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China's Infrastructure Bank Proposal Gains Traction

On Tuesday, France, Germany, and Italy announced they will participate in the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The trio follows Britain’s decision to do so and precedes expected announcements by Australia and South Korea.

The Irresponsibility of the Iran Letter

Last week, in an unprecedented political move, 47 US Senate Republicans addressed a public letter to the leadership of Iran, promising to oppose and undermine American negotiations with that country. Our diplomats are in the final stages of securing an agreement that would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. This obvious effort by some members of Congress to undercut national security policy is not only unconstructive and embarrassing—it is irresponsible.

As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and like a clear majority of Americans, I support negotiations that have a real chance of keeping America and her allies safe and preventing another uncertain war in the Middle East.

Egypt Wants to Junk Cairo

Egyptian officials want to dump Cairo as their capital and build a new one out in the desert. Can’t say that I blame them. These people have to live in Cairo—with 18 million people, it's far too large to commute in from outside—and the city is awful.

I can't hardly think of Cairo without remembering a passage from Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British Arabist expat who lives in Yemen.

Few visitors have liked Cairo on first sight. “Uff!” exclaimed an eight-century caliph, “She is the mother of stenches!” Later, a geographer wondered why anyone should have wanted to build a city “between a putrid and mephitic river, the corrupt effluvia of which cause disease and rot food, and a dry and barren mountain range devoid of greenery.” The ground teemed with rats, scorpions, fleas, and bugs, the air with miasmas. In Cairo Symon Semeon buried his companion Brother Hugo, who had succumbed to an attack of dysentery and fever “caused by a north wind.” My guidebook, compiled a century after I.B.’s visit, was disturbingly frank about the dangers of living in a polluted high-rise city where light and air rarely penetrate the dark alleyways. Its author, al-Maqrizi, warned that “the traveler approaching Cairo sees before him a depressing black wall beneath a dust-laden sky, from which sight his soul shrinks and flees away.”

Yes. Alas, that is Cairo. And it's actually worse now than it was. Parts of downtown look almost European at night if you squint at them just so, but the decades-long progression of rot and decay are unmistakable in the daylight. Much of the city that has been built in the meantime is clotted with communist-style garbage architecture. One looming hulk near Tahrir Square resembles nothing so much as a Kafka-esque Ministry of Bureaucracy.

Roughly half of Egyptians earn less than two dollars per day, so you can imagine what the slums look and smell like, but even the “fancy” neighborhoods like Zamalek are drab and depressing.

So it's easy to understand why the nation's rulers want to pick up and leave and start over. Cairo will sink even further if that ever happens, but what do they care? They use a crooked military dictatorship to lord over the country like it's their own private plantation.

They want to build a 270 square mile city—large enough to house five million people—in just five to seven years. It would be paid for by wealthy investors from the Gulf region. If they actually build this thing in such a poor country where hardly anyone has any money, it will likely turn into a lonely government compound surrounded by a North African version of China's spooky ghost cities.

Cairo is a disaster, but it's at least theoretically fixable. Most cities in Eastern Europe were in similarly horrendous condition during the communist era, but political and economic reform transformed most of them over time into the gems they used to be before the catastrophic mid-20th century had its way with them.

That kind of change won't likely sweep Egypt any time soon, though, so the elite for the time being will be either be trapped in the urban hell that is Cairo or stranded in a botched utopian scheme in the middle of nowhere. Everyone else will continue to suffer right where they are.

The Decline of the Russian Empire

The following is an interview with Rein Taagepera, professor emeritus of the University of Tartu, in Estonia, and the University of California, Irvine.

***

MOTYL: Professor Taagepera, you were the first social scientist to have studied the rise and fall of empires in a rigorous social-scientific manner. So let’s start with a big-picture question. Why do empires decay?

TAAGEPERA: Empires rarely stand still. They initially outrun their internal flaws through external expansion. Once they stop growing, these flaws accumulate. Expansion is self-reinforcing, and so is decay. To change course, one must give up on past glory and start anew.

MOTYL: How do empires react to decay?

TAAGEPERA: It is psychologically easier to give up on overseas holdings than on territorially contiguous ones, however disparate these may be ethnically. While losing vigor, Poland-Lithuania and Austria-Hungary largely maintained their territory, until their final collapse. In contrast, the Ottoman Empire began to lose ground slowly already in the 1700s.

Drums of War or Pipes of Peace?

In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro has called on his followers to march to the drums of war against a political plot, allegedly backed by the United States, to provoke the overthrow of his increasingly unpopular authoritarian regime. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos is cautiously testing a partial cease-fire in the conflict with leftist FARC guerrillas in the hopes of clinching a peace deal ending five decades of warfare that has cost 220,000 lives. The contrast could not be greater, and the different ways Venezuela and Colombia view the options of war and peace reveal a deep contradiction in Latin America over how to respond to violations of basic human rights and democratic political guarantees.

