Here We Go Again

The Israeli-Palestinian war is turning hot again, this time in response to the murder of three Israeli teenagers and one Palestinian boy.

Hamas is firing rockets at Israel. Israel is launching air strikes at Hamas. Maybe the Israelis will invade Gaza again and maybe they won’t. Either way, not a damn thing will be resolved by this fighting. Israel will stubbornly continue existing, as will Hamas.

A Lebanese friend of mine once asked me, “where are we going?” The “we” in that sentence referred to the people of Lebanon.

“In circles,” I said.

He smiled because he knew that I understood, that I had broken free of what Jeffrey Goldberg calls “solutionism,” an analytical error common among Americans who believe all problems are solvable.

Some problems are solvable. Lots of problems are solvable. We beat the Nazis and flew to the moon. But poverty, divorce, and the Middle East crisis are always with us. I won’t be the least bit surprised if cancer is cured before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One of the reasons I took a detour in Southeast Asia is because I needed a mental health break from a region that doesn’t get better. Vietnam is improving at the same speed Syria is disintegrating. Egypt is back where it started, Iraq has turned into a furnace again, and Gaza is still…well, it’s Gaza.

The Middle East is going in circles, but it’s not going away and it’s not going to leave us alone.

Back a Bit Early from Vietnam

A medical emergency forced me to return home from Vietnam a bit early, but I’m okay now and at least I got most of what I needed and wanted from Hanoi. I was hoping to spend a few days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to round things out, but alas that was not in the cards.

This is the first time I’ve ever had to go home early for any reason, let alone a medical reason, but I’ve been doing this for ten years now so I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.

No need to worry about me. I really am okay now, and I do have some good material to work with. Vietnam is a fascinating place and it will be great fun to write about. Just give me a bit of time to organize my notes, transcribe some interviews, etc.

North Korea to Counter China’s Bold Play for Seoul

Xi Jinping arrived in Seoul today on a groundbreaking trip.

Analysts in Asia, where symbolism is closely watched, invest the visit with great significance. Xi, after all, is the first Chinese leader to travel to the South Korean capital before going to Pyongyang. “The message,” says John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul, “is that if North Korea continues to keep Beijing at a distance and not work harder to keep China happy, then China will tilt towards South Korea.”

The oft-quoted Delury is undoubtedly correct, and his remark suggests that China thinks it can ultimately shape events to its liking. Most everyone outside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the North calls itself, agrees, believing Beijing to be the main actor on the Korean peninsula.

Could ISIS Force an Israeli Intervention?

Having declared a caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria, the Sunni jihadists of ISIS may now pose a threat to the kingdom of Jordan. If they do, Israel will feel its own interests would be directly threatened, and could ultimately intervene.

Watching the Arab Spring degenerate into sectarian slaughter, Israel has sought to protect itself from the chaos, and, above all, avoid being sucked into the tribal, religious, and sectarian conflicts that have been eroding the Sykes-Picot borders and are now dissolving the “countries” established after 1918.

However, the victories of ISIS, its thrust southward, and its open threat to overthrow Jordan’s King Abdullah could change all that. If the ISIS danger to Jordan becomes real and present, Israel may feel compelled to respond.

Ukrainians Die, as Europe Coos

Excuse the lurid title, but it’s only a variant of a headline that appeared many years ago in a New York tabloid: “Mother Dies, as Baby Coos.” I can’t speak for the accuracy of that headline, but today’s variant is, alas, all too valid. Because the fact is that Ukrainian soldiers are dying at the hands of Vladimir Putin’s terrorist hirelings as European states—and the European Union—are engaging the Kremlin with baby talk and diplo-babble.

Twenty-seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed by the terrorists during the cease-fire declared by President Petro Poroshenko more than a week ago (and which he ended on June 30th). Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, liked the cease-fire and wanted it to continue. What’s not to like from the Kremlin’s twisted point of view? As the terrorists continued to shoot at Ukrainians, Ukrainian soldiers continued to be sacrificed at the altar of diplo-babble.

Putin’s Chess War

MOSCOW — Just as during the Cold War, when sporting competitions between the free world and the Communist camp inevitably acquired a political dimension, big sport is increasingly becoming big politics for Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the ongoing campaign for the presidency of FIDE, the World Chess Federation, that will be decided at the congress in Tromso, Norway, on August 11th.

On the Desert's Edge

The Moroccan American Center recently took me to Morocco and the Western Sahara. The following dispatch is the result of that trip.  

On the West Coast of Africa, directly across the Atlantic Ocean from Cuba, is the region known as the Western Sahara, one of the few remaining on earth that isn’t recognized as part of a nation-state.

It is administered by Morocco yet claimed by the Polisario, a guerrilla army hatched by Fidel Castro and Moammar Qaddafi that fought to take over from colonial Spain in 1975 and transform it into a communist state. The Polisario lost the shooting part of its war to Morocco, but the fat lady hasn’t even made her way to the dressing room yet.

You wouldn’t know by walking around that Western Sahara is the epicenter of what’s often (erroneously) compared with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor would you see any evidence that the cities, such as they are, were recently slums ruled by a police state.

You certainly wouldn’t guess, if you didn’t already know, that Western Sahara is still darkened by the long shadow of the Cold War or that the place still quietly bleeds from the unhealed wounds cut by Qaddafi and Castro, but foreign correspondents almost never go down there, and governments outside North Africa rarely give the problem more than a single passing thought every couple of years.

Western Sahara’s citizens don’t know how to suffer in ways that stir activists or make headlines, but they are suffering. Tens of thousands are to this day held in refugee camps—which are really more like concentration camps—across the border in Algeria. They’ve been living in squalor as hostages in one of the planet’s most inhospitable places almost as long as I’ve been alive.

Hardly anyone on earth has ever heard of them.


I flew down there from the Moroccan capital in early 2014 and could see from the air that I was about to land in a place no closer to anywhere else of significance on land than Ascension Island way out in the Atlantic. 

