until after the Communist Party is long out of power.

I visited Cuba a little more than three years ago and wrote the following description of its capital city Havana in a dispatch for City Journal.

Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of the city looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. [Emphasis added.] Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It’s eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I walked for miles through an enormous swath of destruction without seeing a single tourist. Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city—tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.

The city has been collapsing on top of itself in slow motion ever since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and transformed its once-robust economy into an imbecilic emergency room case. That photo you see above was taken before Hurricane Irma tore through the ruins.

Cuba’s government controls almost every aspect of the economy in crushing detail, and it has been unable or unwilling (or both) to prevent its own capital city from falling apart due to the simple passage of time, the slow inexorable processes of wind and weather and entropy that has its way with every structure in every city on earth.

The island bottomed out after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Moscow’s subsidies. Journalist and Cuba resident Mark Frank described that period in chilling detail in his book, Cuban Revelations. “The lights were off more than they were on, and so too was the water. . . . Food was scarce and other consumer goods almost nonexistent. . . . Doctors set broken bones without anesthesia. . . . Worm dung was the only fertilizer.” A nurse told him that Cubans “used to make hamburgers out of grapefruit rinds and banana peels; we cleaned with lime and bitter orange and used the black powder in batteries for hair dye and makeup.” “It was a haunting time,” Frank wrote, “that still sends shivers down Cubans’ collective spines.”

If the Cuban government can’t manage to repair roofs as they collapse slowly, one at a time, over a period of decades, how on earth will it be able repair hundreds or even thousands of roofs that blow away or collapse on the same day?

Even if the government could repair the physical damage to its homes and cities in a reasonable amount of time, which it can’t, many of the people who lives in those homes and cities will still be deprived of the most basic possessions indefinitely. If your mattress was destroyed by floodwaters, what are you going to do? You can’t just go down to the mattress store. There are no mattress stores in Cuba. There are virtually no stores in Cuba that sell anything at all.

Aside from those who work in the tourist economy and are allowed to keep tips, everyone lives on a ration card and a Maximum Wage of 20 dollars a month. No one could possibly save enough money to buy a mattress (or anything else) even if such items were available, which they aren’t. I stayed in two different hotels in Havana, and the mattresses in both my rooms were as hard as cement. They almost certainly dated back to the Batista era before Castro took over. If the government can’t manage to replace ancient mattresses in the tourist economy, which is its cash cow, how on earth will it be able to replace thousands of mattresses destroyed by flood waters?

Hardly anyone will be able to replace much of anything that was lost, nevermind a whole house.

Repairing devastated cities like Houston and Key West will require a Herculean effort on the part of the American citizens, construction companies, insurance agencies, logistics professionals and government officials. Returning to the status quo ante in Cuba, however, without an extraordinary amount of foreign assistance, will be as impossible for the foreseeable future as terraforming the moon.

Turkey Can Forget About EU Membership

Turkey will never become a member of the European Union, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally said so in public. “The fact is clear that Turkey should not become a member of the EU,” she said in an election debate with her opponent, Martin Shulz. “I'll speak to my colleagues to see if we can reach a joint position on this so that we can end these accession talks.”

The only thing surprising here is that it has taken so long, but Merkel is at last willing to effectively call a dictatorship a dictatorship now that Turkey is imprisoning German citizens, including journalists and human rights activists, and accusing them of belonging to terrorist organizations and attempting to overthrow the regime. Western countries refer to such people as “political prisoners,” and European Union states are emphatically not allowed to keep political prisoners.

The notion that Turkey might conceivably fit inside the EU has always been a bit of a stretch, and it has been especially ludicrous since last summer when a botched coup attempt triggered a Stalinist spasm in Ankara. Within just a couple of weeks, Erdogan fired more than 20,000 private school teachers and almost 10,000 police officers. He suspended nearly 3,000 judges and arrested more than 10,000 soldiers. He canned tens of thousands of officials from the Ministry of Education and ousted 1,500 university deans. He closed more than 100 media outlets and suspended more than 1,500 officials in the Ministry of Finance.

And from there, it only got worse. In April, Turkish voters narrowly decided to scrap their parliamentary system and replace it with one that gives vast new powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, making him an elected dictator in all but name. Erdogan, writes Turkey expert Claire Berlinski, “who would wield power not vested in Turkish leaders since the sultans, is actually a neo-Ottoman.”

The European Union officially accepted Turkey as a membership candidate in 2004. Europeans hoped a huge Muslim-majority nation could “Westernize” itself fully after Mustafa Kamal Ataturk’s partial “Westernization” following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and turn itself into an example of sorts for the greater Middle East. One Westerner after another convinced themselves that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was a Western-style social conservative capitalist party, an Islamic version of Germany’s Christian Democrats or the Republicans in the United States. (Many of the same people made the same mistake about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its ill-fated president Mohammad Morsi.) “After 9/11,” Berlinski continues, “a lot of people in the West got Islam, Islamists, and the like on the brain to the exclusion of nearly everything else. So it followed, sort of, that many came to see that the most significant thing about the AKP was its ‘moderately Islamist’ character. Many were perhaps so thrilled that they didn’t begin hanging homosexuals from cranes that they uncritically accepted the rest of the AKP’s story about itself: It was opening up an ossified system that was, in its words, ‘radically secularist.’”

