Tips on Speaking Ukrainian

If you’ve ever heard Ukrainians speak Russian, you will have noticed that they almost always pronounce the Russian G as an H. Hence, gavaril (I spoke) will come across as havaril, gaspadin (mister) as haspadin, golod (hunger) as holod. Gorbachev will be Horbachev, Grozny will be Hrozny, Germaniya will be Hermaniya, and so on.

When Ukrainians transliterate their own names into English, you’d think that Hanna would, by this logic, be Hanna, that Ihor would be Ihor, and so on, right? Wrong. For some reason Hanna becomes Ganna and Ihor becomes Igor.

Awright, you must be thinking, in that case the English H should be a Ukrainian G, right? Or, at least, an English H should be a Ukrainian H.


English Hs remain Hs, except of course when they don’t: and then they become—no, not Gs—but KHs (as in Loch Ness). So, Houston is spelled and pronounced KHyuston, art house film is pronounced artKHous film, coffee house becomes coffee KHous, and so on.

Israel Strikes Syria -- Again

The United States Defense Intelligence Agency confirms that the Israelis struck another Syrian weapons depot, this time in the Mediterranean city of Latakia. The Israelis are worried that Russian missiles will be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon and have repeatedly destroyed them on the ground before they can be moved.

Unlike the United States, Israel doesn't have a foreign policy in the Middle East. It has a defense policy. There is a difference. The Israelis don't have enough power or leverage to shape regional politics to their advantage. They learned that the hard way during the Lebanese civil war. All they can really do is defend themselves and quietly cooperate with the few friends they have over there.

Al Qaeda, including its Al Nusra Front franchise in Syria, has never been particularly interested in Israel. That might change if Assad falls, but so far all the recent Israeli strikes in Syria were against the Iranian-Assad-Hezbollah axis. None were against any faction on the rebel side.

Iran is striving to aquire nuclear weapons. Hezbollah has direct support from Syria and Iran and indirect support from Russsia. The Assad regime ties them all together. As a bloc they are much more dangerous, for now anyway, than ragtag stateless irregulars, and the Israelis are acting accordingly.

Democracy, Still an Uneasy Export

Some years ago, after a particularly heated exchange with US diplomats stationed in Cairo (I thought Egypt, a particularly corrupt, impoverished, and failing state, needed democracy; the US diplomats emphatically did not—precisely because they considered Egypt a particularly corrupt and failing state that was, besides, amenable to US interests), I ran across an Egyptian acquaintance. Was democracy just possibly in the works, I wondered? For instance, were there multiple candidates, ones I had never heard mentioned, that he could vote for?

His reply was accompanied a light chuckle: “Yes of course there is a choice of candidates I can vote for. I can vote for Hosni. Or I can vote for Mubarak.”

He didn’t seem at all perturbed. That was just the way things were. Then. Egypt was Egypt, the acquaintance added. It would never become a democracy, or if it did it would be a disaster. Nothing about it would really change, except the name of the head of state.

South Korea Abandons Its Prisoners of War

Sixty years after the armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War, there could be as many as 500 South Korean soldiers held captive by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Seoul, incredibly, is doing little to obtain their release.

There were some 80,000 unaccounted South Korean combatants when the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. Pyongyang returned only 8,300 of them, however, in the prisoner exchange. The fate of the missing was of little interest to the South Korean public until 1994, when the first prisoner of war escaped to the South. Even then, the issue was not considered important to a nation determined to establish good relations with the horrific North Korea. Kim Dae Jung, the dissident-turned-president of South Korea, did not even mention the plight of the prisoners of war during his historic summit in 2000 in Pyongyang with Kim Jong Il.

In 2007, the administration of Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae Jung’s immediate successor, talked to the North Koreans about the POWs, and Roh’s successor, Lee Myung-bak, did the same. The last time both Koreas discussed the prisoners was February 2011, toward the end of Lee’s term.

Egypt’s Latest Revolution

I first got the news while rattling down a California mountain on Wednesday. “Oh my gosh, Egypt,” I thought. “You’ve done it again.”

But that’s not what I said. What I said was, turning to my mother: “Did you hear about Egypt? They’ve had a,”—I paused, hesitant about the label favored by the media—“‘coup.’”