The city of Dakhla, my destination, is a bubble of sorts. It’s a seaside town on the edge of the Sahara Desert and closer to Africa’s tropical forests than to the Mediterranean on the continent’s north coast, yet the climate is near-perfect. The average high temperature in January is room temperature, and even in August it’s just 82 degrees Fahrenheit—the same summer high as in the mild Pacific Northwest. The cool waters of the Atlantic create a razor-thin coastal microclimate that spares Dakhla’s people from the infernal heat of the desert that broils alive anyone who dares venture far from the beach.

Few live out in the wasteland. Western Sahara is one of the world’s least-densely populated areas. It’s two-thirds the size of California, but only 800,000 people live in the whole of it, fewer than in metropolitan Omaha.

The area has virtually no resources to speak of. When Spain pulled out there was fewer than fifty miles of paved road and one schoolhouse. Dakhla was little more than an army base with a couple of stores outside the gates surrounded by ocean and sand.

It was a ghastly place until recently, filled with shantytowns typical of the poorest regions of Africa. People lived in cinderblock houses with no running water or electricity. And it was repressed.

“I went down there in 1998,” a retired diplomat said to me in Rabat, “and I counted 35 policemen in four blocks. I couldn’t go anywhere without being followed. It wasn’t possible to have even a peaceful demonstration without getting beaten up by the police.”

The Moroccan government has eased up dramatically in the meantime just as it has up north, and most of Dakhla is brand-new. A huge percentage of Sahrawis—the Berbers, Tuaregs, and Arabs of the Northwestern Sahara—were nomads well past the mid-point of the 20th century, but nearly all of them are now urban. 

Dakhla during my lifetime has mushroomed from a remote Spanish outpost into proper city of more than 85,000 people. Most have lived there for only one or two generations. Few are wealthy, but I saw none of the squalor typical of rapid urban migration in so many developing countries. Morocco has invested an enormous amount of money in the Sahara to make Dakhla livable, not just by building infrastructure and housing but by investing in parks and a new promenade on the waterfront lined with palm trees.

I’d get bored after a while if I lived there—Dakhla is provincial, small, and conservative—but I doubt I’d have many other complaints. The city is clean, friendly, and aesthetically adequate. Buildings and houses tend to be rectangular and consist of only the simplest ornamentation, but they’re painted in various desert hues and that’s enough. Everything seems to work. European tourists love the place for its outstanding kite-surfing, desert adventure tourism, and film and music festivals, and they bring a hint of cosmopolitan sensibility to the place that it would otherwise lack.

“Why did nomadism disappear now,” I asked a local man, “instead of decades earlier or decades in the future?”

“It’s the 21st century,” he said and shrugged. As good an answer as any, I suppose. Why shouldn’t the Sahrawis live in houses with televisions and Internet and drive cars to work like most of the rest of the world?

On weekends, though, families like to return to the desert. Their hearts still reside in the wildness of the Sahara.

Dakhla would be a great place for a day trip from Spain’s nearby Canary Islands if it had ferry service, but a deep sadness soaks into its bones. The war with the Polisario is frozen, but it is not over.

The Polisario was founded as a popular movement in 1973 to resist Spain’s colonization in what was then known as Spanish Sahara. Its primary sponsors were Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi and Soviet-backed Algeria.

In the fall of 1975, the Moroccan government orchestrated the Green March, a non-violent yet Godzilla-sized demonstration. Hundreds of thousands of citizens crossed the border on foot and walked several miles inside Spanish-occupied territory demanding General Franco’s forces withdraw. Spain did leave later that month, Franco died less than a week later, and the war between the Polisario and Morocco was on.

Thousands of refugees fled across the Algerian border and set up a constellation of camps, mostly outside the desert city of Tindouf, but—as expected of the proxies of Castro and Qaddafi—Polisario leaders soon turned those camps into prisons.

The conflict could have escalated into an American-Soviet proxy war, but Moscow was content to let Cuba, Libya, and Algeria handle it, and Washington figured correctly that Morocco could win on its own.

Tens of thousands of Sahrawis still live in the camps, some as willing refugees, most as hostages. If they want to go home—and most of them do—they’ll have to escape and risk imprisonment, torture, and occasionally murder.

The so-called Moroccan Wall—a ten-foot high barrier in the desert made of sand, stone, fencing, and land mines—separates Western Sahara from Polisario territory. Every single Moroccan-Algerian border crossing is closed, and the Polisario, in cahoots with the Algerians, hunts down everybody who runs.


Abdelatif Bendahane knows Africa better than just about anyone. He was the director of African Affairs at Morocco’s foreign ministry and works today as an unofficial advisor to the president of Burkina Faso.

He and I talked politics over coffee.

“Morocco was once an empire from Tangier to Senegal,” he said as he leaned back expansively. “The nomadic tribes in the Sahara always had good relations with the sultan in Rabat. Mauritania used to be part of the Moroccan Empire. There was no such entity as Mauritania before 1960. Today it’s independent, so some think it’s plausible that Western Sahara might also one day become independent.”

France ruled what is now Mauritania until 1960, and the French left Morocco in 1956 after 44 years of occupation, but the Spanish held onto their in-between piece of the Sahara until 1975. Morocco has no designs on Mauritania, but it chaps Rabat’s hide that its reacquisition of Western Sahara in the wake of the Spanish withdrawal hasn’t been recognized internationally, partly because the conflict is a relic of the now long-dead Cold War and also because from Morocco’s point of view the region has been liberated after a long colonial occupation.

The only reason the conflict  still simmers is because Algeria won’t let it go.

“The problem is between Morocco and Algeria,” he said, “not between Morocco and the Polisario. Without Algeria the Polisario wouldn’t exist. Algeria’s government used to be leftist and socialist. It’s not anymore, but their hegemonic ambitions are exactly the same. To this day there is no settled border between Algeria and Morocco. They want a federation with Western Sahara so they will have an Atlantic sea port. They believe this might actually happen.”