The “everything else” part of the equation was hard for some people to see for a while, but it’s not anymore. No, Erdogan isn’t even in the same time zone as ISIS. He is, however, in the same time zone as Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez, minus the Bolivarian socialism, and as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. All are (or in Chavez’s case, were) authoritarian demagogues with just a veneer of democratic legitimacy, the kind of rulers often produced by nations that are influenced in part by the West while at the same time standing outside it.

European officials almost certainly know, to a person, that Turkey can never join Europe after what happened last year. Its largest city, Istanbul, is in Europe, but its capital is in Asia, as are most of its people. Some quarters of Turkish cities look and feel European, for sure, especially compared with the vast majority of Arab cities, but Turkey is a cultural hybrid. Like Lebanon, Armenia, and even Russia, it’s a place where the East melds with the West into an alloy. Westerners can and do feel at home there in ways they never can in a country like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but the cultural overlap is only 50 percent at the most, and Turkey’s political overlap under Erdogan is withering.

Westerners kidded themselves about Erdogan and Turkey for years. That ended a while ago. What’s new here is that at least one European head of state is willing to bury the story we told ourselves once and for all. Others will almost certainly follow.

America’s Longest War Is Hardly Its Worst

Just about everyone in America is sick of the war in Afghanistan, especially our Gold Star families who’ve lost sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Clocking in at nearly sixteen years, this is the longest we’ve ever fought, yet President Donald Trump, after railing against it for years, is ordering 4,000 more troops into war.

“Let’s get out of Afghanistan,” he wrote on Twitter long before he was elected. “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.”

President Barack Obama said almost the exact same thing over and over again. “After more than a decade of war,” he said, “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” That was five years ago.

Trump is no more able to extricate Americans from the Afghan morass than Obama was. The running score is Reality 2, Hopes and Promises 0.

The president took a deep breath, straightened his tie, sucked in his gut, stepped in front of the television cameras and admitted he was wrong. War does that to people, especially to foreign policy makers. Prematurely ending a war can be as catastrophic as getting sucked into one that never should have been started.

If we lose the war in Afghanistan—and make no mistake, that’s exactly what will happen if we leave before it’s concluded—ISIS could very well take over the country. It’s what ISIS does. It takes over failed states. If Afghanistan does not fall to ISIS, it will certainly fall to something that looks enough like it that you can’t tell the difference no matter how hard you squint at it. The Taliban doesn’t have the global ambitions that ISIS has (not yet, anyway), but the Taliban did align itself with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda while they hatched and executed the most spectacular terrorist act in world history, and ISIS is just a rebranded branch of Al Qaeda anyway.

There is no good time to lose a war, but losing one just as ISIS is finally on the verge of destruction in Iraq is enough to make any new president of any political party lose sleep. Talking about ending a war that everyone hates is one thing. Signing your own name to our surrender is something else.

“Decisions are much different,” Trump said, “when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” That’s for damn sure. I’ve never sat behind that desk, and unless your name is Jimmy Carter, George Bush or Barack Obama, you haven’t either. It doesn’t take a political rocket scientist, though, to imagine how much different these kinds of decisions must look and feel when you have to make them rather than bleat about them on Twitter. So the president reversed himself and neverminded the consternation from beleaguered progressives and the populists over at Breitbart.

Nobody—nobody—likes the war in Afghanistan, but how about a little perspective? The United States has lost 2,271 people there over 16 years. It barely even counts as a war at this point. It’s more of a police action, really. Believe it or not, we lose more police officers on American streets every year than we lose troops on the front lines of Afghanistan. Between 1990 and 2010, an average of 164 police officers were killed in the United States compared with a yearly average of 141 troops in Afghanistan.

The war there may be the longest we’ve ever fought, but it’s also, on a per-year basis, the least deadly. Compare how many people we’re losing right now to how many we’ve lost in the past. 

  • American Revolutionary War – 25,000
  • American Civil War – 750,000
  • World War I – 116,516
  • World War II – 405,399
  • Korean War – 36,516
  • Vietnam War – 58,209
  • Iraq War – 4,497
  • Afghanistan War – 2,271

The loss of 2,271 troops in Afghanistan isn’t small. Losing even one is tragic, and it’s everything for the fallen’s immediate family no matter the size of the overall number. We have to compare that number, though, to how many people might be killed in the future if we lose. More Americans were murdered at home by the enemy side on one day—September 11, 2001—than in the entire war that has followed so far.

What about the financial cost? Wars are staggeringly expensive. As of last week, the United States has spent 1.07 trillion dollars in Afghanistan. An enormous number. And yet (and you had to know an “and yet” was coming), the 9/11 attacks cost us 3.3 trillion, more than three times as much. (CORRECTION: War costs make up almost two-thirds of the costs of 9/11, two-thirds of which were spent in Iraq. So while the 9/11 attack was more expensive than the war in Afghanistan, it was not three times as expensive.)

Saying the war in Afghanistan is the longest in our history suggests that it’s the worst, but it is a very long way from being from the worst. It’s even relatively low-key by Afghanistan standards. We are not reliving the Russian experience there in the 1980s. Almost five times as many Russians died in their own doomed war, and they fought there for a much shorter period. Most of the country resisted the Russians, whereas Afghans by the tens of thousands are willing to fight and die alongside Americans against the Taliban.  

