Putin’s Syria Gambit

All the hullaballoo provoked by Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement of a Russian troop withdrawal from Syria misses two important points.

First, given that even Putin’s inner circle in the Kremlin appears not to have known anything about his plans, the episode has reaffirmed the widespread belief that Putin makes all the strategic decisions in the Kremlin. Which is exactly what we would expect from a dictator who models his leadership style on Benito Mussolini’s. Unconstrained by institutions or rules, Putin can invade Crimea, the Donbas, and Syria one day and announce a withdrawal from Syria the other. If he wanted to end the war against Ukraine, he could do so by declaring victory over the “Kyiv junta” and withdrawing his troops. That he chooses not to do so is less the result of a rational calculation of the war’s costs and benefits for Russia than the product of his whim.

Not surprisingly, Putin keeps surprising the world—and, in all likelihood, himself. That’s not leadership, and that’s certainly not genius. That’s authoritarian conceit.

Missile Defense in the Era of Kim Jong Un

“Our hydrogen bomb is much bigger than the one developed by the Soviet Union,” reported the state-run DPRK Today on Sunday. “If this H-bomb were to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile and fall on Manhattan in New York City, all the people there would be killed immediately and the city would burn down to ashes.”

North Korea’s threat followed its release on Wednesday of pictures showing Kim Jong Un standing next to what was reported to be a nuclear warhead. Although the object—a shiny sphere that has been compared to a 1970s disco ball—was most likely a mock-up of a weapon in development, it is probably just a matter of years before his technicians build a real one.

Putin Declares Victory in Syria

Mission accomplished. So says Vladimir Putin. Less than six months after embarking on his adventure in Syria to bolster his ally, President Bashar al-Assad, most of his forces are on their way home.

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” Putin said.

Yeah, right.

Oh, there’s a cease-fire in place, but there is virtually no chance it’s going to hold. Sporadic fighting persists, and it’s only a matter of time before it mushrooms again.

In the meantime, negotiators are supposed to meet in Switzerland under the auspices of the United Nations to hammer out an agreement for “a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance in Syria.”

Again, yeah right.

The government is controlled by secular non-Muslim Alawites who make up only 12 percent of Syria’s population. They’ve been in power since Hafez al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party mounted a coup in 1970, and they’re spectacularly unlikely to give it up. They’ll never get it back if they do. (Imagine if Coptic Christians took over in Egypt. Think they could pull that off and get away with it twice?)

Minorities in the Middle East get eaten alive, especially when the majority is represented, if that’s the right word, by armed Sunni Islamists.

A “peace process” in Switzerland sounds noble and makes a lot of people feel better, apparently, but it’s a roadmap to nowhere. We’re not talking about Northern Ireland here. The Syrian war is a Thunderdome, where two men enter, one man leaves. Only unlike the original Thunderdome in the third Mad Max movie, this one’s a three-way between Assad, the rebels and ISIS. You might as well have a peace process between Siamese fighting fish in a cramped aquarium.

“We will not negotiate with anyone on the presidency,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said. Assad, he insists, is a “red line and belongs to the Syrian people.”

So good luck creating an inclusive non-sectarian government with Assad in the saddle. And if he falls, good luck creating an inclusive non-sectarian government with armed Sunni Islamists in power. That’s about as likely as dope-smoking Deadheads sharing a hippie commune with the Taliban.

This conflict resembles no other as much as the Lebanese civil war. Syria’s war has lasted five years now, but Lebanon’s lasted fifteen. Roughly three times as many people have been killed in Syria in only one-third the time, though, which makes it almost ten times deadlier.

The Lebanese civil war wasn’t really even one war. It was more like a series of wars punctuated by false endings and failed cease-fires. It began with the initial clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias and morphed into a war between the Israelis and Palestinians—which wasn’t a civil war at all, but a foreign war hosted on Lebanese soil. After the Iranians got involved, another war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, and between Hezbollah and the secular Shias of Amal. Late in the civil war, Christian factions slugged it out with each other up north. The Syrian army fought pretty much everybody in Lebanon at one point or another, including the Israelis.