But it can’t happen unless somebody first forces out the Moroccans. And the Moroccans are no more likely to leave the Sahara than the United States will ever leave Texas. Franco’s Spain never considered Western Sahara an integral part of its territory, but Morocco does rightly or wrongly. “Imagine if Spanish-speakers in the US voted to secede,” he said. “Washington would never accept it.”

But since no country in the world recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the area, Rabat is making a compromise offer of autonomy under the umbrella of sovereignty. The Sahrawis could run their own affairs, and unlike under Polisario rule, they could do so democratically. Morocco could hold onto territory. And the stability Western Sahara currently enjoys as an extension of Morocco’s wouldn’t be lost. 

It’s the best deal the Polisario is ever going to get.

But Algiers thinks it’s all a zero-sum game, that any gain for Morocco comes at the mathematical expense of Algeria. That’s nonsense on stilts. All countries are better off with friends and allies as neighbors rather than enemies, but the Algerian regime, warmed up Soviet holdover that it is, hasn’t figured that out yet.

There was a brief period when Western Sahara might have slipped from Morocco’s grasp had things gone a bit differently. The Polisario was once much more popular than it is now, but it’s hard to gauge how popular or not the Polisario is today because no vote has ever been held on the question.

The Polisario won’t accept a referendum on the status of Western Sahara if everyone who lives there gets to vote, and Morocco won’t accept a referendum on the Polisario’s terms because it would disenfranchise anybody who didn’t live there before 1975, including all the Sahrawis who were forced out of the territory by the Spanish occupation.

The Sahrawis hold their own local elections, however, and they vote for their own representatives in the Moroccan capital, but Polisario Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz writes letters to Ban Ki Moon asking the UN to put a stop to it. (The man really does take his opinions and style from Castro and Qaddafi.)

“The Polisario might have won the vote on their terms if it was based on their restricted voter list during the reign of Hassan II,” Bendahane said. “Western Sahara was a police state back then. Today it’s different. The Polisario would suffer a crushing defeat if everybody could vote. That’s why there has not been a vote.”

“What do the other North African countries think of all this?” I said.

“Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Mali are all with Morocco,” he said.  “Mauritania fears Algerian power and splits the difference, supporting both sides more or less equally.”

In some ways the status quo should be fine from Rabat’s point of view because Morocco will never leave the Sahara and no one will ever force out Morocco. But the Cold War with Algeria makes the creation of a functioning and stable North Africa all but impossible while the region festers with chaos and violence that even with a non-perfect storm could metastasize. 


Former Moroccan political prisoner Driss el-Yazami says Morocco was in bad shape during the rule of the previous king, Hassan II, and that Western Sahara under his rule was even worse. “In the 60s and 70s,” he said when I met him in his office in Rabat, “we had huge tension between leftists and the monarchy. The leftists wanted to kill the king and were armed by Algeria and Qaddafi. We had disappearances, detention centers, secret trials. Socialist newspapers were censored and I was sentenced to life in prison.”

He’s out now and is President of Morocco’s National Council for Human Rights created by the younger and more-liberal King Mohammad VI after his father died.

“In the mid-1990s political prisoners were released and we began the process of democratization,” he said. “Sometimes it goes too slow, in my opinion, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

The Polisario, though, isn’t moving in any direction. The organization has apparently junked its ideas about Marxist-Leninist economics—it’s hard to build a dictatorship of the proletariat in a refugee camp whose only industry is smuggling—but its totalitarian structure remains intact.

Dakhla native Mohammad Cherif experienced that at its worst. He spent more than a decade with the Polisario—first as a willing recruit, then as a prisoner.

Growing up under Spanish colonialism, he found the Polisario’s demands for independence compelling, and he signed on in 1977. “Their propaganda appealed to a lot of people,” he told me.

He left Dakhla in 1978. After six months of military training the Polisario sent him to Libya where he trained three more years at a military academy.

But he’d barely even finished when he was arrested in 1981 for criticizing the Polisario leadership and scurrilously accused of collaborating with Moroccan security. “They use that tactic against people whenever they have trouble in the camps.”

The guards tossed him down a hole, slammed a grate over the top, and left him there for five years.

“I had no name in the hole,” he said. “They called me by a number.”

They permitted him no contact whatsoever with the outside world. He used a bucket for a toilet and had his hands tied behind his back at all times. “They wouldn’t let me sleep,” he said. “For five years I hardly slept. The guards banged on the grate every hour at night and forced me to yell out I’m here.” Whenever they dragged him out, usually to torture and interrogate him, they put a sack over his face so he couldn’t see anything or anyone else.

Their questions rarely even made sense.

“They hanged me from the ceiling by my wrists and ankles and whipped me,” he said. “I had to make up stories just to get them to stop. They’d leave me alone for a month to let my body heal, then start again.”

Pressure from his family, some of whom were senior Polisario members in good standing, finally got him out of that hole. He asked if he could rejoin the army, but there was no chance they’d give him a gun, so they sent him instead to the Polisario Embassy in Algiers and then on to Spain’s Canary Islands where he managed to escape to the Netherlands. 

“The Polisario are not the representatives of the Sahrawi people,” he said. “They are the torturers of the Sahrawi people.”


For decades the Polisario has been shipping Sahrawi children to Cuba for indoctrination at the primary source. Maghlaha Dlimi was one of them, but she’s home now in Dakhla and she agreed to meet me for coffee and talk about it.

I was keenly interested in what she had to say, partly because I had just returned from Cuba myself, which ties with Qaddafi’s Libya as the most repressive country I’ve ever visited. It says a great deal about the Polisario and its ideological severity that those two countries were its principal backers when it was founded.

“They sent me to Cuba when I was ten years old,” she said. My flawed Spanish is about as good as her flawed English, so we hobbled along in both languages. “First to the Isle of Youth, then to Santa Clara, then to Camaguey. This was in the 1980s. I got there on a Russian boat from Algeria with 3,000 other kids.”

She took Spanish lessons in the camps before heading over. Children who struggled with the language went to Algeria, Syria, Libya, Russia, or Yugoslavia—all communist or communist-aligned countries.