Our experience there is nearly as demoralizing as it was for the Russians, though, because we have no path to victory. Afghanistan today is like a Rubik’s Cube that some trickster messed with by moving the stickers around to make it unsolvable. The best we can do is hold the line and make enough incremental improvements that a solution, at some point in the future, might finally snap into place, that the Afghans take hold the line for the rest of the world by themselves. If we were to leave now, we’d only have to go back, and whatever progress we’ve made in the meantime will have been lost. Every single person in Afghanistan would know that we’d pull out again when we got tired of it, and we’d get tired of it a lot quicker the second time than we did the first.

If there’s no military option in North Korea, there’s no non-military option right now in Afghanistan. The price is high, but the price of pulling the pin and leaving is higher.

Denying the Kremlin a Monopoly on the Airwaves

Since Russia began its adventure in Ukraine in spring of 2014, eastern Europeans have become particularly sensitive to the Russian-controlled media that is allowed to operate freely in their countries. The Kremlin made good use of its media weaponry in Russian-speaking Crimea and Donbas, convincing Crimeans that fascist Kyivans were on their way to slaughter them, and telling the citizens of Donbas about the horrifying abuses that the Ukrainian government was afflicting on children a few miles away.

The Kurds Are About to Blow Up Iraq

Next month, on September 25, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil will hold a binding referendum on whether or not to secede from Iraq. It will almost certainly pass. More than a decade ago, the Kurds held a non-binding referendum that passed with  99.8 percent of the vote.

No one knows what’s going to happen. Iraq is the kind of place where just about anything can happen and eventually does.

Kurdish secession could go as smoothly as a Scottish secession from the United Kingdom (were that to actually happen) or a Quebecois secession from Canada, were that to actually happen. It could unfold like Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, where some countries recognize it and others don’t while the Serbs are left to stew in their own juices more or less peaceably.

This is a serious business, though, because Iraq is not Britain, and it is not Canada. And there’s a potential flashpoint that travelers to the region would be well advised to stay away from for a while.

Shortly after ISIS invaded Iraq from Syria in 2014, the Kurdistan Regional Government effectively annexed the oil-rich governate of Kirkuk. Ethnic Kurds made up a plurality of the population, with sizeable Arab and Turkmen minorities, before Saddam Hussein’s Arabization program in the 1990s temporarily created an artificial Arab majority. Since then, Kurds have been returning to the city en masse while many Arabs, most of whom had no history in the region before Saddam put them there, have left. No one really knows what the demographics look like now.

It’s a tinderbox regardless of the actual headcount. Some of the Arabs who still live there could mount a rebellion at some point, either immediately or down the road. If they do, they might engage in the regional sport of finagling financial and even military backing from neighboring countries.

Then again, Arabs have been trickling north into the Kurdistan region for years because it’s peaceful and quiet and civilized. It’s the one part of Iraq that, despite the local government’s corruption and inability to live up to the democratic norms it claims to espouse, works remarkably well.

I’ve been to Iraqi Kurdistan a number of times. It’s safer than Kansas. My only real complaint is that it gets a bit boring after a while. If you’re coming from Baghdad or Mosul, it’s practically Switzerland.

Kirkuk Governate, though, is—or at least recently was—another story. The three “core” Kurdish governates—Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleimaniyah—have been free of armed conflict since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but Kirkuk was down in the war zone. I went there ten years ago from Suleimaniyah and was only willing to do so under the armed protection of Kurdish police officers. Had I wandered around solo as I did farther north, I would have risked being shot, kidnapped or car-bombed. I still could have been shot or car-bombed alongside the police, but at least kidnapping was (mostly) off the table. The very fact that Kirkuk was a war zone at a time when the Kurdish governates to the north were not suggests that the Kurds may be swallowing more than they can digest.  

Kirkuk has oil, though, while the governates to the north mostly don’t, so of course the Kurds want it. Baghdad, of course, wants to keep it for the same reason. Will Iraq’s central government go to war over it? Probably not. Saddam Hussein lost his own war against the Kurds in the north, and he had far more formidable forces at his disposal than Baghdad does now. Still, it’s more likely than a war between London and Edinburgh, or between Ottawa and Montreal.

The biggest threat to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan comes not from Baghdad but from Turkey. The Turks have been fighting a low-grade counter-insurgency against the armed Kurdish separatists of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since the 1970s that has killed tens of thousands of people, and they’re deathly afraid that a free and independent Kurdish state anywhere in the world will both embolden and assist their internal enemies.

While Turkey is no longer likely to invade Iraqi Kurdistan on general principle if it declares independence—a going concern shortly after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—the Turkish government is making it clear that it is supremely unhappy with the KRG including Kirkuk in its referendum. “What really concerned us,” a spokesperson for Turkey’s president said in June of this year, “was that Kurdish leaders want to include Kirkuk in this process while according to the Iraqi constitution Kirkuk is an Iraqi city and is not within Kurdish boundaries … If any attempts will be made to forcefully include Kirkuk in the referendum question, problems will be made for Kirkuk and its surrounding areas.”

One can sympathize with Turkey’s fears. The Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party is, without question, a terrorist organization. Even so, nations have a right to exist even if they are inconvenient to Turkey—especially considering that Iraq’s Kurds are not terrorists.