“Oh?” said my mother. “Didn’t they just elect a president? Democratically?”

“Yeah,” I said. There was a moment of silence. We let the confusion implicit in her question sink in.

“But you know, not everyone liked him,” I ventured, recalling the Egyptian voters I spoke with last summer in Cairo. I remembered the city’s famous epicenter of protest activity, Tahrir Square, exploding in celebration after the two-day vote. I remember watching long queues of voters snake their way through dusty voting stations. Some held their inked thumbs upright for blocks after walking away from the ballot area, as if unwilling to let the moment pass. The faces of some voters, particularly the elderly, shone with the trustfulness of a very young child. Egypt, it seemed then, was being reborn.

China's Bid for Smithfield

Congress is debating a Chinese business tycoon’s proposed purchase of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer—and with good reason.

Why allow a Chinese businessman to take over a venerable American food company, when for as long as anyone can remember China has been plagued by food scandals—from toxic baby formula to fake or tainted meat. Just this spring, Xinhua, the Chinese-government news service, quoted an unnamed government food safety official who was calling for still another crackdown on “deep-seated food safety problems.”

What prompted this, the latest scandal, was the discovery that suppliers had used hydrogen peroxide to process chicken parts and pumped the chickens full of water to increase their weight for sale.

Out of Town This Week

I'm taking a professional writing and publishing workshop this week that will occupy me for twelve hours a day, so blogging might be slow. We'll see how much energy I have left at the end of each day. Either way, I'll be back to normal next week.

The Next Syrian War

It has been obvious for some time now that if Bashar al-Assad is overthrown, the next big Syrian war will be fought between Al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army. There’s no room for both. (There’s no room for anyone to co-exist peacefully with Al Qaeda.)

It made a certain amount of sense for them to wait until Assad is out of the way, but they might start fighting sooner than that.

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels said on Friday the assassination of one of their top commanders by al Qaeda-linked militants was tantamount to a declaration of war, opening a new front for the Western-backed fighters struggling against President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Rivalries have been growing between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamists, whose smaller but more effective forces control most of the rebel-held parts of northern Syria more than two years after pro-democracy protests became an uprising.

"We will not let them get away with it because they want to target us," a senior FSA commander said on condition of anonymity after members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant killed Kamal Hamami on Thursday.

"We are going to wipe the floor with them," he said.

Yesterday I wrote that nobody can really know anything about the future, but it's pretty unlikely that Al Qaeda will suddenly learn to play well with others.

Remembering the 1943 Volhynian Massacres

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the brutal Polish-Ukrainian conflict that tore apart Volhynia in 1943 and produced tens of thousands of deaths.

There are several points of controversy. First, just how many people were killed? Second, who did the killing and why? Third, how should the killings be characterized? And fourth, who should condemn the killings and/or apologize for them?

Getting the Muslim Brotherhood Wrong

Everybody got the Muslim Brotherhood wrong, including me, and starting with the Egyptian people themselves.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi won Egypt’s first free and fair election for its head of state. Picking him seemed like a good idea at the time to the typical Egyptian voter, but clearly it wasn’t since Egypt just vomited him and his party up into everyone’s lap.

I figured that would happen eventually, but I’m still astonished that it happened so quickly.

Genuine political liberals are thin on the ground in Egypt, but they do exist. I know several. Some are my friends. Most of them were wrong about the Brotherhood, too. They were right, of course, when they warned the rest of us that the Brothers would transform Egypt into a theocratic dictatorship, but they were wrong when they estimated how much support the Brotherhood had. Hardly any expected the Islamists to win most of the votes, though that’s exactly what happened.

American liberals made a different mistake. Despite warnings from secular Egyptians and former Islamists, the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate and democratic party became an article of faith here in the States, particularly among academics and journalists who should have known better. Even James Clapper—who, as the Director of National Intelligence, really should have known better—said the Muslim Brotherhood is “a largely secular organization.” Surely that ranks among the dumbest things ever said about the organization in all of its 85 years.

Look: the Muslim Brotherhood is not a mysterious new group that no one knows anything about. It was founded in 1928, for crying out loud, and its ideology has been documented exhaustively. Not for even five minutes has it been a democratic or moderate party. It has been struggling for theocracy since the day it was born, sometimes peaceably and sometimes by force. Every Sunni Islamist terrorist organization in the region is a spin-off of the Brotherhood or a spin-off of one of its spin-offs.  