Lithuania's Independence Day and American Soldiers

This blog is called “Transatlantic Connection,” and this week in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, I experienced true transatlantic connections in action. As two colleagues and I jostled for a spot in the crowded Parliament Square for the country’s 25th anniversary celebrations, we found ourselves next to a group of young American soldiers. “Are you just here today or are you staying for a while?” one of my colleagues, a veteran Moscow correspondent from Soviet times, asked them. “We’ll be here for a while, sir,” one of them replied. American soldiers are currently serving in the Baltic states on permanent rotation.

“For a while”: that’s music to Lithuanian and other Baltic ears. The polite young men and women, not yet born when Lithuanians bravely dared to declare independence on March 11, 1990, despite their Parliament being surrounded by Soviet tanks, may just think of their Lithuanian sojourn as another overseas posting—they’re based in Germany, they informed me—but to Baltic leaders and citizens, these young Americans form a security guarantee. European solidarity with the Baltic states notwithstanding, it’s a US commitment that really counts.

A Real Downside to Any Deal With Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a stir last week when he blasted President Barack Obama’s attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. American television media covered little else for 24 hours. The prime minister and the president are still bickering about it this week on Twitter. Both have ignored a disturbing reality: any deal with Iran, good or bad, is likely to benefit ISIS.

President Obama is pursuing an agreement for understandable reasons. Far better to resolve the West’s differences with Iran diplomatically rather than violently. Prime Minister Netanyahu, likewise, is wary of the president’s plan for understandable reasons. A bad deal may be worse for Israel than no deal at all. Yet neither Obama nor Netanyahu seem to notice how an agreement, regardless of its content and efficacy, will be viewed by the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs, who are as alarmed as the Israelis are by Iranian ambitions.

The war against ISIS is being fought on two fronts in two countries, and the Middle East’s Sunni-Shia conflict rips right through the center of both. ISIS is the bloodthirsty wing of the Sunni jihadist movement, while Iran and its Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese allies make up the Shia resistance. In no way do average Sunni Arabs view ISIS as their standard bearer. Tens of thousands have lit out from its territory for squalid refugee camps abroad. But at the same time, most Sunni Arabs tremble at the rise of Iranian power and are reluctant to stand against the maniacs on their own side, especially when the U.S. and Europe appear to side with the Persians and Shia against them.

That’s not how it is, but that’s how it looks. Consider this: Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qasem Soleimani is personally leading the Iraqi operation to wrest control of the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from ISIS. When Iraq’s Sunnis see Shia militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops gunning for their territory, they feel a looming threat to their very existence. And at the same time, the West is bombing ISIS positions in both Syria and Iraq, while Washington is at least nominally allied to Baghdad and trying to cut a deal with Tehran. The Sunnis see the world’s only superpower teaming up with their enemies and gearing up to smash them to pieces.

It looks little better from a Sunni’s perspective in Syria. The U.S. hardly supports the malignant Assad, but all of Washington’s air strikes have landed on Sunni jihadist targets even after President Obama accused Damascus of deploying chemical weapons in civilian population centers. Like the government in Baghdad, the House of Assad is firmly in the Iranian camp. The state, along with the ruling family, is heavily packed with members of the Alawite minority, adherents of a heterodox religion that fuses Shia Islam, Christianity, and Gnosticism.

The Assads have had their boots on the necks of Syria’s Sunni majority since 1971, when the late Hafez al-Assad seized power, and they’ve been the Arab world’s staunchest Iranian allies ever since. Assad is also, along with Iran’s clerical regime, a patron and armorer of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, by far the deadliest Shia terrorist organization in the world and one which is actively and effectively fighting against Syria’s armed Sunni opposition on behalf of its masters. In light of all that, ISIS has an easier time presenting itself as the defender of the region’s Sunni Arab majority against an axis of Persian-Shia-Alawite perfidy.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Is China’s One-Party State on the Brink?

“We cannot predict when Chinese communism will collapse,” writes David Shambaugh in an essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “but it is hard not to conclude that we are witnessing its final phase.”