Rather than terrorists, Iraq’s Kurds are America’s only reliable allies in the entire country. They’re as pro-American as Texans, they’re the only ones who didn’t take shots at us during and after the overthrow of Saddam, and they were, for a time anyway, the only ones willing and capable of taking on ISIS directly and winning. They do not align themselves with Iranian-backed militias as the central government in Baghdad does, and they certainly aren’t on side with Hezbollah and the Kremlin like the Syrian government. They are as allergic to political Islamism as Americans are. They view it, with some justification, as an alien export from the Arab world.

The Trump administration opposes Kurdistan’s bid for independence. It could, says the White House, be “significantly destabilizing.” Perhaps. But it’s a bit rich for Americans, of all people, to say no to people who want to break away from a country that smothered them beneath a totalitarian regime, waged a genocidal extermination campaign against them, and then convulsed in bloody mayhem for more than a decade. We Americans mounted a revolution for our own independence against a government far more liberal and enlightened than Iraq’s. And we support at least the notion of a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli state, the only properly functioning democracy in the entire region, despite the fact that the Palestinians have mounted one terrorist campaign after another for their own independence while the Kurds of Iraq never have.

An independent Iraqi Kurdistan is far more likely to be stable with American backing than without it, but the Kurds are going forward regardless. As Jack Nicholson’s character Frank Costello said in Martin Scorsese’s scorching film, The Departed, “no one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

The August Vote That Changed Russia’s History

If anyone had told members of Russia’s lower house of parliament on August 16, 1999 that the vote they were about to take would shape events in their country and much of the world for the next two decades, they would have been very surprised. A week earlier, President Yeltsin had dismissed Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and nominated Russia’s domestic security chief to take his place; the extraordinary session of the Duma was called in the midst of the August recess to consider the nomination. The candidate’s name was Vladimir Putin, and he was little-known even to many in the establishment, let alone the public at large. Yeltsin’s announcement that he would like to see the premier-designate succeed him in the Kremlin was met with ridicule.

North Korea Leaves Us With Only One Good Option

Twenty-eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States once again faces the real possibility of nuclear war with a communist state. Because as of this week, American intelligence agencies believe North Korea has developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can be squeezed into one of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The intelligence is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure—if North Korea can’t nuke the United States now, it will be able to soon enough. Sanctions won’t convince Kim Jong-Un to give up his arsenal, nor will pressure from China. Becoming a nuclear power is an existential issue for him after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi, which leaves the United States with only one option.

That option is obvious if we game everything out. Last month, Mark Bowden wrote a sobering essay in The Atlantic as long as an epic poem where he carefully examines four basic options, all of which are terrible: prevention, turning the screws, decapitation and acceptance.

There are actually seven options rather than four, but we’ll get to the other three later. First, let’s look at Bowden’s.

And let’s start with, prevention, which he defines as “a crushing U.S. military strike to eliminate Pyongyang’s arsenals of mass destruction, take out its leadership, and destroy its military.” We’d win the war. No question about it. The United States military is capable of destroying anything it puts in its crosshairs. But North Korea will fight back as surely as any other country under attack would fight back. Millions would die, and they’d die within weeks, days, possibly even hours. Kim has thousands of artillery pieces buried in mountains and hillsides that could destroy South Korea’s capital Seoul as effectively as a volcano erupting right underneath it. Even if Kim doesn’t touch his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, more people could be killed on a per-day basis than during any other war ever fought. A full-blown Korean war would be, as Bowden says, one of the greatest catastrophes in human history.

We could try turning the screws, so to speak, with limited pinprick strikes that fall far short of all-out war. The North Korean regime, though, is famously paranoid and could easily perceive a limited strike as the opening salvo of a regime-change operation and, if so, would respond with an all-out attack of its own. And if Kim did realize that nothing more than pinprick strikes were coming his way, the odds that they’d be effective are negligible. We’re not sure where his stockpiles are, we can’t erase the scientific knowledge his government already has, and bombing him is as likely as not to make him even more committed than he already is.

Decapitation—assassinating Kim and the leadership circle around him while sparing everyone else—is a lot more appealing and seems a lot less dangerous. The problem is that we’d have to recruit inside help, which is nearly impossible, and in any case his military is already under orders to ignite a total war if we try. Even if it did work, Kim’s replacement could be more paranoid and belligerent, and removing the next guy would be even harder.

Bowden’s fourth option is acceptance. (And keep in mind that accepting something isn’t the same thing as liking it.) If the cost of stopping North Korea from becoming a world-class nuclear power is catastrophically high, some form of acceptance may be all that remains. The cost of acceptance, though, may also be catastrophically high.

Russia and China have been capable of striking the United States with nuclear weapons for decades now, but hardly anyone has been losing much sleep over it since Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. Kim Jong-Un is no Gorbachev, though. He rules as brutally at home as the Soviet Union’s worst tyrant Josef Stalin did, and he seems as comfortable with brinkmanship as Saddam Hussein was—a terrifying combination. He is already capable of killing millions in Seoul and thousands of American soldiers stationed along the so-called demilitarized zone on the border. Soon enough, he’ll be able to do the same to Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Washington.

