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How Should the US Respond to China's Cyber Attacks?

Last week, the Associated Press reported that the National Intelligence Council is working on a new National Intelligence Estimate that will point the finger at the Chinese government for a multi-year campaign of cyberattacks against American networks. The estimate, according to the wire service, will call for more effective action against Beijing.

The news comes on the heels of a series of revelations that Chinese hackers have been reading e-mails of New York Times reporters as well as attacking the computer systems of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Reports also suggest the Chinese have hacked Twitter and the Department of Energy.

Resurrecting Stalin — Again

Russia’s ruling regime is persisting in its attempts to rehabilitate the name of Joseph Stalin. For Vladimir Putin, this has been a consistent course—from the reinstated melody of Stalin’s national anthem to new school textbooks justifying Stalin’s mass purges as “adequate to the task of modernization.” In 2010, as Russia marked the 65th anniversary of victory in the Second World War, the authorities attempted to “decorate” the streets of Moscow with portraits of the dictator—but were forced to back down in the face of strong opposition from veterans, civil society groups, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

North Korea Rattles Nuclear Sabers

When North Korea’s Kim Jon-un recently proclaimed that South Korea was the nuclear-capable dictatorship’s next target, the people in South Korea’s capital city let out a collective yawn. Yet Seoul lays a mere 30 miles from the North’s battle-ready garrisons, just on the other side of the demilitarized zone—that narrow swath of land that has divided the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War.

But while that divide may separate the two geographically, many in the democratic south consider that the strip of land is transcended by the ancient blood relationship that joins the two sides. One expert told me, “They are our blood brothers.” And that is one of several reasons why many here believe that, in spite of the bluster and even the occasional armed confrontation, their North Korean kin will never follow through on Kim’s bellicose threats.

Women on the Front Lines in the Middle East

With all the to-do over the US military’s decision to allow women in combat, it’s worth noting that women of other nations are already on the front lines in the Middle East and elsewhere—even if they’re not in uniform.

No, this is not where I defer to sexy media photos of young female protesters courageously defying government tanks in recent Arab unrest, despite the bravery on display.

This is about a far more undercover conflict: the fight over female identity in Arab and Muslim societies. What does that mean? That means family dinner conversations about mom’s participation in political protests, for example; it means little girls starting to tell little boys it’s not okay to hit them; it means young ladies asking why they’re still making their brothers’ beds for them.

Confronting Morsi's Blind Spot

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president, is an unbelievable man—in both senses of that word. Last month, the New York Times called him out for virulent anti-Semitic remarks in a speech he gave three years ago.

In it, Morsi characterized Jews as “these bloodsuckers who attack Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.” He advised Egyptians to “nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred” of Jews and Zionists.

In my own research a few weeks earlier, I found that, two years ago, he remarked that Egypt’s treaty with Israel “talked about a just and comprehensive peace and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Where is that peace, and where is that state?” And he called on the Egyptian Parliament to review the treaty.

The Superpower Takes a Breather

My latest piece in the Wall Street Journal is up and it's outside the paywall.

France just smashed al Qaeda in Mali with little more than moral support from the United States. Washington didn't even lead from behind. Americans did not lead at all. This time we sat on the sidelines while France—France!—led and did everything from the front.

Last winter the entire northern part of the northwest African country was seized by Ansar al-Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who together transformed it into a Taliban-style terrorist state. The famous ancient trading city of Timbuktu—long a mecca for adventurous tourists and the host of an annual international music festival—became a grotesque, hand-chopping tyranny that hemorrhaged violence and refugees.

The international community dithered for almost a year, as if an al Qaeda state isn't all that big a deal. But when the Islamists began expanding south toward the capital and took the city of Gao, France dispatched its war planes and ground troops and threw the bad guys out in a matter of weeks. Its fighter jets are currently pounding terrorist camps deep in the Sahara near the Algerian border.

President François Hollande visited Timbuktu over the weekend and was hailed as a liberator by throngs of residents, including imams, yelling "Vive la France!"

The French sure have come a long way from the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" of yesteryear. A Canadian friend and colleague who wholeheartedly approves of what happened now jokingly refers to Americans as "burger-eating surrender monkeys."

Of course, Americans didn't actually surrender to anyone. We were hardly even involved in Mali. And it's not, as some love to think, because the world has become post-American. The U.S. remains the only country on earth that can project massive amounts of power for an extended period of time anywhere on the planet. The superpower is simply taking a breather. The fact that most of us, Democrat and Republican alike, feel like taking a break from it all doesn't mean we're flat on our collective back like Russia when the Soviet Union imploded.

The hypercautious Obama administration is temporary, as is the current war-weary American mood. We'll be back.

