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Russia and China Shun Iranian Nuclear Talks

The big story from Vienna is not that discussions this week with Iran over its enrichment of uranium are not going well. Such a failure was virtually inevitable. The big story is who is not in town for the ill-fated proceedings, an effort to stop what many suspect is a disguised nuclear weapons program. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are all in Vienna for talks with their Iranian counterpart. The top diplomats of the remaining two members of the P5+1, the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, are no-shows, however. The foreign ministers of Russia and China, Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi, are nowhere to be seen in the picturesque Austrian capital. Instead, Moscow and Beijing sent note-takers.

What’s Rong with Wrussia?

Everything, according to some. Many things, according to others. Nothing, according to many Russians.

Back in 2004, two US academics, Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman, wrote a controversial piece for Foreign Affairs in which they argued that statistics proved that Russia was a “normal country.” Since they focused on mostly economic parameters, such as GDP, income distribution, and the like, they had a point.

What Shleifer and Treisman overlooked was the politics. Do “normal” countries normally invade their neighbors, lop off bits and pieces of foreign territory, support unconstitutionally elected, power-obsessed strongman leaders, distrust the world and continually whine about their lost glory, take the crudest Goebbelsian government propaganda at face value, export terrorism, call democrats fascists and fascists democrats, and approve of profoundly corrupt, deeply inefficient, hyper-chauvinist, and blatantly imperialist fascist states?

Will the Palestinians Take Israel to the ICC? Probably Not.

When the latest round of conflict between Israel and Hamas comes to an end, will the Palestinians turn again to international institutions to confront Israel? More specifically, having applied to 15 UN agencies and international treaties in April, will the PA now apply to the International Criminal Court?

Ever since Palestine secured “non-Member Observer State” status at the United Nations General Assembly in 2012, that option has been open to President Mahmoud Abbas. It would be a popular move among many ordinary Palestinians and Western human rights activists. In May, 17 groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, implored the Palestinians to prosecute Israel at the International Criminal Court. “Twenty years of peace talks have brought neither peace nor justice,” said Joe Stork, of Human Rights Watch.

Year Four: The Arab Spring Proved Everyone Wrong

I wrote this essay for the print edition of World Affairs. It is now available online.

Shortly after the Arab Spring broke out at the tail end of 2010, two narratives took hold in the West. Optimists hailed a region-wide birth of democracy, as though the Middle East and North Africa were following the path blazed in Eastern Europe during the anti-communist revolutions of 1989. Pessimists fretted that the Arab world was following Iran’s example in 1979 and replacing secular tyrants with even more repressive Islamist regimes.

Both narratives turned out to be wrong, and not just because their adherents had the wrong narrative. Any narrative superimposed over this series of events was doomed to be wrong.

The Arab Spring isn’t one thing. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are experiencing wrenching change, but unlike in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, each affected country is moving in different and sometimes opposing directions. Each has its own history, its own narrative.

Tunisia, where everything started, proved the pessimists wrong, and Egypt, which rapidly followed Tunisia, all by itself proved both the optimists and the pessimists wrong.

The mostly nonviolent removal of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from office in Tunis led to free and fair elections in 2011 that brought to power the Islamist party Ennahda, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Ennahda only won forty-one percent of the vote, with a majority voting for secular parties—hardly a mandate for radical Islam. From the very beginning, Tunisia’s liberal and secular opposition resisted Ennahda so effectively that the Islamists had to abandon their push for a religious state and grudgingly accept a secular civil state. Even that wasn’t enough for the majority; in January 2014, Ennahda, exhausted by the unrelenting onslaught from moderates, liberals, and leftists, resigned from the government. Later that same month, Tunisia adopted one of the most liberal constitutions in the entire Arab world. “With the birth of this text,” center-left President Moncef Marzouki said, “we confirm our victory over dictatorship.”

So much for Iranian-style revolution.

But the optimists were wrong everywhere else.

When Egyptians dumped Hosni Mubarak, the majority didn’t vote for secular candidates in the first elections, as the Tunisians did. The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won Egypt’s presidential election with fifty-one percent of the vote, a slim majority but a majority all the same. Meanwhile, the totalitarian Salafist party—which is more or less the political arm of al-Qaeda—won twenty-four percent of the parliamentary vote, meaning that, unlike the Tunisians, a substantial majority of Egyptians went for Islamists of one stripe or another.

Morsi’s power grabs, his incompetence, his lunatic politics—symbolized by the appointment of a governor associated with a terrorist group that murdered fifty-eight tourists near the city of Luxor in 1997—were too much for even a nation as conservative and Islamist as Egypt. Millions of people—the overwhelming majority of them fellow Muslims—took to the streets to demand his removal from power, just as they
had against Mubarak before him.

The army took care of the rest. General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Morsi in June of 2013 and immediately declared war against the Muslim Brotherhood. Millions of Egyptians celebrated Sisi’s coup as a revolutionary “correction.”