Asking Americans to accept this is like asking us to swallow razor blades while maniacs hold guns to the heads of our friends. We don’t have to swallow anything, but our friends will get their brains blown out if we don’t. We don’t have to accept North Korea as a nuclear power, but millions of people will die if we don’t, including thousands of ours.

There are three more options available, though, starting with this: The United States could threaten to nuke North Korea and hope Kim stands down. Mark Bowden and the military and foreign policy professionals he consulted didn’t consider that as a serious option for reasons that are probably obvious. Barack Obama never would have done it, nor would George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter certainly wouldn’t have done it. But they seem to have forgotten who currently works in the White House.

Donald Trump effectively did it on Tuesday when he said, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” What is that if not a threat to drop a hydrogen bomb on top of Pyongyang?

It might work, but we’d better not count on it. All Kim has to do is threaten the United States one more time, and if Trump doesn’t enforce his own red line, Kim will know it’s a bluff. He probably already knows it’s a bluff because the State Department has already dialed it down. “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said within hours of the president’s threat, “would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

If bluffing North Korea doesn’t work, the United States could actually nuke North Korea. Whether the US military would obey an order to pre-emptively use nuclear weapons against another country is an open question. (And whether Congress would allow a president who gave such an order to remain in the White House is another.) We could speculate all day about the terrible consequences that would result from instantly killing tens of millions of people in the most violent moment of our species’ history. A man who would give such an order almost certainly wouldn’t correctly anticipate the convulsive reaction, both at home and abroad, that would result, or how history would remember him. No sober-minded foreign policy professional on any point on the political spectrum would ever recommend this course of action.

The final option is related to Bowden’s fourth option but a little less terrible. It starts with acceptance, but it doesn’t end there.

Think about it: why does Kim Jong-Un want nuclear weapons? He is not Osama bin Laden, and he is not ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He isn’t even Iran’s Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei. He doesn’t want to incinerate the United States any more than the Soviet Union did. He simply wants his regime to survive, and he’s already kept in check with something worse than Mutually Assured Destruction. John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev could have nuked us all into oblivion and brought about a planetwide near-extinction event, but this is not that bad. Kim will probably never be able to destroy every American city, but we can already kill every living thing, with the possible exception of a handful of cockroaches, inside North Korea.  

Mutually Assured Destruction would probably work, but it guarantees mutual perpetual angst. So let’s trade. We can give Kim what he wants and he can give us what we want. He just wants to survive. We want to live without a Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

The Korean War killed millions and only technically paused with an armistice agreement in 1953. It never formally ended. Rather, we have been enjoying a very long lull, one that has lasted longer than most of us have been alive. We’re all so accustomed to it that it seems like the natural order of things.

But it’s not. All wars eventually end, and they don’t have to end with regime-change. The Vietnam War wound down decades ago, and the United States has excellent relations with the same government we used to fight in Hanoi. The Vietnamese Communist Party reformed itself out of all recognition, for sure, but we settled that conflict years before it happened.

We could do the same thing in Korea. We could negotiate a formal end to the conflict and sign a mutual non-aggression pact. What do we have to lose? If the US were to start (or resume) a war on the Korean Peninsula, it could easily rank as the worst foreign policy decision in American history. It would be an even bigger mistake if Kim were to do it. So why not put it in writing?

The only reason Kim wants nuclear weapons is because, after Libya and Iraq, he doesn’t feel safe. The truth, though, is that he has been safe all along. The north’s hardened artillery pieces pointed at Seoul guaranteed his safety long before he took power. We will never send our army in there just because we don’t like him. His problem, and ours, is that he either doesn’t know it or doesn’t believe it.

In an ideal world, we’d take him out with a drone strike and watch the two Koreas unite like the two Germanys did after the Cold War. In the real world, Kim Jong-Un sits on top of a doomsday machine and we can’t remove him without setting it off. The question is, how do we want him to feel while he sits there? If we’re not going to take him out—and if we are, we should do it today, not tomorrow—far better for everyone’s sake if he feels secure enough not to turn himself into the world’s largest suicide bomber.

Enforcing the Travel Ban on Putin’s Deputy PM

The biography of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin reads like a guide to whatever is trending in Russian politics: a rising star in Communist Youth in late Soviet years; a defender of democracy at the White House barricades and cofounder of a liberal party in the early 1990s; a nationalist and imperialist firebrand from the mid-1990s as President Yeltsin’s policies became increasingly unpopular. With Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and the consolidation of authoritarian rule, Rogozin firmly allied himself with the Kremlin. Though he continued with nationalist rhetoric—speaking and throwing neo-Nazi salutes at far-right rallies—he has consistently defended Kremlin interests, whether as head of the Russian delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe or as leader of the hastily created Motherland bloc that was (successfully) designed to divert votes from the opposition in the 2003 parliamentary elections.

Russia Threatens Poland Over Decommunization

Just days after the Russian government accused the United States Congress of violating international law by imposing sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin is threatening Poland with sanctions if it pulls down Soviet World War II memorials. Vladimir Putin ought to be grateful that the Poles have let them stand as long as they have. Moscow built them to glorify and whitewash its brutal conquest in the ashes of the Third Reich, yet Warsaw has been free of Russian domination since 1989, more than a whole generation.  