No one bothers with the idea that history is over these days, least of all the conflict with Islamists. Osama bin Laden is dead, but al Qaeda is wreaking havoc all over the Middle East and North Africa. It's only a matter of time before they mess with us again in a way that we can't blow off, especially if they've convinced themselves that our little break means we're not as powerful as we used to be. They underestimated us before, and they're bound to do it again, especially after we withdraw from Afghanistan.

The American superpower is an original. It's reluctant and self-doubting. Most Americans just aren't that into it. Policing the world is deadly, expensive, exhausting and thankless. France can unilaterally invade a former colony like Mali and endure nary a peep, but anti-American protests break out all over the place whenever the U.S. intervenes anywhere, even with authorization from the U.N. Security Council.

Strutting around the world like a colossus doesn't appeal to anything in the American soul. We do it because somebody has to, because we can, and because most of us sense instinctively that we'll wake up in a different world if Russia and China take over the job.

France stepped up in Mali for a similar reason. Because somebody had to, because Americans didn't feel like it, and because the French could.

Washington was relieved. Americans don't worry about waking up in a different and darker world if France calls a few shots internationally. The French share American values, more or less—unlike the Chinese and Russians. So thank goodness France was there to relieve us.

Otherwise Al Qaedastan would have sat there and festered.

Read the rest in the Wall Street Journal.

Now I REALLY Can't Go to Libya

Libya is so unstable now that international airlines are refusing to fly there.

The government should have just approved my visa when I first asked for it. The bureaucracy over there is in no better shape than the security services. Libya will just have to suffer alone for a while.

The Push for Anti-Blasphemy Laws

I have an essay in the current print edition of World Affairs which is now online outside the pay wall. Here's the first part:

“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” —Thomas Jefferson

Free speech is under attack in the West, and it’s under attack from abroad. For years radical Islamists have targeted embassies abroad and individuals at home for “insulting” the Prophet Muhammad. And now diplomats and heads of state from Islamist countries are using international oganizations to pressure the West to criminalize blasphemy and are even lobbying for a global censorship regime.

The most recent assault began in Cairo on September 11, 2012, when a deranged mob attacked the US Embassy, breached its walls, and hoisted the black flag of al-Qaeda. Similar scenes of violence and mayhem broke out from Tunisia to Indonesia. Allegedly—although not in the case of the attack in Benghazi that led to the assasination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens—because an Egyptian-American Copt no one had ever heard of before uploaded the trailer for an amateurish anti-Muhammad movie called “The Innocence of Muslims” to YouTube.

The United States government went directly to cringe mode and spent as much time condemning the video as it did the mob.

It started with an official announcement on the Twitter page of the US Embassy in Cairo: “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others,” the message said. The White House distanced itself and said that response was neither official nor authorized, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something similar a couple of days later. The video, she said, is “disgusting and reprehensible” and “we absolutely reject its content and message.”

There’s no point defending the video aside from its right to exist. I’ve seen it. It’s ludicrous. Clinton’s reaction is normal. But there’s a problem. She’s the chief diplomat of the United States. Condemning random trash on the Internet isn’t her job, not even in response to an international incident. Her statement should have been the same as if an Oscar-winning film inspired a riot.

“There are more than three hundred million ways in which Americans expressing themselves might give offense to those who make it their business to be offended,” Lee Smith argued in the Weekly Standard. “Is the White House going to put every American crank on speed-dial so it can tell them to shut up whenever a mob gathers outside a US embassy or consulate?”

Islamist governments sensed weakness, an opening, an opportunity. The United States was saying they had a point! So they took the next logical step.

Just weeks after the riots, the freshly chosen presidents of Egypt and Yemen took to the podium at the United Nations and demanded that blasphemy be outlawed everywhere in the world, including in the United States. “Insults against the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, are not acceptable,” said Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. “We will not allow anyone to do this by word or by deed.” “There should be limits for the freedom of expression,” added Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, “especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.”

Saudi Arabia went even further and advocated an international censorship body to crush blasphemy on the Internet. “There is a crying need for international collaboration to address ‘freedom of expression’ which clearly disregards public order,” the government said.

That’s where things stand. Condemning what they call widespread “Islamophobia,” religious authoritarians are asserting themselves, both violently and diplomatically, while the West cowers and says they’re right to be angry. Hillary Clinton even says she personally shares their anger.

This will not do. It will not do at all. Instead, the United States should go on the offensive and demand that blasphemy be legalized in every country on earth.