The George Washington University professor is known in the global China-watching community as having close ties to the Communist Party of China. In his essay, titled “The Coming Chinese Crackup,” he mentions attending a conference at the Central Party School in Beijing last December and having other contacts with cadres and officials. He was recently named one of America’s top 20 China watchers by China Foreign Affairs University, which is affiliated with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Kremlin’s Influence Game

Does he or doesn’t he? (Work for the Russians, that is.) With the tensions between Russia and the West growing, Russian subversion seems to be everywhere, including the genteel world of think thanks and NGOs. It’s no surprise, then, that the European Center of Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA), a Polish think tank, is finding itself under suspicion of working for the Kremlin. After all, it publishes some highly pro-Russian articles and analyses, including a recent interview with Aleksandr Kofman, the foreign minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic (a.k.a. the pro-Russian breakaway region of Ukraine).

Ukrainian Jewish Leader on Russian Aggression

Josef Zissels is the chairman of the General Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. He is sitting in the middle of a long table in the Ukrainian Restaurant in downtown New York. Before him is a bowl of borscht. As he eats, he shares his views of the current crisis in Ukraine with nine specialists and activists.

Zissels does not mince words. “There is no civil war in Ukraine,” he says. “There is a Russian aggression supported by local collaborators.” The war with Russia will be “long,” and Ukraine needs to construct a “militarist economy” like Israel’s. The Maidan Revolution had nothing to do with ethnicity, language, or religion. It was a “civilizational conflict” between those Ukrainians who supported Europe and those who supported Russia.

Has Putin Lost Germany?

A recently released German documentary about Vladimir Putin—Mensch Putin!—paints a decidedly unflattering picture of Russia’s leader. He is, according to the film, a disturbingly insecure man with a deeply rooted need to compensate for his inadequacies with manifestations of physical prowess and the exercise of power.

“So what else is new?” Putin’s many critics might ask.  The answer is: the film is German, produced by none other than the venerable ZDF, or Germany’s equivalent of BBC or PBS. That makes the film a touchstone of changing German attitudes toward Putin. The film updates former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s characterization of Putin as a “lupenreiner Demokrat” (“flawless democrat”) to something closer to Russia’s version of Hitler lite. What other German leader was a disturbingly insecure man with a deeply rooted need to compensate for his inadequacies with manifestations of physical prowess and the exercise of power? Germans will get the implied comparison, even if it remains unarticulated in the documentary.

Let Iraq Die: A Case for Partition

Iraq is finished, an expiring, cancerous nation on life support. Pulling the plug might be merciful. It might be cruel. But either way, it’s time to accept the fact that this country is likely to die and that we’ll all be better off when it does.

The Kurds in the north, who make up roughly twenty percent of the population, want out. They never wished to be part of Iraq in the first place. To this day, they still call the bathroom the “Winston Churchill,” in sarcastic homage to the former British prime minister who shackled them to Baghdad. Since the early 1990s, they’ve had their own government and autonomous region in the northern three provinces, and they held a referendum in 2005 in which 98.7 percent voted to secede and declare independence. The only reason they haven’t finally pulled the trigger is because it hasn’t been safe; the Turks—who fear the contagion of Kurdish independence inside their own country—have threatened to invade if they did.

The Sunni Arabs in the west, who make up another rough twenty percent of Iraq, aren’t itching for independence necessarily, but they sure as hell aren’t willing to live under the thumb of Shiite-dominated Baghdad any longer. Millions of them live now under the brutal totalitarian rule of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has declared its own state not only in a huge swath of Iraq but also in much of northeastern Syria. ISIS either controls or has a large presence in more than fifty percent of Iraq at the time of this writing.

Iraq’s Shiite majority, meanwhile, is terrified of its Sunni minority, which oppressed them mercilessly during Saddam Hussein’s terrifying rule and which now flies the black flag of al-Qaeda and promises unending massacres.

President Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq. For years—and for perfectly understandable reasons—he was very reluctant to wade into that country’s eternally dysfunctional internal problems, but even he was persuaded to declare war against ISIS in the fall of 2014 when its fighters made a beeline for Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region and the only stable and America-friendly place in the country.

But however engaged the US chooses to be, the current war in Iraq is likely to drag on for years. If Iraq somehow manages to survive its current conflict in one piece, another will almost certainly follow. Its instability is both devastating and chronic. Far better at this point if Iraq simply terminates itself as a state and lets its various constituent groups peaceably go their own way, as Yugoslavia did after its own catastrophic series of wars in the 1990s.

In his limited response to ISIS after its seizure of Mosul in early June, Obama called for, among other things, Iraq’s “territorial integrity” to be respected.

Obviously it would have been preferable had ISIS not invaded from Syria and conquered Iraqi territory, but generally speaking there is nothing holy about Iraq’s current borders. It has never been a coherent nation-state. Nor, for that matter, has Syria. Both are geographic abstractions that never would have existed had European colonial mapmakers not created them in the early twentieth century for their own self-interested reasons, now long obsolete and forgotten. Had Middle Easterners drawn their own borders, whether or not they did so peacefully, the map would be strikingly different—and more organic.

