On Nationalism and Fascism, Part 1

Ukrainian “nationalism” has been in the news these last few years. As usually happens with words that have seeped into our daily vocabulary, nationalism in general and Ukrainian nationalism in particular have come to mean just about anything. Its detractors, many of whom believe that Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism demonstrates that nationalism and fascism are inextricably connected, insist Ukrainian nationalism is a form of fascism. Its supporters, who often invoke Giuseppe Mazzini, say it’s noble and empowering.

Compounding the problem, many of the historians who study Ukraine show little interest in conceptual clarity. How we define things matters enormously, because definitions enable us to group similar things together and explain them systematically. The alternative, a habit of sloppy scholars, is a seat-of-the-pants approach that permits flawed comparisons. So please bear with me, as we go through some conceptual exercises.

Venezuela Fails to Slow Colombia-FARC Peace Talks

Just when it seemed that progress was being made in the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerillas, a political flap created by Venezuela threatened to derail the talks. President Nicolás Maduro, the successor to the late Hugo Chávez at the head of Venezuela's shaky socialist regime, erupted in vituperation against President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia after Santos had a friendly private meeting with Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader in Venezuela. “Santos has stabbed Venezuela in the back,” declared Maduro, who won a narrow and contested victory over Capriles in a presidential race in February to replace Chávez. Venezuela threatened to withdraw support from the peace talks with the FARC guerrillas that Chávez had originally sponsored. But Maduro’s bravado did not find favor with the FARC leaders who have been negotiating with Colombia in Havana for six months.

When Dictators Were Young

I just found a fascinating photo gallery of the world’s most infamous dictators when they were children and young men. I think the reason these photographs are so captivating is because, in most cases, no one had a clue when these photos were taken that these kids would become such horrible people and scourges of history (though I have to say that Adolf Hitler looked pretty creepy even when he was small). And contrary to what some might believe, Fidel Castro did not, in fact, have a beard when he was three.

Journalist Meets Novelist

Jonathan Spyer reviewed my new novel for The Jerusalem Post.

The review is behind the paywall, but here are some excerpts.

This is his first foray into fiction.  It is a success.


‘Taken’ works on a number of levels.  From one point of view, it is a thriller. The author drives the plot with a determined hand. He shows a talent for describing scenes of action and intensity which has already been apparent from his reporting on Iraq and Lebanon.

But the book is also a novel of ideas, and a character study.  In terms of the former, Totten uses the framework of the novel to discuss the nature of journalism and war correspondence, as the kidnapped ‘Michael Totten’ ponders his fate from his incarceration.

He notes the nature of the war correspondent as a ‘tourist on the dark side’, observing that he has always been happy with a ‘certain amount of darkness in my life’, as long as its not ‘my own personal darkness.’  This, slipped into a scene in a thriller, is as insightful and honest a phrase on the typical foreign correspondent as any to be found.

Through the depiction of the kidnappers, the book also asks questions about the appeal of radical Islam for some western-raised Muslims, and the gap between the west and the Middle East.

The characters of three of the captors are finely drawn.  In particular, that of Ahmed, the leader of the group, is closely observed.  It is a portrait more subtle, and in a qualified and measured way sympathetic, than would generally be found in books dealing with the grim subject matter here.

This reviewer is generally skeptical regarding the postmodern tactic available to novelists of inserting themselves into their own novels.  However, here the device works well. This is because of Totten’s slightly tongue in cheek approach to it.

Thus at one point, the (fictive) Michael Totten casts doubt on his own fictional status. He declares that while a particular course of action might have worked all very well in a work of fiction, he had to remember that ‘I wasn’t a character in a novel,’ and so this could not be assumed to also apply to his situation.  Such acrobatics are slightly dizzying, but the (writer) Totten manages to pull it off.


On the most fundamental level, the question that needs to be asked about a work of fiction is; does the writer succeed in creating an imaginative world in which the reader is able to immerse himself for the duration of the story? Is the fictional world presented with sufficient depth and power to make this mysterious process possible?  Here, the answer is yes. 

The book is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, etc.

Iraq’s Emerging Artists

“Are you crazy man? You just left, like, medicine, just to work, like, as an artist?”

Walaa Haddad said he was hammered with questions like that during a recent visit to his hometown of Babylon City, Iraq. The question seems to have dogged him all the way back to his adopted city of San Francisco, where he returned two months ago to continue his studies at the Academy of Art University.

In a war-torn country, being a professional artist can seem a bit daft—like trying to be an opera singer while working a coal mine. Haddad, a conceptual artist who dreams of a job at Pixar, said even his open-minded family back home wasn’t sure how to respond to his “doodling.” (See an example of his work here.)

