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Saying ‘No’ to Putin in Sochi

In less than five months, Vladimir Putin will open the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Russia’s subtropical Black Sea resort of Sochi. For the Kremlin leader, the Sochi Games are not about sport—they are about political prestige and international legitimacy. No expense is spared for the president’s personal pet project. Putin’s Olympics have already cost more than all the Winter Games combined since their inception in 1924. Only the amount of money stolen during construction has been estimated at $30 billion. Olympic preparations were marred not only by corruption, but also by forced evictions of local residents, severe environmental damage, and mistreatment of construction workers, including torture.

Resisting Oppression, Tasting Tear Gas in Turkey

While hanging out at a bar in Istanbul after five straight days of demonstrations there recently, I finally set my wine down, turned to the table at large, and asked the question journalists are supposed to ask—the most obvious one. “So, what’s the deal with these protests?”

The demonstrations, sparked by the death of a protester in the country’s south, were the latest resurgence in protest activity after the government’s plans to revamp Istanbul’s cherished Gezi Park set off rallies nationwide several months ago.

Clearly, some level of dissatisfaction continues to seethe under the surface here. So what is this all about? I asked. Are these demonstrations held together by something deeper, or are they just a cool way to make a point about freedom of expression?

Is Rouhani a Gorbachev?

On Monday I was asked what I thought of Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president. And of course the proper answer would have been, “Not much: nobody knows what he’s up to, maybe not even Rouhani.”

But I’ve been thinking about the mystery man, and it seems to me he has a few things in common with another leader we once knew very little about. A leader, interestingly, with his own nuclear arsenal that threatened a fair portion of the world. So I said, “Maybe he’s another Gorbachev.”

On the other end of the line—this was a radio show host calling in—was a series of deep chuckles indicating a lot more doubt than real mirth. But less than 24 hours later, there it was: plans set for a New York meeting involving Iran’s foreign minister, the US secretary of state, and their counterparts from five other countries, all of them trying to negotiate with Tehran on its nuclear weapons.

In Brazil, Due Process is Do-Nothing

After an extraordinary buildup of public expectations, the Brazilian Supreme Court floundered in imposing penalties on the ringleaders of a bribery conspiracy that some judges called “the worst case of political corruption in Brazilian history.” With the highest court divided five-to-five, the tiebreaking vote cast by Celso de Mello, the dean of the 11-member court, accepted an abstruse interpretation of the rules of procedure that delayed imprisonment of the 12 convicted political leaders and prolonged the conclusion of the trial toward an indefinite future. The frustration created by the decision last week was summed up in a banner headline in O Globo, Rio de Janeiro’s leading newspaper: “Supreme Court prolongs impunity of the guilty until 2014.”

Yanukovych Faces EU Integration and History

It’s not every day that a president gets to look history in the eye. It’s not every day that a leader has to make a choice that will determine both his country’s trajectory and his own legacy for decades, perhaps even for centuries. Most leaders at most times just muddle through their years of rule and end up as footnotes or failures in subsequent historical accounts. Many make the wrong fateful choice and thereby doom themselves to infamy and their countries to disaster. Only few—usually the exceptional leaders—make the right fateful choices.

Given the profoundly unexceptional nature of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency, he has no right to stand face to face with history. He’s no George Washington. He’s no Charles de Gaulle. He’s no Margaret Thatcher. Heck, he’s not even Jimmy Carter. And yet, history, like the Lord, moves in mysterious ways, and, lo and behold, it’s Yanukovych who, of all people, is in the unique, and uniquely unlikely, position of being able to propel Ukraine into the world.

Al Shabab Strikes Back

Al Shabab, Somalia’s franchise of Al Qaeda, killed at least 68 people and wounded more than 175 when it seized control of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall and took hostages in Nairobi this weekend.

The Westgate looks like a mall anywhere in the West. It could be in Los Angeles or Cincinnati or Poughkeepsie.