It was a bewildering conflict that confounded almost everybody who tried to make sense of it at the time, but its basic outline was simple: Lebanon’s multitude of sects went for each other’s throats, and all enlisted the help of foreign interventionists against their internal enemies. Israel and the West backed the Christians, Iran backed the Shias, and the Arab world backed the Sunnis and the Palestinians. At one time or another, Syria’s Assad regime backed everyone and opposed everyone.

Observers all over the world thought the Lebanese civil war was finally over during one botched cease-fire after another, but it never truly ended until the Assad regime conquered the entire country and forced everyone to disarm.

Don’t expect anything different in Syria. The same basic dynamic is at work there. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are backing the Alawites, Sunni Arab regimes are on side with the rebels, the West is half-assedly supporting the Kurds, and the creepiest elements in the Muslim world are throwing their weight behind ISIS.

Like the Lebanese civil war, there are wars within the larger war. Unlike the Lebanon war, which mostly turned out to be pointless, the Syrian war is truly a death struggle. Each side poses an existential threat to the other. Whoever loses will almost certainly be massacred. Wars of that nature are never settled in the lobbies of hotel rooms in Europe.

Leaving at a time of relative quiet is a wise decision on Putin’s part. Syria is a smoldering crater right now, but it’s calmer than usual, and his ally Assad is safe for the moment. Withdrawing today doesn’t look like a defeat. On the contrary, he’s made everybody opposed to him look like a chump. No one beat his forces or his proxies on the battlefield. He can plausibly say that the next round of chaos isn’t his fault, that Syria was more stable when he left then when he arrived.

But a peace process? Get real. We won’t be seeing any of that until either Assad or the rebels are defeated definitively and ISIS is obliterated from the face of the earth.

China's Capacity to Project Power Is Going Global

Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China is looking to build “some infrastructure facilities and support abilities,” Beijing’s code for military bases, outside China. “I believe that this is not only fair and reasonable but also accords with international practice,” he said.

If Wang sounded defensive, it is because for decades China adamantly insisted it would never maintain such bases outside its borders.

At the moment, however, the Chinese navy is building “support facilities” in Obock in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, which guards the southern entrance to the strategically important Red Sea. The location is generally considered, inside China and elsewhere, as the first of the country’s foreign military bases.

More are on the way as China develops port projects around the Indian Ocean. Take the Chinese-funded Colombo International Container Terminal, for instance. In both September and October 2014, the Sri Lankan government allowed a Chinese submarine and its tender to dock there, which shocked and angered New Delhi.

New City Journal Essay

A few weeks ago I published a short op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about the homelessness problem in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. It was adapted from a much longer essay in the winter issue of City Journal.

The City Journal essay is online now. Here’s the first part.

My hometown, Portland, Oregon, has a homelessness problem. Portland is often called the City of Bridges—more than a dozen cross the Willamette and Columbia Rivers—and beneath almost all, at one time or another, one sees miserable-looking camps constructed of tents, plastic tarps, and shopping carts. It’s impossible to avoid running into homeless people downtown, where ragged people sleep on park benches and in doorways, and where you can’t walk long without being hit up for spare change. You can hardly drive near the city center without encountering men or women holding up cardboard signs asking for money at an intersection.

Roughly 620,000 people live in Portland, and the suburbs push the metro area population to more than 2.3 million. As of January 2015, Multnomah County, which includes most of the city proper and all the city center, had 3,801 homeless people. Of these, according to the county’s biennial count, about 800 live in temporary shelters, 1,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 1,800 are “unsheltered”—that is, sleeping under bridges, in parks, and on sidewalks.

Almost everyone who visits me asks what’s wrong with this place. Portland is a prosperous, high-tech Pacific Rim city, so why does it have so many street people? Is something uniquely the matter with the city? Not necessarily. But Portland is a better place to be homeless than most American cities. The weather is mild, the citizens are generous—Portlanders spend millions yearly in private donations and tax dollars trying to help the homeless—and public officials are blocked by the courts from regulating vagrancy in ways that are routine elsewhere. Some homeless actually move to Portland from other cities. Homelessness is so visible here that it has encouraged not only expansive nonprofit relief efforts, some of which seem to be doing real good, but also, in at least one case, an innovative approach that may truly ease the problem—and that other cities might consider adopting.