So while Egypt never became an Iran on the Nile, it did not become a democracy either. It’s right back where it started. The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed all over again. The new regime and its supporters are no more liberal and democratic than Mubarak’s or Morsi’s.

In some ways, they’re worse. Sisi’s regime reeks of Stalinism these days. In March of this year, more than five hundred Muslim Brotherhood officials were sentenced to death in one swoop. Many of those sentences were commuted to life, but the regime did it again the very next day and sentenced six hundred more.

Read the whole thing.

An Excerpt from RESURRECTION

If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of my zombie novel, here’s an excerpt that might pique your interest. Be sure to read the book before the movie comes out. The studio that purchased the film option is moving ahead and has two outstanding actors attached to it. (Nothing is official yet so I cannot tell you their names.)

Like AMC’s The Walking Dead, this is a character-driven story. There are zombies, yes, but the story is about how the characters react to the zombies and to each other.

My favorite character by far is Parker, though he is not the most likeable. At best he’s an anti-hero. We are all flawed human being, but Parker is more flawed than most. And he is punished terribly for it.

*   *   *

Parker had been married once. Met his future wife at a trendy café named Spinoza’s in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. It was the kind of place Parker always hated, not only because he didn’t fit in there but because it attracted the kinds of people he wished never colonized his neighborhood to begin with—the young, the hip, the beautiful, and the moneyed. Ballard used to be an honest and slightly gritty place for men who worked the docks, the ship locks, and who made things with their hands. It was never intended for soft people who lived in undeserved luxury and made boatloads of cash clicking away on their laptops.

The only reason he went into Spinoza’s that day at all was because he needed the bathroom. But when he saw a young woman sitting there by herself with her newspaper and a latte, he couldn’t help himself. He decided to order one too and see if he could gin up the nerve to take the empty table next to her.

There was something about her, though he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Not even after they married could he figure out what it was. She was attractive, sure, but not the most attractive he’d ever seen. She seemed friendly and approachable enough, though he had no idea why he would think that since she was just sitting there reading the paper. There was just something … gravitational about her, like she’d been engineered just for him.

He ordered awkwardly at the counter. He’d never had a latte, a cappuccino, or an Americano. He didn’t even know what they were. But he couldn’t just say “I’ll have a coffee.” They didn’t have regular coffee in those kinds of places.

The pretty woman with the newspaper sat far enough from the counter that she couldn’t hear him fumble his order, and thank heaven for that or he wouldn’t have sat next to her. She looked so peaceful and content, so at ease in the world as she flipped strands of her brown hair over her ear.

He didn’t intend to hit on her or ask her out for a date. He just wanted to enjoy the pleasure of her attention even if it only lasted a couple of seconds.

She sat by herself at a table for two. He sat next to her at another table for two and placed his drink in front of him. It looked like a dessert. He expected it to taste like one too, like a coffee meringue pie or something. Normally he drank plain old coffee, black, but the creamy and bitter whipped goodness in his mug, despite being foofy and gay, was outstanding. Wow, he thought. This exists?

“This coffee is extraordinary,” he said.

“Isn’t it?” the woman next to him said. The corners of her eyes crinkled up when she smiled over her mug.

God, Parker thought. I love this woman. He didn’t know why. He just did.

Her name was Holly and she was a regular at Spinoza’s. She had gone to school with the café owners. He told her he was new to fancy coffee and she seemed delighted to explain all the options.

They were so very different, but they were married in less than a year.

He built cabinets for a living. She worked in an office downtown as a paralegal. His friends were working class. Hers were professional. He loved the outdoors. She enjoyed fancy meals out. He drank beer. She liked red wine. Once in a while he embarrassed her when they went out with her friends, and he knew he seemed a little rough around the edges in mixed company, but she loved him and he couldn’t imagine living without her. She had a soft and gentle soul and seemed to appreciate his brusque masculine qualities—she was genetically hard-wired to do so, after all—until one day he hit her.

He didn’t mean to. Really, he didn’t. It just happened. They were arguing about money, which was a stupid because they both made plenty. He wanted a motorcycle and could afford it. She wanted to spend the money on granite kitchen counters instead.

She might have talked him into it, too, but instead she said she was tired of being a slave to his lower-class lifestyle.

He’d never hit anybody before. He looked like the type of guy who had been in a couple of fights, but he hadn’t.

He didn’t hit her too hard. It was really more like a slap. He didn’t strike her with a closed fist, didn’t break any bones, didn’t make her bleed, didn’t even leave a mark that lasted more than five minutes. But he did strike her cheek, and he’d never forget the sound or the look on her face when he did it.

Her entire life shattered in one instant.

She’d never forgive him, not in her heart, and he knew it.