Ostensibly she went to Cuba for school since better teachers were available than in the refugee camps, but that wasn’t really the reason.

“I had no idea until I got there,” she said, “but the real purpose was to indoctrinate me with communist ideology. We also received military training, girls as well as boys. None of us wanted to stay. We wanted a real education.”

She didn’t get one. Nor did the other Sahrawi children. Castro’s education of children from across the ocean wasn’t a charity mission. He used them as pawns in one of his grand adventures in Africa. Western Sahara was but his latest. Havana’s men, including Che Guevara, trained guerrillas in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the Congo. Cuba even sent soldiers into Angola

“The Polisario wanted to impose a communist structure on nomadic populations,” she said. “I don’t believe that has changed. The same people are the leaders today as when I was young. There are still Sahrawi children in Cuba right now.”

She wanted to study journalism and translation in school, but they wouldn’t let her. “I got good grades, but they said no. Only kids who were part of the Polisario cadre could choose what to study. They forced me to study education and teach Spanish.”

The leadership eventually sent her to Spain and she managed to escape through the Moroccan Embassy in Madrid.

Her cousins are still there, but her brothers and sisters made it out. Her oldest brother fled first, in 1997, then organized escapes for everyone else.

“It’s impossible for an entire family to get out at once,” she said. “And when one family member leaves, they keep a close eye on the rest. We don’t dare tell anyone we’re planning to leave, not even our parents. There is no family intimacy in the camps. You never know if one of your brothers or sisters will rat you out to the guards.”


The Polisario is the self-styled representative of the Sahrawis, but Khallihanna Amar has a much stronger case since he was elected to the local community council in Dakhla.

He too is one of the Polisario’s former prisoners.

They scooped him up the first time he tried to escape from the camps in 1995. “They interrogated me for a month,” he told me. “Over and over again they asked why I was trying to leave and where I was going.”

Surely, I said, the Polisario has an ass-covering excuse for not letting prisoners leave that makes at least some vague sense ideologically. They still refuse to admit they’re holding even a single soul hostage.

“Of course,” he said. “If you try to leave they accuse you of being a counter-revolutionary and a Moroccan agent. My father was accused of collaborating with the Mauritanian resistance and sent to a re-education camp. And for my second escape attempt I paid a smuggler to take me to the Mali-Mauritanian border. Traffickers there smuggle humanitarian aid, cigarettes, and everything else. I worked my way up the coast and walked past a minefield to the Moroccan border. The Moroccan soldiers saw me coming and grabbed me.”

Western Sahara is not a police state anymore, but not everyone who followed the conflict in the early days when it made headlines are aware of that yet. Dakhla isn’t exactly a hotspot for foreign correspondents. It’s more than 1,000 miles down the West African coast from Tangier and pinned in the middle of nowhere by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a Mars-like desert bigger than the United States on the other. It takes twenty hours to drive there from Rabat, about as long as it takes to drive from Seattle to Los Angeles. Aside from European kite-surfers, hardly anyone ever goes there.

I had to wonder, though, if I was being fooled by cosmetic relaxation that didn’t go very far. It happens. My thoughts kept returning to Cuba, not only because the Castro regime backs the Polisario but because I had recently been in Cuba myself and know all too well how many people visit on holiday and think everything’s fine when it’s not. It’s at least theoretically possible that repression in Western Sahara is simply less obvious than it used to be, as in Cuba, and therefore more insidious.

The lack of men with guns on the streets does not by itself mean it isn’t oppressive. I didn’t see men with guns in Havana, but Cuba has the worst human rights record by far in the Western Hemisphere. I was sitting across the table from a man who had been elected to the local community council in a multiparty election, though, so how bad could it be?

“When I came back,” he said, “I found that I still had all my social, political, and economic rights. And I got elected to the council. So no, I’m not being oppressed. No one here is oppressed. But there are young people who know nothing about the camps and who demonstrate against Morocco because the Sahara is not independent. They are like me when I was fourteen and Che Guevara was my hero. I didn’t listen to anybody back then.”

Morocco’s government isn’t like Cuba’s. It holds free and fair elections with a range of parties to choose from across the political spectrum. The Polisario runs an asteroid belt of actual police states in the camps across the border inside Algeria, which itself is smothered by a Soviet-style regime. That’s where you’ll find the Cuban analogue in North Africa, which makes perfect sense since the Polisario is partly a creature of Castro.

“Conditions in the camps are miserable,” Amar said. “People are living in tents and mud buildings built by Moroccan slave labor. Food is only available depending on what kind of relations people have with the leadership. There are constant epidemics. And they’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

Try to imagine living like that in the hottest place in the world. The climate in Dakhla is near-perfect thanks to the cool winds off the Atlantic, but go just a few miles inland and you’ll feel like you’ve stuck your face in front of an open oven on broil.

“What do people do all day in the camps?” I said.

“The Polisario gave us a schedule to occupy our time and our minds,” he said. “Men get military training. Woman are organized into committees for education, distribution of humanitarian aid, and social relations.” The disgraceful use of child soldiers in Sub-Saharan Africa is well documented, but they’re up north, too, out in the desert. “Children begin military training at age ten. They are taught how to take apart an AK-47 and put it back together blindfolded.”

Morocco’s human rights record is far from perfect. Freedom House ranks the country as “partly free” rather than “free.” But the Polisario’s patron states stomp on human faces with boots as a matter of course. It’s fine and good to be skeptical of the Moroccan government, its reforms, and its claims, but that goes double for Cuba, Algeria, and the Polisario.

“We want American guarantees to Morocco so we can fix this,” Amar said. “People here have suffered a great deal since the mid-1970s. We want peace and security and to have our families together again. What purpose has been served all these years by keeping our families hostage in those camps?”

North Africa is so close to Europe. The two continents can see each other across the Strait of Gibraltar. Yet they are politically, socially, and economically thousands of miles apart.