As Lebanon Renaissance Foundation co-founder Eli Khoury put it, “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron. It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.”

Theoretically, Iraqis and Syrians still could have forged collective identities and ideals of patriotic nationalism between the time of their nations’ founding and now, but that didn’t happen in their neighborhood any more than it did in the former Yugoslavia. The dictators of Syria, Iraq, and Yugoslavia all tried to paper over the disunity in their countries with a theoretically binding international ideology—Baathist Arab nationalism, communism—but totalitarian regimes always crash in the end, and their ideologies inevitably go down along with them.

In the absence of tolerant pluralism and democratic political liberalism, the basic incoherence of these states guaranteed one of two outcomes. They’ll either be governed by “centralized iron,” as Khoury put it, or they’ll come apart at the seams. Centralized iron only holds incoherent nations together so long. Removing Hussein blew Iraq apart, and Syria blew apart even without its tyrant Bashar al-Assad being forced into exile or dragged from his palace.

Iraq’s current troubles began just one day after the US finished withdrawing its forces, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of planning terrorist attacks against Shiite targets and of murdering Shiite officials. Hashimi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan before security forces could grab him and now lives in Turkey.

In 2012, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death, along with his son-in-law Ahmed Qahtan.

Is he guilty? Did he do it? I have no idea. Iraq has no shortage of vicious individuals, inside and outside the government, willing to use deadly force both overtly and covertly against rivals. Some of Hashimi’s bodyguards confessed, but it’s entirely possible they were coerced or even tortured.

Whether or not Hashimi was guilty, Shiite militias carried out death squad attacks against Sunnis all over Baghdad both before and after this happened. Iraq’s sectarian violence never entirely dissipated during the American occupation, and after the withdrawal it rose again.

The following year, Maliki’s government accused Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi of the same thing Hashimi had been accused of. Some of his bodyguards were also arrested and charged with committing terrorist acts. But now the conspiracy theories were getting ridiculous. Issawi was and is known as a reasonable and peaceable man. Accusing him and his people of terrorism is like accusing Alan Greenspan of operating his own secret prison on the side when he was running the Fed.

Issawi convinced plenty of the implosive chaos at the heart of the Maliki government when he said, “The tyrant of Baghdad will not keep quiet until he targets all of his opponents.” If the finance minister, of all people, could be accused of something like this, any Sunni leader or even civilian could be rounded up and placed in front of a Stalinist show trial.

Click here to read the rest!

US Policy on Hong Kong Needs an Update

On February 27th, a bipartisan group in the US House of Representatives introduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. A companion bill is due to be introduced in the Senate soon as well. Both bills update US policy in response to last fall’s large-scale protests, dubbed the “Umbrella Movement” for the umbrellas that demonstrators used to shield themselves from tear gas. Protestors took over central Hong Kong streets after Beijing announced that it would screen candidates for the election of the territory’s top post—with loyalty to the Communist Party being a litmus test. 

Will Russia Buckle, Sell China Control of Its Oil Fields?

On Friday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich signaled that the Kremlin would be willing to give Chinese companies majority stakes in Russian oil and gas fields. “There used to be a psychological barrier,” he said, speaking from Krasnoyarsk, a city in energy-rich Siberia. “Now it doesn’t exist anymore. We are interested in maximum investments in new industries. China is an obvious investor for us.”

At present, Russia caps foreign ownership at 50 percent for oil fields where reserves exceed 70 million tons and gas fields containing more than 50 billion cubic meters in reserves. Yet that could change if the Chinese want bigger stakes. As Dvorkovich said, “If there is a request, we will consider it.”

In Ukraine: No Reform, No Investment

Here’s an idea for the European community. Instead of focusing on the fighting in the Ukraine, let’s talk about investments. Ukraine has plenty of people eager to work and improve their living standards, but companies aren’t investing, Dmitry Firtash told me at a meeting in Vienna this week. Firtash knows a thing or two about money, having accumulated between $673 million and $5 billion (estimates vary) in his quarter-century career as an oligarch. Though he’s also president of the Ukrainian Federation of Employers, he currently lives in Vienna: In fact, after being arrested by Austrian police on suspicions on money laundering last year (and released on bail soon thereafter), he’s stuck in Austria. The exact legal status of Firtash’s business dealings remain shrouded in mystery, but one thing is obvious: He’s keen to bring investments and jobs to his native country, where he’s a major, if controversial, investor and employer. “Any investor is a good investor,” he told me when I asked what sort of company would be particularly suited to do business in Ukraine. The country needs 300 billion euros, he estimates.

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