He could not have been sorrier. That slap hurt him more than it hurt her. It sounded ludicrous when he said so, and she screamed that it was the most outrageous thing she ever heard, but it was true. It changed him as a person. It sentenced him to be a different kind of man for the rest of his life, the kind of man who hit women. A domestic abuser. A wife-beater. He never did it again, nor would he ever—no, really, he wouldn’t—but he would spend the rest of his days as a man who had once smacked a woman.

Eventually she could look at him again, and a little while later she could talk to him again, and eventually she even had sex with him one last time, but it ended in tears, and at that moment he knew it was over. She never slept with him again. Never even hugged him again. She left a few months later and said she was sorry but she wouldn’t be back. She cried when she left and she even said that she’d miss him, but she was true to her word. She never came back.

That was two years ago. Parker thought about her every day since. After the plague swept the world, he worried about her so hard he vomited.

What happened to her? Was she alive? Did she get bitten? Was a distorted version of her out there somewhere, diseased and warped beyond recognition? What would he do if she came at him on the street baring her teeth? Would he shoot her? Would he smash in her skull with a crowbar?

Would he smash in her face if he had to?

*   *   *

If you want to read more, you have to purchase the book. It is available now as an audio book narrated by the outstanding Steven Roy Grimsley who also narrated Where the West Ends

Contradictions Define Kremlin Apologists

According to the conventional wisdom, Vladimir Putin and his Western supporters propagate a uniform message throughout the world. At its most extreme, this view sees Russia as having a formidable propaganda machine that is running roughshod over the Western media and public.  

In fact, Putin and his supporters and apologists often disagree. One reason may be that the machine just isn’t as formidable as it’s made out to be. Another may be that the Kremlin’s supporters make mistakes when interpreting or anticipating the frequently contradictory or incomprehensible statements of the Delphic oracle that is Putin. A third may be that they have difficulties bridging the growing gap between reality and Putin’s oftentimes shifting views. The Putinite interpretation—one that I won’t even bother refuting—is that disagreement is the foundation of vigorous democracies such as Putin’s Russia.

China’s Collision Course with Itself

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Beijing’s Renmin University, has just issued a warning that Chinese leaders will not be deterred from engaging in increasingly provocative conduct. “There could be some tactical change in the direction of moderation but I cannot see any fundamental change in strategic orientation,” he told John Garnaut of the Sydney Morning Herald.

As Garnaut noted in messages to me this month, Beijing tells the world that “we will keep going and we will win.” Shi, however, has been saying that what the Chinese really mean is, in Garnaut’s words, that “we will keep going even though we cannot succeed.”

“How many times have you heard the Chinese described as pragmatists?” Arthur Waldron asked me this week. “They’re not.” At this moment, the University of Pennsylvania historian of China has put his finger on something especially distressing. Chinese policymakers work under a political system that now does not permit them to act pragmatically, cooperatively, or sensibly.

Hamas is the New Lesser of Evils

A resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is further away than ever. Hamas is the biggest obstacle to peace between the two sides, yet Israeli Brigadier General Michael Herzog tells Colin Freeman at Britain’s Telegraph that Hamas needs to be preserved and maintained lest something even worse takes its place.

“One way in which an Israeli military operation could backfire is by shaking Hamas' control on the ground to the point that it allowed other factions, including jihadists, to come to the fore,” he said. “At least Hamas provides an address—you don't have that with the jihadi factions. They aren't dominant right now but Hamas no longer controls Gaza as firmly as it used to, and if it was seriously weakened they could take advantage. We don't want another Somalia on our doorstep.”

He could have said he doesn’t want another Iraq on his doorstep. If a group like ISIS seized power in Gaza City during the aftermath of a war, both Israelis and Palestinians would have a brand-new deadly serious problem.

So Hamas is the “lid,” and the Israelis won’t even try to get rid of it. Right now they only want to put a stop to the rocket fire. It makes sense considering what’s happening in Syria and Iraq, but think of the long-term ramifications: Hamas is indispensable even while making an end to the conflict impossible. What does that say about the prospects for peace in the near term?

If Hamas simply wanted independence for a Palestinian state, the two sides would only have to work out the details. But Hamas wants to “liberate” and “end the occupation” not of the West Bank but of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. It isn’t possible to negotiate a deal with these people. They aren’t interested in negotiating anything more than a temporary cease-fire. Hamas and the entire ideology behind it must be eliminated or at least marginalized before an end to the conflict will be in sight.

There is no reason to believe this will happen any time soon. An Arab Spring-like revolution against Hamas in Gaza would be an interesting development, but it’s not happening. Perhaps it will later, but it is not happening now.

The Israelis can and do change their government regularly with free and fair elections, but Palestinian politics are autocratic and slower to change. At least one more generational shift may be necessary. In any case, the jihadist factions will need to be vaporized first. And in the Levant, at least, they’re still ascending.

We could waste more time with another peace process to nowhere, I guess, but they sure do hurt when they fail.

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!

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