The entire Sahara-Sahel region is unstable. Egypt is ruled again by a military dictatorship. Libya is on the verge of total disintegration a la Somalia. Algeria is mired in a Soviet time warp. Northern Mali was recently taken over by Taliban-style terrorists so vicious they prompted the French to invade. At the time of this writing, US troops are hunting Nigeria’s Al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram across the border in Chad.

Tunisia is doing okay, but it’s small. Aside from Morocco, the entire northern half of Africa is a disaster. Most of the continent, really, is still a disaster, but North Africa matters more to the West because it’s the southern half of the Mediterranean. The region isn’t Las Vegas—what happens there doesn’t stay there and never has.

The region’s potential is obvious to everyone who has seen it at its best. Marrakech in Morocco, Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia, Ghadames in Libya—these are some of the world’s most beautiful places, and they’re inhabited by the some of the friendliest and most personally delightful people I’ve ever met.

Well into the 21st century, though, there is still more darkness than light, even in the blazing Sahara. Military dictators, Islamist mass-murderers, human traffickers, gun-runners, thuggish communist proxy militias, and kidnappers run roughshod and wild. The city of Dakhla has managed to keep it all at some distance, but it’s fragile. On most maps Western Sahara is nothing but a geographic abstraction.

That can’t possibly last.

Maybe, perhaps even during my lifetime, North Africa will realize its potential and flourish with the freedom and prosperity on the other side of the Mediterranean, but that time is not yet. Not even Morocco—the most stable and civilized state in the region by far—has managed to permanently secure its backyard yet.

“What would happen,” I said to Amar, “if the Sahara became independent and the Polisario, one way or another, became the government?”

“An instant civil war,” he said, “and an instant failed state.”

Post-script: If you enjoyed reading this dispatch and learned something, please consider contributing with a donation. Many thanks in advance!

Europe's Reigning Elites Defy Voters, Reform at Their Peril

After the uprising on June 17th,
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Upon which was to be read that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only reclaim it
Through redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
Still for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

—Bertolt Brecht, “The Solution”

In 2013 a Pew opinion poll discovered that “the European project now stands in disrepute across much of Europe.”

The uprising itself came during the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament. The virulently anti-EU UKIP won in the UK while the National Front, which accuses the EU of being a “totalitarian state,” topped the poll in France.

Study Finds Chinese Economy a Third Smaller Than Claimed

In a report released on June 20th, the business research organization Conference Board recalculates Chinese gross domestic product going back to 1952. Economist Harry Wu estimates that China from 1978 to 2012 grew an average of 7.2 percent a year. Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics reports 9.8 percent average annual growth during that period.

Wu believes that official numbers for 1952 to 1977 are generally accurate, at least when considered over the period as a whole. China’s figures, therefore, have become less reliable over time.

The discrepancy in the 1978–2012 period, which roughly conforms to the so-called “reform” era, is largely the result of Beijing’s inadequate adjustment of nominal results to account for price changes. Recently, many economists, most notably Christopher Balding of Peking University, have come to similar conclusions, that Beijing underestimates inflation when it calculates what is known as “real”—i.e., price-adjusted—GDP.

Bawdy Lyrics Mock Putin in Ukraine

Ukrainians have taken to fighting back against Russia’s fascistoid dictator, Vladimir Putin, with obscenities and humor. A Ukrainian psychiatrist I recently saw on Ukrainian TV calls such behavior psychologically healthy during periods of “extreme stress”—an understatement for the savage war Putin and his terrorists have unleashed against Ukraine. The American social scientist James C. Scott might call both obscenity and humor “weapons of the weak.” Whatever you call them, they’re spreading like wildfire across Ukraine.

The case in point is a song or, more exactly, a chant that goes like this:

Putin khuylo
La-la la-la la-la la-la

“Khuylo” is the extremely vulgar Ukrainian term for penis. Its equivalents in English are well known (and, for the sake of my more sensitive readers, will go unmentioned). The words have been translated as “Putin is a d—khead” or as “Putin is a d—k,” but I prefer “Putin is a pr—k.” “D—khead” and “d—k” connote stupidity; “pr—k” connotes nastiness. And, I suspect, most Ukrainians view Putin as a nasty piece of work.

Google Case Highlights Inscrutable EU Court

As thousands of requests poured in to Google in Europe to remove links to published personal information in compliance with the European Court of Justice ruling in May, there was no way of knowing which of the 13 judges on the bench had voted in favor of the landmark decision, and which against—if any.

What a difference from the US Supreme Court, to which the EU court is often compared. In the so-called “right to be forgotten” case against Google and other search engines in Europe, the Luxembourg-based court announced its ruling, and that was that. There was no indication whether any judge disagreed with the majority decision, because any dissenting view remains the secret of the court.

This, say European law experts, is one reason why it’s virtually impossible to profile judges in the increasingly influential European Court based on their past opinions, as frequently happens with the justices of the US Supreme Court.

The Consequences of Syria

The Syrian civil war is no longer the Syrian civil war. It's a regional war that started in Syria, has expanded into Lebanon and Iraq, and has drawn in the Iranians and to a lesser extent the Kurds and the Israelis.

Wars in North Africa tend to stay local, but wars in the Levant spill over and suck in the neighbors. There's no reason to believe this war has finished expanding or that an end is in sight.

Lee Smith's new short book, The Consequences of Syria, is about how we got here. Lee is a friend of mine. He and I met nine years ago in Beirut and have traveled elsewhere in the region together. We argue about the Middle East sometimes, but we agree with each other often enough that our arguments are interesting and productive.

We spoke by phone recently.

MJT: Tell us about your book.

Lee Smith: It’s a long essay commissioned by the Hoover Institution, specifically by Charles Hill, one of our country’s great statesmen and historians of grand strategy, as well as Fouad Ajami, who died Sunday at the age of 68. Not only was Ajami a great historian of the modern Middle East, he is also one of the great English language prose stylists. He wrote about the region, but like any writer his real subject was about the human condition, that is, man’s struggle with freedom. It was a huge honor that he and Mr. Hill included me in the Hoover series, “The Great Unraveling: The Remaking of the Middle East,” and I am indebted to them both, professionally and even more so personally. What an honor to get to work with them and other authors in the series, including a book by one of our mutual friends, Samuel Tadros, Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt.