Even after all these years, though, Poland is still in the process of decommunization—eradication of the political, psychological and physical detritus left behind by a totalitarian regime that rivaled only Nazi Germany in its brutality. Yet Russia’s foreign ministry, cribbing the language of political liberalism that it so despises, is accusing Poland of “Russophobia” and of belittling the Soviet Union’s role as a “liberator.”

Russians might even believe that they liberated Poland, but that’s only half true at best. Yes, they drove the Nazis from Poland, but only after first signing on to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact) that guaranteed Adolf Hitler’s annexation of the western half of the country. Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin turned on Hitler only in 1941 after the Wehrmacht blitzkrieged through Soviet-occupied Poland all the way to the outskirts of Leningrad. After defeating the Nazis, Stalin imposed his own ghastly Russian-made totalitarian system on Poland in its place, complete with secret police, the persecution of dissidents, show trials, the execution of political prisoners, the nationalization of private industry, a botched collectivization of agriculture and all the rest of it.

Imagine if, after the United States invaded Iraq, George W. Bush replaced Saddam Hussein’s mass-murdering regime with a mass-murdering Washington puppet and erected statues of himself in Baghdad. Imagine also that the brutal Bush-installed tyranny lasted half a century before the Iraqis finally squirmed out from beneath it. How do you think the Iraqis would feel about the United States, and about Bush in particular, had this happened? And how do you suppose the Iraqis would feel if the United States then threatened them with sanctions for toppling a hated statue of W?

At least the Russians had enough sense not to put up statues of Stalin himself. Instead they installed a statue of his predeccesor Vladimir Lenin in Krakow.

Poland doesn’t have to tear down the Soviet monuments to effectively decommunize its own landscape. Hungary, for instance, moved some of its own Soviet-era garbage scuptures into a place called Memento Park in Budapest and turned it into a tourist attraction. "This park is about dictatorship,” architect Ákos Eleőd said. “And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”

This isn’t the first Soviet statue controversy in Poland. The Warsaw government temporarily took down the Monument to Brothers in Arms (pictured above) in 2010 to make way for a construction project, and its removal was made permanent when residents who live nearby complained that it constantly reminded them of the communist era. The Russian government complained, of course, but they really howled in 2013 when Jerzy Bohdan Szumczyk erected a statue in Gdansk showing a Russian Red Army soldier raping a Polish woman. He did it without permission, and the police removed it just a few hours later. Even many Poles found that statue outrageous. The Kremlin’s response, though, tells us everything we need to know about how Russia views its former vassals. Russia’s then-ambassador said Szumczyk “defiled by his pseudo-art the memory of 600,000 Soviet servicemen who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom and the independence of Poland.”

The freedom and independence of Poland? In 1945? Poland wasn’t free and independent until nearly a half-century later, until the regime in Moscow that “liberated” Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe finally began to circle the drain.  

The ambassador might be able to fool Russian schoolchildren who don’t know any better into believing this kind of ahistorical absurdity, but nobody in Poland is going to buy it. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is as committed to lies as was Soviet Russia when George Orwell masterfully exposed it in his allegorical novel, 1984. Soviet troops died for freedom in Poland? Sure, and war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength, like Big Brother insisted.

The Russian propaganda organ Pravda, which operates under the same name and from the same office as it did during the Soviet era—and whose name, in classic Orwellian style, means “truth”— says Poland, with its slated removal of Soviet monumnets, is trying to “prove its devotion to Western masters.” As if anyone in Washington or Brussels cares a whit what Warsaw does with its own urban landscape.  

With Denazification, the West all but forced Germans to acknowledge the unspeakable crimes the Nazi regime commited in the 20th century. Germans internalized that critique and directed it back at themselves to an astonishing—some would even say excessive—degree. Within a historical instant, Germany was transformed from the world’s most belligerent nation into one of its most pacifist.

Nothing comparable ever happened in Russia. The West never even asked Russians, let alone attempted to force them, to atone for the crimes they committed in the 20th century, probably, at least partly, because so many victims of the Soviet system were Russian. Most of us assumed Russia would move on from its communist past as enthusiastically as the people of Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia have.

We were wrong, and we should have known better. Because the Soviet Union was more than just a totalitarian state. It was also an empire, and that empire was Russian. Hardly anybody in Warsaw, Prague or even Moscow wants to bring back the slave labor camps, but Russians are still chafing at the loss of their vassals in Warsaw and Prague. They’re still smarting from the loss of their empire. They won’t be good neighbors unless and until they get over it.

North Korea Economy Shows Surprising Strength

On Saturday, the Bank of Korea, the South Korean central bank, reported that last year North Korea’s gross domestic product grew 3.9 percent. That is the highest growth rate since 1999.

The 3.9 percent figure was, for most observers, unexpected. In the previous half decade, the North managed only an average of about one percent growth. It appears, therefore, that last year the regime managed to break out of a long period of stagnation.

Congress Makes Russian Sanctions Trump-proof

Bipartisanship isn’t dead yet, not even in Donald Trump’s Washington. The House of Representatives just passed a sweeping new sanctions package against Russia, Iran and North Korea by 419 votes to 3.