Homelessness is not a new issue in American life, but it started getting much worse everywhere—not just in Portland—beginning in the 1970s, thanks to the deinstitutionalization movement, which closed many state psychiatric hospitals. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia, by 2010, the number of beds per capita in psychiatric hospitals had plunged to 1850s levels. When the most severely mentally ill patients were freed from a system discredited by 1960s social movements and books like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they were ill-prepared for normal life. Many found themselves relegated to a Hobbesian existence on sidewalks.

“Dammasch State Hospital closed 20 years ago,” says David Willis, the homeless-services coordinator at Union Gospel Mission, a Christian nonprofit. “Some went into adult foster care, but others stayed on the streets. The people who work in foster care don’t have a background in psychiatric counseling or care. They can’t handle these people. And mentally ill homeless people can’t help themselves. Somebody has to take care of them. Somebody has to make sure they bathe, change their clothes, and take their medications.”

Portland city councilman and housing commissioner Dan Saltzman agrees. “That did increase the homeless population on the streets of Portland and a lot of other cities,” he says of deinstitutionalization. “It’s a nationwide problem, and it really pulled the rug out from underneath a lot of people. Community resources were supposed to be put into place when we closed the big institutions, but the second part didn’t happen.”

About three-fourths of Portland’s homeless are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and roughly half have a mental illness of one kind or another, though many remain undiagnosed. “We see people with schizophrenia, depression, and trauma,” says Alexa Mason at the Portland Rescue Mission, another Christian nonprofit that provides food, blankets, and temporary shelter downtown. “Women on the streets are likely to be assaulted within 72 hours. Men get beat up. Just living outside is traumatizing. . . . When you add that on top of schizophrenia or dissociative disorders, people keep getting worse. This is one thing that everybody in government, social services, and the business community agrees on.”

Not everyone on the streets is mentally ill, and not all are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some just lost their jobs, slipped through the cracks, and found themselves in a maze from which they couldn’t escape. What almost all of them share, however, are weak social and family ties. “Almost everyone we help here is struggling without any support network,” says Mason. “A lack of family support is the one common denominator that unites almost everybody.”

But these problems aren’t confined to the American Northwest; why does Portland seem to have so many more homeless people than elsewhere? One reason may be simple: Portland is a relatively “easy” place to be homeless—or, at least, it’s less brutal than elsewhere. Portlanders are indeed tolerant, and so are the police—not necessarily because they want to be but because they have to be. The city has repeatedly passed anti-panhandling statutes and so-called sit-lie ordinances, which ban sitting and lying on sidewalks, but they’re tough to enforce, thanks to reliably libertarian interpretations of Oregon’s constitution by the state supreme court and lower-level circuit courts. The result is that homeless people are more visible—and more numerous—here than in many other cities.

Portland’s gentle climate is another factor. Contrary to popular belief, Portland gets a third less rain than New York City, and the temperatures are milder year-round. Snow falls and sticks only once every few years. Sleeping outside in January’s 40-degree weather may not be comfortable, but it sure beats sleeping on the sidewalk in, say, Chicago, where one night in subzero weather can be fatal.

Portland’s nonprofit homeless services are extensive. “Portland Rescue Mission provides emergency services including meals, showers, clothing, and shelter for people living on the streets,” says Mason. “It’s open 24/7. We have mail service for about 1,000 people. From November 1 through March 31, we offer a free blanket exchange every night.” Though it doesn’t have beds for everyone—those get awarded by daily lottery—Portland Rescue Mission never runs out of food. “We have really good food here,” says Stacy Kean, the communications director at Union Gospel Mission, “food that you would want to eat. Having breakfast here is like going out to brunch. We have fresh scrambled eggs, bacon, and pancakes.” “You wouldn’t believe how much food they have in the freezer,” a friend who volunteered at the Oregon Food Bank told me. When homeless people in downtown Portland ask passersby if they have any spare change, most of us assume that they need money for food. They don’t.