Western liberals should have spent a lot more time listening to their Egyptian counterparts and no time at all swallowing the lies of faith-based gangsters with a Pharaonic complex. This whole business quite frankly baffles me. An American Christian equivalent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood would be denounced as fascist by every Western-born liberal on earth. We’d hear no end of comparisons to the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, General Franco’s Falangists, and the Crusades. And yet so many Westerners proved incapable of applying the same political analytical skills to Egypt that they use every day in the US and Europe. I’ll leave it to them to explain how that happened once they figure it out.

American conservatives always understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was bad news. Many also seemed to sense instinctively that the Muslim Brotherhood would win the election in Egypt. They were right on both counts.

But then the narrative among some parts of the American right went off the rails. Many argued that radical Islamists were bound to triumph everywhere in the Middle East since they had just triumphed in Egypt, as if nearly everyone who self-identifies as a Muslim yearns for political Islam as a matter of course. This point of view regularly appears in my comments section.

It didn’t seem to register that non-Islamists and anti-Islamists frequently do well in elections in Muslim countries, even in Arab countries and even in the wake of the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda won less than fifty percent of the vote and was forced into a coalition government with secular parties that block it routinely. Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party lost big. In Lebanon, secular parties have won most of the votes since the nation’s founding, and, except for the Israelis, the Lebanese have held more elections in the region than anyone else. 

More recently, the citizens of Mali cheered the French as liberators when they invaded and routed Al Qaeda in the north. Mali, by the way, is not even close to being a largely atheist nation like the nominally Muslim countries of the former communist bloc.

Islamist victories happen sometimes, but they aren’t inevitable. Karl Marx cobbled together psuedo-scientific arguments for why socialism was destined to triumph over capitalism. He claimed history was teleological, that its endpoint could be delayed but not forever resisted, but that’s not how it worked out for communism, nor is it working that way for radical Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the solution” is but one point of view among many. Sometimes its adherents win and sometimes they lose, just like the proponents of ideas everywhere else.

I got a few things wrong, too. Like Egypt’s liberals and America’s conservatives, I understood all along that the Muslim Brotherhood was theocratic and authoritarian. But I did not think they would win. I knew they’d do well—Egypt is the most Islamicized place I’ve ever been, after all—but I assumed they’d have a hard time breaking fifty percent.

Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood win, a huge percentage of Egyptians who voted against them went for the Salafists, the ideological brethren of Osama bin Laden. Egypt turned out to be even more politically Islamicized than I realized, and I knew it was bad.

Yet in the long sweep of Egyptian history, it lasted about as long as a hiccup.

I think it’s safe to say everyone, regardless of their political orientation and what they got right and wrong a year ago, was surprised by how quickly Egypt rejected the Brotherhood. The United States government has sound reasons for not describing what happened as a military coup, but that’s what it was. The rest of us shouldn’t kid ourselves. Yet it’s clear that the coup was a popular one. Morsi ended up more hated than Hosni Mubarak, and he achieved that dubious honor in one year instead of in thirty.

That ought to make American liberals rethink the notion that the Brotherhood is democratic and moderate. And it ought to show American conservatives that Muslims are perfectly capable of rejecting political Islam whether or not they’re secular Jeffersonian democrats. The Muslim Brotherhood might recover somewhat if the next government fails as badly as Morsi’s, but then again it might not.

No one can predict the future anywhere in the world. It’s even harder in the Middle East than in other places. History doesn’t move in straight lines over there. Sometimes it goes in circles. Other times it veers off in wild directions. Keen observers can figure out what’s happening now, but when it comes to the future, nobody really knows anything.

Talking to a China in Disarray

The Obama administration is nothing if not persistent when it comes to wooing the Chinese. Beginning Wednesday, American officials are hosting their Beijing counterparts for the fifth round of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington. 

The large get-together—hundreds of officials on each side have attended previous sessions—comes a month after the “shirtsleeves summit” between President Obama and Xi Jinping, China’s newly installed supremo. That event, despite high hopes on the American side, proved to be a bust. At the time, then National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, in his post-summit press briefing, put his best face on what happened, but he inadvertently revealed how bad things went when he spent almost all his time telling us what Obama said to Xi, omitting what Xi told Obama.