President Uhuru Kenyatta says one of his nephews and his fiancée are among the 68 dead. Canadian diplomat Annemarie Desloges was also killed

The attackers went to the mall to murder non-Muslims, so Muslims were allowed to go free. Non-Muslims who tried to escape were ordered to name the mother of the Prophet Mohammad. Those who did not know the answer were killed.

Mohammad’s mother, by the way, was named Aminah bint Wahb.

Al Shabab was part of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union until it lost a war against the Somali and Ethiopian governments in 2006. The diehards broke off to form their own organization so they could resume battle. They’ve spent the last couple of years kidnapping and murdering aid workers because that’s how they roll, and they even managed to run parts of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu for a while until ANISOM—the African Union Mission in Somalia—dislodged them in 2011 with help from the Kenyans.

That’s what this attack in Nairobi was ostensibly for: revenge for Kenya’s defeat of Al Shabab in next-door Somalia.

The group posted several messages on Twitter while all this was happening. The account has been suspended, but someone saved the Tweets and posted them on Wikipedia.

“The attacks are just retribution for the lives of innocent Muslims shelled by Kenyan jets in Lower Jubba and in refugee camps”

“What Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military, albeit largely miniscule in nature”

“Since our last contact, the Mujahideen inside the mall confirmed to @HSM_Press that they killed over 100 Kenyan kuffar & battle is ongoing”

“For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land”

“The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders”

“The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia”

“Kenyan government shall be held responsible for any loss of life as a result of such an imprudent move. The call is yours!”

“Kenyan forces who’ve just attempted a roof landing must know that they are jeopardising the lives of hostages.”

The army did manage to free most of the hostages. At least that’s what it claims. Fortunately the soldiers didn’t go in there and kill most of the captives like the Russian and Algerian armies did at various times during the last couple of years when similar groups captured innocents and held them at gunpoint. I’m hardly an expert on Kenya—I’ve never even been there—but I did not expect an Algerian-style ending.

One of my journalism colleagues traveled to South Sudan shortly after it declared independence from Khartoum. The place is an epic disaster, the worst he’s ever seen, and he ran into people from all over Africa who were there to help out. The Kenyans he met seemed to him “incredibly competent” compared with others from East Africa. Kenya is, after all, the regional power on that part of the continent.

International war correspondent and Washington Post African bureau chief Sudarsan Raghavan has seen all kinds of mayhem all over the world, but he never thought he’d encounter Syria- and Iraq-style horrors in Nairobi.

I never expected to see two bullet-riddled corpses at the steps by the entrance I frequently passed through to visit an ATM or enjoy a cappuccino. I never expected to see cars pocked with bullet holes, their doors wide open, along a street I drove on several times a week. I never expected to call my wife while I was in Nairobi to tell her I was safe, or feel my eyes burning from tear gas when police tried to disperse onlookers. Or to consider donning my flak jacket and helmet at a place where I often wore nothing more than shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.

This happens in Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia — not near my house.

But it did happen near his house. My old street in West Beirut was likewise turned into a war zone shortly after I moved away. It can happen almost anywhere in the world these days, and that’s not going to change. 

Another Stolen Election in Cambodia

Almost two months after Cambodia’s national elections, the nation is still roiling with unrest because the reigning regime quite obviously stole the elections once again.

After weeks of violence, including one death at the hands of the police this month, in mid-September 200 monks marched toward the figurehead-king’s palace—until police stopped them at a roadblock. Unlike angry civilian protesters who have paraded through the streets in recent weeks, the monks chanted and threw lotus petals in the air. This accomplished little, and upcoming protests are unlikely to be so peaceful.

Hun Sen has been prime minister for 28 years, since the Vietnamese government appointed him to the post while it occupied the state in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Cambodia became a United Nations protectorate, and UN peacekeepers staged the nation’s first national elections. Almost 90 percent of the people voted. Hun Sen came in second.

Boris Nemtsov: Elected by Voters, Prosecuted by Kremlin

Vladimir Putin does not like Boris Nemtsov. He has made this abundantly clear throughout his presidency, including when he demanded that Nemtsov resign from Parliament for calling for peace talks in Chechnya, or when he bizarrely accused the opposition leader of “stealing billions” during a live television show. Not to mention such telling gestures from the Kremlin as Nemtsov’s New Year’s Eve arrest and imprisonment in 2010–11, or the decision in 2011 to deny registration to his party, barring it from the parliamentary election.

Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941–2013)

Dear Alan, a very quick notice—longer message to follow—to alert you to the fact that I will be in the UK in October “if the good Lord is willin’ and the creek don’t rise,” as they used to say in rural parts where I grew up. It would be wonderful if I could connect with you ... I am giving a lecture at the LSE.

So began a September 2007 e-mail to me from Jean Bethke Elshtain, the political theorist, ethicist, and Lutheran who died last month aged 72. It was typical in its combination of fidelity to her home, her friendships, her God, and to the life of the mind she lived with such verve and distinction. She never lost touch with her “very hard working, down to earth, religious, Lutheran family background” but rather allowed that formation to inflect her mode of political thinking in the most fruitful of ways, making her—for me, at least—an indispensable guide. To be honest, hers was one of the most penetrating political minds I have ever encountered.

A Bipartisan Autopsy Report

America’s Middle East policy died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the feet. Scholars Tom Nichols John Schindler co-wrote the bipartisan autopsy report for The National Interest.

We write as two scholars and former national-security practitioners who agree on almost nothing else regarding Syria: one is a traditional realistwho opposed military action against Assad, and the other is a recent arrival in the camp of the post-Cold War liberal internationalistswho supported striking the Syrian regime. We come not only from diverging views but also from different academic disciplines (history and political science), and while both of us have served in positions relevant to American foreign and security policy, we speak on our own behalf, especially since we ourselves are otherwise so deeply divided about U.S. intervention overseas.

We share, however, a background in the study of Russia, and it is here that we find the outcome of the Syrian crisis to be so disastrous. For nearly seven decades, American efforts in the Middle East have been based on a bipartisan consensus—one of the few to be found in U.S. foreign policy—aimed at limiting Moscow’s influence in that region. This is a core interest of American foreign policy: it reflects the strategic importance of the region to us and to our allies, as well as the historical reality Russia has continually sought clients there who would oppose both Western interests and ideals. In less than a week, an unguarded utterance by a U.S. Secretary of State has undone those efforts. Not only is Moscow now Washington’s peer in the Middle East, but the United States has effectively outsourced any further management of security problems in the region to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

We both deplore the hyperpartisanship that has required too many Republicans and Democrats to support or oppose this new agreement based on domestic political calculations. We recognize, however, that more sincere defenders of the September 9 deal see great virtue in it. They argue, for example, that it will avert the need for military force (a threat most Americans did not want carried out anyway), that it will strip Assad of his chemical arms without fighting, and that it will force Putin to take ownership of the WMD question in Syria and thus obligate Russia to live up to better standards of global citizenship.

We find these to be optimistic and hopelessly naïve interpretations. It will be nearly impossible to move chemical weapons anywhere in the midst of a pitched civil war; moreover, the idea that the Putin regime cares anything for international norms or global citizenship beyond its own crudely defined interests is laughable on its face. By gaining American certification of the most important role Moscow has ever played in the Middle East, Putin has achieved in a week what no Soviet or Russian leader managed to do in a century. There should be little wonder that Putin pressed his advantage with a shameless lecture to America in the pages of The New York Times in one of the most appalling and hypocritical public relations stunts by a Kremlin boss since the Soviet era.

Steam Signals from Pyongyang

Steam rising from the complex containing North Korea’s plutonium-producing reactor is a signal from Kim Jong Un to the international community.

Satellite imagery from August 31st clearly shows the emissions from the Yongbyon facility. The dominant view is that the North’s technicians are about to restart the Soviet-era reactor, put in operation in 1986 and dormant since 2007. As Kim Min Seok, a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman, asked, “Would there be smoke without fire?”

Perhaps the answer is “yes.” Some experts privately say the steam could actually be a contrivance, arguing the North is trying to get us looking in the wrong direction, away from its far more important uranium weapons program.