My essay is an account of the Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011 as a peaceful protest movement. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired on unarmed opposition members, the uprising eventually became a rebellion as the opposition took up arms, and the conflict escalated into a full-scale civil war. That’s one aspect of the book.

The other part of the book concerns the Obama administration’s Syria policy, which has been one of neglect and mendacity. The administration has repeatedly misled the American public, the American media, and allies around the world about its intentions.

MJT: Give us an example.

Lee Smith: Look at what happened in May before the president’s speech at West Point. Various media outlets quoted unnamed sources that suggested the president was going to arm and train the rebels.

The president and his administration have been saying this for two and a half years now, most notably in June 2013 when Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said in a conference call with reporters that the administration was ramping up its military support for the rebels.

Again and again, reporters asked Rhodes if that meant the administration was going to arm the rebels. Rhodes said he couldn’t give us an exact “inventory”—a word he used at least three times—of the assistance the administration would provide. Major media—the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times, etc.—reported that the White House was indeed going to arm the rebels, but this was all attributed to anonymous sources, which means that there absolutely nothing at stake if the information proved incomplete, inaccurate or just plain false. It was only months later when we found out from interviews with various rebel commanders that no American arms had been received.

Here it’s worth saying something about the press as well. I would have hoped that after the administration pulled similar stunts over the last few years regarding Syria that editors would’ve demanded more from their reporters. For instance, “Look, these guys are using us as part of an information operation to keep their domestic opponents and foreign allies off guard. We can’t keep publishing these stories straight anymore without someone going on the record and staking their reputation to it. At the very least we have to note that this may be part of a pattern of inaccuracies we’ve already seen with this White House regarding Syria policy.”

But of course no one did anything of the sort, and the US media has a lot of egg on their face for it. This White House has been bad for the press, and the readership’s faith in our press, but it seems most journalists don’t much care.

MJT: Why would the administration mislead everyone instead of just coming out and saying Syria is a mess that we don’t want to get sucked into? That’s the popular position in the United States right now. Plenty of people on both the left and the right would applaud him for that. Why the shenanigans?

Lee Smith: That’s a very good question. Maybe it’s because the administration is worried its foreign policy will haunt it in the mid-term elections. But then again the administration and a lot of its media surrogates keep saying the American public doesn’t care about foreign policy. And yet other polls show the American public does consider foreign policy an important factor in their decision.

My belief is that we Americans do care about foreign policy, more specifically about America’s role in the world, but we have come to distrust our leadership. Not just Obama but also Republicans, and that’s why I think Rand Paul is getting so much traction. His idea, which I don’t agree with at all, is at least clear: We should stay out of other people’s conflicts.

Compare that, for instance, to the Democratic frontrunner for 2016, Hillary Clinton. She says all the right things about a strong America projecting our values in the world, but, as we saw in the recent Diane Sawyer interview, Clinton will take no responsibility at all for anything that happened at Benghazi. So it doesn’t matter if she talks tough about our foreign policy—who can possibly trust someone to lead us into the world if that person’s primary interest is covering her own tail?

MJT: The White House’s Syria policy is about Iran, isn’t it?

Lee Smith: Part of it of course is that Obama understands himself as the man whose job is to get us out of entanglements in the Middle East, not to further commit American troops and resources. Still—yes, a large part of it has to do with Iran.

As I explain in The Consequences of Syria, there’s evidence suggesting that the administration feared that helping topple Assad, an ally of Iran, might have angered the Iranians and pushed them away from the negotiating table, and getting a deal with Iran was the White House’s chief goal in the Middle East.

Look at other exampled of how the White House wanted to stay on the regime’s good side. When the Green Movement took to the streets in June 2009 to protest what was quite likely fraudulent election results, the White House was extremely slow to support it even when the regime was attacking people on the streets just as the Assad regime did a few years later.

One of the reasons the administration was slow to respond—and we know this because it was reported in the New Yorker article that first put forth the now-infamous phrase “leading from behind”—is because, as one administration official put it, the White House wanted to negotiate with the regime. Same with sanctions relief, which the White House provided to keep the Iranians at the table.

It’s hard not to conclude that the administration’s Syria policy is a sub-set of its Iran policy. Many people were baffled for a long time, including me, that the president didn’t seem to see Syria strategically, as a way to weaken Iran. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis said that toppling Bashar al-Assad would constitute the most severe blow against the Iranian regime in 25 years. A number of administration officials seemed to recognize the same thing—from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and ex-CIA director David Petraeus. Only the president seemed to not recognize that or to see Syria in a strategic framework. What we now realize is that the president does see Syria in a strategic framework. He sees that the Syrian regime is an important ally of the Iranians and doesn’t want to be seen toppling the regime for fear of angering the Iranians.

MJT: Is there any chance that the White House is going to get what it wants from the Iranians this way?

Lee Smith: If we have a powerful American presence in the Middle East it might be possible to come to some sort of accommodation with Iran. I don’t know exactly what it would look like. But it would have to be demonstrated that the United States still calls the shots in the Persian Gulf and that the United States is still the great power in the Middle East.

What we’re seeing instead is a United States in retreat in the Middle East. So I don’t see what the accommodation would look like. It’s not a grand bargain with Iran, but an American fire sale, with the US virtually giving away its assets. The US is retreating from the region and leaving it in Iranian hands.

This is what Obama’s twin-pillars’ policy is about. In various interviews the president has described a new regional framework, a new geopolitical equilibrium, that balances Iran against the Sunni states in the Persian Gulf. This is precisely the idea the impoverished Brits had when they were on their way out of the Persian Gulf at the end of the 1960s. The problem is that there is no way to balance them—Saudi Arabia is incapable of projecting power without American backing. For instance, Riyadh has no equivalent of the IRGC’s Quds Force, its external operations unit, responsible for Iran’s war in Syria, as well as terrorist operations. Accordingly, when the White House says it’s aiming to “balance,” what US allies hear is that the US, like the Brits nearly half a century ago, are on their way out of the region, and are leaving it in Iran’s hands.