Terrorizing the Terrorists

Somebody just detonated a car bomb in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah’s de-facto capital. Fifty eight people were hurt. No one claimed credit.

One of the creepy things about Lebanon is that it’s not always obvious who is behind this sort of thing. It’s probably related to the Syrian war, but it might not be. 

From the Mouths of Babes

I’m afraid Walter Russell Mead is right when he says, “Egypt has none of the signs that would lead historians to think democracy is just around the corner. Mubarak was not Franco, and Egypt is not Spain.”

Democracy requires democrats, liberalism requires liberals, and Egypt doesn’t have many of either.

But Egypt has some! Take a look at this short video interview with a 12-year-old kid back in October. He’s startlingly sophisticated for someone so young, and he makes the adult person interviewing him sound like an ass.

I’ll have real hope for Egypt when its young people en masse rebel against their parents. It happens sometimes. And it needs to happen in Egypt.

The NSA's Foreign Friends

Brazil’s foreign minister claims that his country is “seriously concerned” about reports that the US has collected data on millions of Brazilian phone calls and e-mails—almost as much data, it turns out, as was mined in the United States.

Germany’s Angela Merkel has expressed public dissatisfaction with the US passion for spying on Germany, alluding repeatedly to “Cold War tactics” that she evidently considers a violation of what her spokesman fondly calls “mutual trust.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius described the US National Security Agency’s penchant for bugging European Union diplomatic offices “completely unacceptable.”

Required Reading

NOW Lebanon columnist Michael Weiss is on fire. His entire piece, Between Sisi and Morsi, is magnificent, so go read it all.

Here is but a taste.

In a way, it’s hard not to sympathize with former anti-Mubarak agitators turned army nostalgics such as Mohammed Badr, now the de facto leader of the Tamarod (“rebellion”) movement to unseat Morsi. If his ideology weren’t a big enough problem on its own, Morsi’s tone-deaf incompetence surely was. Presented with a national complaint that exceeded in both size and scope the one that ousted his predecessor, Morsi has done everything to legitimate the opposition’s argument that, at a time of emergency, Egypt is being lorded over by an authoritarian nincompoop who thinks he’s got all the time in the world. (One way to make the word “coup” suddenly palatable again is to appoint a member of a terrorist group the provincial governor of the region where that group once perpetrated it worst terrorist attack.)

Morsi has indeed treated his opponents as if they simply do not exist, surely a reflex response of decades of having kept only the counsel of his fellow subscribers of a cult movement that seems to borrow from both Bolshevism and Heaven’s Gate. Even as half a dozen or so members of his own cabinet tendered their resignations, even as Brotherhood heavies were being seized and placed under house arrest, and even as Brotherhood HQ was being set alight, the president was neither seen nor heard from. When he finally took to the airwaves at midnight last night to reject Sisi’s ultimatum, Morsi affirmed that the price for his maintenance in power could be his own life – not realizing that this was a price many are eager to see paid.


President Obama has said recently, though only discovered belatedly, that democracy must not be confused with the mere holding of elections. Whatever happens from here, one lesson that should be learned from Egypt’s latest round of convulsions is the sentimental pieties and determinisms with which we continue to approach history require a serious rethink. The image of an ink-stained finger or an old man arriving at a polling station to participate in the first free election of his life are undeniably more captivating for viewers of CNN or Al Jazeera than the latest report from the International Monetary Fund or Human Rights Watch. And yet, because the more significant bricks-and-mortar work that goes into building a functioning state and safeguarding an independent civil society is so easily ignored, that work is usually the first victim of the aspiring tyrants of the ballot box. Critical journalists can thus be fired from their jobs, NGO workers can be put on trial for phantom conspiracies, women can be characterized as Adam’s rib, opposition leaders can be beaten or locked up – all in the name of a concept “democracy” that been fetishized to near meaninglessness. Put it this way: if the ruling party in a true democracy is shown to be running torture facilities out of the official residence of the chief executive, it will not take a new election to remove that party from power.

Read the whole thing at NOW Lebanon.


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