*

This Islamic jihad against free speech started in 1989, when Iran’s tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the murder of British novelist Salman Rushdie because the author supposedly blasphemed the Islamic religion in his novel The Satanic Verses. Dozens of people connected with him, his book, and his publisher were attacked—some even killed—in countries as far away as Japan. Bookstores in the United Kingdom and United States were firebombed. The British government took the threat so seriously it provided Rushdie with an around-the-clock armed security detail, and he had to live in hiding under an assumed name for years.

Though the Rushdie affair looked like an extreme outlier event for a while, it turned out to be only the prologue for an ever more sordid drama. In 2004, an Islamist fanatic stabbed Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh to death right out in the open on an Amsterdam street in retaliation for a short film called Submission that Van Gogh made with Somali-born feminist and Dutch member of Parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The killer used a butcher knife to pin a note to his corpse that said Hirsi Ali was “next.” She stayed on in the Netherlands under armed guard for a while, but later had to move to the United States.

The Van Gogh murder inspired a wave of attempts on the lives of more “blasphemers.” An assassin attacked Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in front of his granddaughter in his own house with an axe. Terrorists from a number of countries, including the United States, conspired to kill Swedish artist Lars Vilks. Seattle Weekly cartoonist Molly Norris entered the FBI’s witness-protection program after American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (whom the United States later atomized with a Hellfire missile) placed her on a hit list for suggesting that cartoonists all over the world should draw the Prophet Muhammad on the same day.

Those incidents targeted individuals, which is bad enough. But then six years ago, Middle Eastern outposts of the Western democracies came under fire. In early 2006, riots exploded across the Muslim world after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. The Danish embassies in Pakistan, Syria, and Lebanon were attacked. A mob set the embassy in Beirut on fire. The Danish and the Norwegian embassies in Damascus were set on fire. More than one hundred people were killed.

That was the prologue to the recent unpleasantness that started in Cairo. It took a while, but the worldwide anti-blasphemy campaign has finally mushroomed into a serious menace. The aggressive demands of the Saudis, Egyptians, and Yemenis to use the law and the police to smash what offends them everywhere on the planet is what we all should expect since Western governments are not fighting back with strong and unequivocal support for free speech.

The other side has the momentum right now. Brazil banned “The Innocence of Muslims” outright. A court went so far as to order the arrest of Google’s highest-ranking executive in the country since YouTube, which Google now owns, refuses to take down videos when it’s told.

The California branch of the phony civil rights group CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) now openly says it wants blasphemy banned in the United States. “There should be laws against hate speech that leads to violence or criminal activities,” said Rashid Ahmad, the founder of CAIR’s Sacramento chapter. “Because of the film we’ve lost so many lives—the filmmaker has blood on his hands.”

Feeling that they have the wind at their backs, ten thousand Muslims protested Google’s London offices for failing to censor the film. Sheikh Faiz al-Aqtab Siddiqui spoke at the rally and made what is perhaps the most absurd argument yet. “Terrorism,” he said, “is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well.”

*

Let’s pretend, just as a thought experiment, that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution doesn’t exist, that the American government could ban blasphemy if it felt like it without getting mauled by the Supreme Court and the public. Now imagine the size of the repressive bureaucracy required to scrub not just YouTube but the entire Internet, including all national media from the New York Times to your mom’s Facebook page, of everything that might offend mobs waving terrorist flags.

Read the whole thing.

Lincoln Revived

Come down off the cross. We can use the wood.

— Tom Waits

“There are moments,” wrote the critic Edmund Wilson in Patriotic Gore, his 1962 book of studies in the literature of the American Civil War, “when one is tempted to feel that the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.” Wilson’s complaint was that Sandburg’s gushing biography of the “backwoods Saint” had “vulgarized Lincoln” and opened the floodgates to a torrent of mush about the log-cabin birth, the rail-splitting, the “folksy and jocular countryman swapping stories at the village store,” and, most misleading of all, the father-figure who, “with a tear in his eye, presided over the tragedy of the Civil War.”

One of the kindest things that has happened to the 16th president since that night in Ford’s Theatre has been to fall into the hands of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. Lincoln “uses the wood,” so to speak, to give us back the man. Whatever its merits as a piece of filmmaking, it is a rare study in the peculiar nobility of the craft of the democratic politician.

Israel's Gatekeepers

In 1980, about the time a number of West Bank mayors were bombed by members of a secretive and fanatical Jewish religious group, Avraham Achituv, then the leader of the Shin Bet, tendered his resignation to Menachem Begin, who was the Israeli prime minister of that era. A number of events precipitated his decision to step down. Bassam Shakaa, mayor of Nablus, had lost both his legs from an explosion in his car, and Karim Khalaf of Ramallah had lost a foot. Achituv, so it was said, blamed Begin for some of those attacks.