Is the Sunni Saudi Kingdom Next?

Every nation bordering Syria—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey—is being drawn into the conflict there. The leaders in these countries are worried, to say the least. But why is Saudi Arabia in a panic?

None of the Syrian warfare is spilling over into Saudi Arabia. Iraq and Jordan serve as buffers. Still, hundreds if not thousands of Saudis (nobody’s counting) are pouring into Syria to fight with one or another of the factions trying to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And that has Saudi leaders terrified.

Saudi Arabia’s most important cleric, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz al-Sheik, recently warned that there was no religious reason for Saudis to join the Syrian war.

Cyber Détente with China

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that, beginning next month, the US and China will hold regular talks on cyber matters. The high-level discussions, labeled the first diplomatic initiative on the subject with China, will be part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the framework of annual meetings between Washington and Beijing.

The ultimate goal is to arrive at understandings with the Chinese. As a “senior American official involved in the negotiations” told the paper, “We need to get some norms and rules.”

Actually, we have long passed that stage. What we need to do at this point is stop Chinese cyber intrusions, cyber attacks, and cyber espionage, all part of what many suspect to be the most extensive cyber campaign conducted by one country against another

WHERE THE WEST ENDS Now Available as an Audio Book

My book Where the West Ends is now available as an audio book from Amazon.com, Audible, and iTunes.

Steven Roy Grimsley did a fantastic job with the narration. Dozens of professional readers auditioned for the job, and my wife and I both thought Steve was the best.

You can listen to a sample for free on the Audible Web site.

The Friend of My Enemy is My Enemy

My latest City Journal column is up. Here's the first part.

Syria’s blood-soaked tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, is finally right about something. He recently told an Argentine newspaper that he doubts the joint Russian-American peace initiative will stop the bloodshed in his country. Of course it won’t. Syria’s civil war is an existential fight to the death between the Alawite minority that dominates the regime and the revolutionary Sunni Muslim majority that will be smashed if it loses. The peace initiative would merely be a naive waste of time, then, but circumstances might conspire to make it something worse than that: from the proverbial Arab Street’s point of view, by cooperating with Moscow and refusing to back the rebels, Washington appears to support the Assad dictatorship.

I recently returned from Beirut, where I once lived, and was dismayed to discover that, with few exceptions, just about everyone in Lebanon’s otherwise pro-Western camp thinks the Obama administration is backing Assad, and by extension Iran and Hezbollah. Sometimes they make this point through insinuation. “The international community thinks it’s okay for the Syrian regime to receive weapons and money from outside while the Free Syrian Army gets nothing,” said Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of parliament. “Everybody here is wondering what’s going on.”

Samy Gemayel, a current member of parliament and son of former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel, was more blunt. “The current government in the United States is friends with Bashar al-Assad,” he said. When I challenged him, he only backed down a little. “Not a friend,” he said, “but the people in the administration aren’t aggressive against Assad. Some of them have good relations with Assad, people like John Kerry.” Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese-born scholar at Chatham House in the United Kingdom, added: “When you support the dictator who’s oppressing people, you’re also the enemy. The United States has more soft power in the region than before, but you’re going to lose it in Syria.” I heard variations on this complaint every day for almost a month.

They’re wrong, of course. Washington doesn’t support Bashar al-Assad. But it’s not hard to figure why it looks that way from Beirut. The United States has demolished three murderous governments in the greater Middle East and South Asia in the last ten years—the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party state in Iraq, and Muammar el-Qaddafi’s lunacracy in Libya. One of these regime changes took place on President Barack Obama’s watch, so everyone knows he’s just as capable of terminating a despot as was President George W. Bush. They think that since President Obama can quickly get rid of Assad, the fact that he won’t means that the White House likes him right where he is. It doesn’t help that Washington is sponsoring a joint initiative with Vladimir Putin, who really does want Assad to remain in the saddle, and at a time when Russia is gearing up to send advanced Yakhont missiles to Syria.

The reasons Washington isn’t moving aggressively against the Syrian regime are straightforward. Americans are weary of war and especially unwilling to insert themselves into Iraqi- and Lebanese-style sectarian blood feuds. And unlike Qaddafi, Assad has powerful friends. If the United States widens the conflict, Iran and Hezbollah might widen it further. They might even drag in the Israelis, igniting the worst conflagration east of the Mediterranean since the Iran-Iraq war. Washington is also concerned that Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, might become over time no less a menace than Assad has been all these years. So the Obama administration is cautious, and for good reason.