Consider how the administration has effectively partnered with Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq.

In Lebanon, for instance, American intelligence has teamed up with the Lebanese Armed Forces’ military intelligence, which is at present controlled by Hezbollah. So the United States is indirectly aligned with Hezbollah in Lebanon against Sunni fighters.

In Iraq we’ve seen the same thing. Up until the ISIS-led takeover of Mosul, the White House supported Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni policy, even though his allies include Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups with American blood on their hands.

MJT: Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria recently took over Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq along with some other cities. They're not as big a strategic threat as Iran right now, but they can certainly turn into one, can't they?

Lee Smith: Let’s be a bit more specific. What we’re seeing in cities like Mosul is a Sunni rebellion against Maliki and the Iranians. In addition to ISIS, there are also former Baath party figures, like one of Saddam’s deputies, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, as well as Sunni tribes. ISIS would appear to be playing the role of Sunni shock troops, who are dispatched to the fronts to terrorize and create havoc. Behind them are the Baathis and the tribes. It was Maliki and the Iranians, in particular Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who made this possible.

The American-led surge of 2006-7 was a success because it got the tribes to fight, and defeat, Al Qaeda in Iraq. What Maliki and the Iranians have done is unite the tribes and ISIS through their anti-Sunni policies. And so now the administration has a dilemma. As it has argued repeatedly regarding Syria, from their perspective the big issue in the Middle East is counter-terrorism against Al Qaeda and the Sunni jihadis. There’s no doubt Al Qaeda is a problem for the United States, but it’s not a strategic threat like Iran and the Iranian resistance axis.

Compare the two: Al Qaeda and Iran’s government are both radical Islamists, but the difference is that Al Qaeda doesn’t have the strategic resources of state at its disposal like Iran and its allies, including Islamists like Hezbollah as well as the Iraqi armed groups like Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, do.

A radical Sunni who wants to establish a caliphate, yelling Allahu Akbar with a black flag in one hand and a Kalashnikov in his other hand is crazy and dangerous, but he’s not a strategic threat. How does that caliphate, assuming such a thing is even possible, affect how Americans live? Are they going to impose sharia on us? Are our female friends and relatives going to be forced to wear a veil because of what some guy in Aleppo says?

When people worry that Sunni Islamists want to create a caliphate in the Middle East they seem to forget that we already have a clerical regime in Iran. What they’re afraid might happen has already happened. And the concern coming out of Tehran isn’t sharia, but the fact that a nuclear weapons program in the hands of an expansionist regime gives them a dangerous say in the flow of energy resources through the Persian Gulf. They don’t have to actually use a bomb to destabilize the region and raise the price of energy around the world. That’s the danger—that Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf will affect how Americans, and our trading partners, live.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is an already-existing Islamist power, with an army, a navy, an air force, a ballistic missile program, a nuclear weapons program. They have a diplomatic corps as well as a terrorist apparatus. Al Qaeda doesn’t have any of that. Iran is the key strategic threat in the Middle East for American interests and American allies.

MJT: So on balance do you think we would be better off if Al Qaeda ended up controlling Syria or parts of Syria as long as bringing down Assad delivers a big enough blow to Iran.

Lee Smith: Well, I think it’s unlikely Al Qaeda winds up running all of Syria, but if they do, great. If anything comes out of there endangering American citizens, allies, or interests, then that Al Qaeda controlled Syria, presumably with its capital in Damascus, winds up paying a very steep price.

I think that American foreign policy works most efficiently when it prioritizes threats. Few people believed during World War II that Joseph Stalin was a great guy, but the immediate threat to the United States, its interests, and its allies came from the Nazis, so we aligned ourselves with the Soviet Union until Hitler was defeated, then we waged a Cold War against the Soviets for nearly half a century. That’s how American foreign policy works best.

Sarah Palin said she’s content to let Allah sort things out in Syria between Iran and Al Qaeda, but Allah doesn’t always sort things out according to American interests.

The Obama administration is prioritizing threats, but it’s prioritizing the wrong threat. It’s prioritizing a group of non-state actors over a state.

MJT: So what would you do if you were in charge of our Syria policy?

Lee Smith: The first thing I’d do is knock the Syrian air force out of commission. Make sure it can never get off the ground. Even the people worried about Al Qaeda taking over Syria shouldn’t have an objection to that. If Al Qaeda takes over Syria, do we want them to inherit an air force?

MJT: Of course not.

Lee Smith: It’s unlikely that Al Qaeda will take over Syria anyway. The jihadist groups are only part of the rebellion. But even in the worst-case scenario, if they do take the whole country and run a caliphate state from Damascus, we’ll all be glad Syria is a generation away from having a functioning air force. What’s the argument against taking the Syrian air force out of the equation? We want Assad dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas canisters on the opposition because we fear that 7-year-old girls are likely Al Qaeda recruits who will attack the West?

And it’s standard US policy to back proxies against American adversaries. The fact that we’re not backing moderate rebels to fight the Iranian bloc in Syria tells us something about how the White House views Iran. It doesn’t view Iran as a significant adversary. The White House sees only Al Qaeda as the problem.

I understand why the president sees Iran this way. He isn’t crazy, he’s just wrong.

The president has said in various profiles and interviews that while he recognizes the Iranian regime as a problem, it’s nevertheless fundamentally rational. And I think he’s right about that much.

There has been an argument in Washington for almost a decade now with one side holding that the Iranians are rational and the other side insisting that the Iranians are irrational and likely to do anything, including blow up Iran, because they’re nuts and they want to bring back the Mahdi. That’s not a conversation I’m interested in having.