Obama's Reversals Weaken US Credibility

Let’s say you’re an Israeli prime minister and you get a visit from the US secretary of state, and this secretary of state assures you that nearby Syria, your longtime enemy, will be undergoing “the most far-reaching chemical weapons removal ever.”

If you were a top Israeli official who had watched the US back off a military strike on Syria because the Russian despot Vladimir Putin, of all people, had promised all those 1,000 metric tons of Syrian poison would get seized and destroyed in the middle of a civil war—would you believe such assurances? Should anyone?

Mission Impossible in Syria

I live near an enormous former stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. It isn’t walking distance from my house, but I can drive there between breakfast and lunch without exceeding the speed limit.

From 1962 to 2011, the US Army stored nearly four thousand tons of VX, Sarin, and HD blister agent (commonly known as mustard gas) at the Umatilla Chemical Depot along the Columbia River two and a half hours east of Portland, Oregon.

In 1993 the US signed a treaty forbidding the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and eleven years later, in 2004, the Army was finally ready to begin destroying Oregon’s stockpile.

They did it by incinerating the chemical agents in a 2,700 degree furnace. And they did it in a thinly populated part of the peaceful Pacific Northwest under the complete control of the United States Army.

It still took them eight years. Toxic munitions must be destroyed very slowly and very carefully. A single drop of this stuff will kill you, and the facility is located right on the Columbia River which runs through Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. And though Umatilla County is fairly remote, the Los Angeles Times reported that “disaster scenarios suggested that a major earthquake at the facility, followed by fire, could send a plume of poisonous residue as far as Portland, Seattle or Spokane.”

If you live in the Midwest, you may be used to hearing the blaring sound of air raid sirens when the local authorities test the tornado warning systems. We have a similar setup on the Oregon coast to warn residents and tourists of an incoming tsunami if a Hawaiian volcano falls into the Pacific or if the Cascadian Subduction Zone ruptures. And in three counties in Eastern Oregon, yet another one of those systems was set up in case something at the Umatilla death trap exploded.

So people who live in that area felt a sense of relief when the Army finally finished destroying the stockpiles on October 25, 2011.

The Chemical Weapons Convention was drafted in New York and Paris. The United States signed it in 1993.

Syria agreed to sign it three days ago. A plan is now being put together to rid Syria of its chemical weapons

Considering all of the above, which I’ve been all too familiar with for many years now, you can color me more than a little bit skeptical.

The whole thing was Vladimir Putin’s idea. Not because he cares a whit about chemical weapons or how many people are horribly killed by them, but because he needs to stick up for his one Arab ally and he needs to stick his thumb in America’s eye. 

Barack Obama likes the idea, though, because it means he doesn’t have to do anything about Syria even though Bashar al-Assad crossed the “red line” and used poison gas against humans. Assad likewise likes the idea because, now that the international pressure is off, he can kill another 100,000 humans with conventional weapons and the only people who will say boo about it are human rights organizations and journalists.

Disposing of VX and mustard gas was slow and dangerous work in Oregon. I can only imagine how much more difficult the job will be in a Middle Eastern country that’s ripping its own guts out while Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are loose and running wild.

For those reasons alone, I imagine it is impossible. As Jeffrey Goldberg added, “Assad is a lying, murdering terrorist, and lying, murdering terrorists aren’t, generally speaking, reliable partners, except for other lying, murdering terrorists.”

Let’s say, though, just for the sake of discussion, that the process goes just as smoothly in Syria as it did in Oregon, that it will take precisely the same amount of time to destroy Assad’s arsenal, and that they (whoever they are) can get started tomorrow.

They won’t finish until 2021. Because that’s how long it took down the road from my house.

But there’s no chance destroying this stuff will happen as swiftly and smoothly in Syria as it did in Oregon. That wouldn’t be good enough anyway. It would need to happen more swiftly and smoothly. And the only thing that happens more swiftly and smoothly in Syria than in Oregon is the deployment of car bombs.