But that isn’t coming across. We went through the same thing in Iran when the inspiring but ill-fated Green Revolution broke out in 2009. Obama was so determined to pursue a grand bargain with the Islamic Republic that he could hardly bring himself to utter a word of encouragement to the most potent homegrown anti-regime movement since Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Bit by Bitcoin

Those of you interested in the virtual money known as bitcoin, or in generally thumbing your noses at wealth intrusion by sovereign nations, should note with interest the latest from Tokyo. Last week Mt. Gox, a Tokyo-based exchange that claims to handle 80 percent of all bitcoin trading, bowed to US pressure by insisting that all accounts be verified—meaning a valid photo ID needs to be submitted and also proof of residence—before their owners withdraw or deposit the artificial, wholly made-up currency.

Of course when you think about, all currencies are basically artificial and invented out of whole cloth. It’s been a long while, for instance, since the US dollar has been backed up by gold: back in 1971, Richard Nixon ended that. Currently, as the Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman once said, “Those green pieces of paper have value because everyone thinks they have value.”

Libya and Washington’s Iraq Syndrome

Like any American who was in Iraq in 2003, I was anxious about Libya’s future when Parliament passed a law barring former Qaddafi officials from office for ten years. This law, called the “purge” or “isolation” law, seemed a recipe for division and disaster, much as the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and purges of Baath party officials had been in the early days of our invasion of Iraq. I wondered if indignant officials might resist violently, or sabotage their offices. The fact that the law was passed while militias surrounded Parliament didn’t inspire confidence, either.

I was surprised that my Libyan friends all supported the law, even friends who are resolute pessimists about Libya and life in general. One young woman told me that even though her father, a former Libyan ambassador, would be hurt by the law, he and the rest of the family were in favor. “It’s necessary for the good of the country.” I was reminded of something the Benghazi activist Iman Bughaighis told me back in April 2011, that the real struggle for Libyans would be not getting rid of Qaddafi, but getting rid of the little Qaddafi inside of every Libyan.

EU Panders to Putin, Shelves Human Rights

On Monday and Tuesday, Yekaterinburg, Europe’s easternmost city, hosts the bilateral EU-Russia summit attended by the respective leaders—EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Van Rompuy, “there remains a lot of untapped potential to deepen our strategic partnership in all areas,” and the summit will focus in particular on “modernization, visas and mobility, and trade” as well as “measures to stimulate economic growth and jobs.” One of the main issues at the summit will be the negotiation of a new bilateral agreement between the EU and Russia.

The Kremlin shares Brussels’ optimism regarding the summit: Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow’s EU representative, has spoken of “a unique historical chance for our cooperation to move to a new level,” stressing his expectation that human rights will not come up for discussion to avoid “making the atmosphere toxic.”

Monuments, Ambiguity, and Double Standards

They’re smashing monuments in Ukraine again. In the eastern provinces, it’s Vladimir Lenin who’s under attack. In the western provinces, it’s usually Stepan Bandera, the leader of the interwar nationalist movement. Heads, fingers, and noses are being hacked away, tempers are flaring, activists are outraged. Meanwhile, Europeans and Americans are tut-tutting and wondering why those crazy Ukrainians don’t do things their way.

Which way would that be?

On a recent visit to Moscow, John Kerry let himself be photographed near Stalin’s bust. Indeed, the State Department released the photo with the following caption: “US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Chief of Protocol Yuriy Filatov, with US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul behind, walk past Joseph Stalin’s tomb in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on May 7, 2013.” What’s more disturbing—that Russia still has a Stalin monument in Red Square or that the State Department doesn’t see the problem with photographing Kerry near it?

Free Tibet Calls for Boycott of InterContinental Hotels

On Friday, the London-based advocacy group Free Tibet announced a boycott of InterContinental Hotels Group, the world’s largest hotel operator and owner of the Holiday Inn, Candlewood Suites, and Crowne Plaza brands. So, if you’re planning a stay at one of these hotels, Free Tibet urges that you go elsewhere.

The chain, which refers to itself as IHG, plans to open the InterContinental Resort Lhasa Paradise, a 2,000-room complex, next year. The boycott is based on Free Tibet’s demand that IHG withdraw “from Tibet because the hotel’s presence will be a PR coup for the Chinese government and will exacerbate oppression and economic marginalization of Tibetans.”

Women's Freedom and Islam

“There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

That’s an excerpt from The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood’s great dystopian novel about enslaved women (not the lousy dystopian movie based on the novel)—and just to show you how powerful it was and remains, six years after it first came out, the school superintendent of Judson, Texas, banned the book. Evidently a parent had complained that it was offensive to Christians and also sexually explicit.

The ban didn’t last, but every time I read about the fate of women in Afghanistan, the message of the book does, resonating with particular force these days: There’s nothing permanent or settled about a woman’s freedom in any country—least of all those countries where a single religion predominates and controls the fate of its female citizens.


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