The White House won’t say if the president will sign it or not. It’s no secret that he doesn’t like it, and the reason why is perfectly obvious—Congress is making it Trump-proof. He will not be able to strike a unilateral deal with Vladimir Putin and roll back these sanctions. Let him veto it if he wants. Congress can just override it. He doesn’t have the power to stop it.

Nor do the Russians. The Kremlin can hardly even retaliate. Not effectively, anyway. Case in point: Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov is threatening “sanitary sanctions” against McDonalds. He’s referring to what Russia did in 2014 when, angry about the last round of sanctions, it closed the largest McDonald’s in Moscow for three months so that officials could launch “safety inspections.”

These people do not understand how American politics and economics work. They’re projecting their own twisted norms onto us. In authoritarian crony capitalist Russia, all the largest businesses are yoked to the Kremlin. If Washington punishes one of those companies, it’s effectively punishing Russia’s government.

That’s not how it works over here. The United States government has nothing to do with McDonalds. The Kremlin could burn every McDonalds franchise in the entire country to the ground and it would hurt the American government less than if an entry-level Russian spy threw gravel at the capitol building.

Russia’s mafioso system makes it especially vulnerable to sanctions that target businesses and rich individuals personally, and nothing so far tops the precision-guided Magnitsky Act. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012, also with overwhelming bipartisan support, it singles out the Kremlin’s worst human rights abusers, freezes their assets, bans their travel to the United States and places their names on the US Treasury’s list of sanctioned individuals, preventing them from opening up a bank account anywhere in the world. Any bank that lets one of these people open an account would itself be in violation of American sanctions.

We know the Magnitsky Act is the near-perfect weapon because it works, and we know it works because Vladimir Putin rails at it constantly. Abolishing it is one of his principle foreign policy objectives, yet most Americans had never even heard of it until we found out earlier this month that Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya met Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort in Trump Tower last year and hoped to trade sanctions relief for dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The act is named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He worked at the Firestone Duncan law firm and accused Russian officials of ripping off hundreds millions of tax dollars. The Russian state responded by banishing the company’s co-founded Bill Browder, illegally signing over the business to convicted kidnapper and murderer Viktor Markelov, throwing Magnitsky into Moscow’s Butyrka prison, assaulting him while he was in custody and denying him adequate medical treatment. He died days before his scheduled release.

Magnitsky’s namesake act singles out 44 individual human rights abusers worldwide (the original list included only 18, all of them linked to the Kremlin) and makes them international pariahs. “When Putin reacts to the Magnitsky Act with such personal venom,” Browder said a few days ago in an interview with Jacob Weisberg at Slate, “he’s reacting because he feels like the entire purpose in life, which was to steal money from the Russian state and keep it offshore, is at risk. That’s why they’re ready to ruin relations with America over the Magnitsky Act by banning adoptions and doing other things, and that’s why so much money has been spent fighting the act and fighting me, the person behind the campaign to get Magnitsky Act in the United States and around the world.”

Browder estimates that roughly 10,000 people in Russia have stolen upwards of a trillion dollars from Russian taxpayers over the years. Only a tiny percentage of them are currently targeted by American sanctions, but many more could be in the future, and in any case, those named are the most notorious. More important is that the sanctions throw sand into the gears of Putin’s crony capitalist system. If members of his little oligarchy can’t spend the money they steal when and where they want to spend it, they have less incentive to bother working for him or stealing it in the first place.

These people are still rich, sure, even with the sanctions against them, but they don’t just want to be wealthy in Russia. They want to be wealthy in New York, London, Prague and Berlin. They want to be rich on the French Riviera. It’s nice enough owning a dacha on the Black Sea in Sochi or Yalta, but I’ve been to Yalta and it’s no Provence. If you’re vacationing there in the winter from Moscow you’ll surely appreciate its rugged coastline, its relative warmth and its palm trees. It’s provincial and tacky, though, and it underwhelms just about everyone who has ever been anywhere else. So if you’re a staggeringly wealthy Gazprom executive accustomed to whiling away your leisure time in the Swiss Alps, in Paris or in Tuscany, Yalta will seem as barren a destination as the center of North Dakota.

What happens to these people if the Putin regime is overthrown and they have to go into exile? They’ll have nowhere to go and no money to spend once they get there. Washington should never bail them out, ever. Don’t trade sanctions for “better relations” or “cooperation” in Syria or anywhere else. If they want to work with us against ISIS, that’s fine, but we should still treat them like the murderers and thieves that they are.  

In the Hobbesian realm of foreign policy, American national interests often clash with American values. The United States partners with medieval Saudi Arabia against Iran, for instance, and during the Cold War supported brutal Latin American military dictatorships so long as they were anti-communist. Washington has strangled local economies from Cuba to Iran in order to punish the hostile regimes in those countries but mostly ended up hurting innocent people instead. Our Russian sanctions are bigger, better, smarter and more American by punishing only the perps. Long may they live.  

As the Kremlin Tightens the Screws, It Invites Popular Revolt

Perhaps the most important requirement in an election is that voters have a choice. It sounds trivial, but that is something that has been lacking in most Russian elections held under Vladimir Putin’s rule. In both the latest presidential elections that the Kremlin decisively “won”—in 2008 and 2012—genuine opponents (including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and veteran liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky) were disqualified from the ballot before voting even started. Those who repeat the Kremlin’s talking point about Putin’s “popularity” would do well to remember that, after 2000, it has never actually been tested in a real election against real opponents.