I suppose Syria’s thousand tons of chemical weapons could be driven to the airport (!) and flown out, but the only country I can think of that would want guardianship of Assad’s weapons of mass destruction is Iran (unless Lebanon’s Hezbollahland counts as a country), and I doubt many would allow flights containing Assad’s arsenal over their air space.

Furthermore, I doubt a single high-level person involved in this international performance will ever even try to make it work. Because it’s damn near impossible and everyone knows it. It doesn’t matter, though, because this is about face-saving status quo maintenance.

Everybody at the top wins. Putin doesn’t want to lose his one Arab ally, and now he doesn’t have to. Obama never did want to bomb Syria, and now he doesn’t have to. Assad does not want to stop bombing Syria, and now he doesn’t have to.

Vladimir Putin's Reset with America

Here are two pieces that should be read together.

First up is Lee Smith in The Weekly Standard on Vladimir Putin’s victory in the Middle East:

Give Vladimir Putin his due. With his proposal to put Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons under international control, he proved he was more than a mere thug who expresses his self-regard by posing bare-chested, dating teenage gymnasts, and wrestling wild game. In showing his subtlety and cunning, Putin reminded us that his professional training as an intelligence officer (not to mention his judo hobby) taught him to zero in on human vulnerabilities and exploit them. Obama is vain. Putin saw that the American president always needs to look good. 

Thus, after years of denigrating the president and his staff, Putin spared Obama a devastating defeat on Capitol Hill by repackaging humiliation as a diplomatic win for a president whose motto is that he came to end wars, not to start them. It mattered little to Putin that the White House claimed credit for the initiative, that administration spokesmen said Obama officials had broached the subject with Moscow over a year ago, that the Obama team pretended it was the president’s threat of force that had prompted the diplomatic breakthrough. Let Obama boast of another beautiful victory: Putin knew that he had exposed an American president too timid to fire a dozen cruise missiles into the Syrian desert as indecisive, unreliable, and weak. To American allies, a president who makes good on neither his promises nor his threats is a liability.

Astonishingly, Putin won with a weak hand. Russia is not China, never mind the Soviet Union. Her economy is run like a criminal enterprise and depends on a monopoly in European energy markets; Russian society is in a demographic tailspin; and the only way for Putin to shore up his domestic legitimacy is through a steady diet of anti-Americanism and posturing meant to signal Russian strength. If the Americans can’t keep Putin in line, our allies are wondering, who else might start punching above their weight, and at us?

Second is Matthew Continetti’s piece in the Washington Free Beacon on America’s long withdrawing roar:

What happens when the sea recedes? The shoreline is exposed. Sand crabs and sea gulls and seaweed appear on the beach: Iranians and Saudis, Russians and Taliban. They come to fill the void left by the vacating American tide. The lower the tide becomes, the more daring the actions of the creatures liberated by its wake.

For several years now Americans have been comfortable in the delusion that the benefits, such as they are, of a global economy and of a world where war is a rarity can be enjoyed without cost. We can look inward, slash defense spending, gut the Navy, pull out from theaters of combat and from strategic bases, ignore the political character of Islamism, and otherwise pretend that at heart all human beings share the same feelings and want the same things, and life will go on as usual. And perhaps life will go on as usual, for most people, in most places in the country. After all: America is huge, protected by two oceans, and at peace with its neighbors.

But inevitably there will come a time when a lack of maintenance causes the international structure that America has built over decades to fall apart; when inwardness and self-preoccupation and “nation building here at home” exacts a cost of its own; when the flotsam and jetsam left behind by the receding tide, the sand crabs and seagulls and seaweed, begin to take over the shore.

Cuba is Funded

You know what’s awesome? Kickstarter.

You know what’s even more awesome? Everyone who pitches in for my travel expenses on Kickstarter.

I’ve raised the money I need for Cuba, so it looks like I’m going. Most likely in November when it’s slightly less hot and I’ll be more prepared. Working there will be challenging and I need to work out some things in advance.

Thanks so much to everyone who is backing this project. I’m going to send personal thank-you notes, but I want to wait until the fundraising period is finished and do it all at once if that’s okay with everybody.

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