Benghazi in Transition

Benghazi is in a state of transition, most likely from bad to horrendous.

Security in Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city where four Americans were killed Sept. 11 in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate, has decayed to the point where Westerners are fleeing, assassinations and kidnappings are rife and residents worry that U.S. drone strikes on jihadist targets are imminent.

“The situation has obviously deteriorated. It is a systematic deterioration,” said longtime Benghazi resident Jalal Elgallal, who was spokesman of the now-defunct National Transitional Council.

Mr. Elgallal recently escaped harm from a nearby bomb blast as he waited in his car at a traffic light.

“We don’t do a lot of going out now,” he said in a phone interview from Benghazi. “There is uncertainty about what is going to happen in the very near future.”

In the 15 months since dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown and killed, Benghazi — the cradle of the Libyan revolution — has been besieged by rampant violence, much of it resulting from score-settling between the heavily armed militias that control the city and those who served in the Gadhafi regime.

“It has been a series of attacks, kidnappings and assassinations,” William Lawrence, director of the North Africa project of the International Crisis Group, said in a phone interview from Morocco. “The general situation in Libya continues to be bad, primarily because of the weak security infrastructure that existed before and after Gadhafi.”

In January, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Canada urged their citizens to leave Benghazi. The British Foreign Office said it was aware of “a specific and imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi.”

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are fleeing like rats out of Mali. Some of them will almost surely end up in and around Benghazi. That tortured Libyan city will likely remain on the no-go list for some time.

Women in Combat

I’ve done eight embeds with the American Army in Afghanistan, and met women soldiers of every rank and capability. But it’s my experience as a journalist trailing Libyan freedom fighters in 2011 that makes me applaud Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s decision to allow American women to apply for combat military occupational specialties.

While the United States is a hundred years ahead of Libya in gender equality, the fading rhetoric of protectionism that was a good part of the combat ban in the US for decades is alive and well in Libya.

Fighting Over Syria's Ruins

Jabhat al-Nusra, the Salafist faction of the Syrian insurgency that was recently labeled a terrorist organzation by the United States government, recently launched a failed attack against the town of Sere Kaniye in Syrian Kurdistan.

My pal Jonathan Spyer, who has been following the Syrian war as closely as anyone and is now writing a book about it, has this to say in the Jerusalem Post:

The Sere Kaniye fighting is an indication of the increasing transformation of Syria’s civil war from an insurgency against the dictatorship of Bashar Assad into a many-sided conflict in which the various ethnic and sectarian communities of Syria fight over the country’s ruins.

[…]

[I]t is now mistaken to think of the Syrian civil war as a single conflict, pitting the Assad dictatorship against a popular insurgency.

The Assads, for all their many faults, grasped a certain truth – that Syria, a state established by British and French colonialism – lacked any real binding identity and could be held together only by force. The force of the dictatorship is now gradually receding and fading. As it does so, the incompatible component parts that it held together are beginning to separate.

The regime itself is turning into a structure operating on behalf of the Alawi minority. The Sunni Arab insurgency is also divided along ideological and tribal lines. The Kurds in northeast Syria, meanwhile, are making clear that they want no part of either the Sunni Islamist rebellion or the reduced dictatorship. In a manner similar to their compatriots in Iraqi Kurdistan, they are seeking to create a defensible haven for themselves. The Islamist rebels are trying – so far without great success – to force their way into this haven.

The war-within-a-war in northeast Syria thus offers stark evidence of the extent to which “Syria,” as a unified state, no longer really exists.

Benghazi Circles the Drain

As Westerners evacuate Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, Islamist militias—whose fighters apparently number in the thousands—are moving in.

An unnamed activist there says, “There isn't anyone fully in control of Benghazi…[Militias] control entrances into the city, streets, key infrastructure. The police don't want to challenge them because they just don't have the manpower.” A downtown police chief says, “We only have pistols and rifles. They have tanks and heavy weapons. We want to do our job but some police officers are simply afraid.”

This sort of thing happnened in Iraq shortly before entire cities were taken over and occupied by terrorist organizations. Eastern Libya may well end up suffering the same grim fate as Northern Mali if the government doesn’t get its act together, and fast.

Ukraine’s ‘New Elite’

Leonid Brezhnev would have smiled when President Viktor Yanukovych made public his list of “The New Elite of the Nation” on December 29, 2012.

The 60 lucky individuals who made the list of the “presidential reserve cadres” are overwhelmingly local apparatchiks: directors, secretaries, heads, and deputy heads of the many bureaucratic agencies that misrule Ukraine. There are also two businessmen, one doctor, and one professor, although just what they’re doing there is anybody’s guess.

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