One would be hard-pressed to find a regime anywhere in history that has actively sought to destroy itself. The Nazis were crazy, but did they actively seek their own end? No. Of course not. They sought to expand their power and reach, and that’s what the Iranians are doing as well.

History is nothing but the long chronicle of regimes, peoples, and nations that miscalculate their own power and that of their adversaries and thereby end up destroying themselves, but they did not deliberately seek their own end. Iran is not irrational in that way. Its leaders don’t seek their own end.

We need to base our policy on their actual behavior, for instance their expansionist policies in the Middle East, their desire to destabilize rivals in the Persian Gulf. Designing a policy based strictly on the fact that a regime is rational or irrational is mistaken.

The president has said that because the Iranian government is a state, it is susceptible to the various instruments of statecraft—diplomacy, engagement, deterrence, containment, and military action if everything else fails. That’s how the president perceives the Iranians. That’s not a crazy way to look at Iran.

The reality is, however, that the United States has never been able to deter or contain Iran. No American policy-maker has ever pushed back against the Iranians for their misbehavior. I’m not just faulting Obama here. I’m also faulting the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, and the Reagan administration which also sought a rapprochement with the clerical regime. No one has pushed back for 35 years.

So the idea that the Obama administration can handle this regime solely because it’s a nation-state goes against the entire historical record of American-Iranian relations.

MJT: What do you think Iran would do with a nuclear weapon? Why exactly should we be concerned about that?

Lee Smith: I think we have to take Iranian threats against Israel seriously and we have to take the concerns of America’s Gulf Arab allies seriously. The Arab and Israeli concerns are both to an extent existential. When Iran threatens to blow up Israel, it’s a threat that Israeli officials cannot afford to ignore.

That said, while we have to take that seriously, I don’t think it’s the real problem from an American point of view.

MJT: I agree. I doubt Iran would actually nuke Israel, but I don’t know that the way I know France won’t nuke Israel.

Lee Smith: Exactly. So you can’t ignore that if you’re the Israeli prime minister. And we can’t ignore that the Saudis might want to counter an Iranian nuclear weapon with their own nuclear weapon, perhaps purchased from Pakistan. What’s the Persian Gulf going to look like if it’s bristling with nuclear weapons?

The real problem is that an Iranian nuclear weapon would give Iran the ability to destabilize the Middle East whenever it wants. Look at what Iran is doing around the region. That’s also what my book is about—Iranian expansionism across the Middle East. That’s the real problem.

If you’re Israeli your concern is that these guys could put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile and fire it at Tel Aviv, but there’s more. The Iranians are not only on Israel’s border through Hezbollah in Lebanon. They’re on Israel’s border in Syria as well.

The Assad regime has long been allied with the Iranians, but now we’re seeing Revolutionary Guard troops in Syria. Hezbollah is now in Syria. Further, the Israeli Hezbollah specialist Shimon Shapria has a new paper out explaining how Iran is building a replica of Hezbollah on the Syrian border, on the Golan Heights. And Iran has replicated the Hezbollah model in Iraq. They dispatched Iraqi Shia militias to fight in Syria, as well as Afghani, Yemeni and Gulf Shiites as well. Shapira calls this Qassem Suleimani’s Shiite version of the Comintern. This is what I mean by Iranian expansionism and why Syria is a major concern.

American allies such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have a massive refugee problem. A lot of journalists are writing about the possible end of Sykes-Picot, that the Middle East’s borders are being eradicated, but the borders aren’t the immediate problem. What we’re seeing instead are massive population transfers. We’ve seen it before, constantly, and it’s happening again now.

The United Nations estimates there a million or so Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but mutual friends of ours in Beirut put the number at closer to two million. And that’s in a country of barely four million. How is that going to throw off the sectarian balance in Lebanon? What’s going to happen if a million Syrian refugees stay permanently in Jordan?

These are the consequences of Syria. Iranian expansionism. Destabilization of the region though transfers of population. And a test case for American power.

The administration has failed that test. Our friends are confused, angry, and perhaps destabilized while our enemies are emboldened and strengthened.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.

The Iraqi Debacle

The Iraqi catastrophe is the latest expression of the systemic crisis of the Middle East. Neither popular protest nor political Islam could solve that crisis. Now the jihadis are trying to fill the void in the artificial, weak, fragmented, sectarianized “states” created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement a century ago (and, in Iraq’s case, also by an invasion and occupation that Thomas E. Ricks famously described as a “fiasco”). The current crisis is simultaneously another front in a regional Sunni-Shia war that the West seems determined not to acknowledge.

How Putin Lost Ukraine

Half a year ago, in the fall of 2013, Ukraine was well on the way to becoming an authoritarian vassal state of Russia. Now, thanks to Russia’s neo-fascist dictator, Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is well on the way to becoming a democracy and a full-fledged member of the international community.

How did Putin snatch a humiliating defeat from the jaws of surefire victory? How could he have walked into a strategic trap of his own making? In a word, how did he lose Ukraine?

And make no mistake about it: it was Putin, and no one else, who lost Ukraine. He had it. He could easily have kept it. But now he’ll never have it again. And he has no one to blame but himself.

Putin has never understood Ukraine. For him, as for all too many Russians, it’s a historical mistake: a part of Russia that’s been swayed from the path of righteousness by a few dastardly fascist imperialist cigar-chomping bourgeois nationalists in cahoots with the CIA. If you treat a bona fide country with a bona fide people with a bona fide identity as your dirty backyard, don’t be surprised if you slip in the mud and fall on your face.

With Santos’s Reelection, New Chance for Peace

“Peace Wins” was the banner headline across the cover of Semana, Colombia’s leading political weekly, celebrating the comeback victory of incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos in the decisive presidential vote Sunday. It was a clear-cut victory for Santos, who received 51 percent of the votes against 45 percent for his conservative opponent, Óscar Iván Zuluaga. This reversed the first round in May when Zuluaga narrowly bested Santos in an election that had five candidates. Only Santos and Zuluaga remained for the runoff, and Santos won because there was a 10 percent increase in voter turnout, favoring Santos.


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