Iran Takes Another American Hostage

Iran just sentenced Princeton University graduate student and American citizen Xiyue Wang to ten years in prison for espionage. His professor Stephen Kotkin tells The Washington Post that Wang “is innocent of all the charges.” Of course he’s innocent. Wang is just the latest in a long line of Americans kidnapped by the most promiscuous hostage-taking regime in the world.

Never mind, for now, the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, when radical followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 diplomats and other American citizens against their will for 444 days. That was a uniquely despicable event that even the Islamic Republic hasn’t repeated.

Arresting Wang and convicting him of espionage is part of another pattern that has been ongoing for years. This is the same government that convicted Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian of espionage before releasing him and three other prisoners last year on the same day the United States government paid Iran 400 million dollars. The State Department said the 400 million wasn’t ransom since Washington legitimately owed Tehran that money since before the 1979 revolution, but the Iranian government took it as ransom anyway. “Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies,” General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, commander of the Basij militia, said on Iran’s state-run television, neverminding the fact that the “spies” he referred to weren’t spies.

The only thing unique about arresting Wang is that he holds dual Chinese-American citizenship. Iran’s government generally captures dual Iranian-American nationals, presumably because it thinks it can get away with it a little more easily.

Two months ago, American and Iranian diplomats met in Vienna and discussed yet another batch of four dual American-Iranians held in Iran, including art gallery owner Karan Vafadari, his wife Afarin Niasari, businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer Namazi. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghasemi confirmed to the New York Times that representative from the two governments met and discussed the fates of these people and said that similar talks in the past produced “positive results.” If earlier prisoners were arrested and sentenced legally and properly, why even discuss it with the United States? What “results” could have been “positive” from the Iranian point of view unless the regime got something in return?

Even if arresting and charging Wang weren’t part of a well-established pattern already, we should always be skeptical when a repressive police state tells us why it puts anybody in prison. Earlier this month, Lahav Harkov wrote a blistering piece in The New York Post excoriating commenters in the West who took seriously North Korea’s claim that it sentenced University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of slave labor for stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel.

The regime forced Warmbier to “confess” his crime in front of cameras. He said he was following the orders of his Friendship United Methodist Church in Ohio when he stole the poster. Never mind the ludicrous notion that any church anywhere in the United States would order someone to steal a poster from North Korea. Warmbier didn’t even attend Friendship United Methodist Church or any other church in Ohio of anywhere else.

Warmbier was Jewish.

One of two things happened during Warmbier’s forced confession. The regime told him to say he was following orders from “his” church, or Warmbier inserted the easily checkable falsehood himself to telegraph to the rest of us that his confession was bogus.

“In North Korea,” Harkov writes, “like in the Soviet Union, there’s no such thing as a fair trial or justice. It’s an evil regime, and buying their side of the story only empowers them.” The same goes for the Iranian government, and for the same reasons.

Besides, the CIA doesn’t send Chinese-American graduate students as spies to Iran. What on earth could a foreign college student possibly learn, in Iran or anywhere else, that governments around the world don’t already know?

From the very first moment I started working in the Middle East as a journalist, all kinds of people over there have accused me of being a spy. At first I didn’t even know what to say. I could hardly convince anyone otherwise. A year or so later, a hotel manager in Beirut all but begged me to give him a job at the CIA. I told him I don’t even know anyone at the CIA, but acknowledged that he’d make a better spy than I would. That’s when it clicked for me. That’s when I knew how to convince Middle Easterners that I wasn’t a spy.

From that day forward, I’ve told people this: “I’d be useless as a spy. I’m a white man from the United States. The American spies in your country were born here. They blend in. They speak the language with a local accent. And they work at the highest levels of the government and the military.”

Works every time. Sometimes the answer actually spooks people.

You don’t have to be an intelligence expert or even read spy novels to know that that’s how espionage works in the real world. Nothing else even makes sense. Foreign journalists and college students can’t blend in, can almost never speak the native language with a local accent, can’t get within a mile of sensitive information, and can’t possibly learn anything the CIA doesn’t already know.

Someone like me or Xiyue Wang could be an intelligence analyst, sure, but if that were the case, we’d be working in Langley, Virginia, not in Tehran, Beirut or Damascus And yes, someone like me or Xiyue Wang could be a case officer—a recruiter—but if so, we’d be attached to the American Embassy, not a university or a media organization.

That’s why it’s obvious on the face of it that Wang, even more than the dual Iranian-American nationals who are normally kidnapped in Iran, is a hostage instead of a spy.

Trump Puts Squeeze on Beijing over North Korea

“Recently, certain people, talking about the Korean peninsula nuclear issue, have been exaggerating and giving prominence to the so-called ‘China responsibility theory,’” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Tuesday, referring indirectly to Trump administration officials. “I think this either shows lack of a full, correct knowledge of the issue, or there are ulterior motives for it, trying to shift responsibility.”

Beijing expressed more than just irritation with Washington. “Asking others to do work, but doing nothing themselves is not OK,” Geng said. “Being stabbed in the back is really not OK.”

Language this intemperate is rarely heard from government officials in public, especially diplomats, and it tells us that US-China relations are about to spiral downward.


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