Are the homeless coming to Portland from elsewhere? “I don’t really believe these stories about other jurisdictions buying homeless people bus tickets to Portland,” says Commissioner Saltzman, but then he concedes: “Portland is a tolerant city and has a moderate West Coast climate, so I think there’s some truth to it.” “Most of the homeless people I know are from Portland or another West Coast city,” says Mason, “but I have met people who said they were homeless somewhere else and moved here intentionally to take advantage of Portland’s services and milder weather.” Agrees Willis of Union Gospel Mission: “They’re from Seattle. Texas. Alabama. People are coming here because we make it comfortable to be homeless.”

Read the rest in City Journal.


Decentralizing Government Power is Key to Reforming Ukraine

It’s not surprising that Kyiv’s convoluted politics color what we think about Ukraine and its future prospects. But don’t let the turmoil in Kyiv obscure the hopeful developments taking place in Ukraine’s provinces. Take agricultural reform. As Kyiv’s policymakers squawk and squabble, real Ukrainians have to live real lives. And they do, frequently developing innovative new schemes that qualify as no less important reforms than those contemplated and adopted in the capital.

As Trade Tumbles, China and Russia Inaugurate New Rail Line

On Saturday, China inaugurated a “new freight route” to Russia as a train left Harbin, the capital of northeastern Heilongjiang province, for Yekaterinburg in Russia, 5,889 kilometers away.

The new route will slice 30 days off the previous 40-day journey by land and sea.

Chinese and Russian media celebrated the departure of 47 containers carrying $1.46 million of bicycle parts and other light industrial products, mostly manufactured in southern China.

Beijing and Moscow are trying to keep up appearances, missing no opportunity to publicize economic ties. Many aspects of the relationship between the two capitals are blossoming, but trade is not one of them.

Last year, bilateral commerce between the two giants amounted to a miniscule $64.2 billion, down 27.8 percent from 2014 according to China Customs.

Managing Kyiv's Government Crisis

For those who are puzzled by current goings-on in Ukraine’s government, here are a few tips.

First, let’s not confuse “crisis of government” with “crisis of Ukraine.” True, Prime Minister Arsenii Yatseniuk is unpopular and should probably resign. Also true, his cabinet needs reshuffling. But it’s illogical to jump from the claim that the government is dysfunctional to the claim that Ukraine is experiencing a “grim slide.” Governments are not countries, even when they’re absolutist, as in Louis XIV’s France, or fascist, as in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Ukraine is a poorly functioning democracy—which means that its poorly functioning democratic institutions do not determine the fate of the country as a whole.

The Man Who Punched Christopher Hitchens

Adonis Nasr, the Lebanese facsist who attacked me and Christopher Hitchens on the streets of Beirut in 2009, has been killed fighting for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Nasr was an intelligence officer in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, an imperialist gang of Assad enthusiasts who brazenly sport a spinning swastika on their flag and wish to conquer Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Cyprus and forcibly attach them all to Damascus.

Here’s my account of what happened when Hitchens and I violently encountered Nasr and his goon squad in Beirut.

A Syrian-sponsored militia once attacked me and Christopher Hitchens on the streets of Beirut.

Yes, that Christopher Hitchens. The famous polemical journalist who went after Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and even God himself with hammer and tongs. Many considered him the greatest living writer in the English language before esophageal cancer killed him in 2011.

He and I were traveling together in Lebanon with our mutual British friend Jonathan Foreman. The three of us set out from our hotel, the Bristol. Christopher needed a new pair of shoes. Jona­than needed a shirt. I needed a coffee. And I led the way as the three of us strolled down to Hamra Street, where we could buy just about anything.

Christopher hadn’t been to Beirut since the civil war ended in 1990 and Jonathan had never visited. I used to live there, though, between the Beirut Spring in 2005 and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

My old West Beirut neighborhood of Hamra wasn’t the same anymore. It looked the same on the surface, but it had been violated. Hezbollah invaded the previous May, in 2008, with its two sidekick militias, Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The city’s most cosmopolitan and international district felt much like my house once did after a burglar had broken in. What happened to Hamra, though, was much worse than a mere breaking and entering. Hezbollah and its militant allies shot the place up and killed people.

On our way down to the main shopping street I told Christopher and Jonathan how the Syrian Social Nationalist Party had a serious presence there now. During the invasion in May, its members had placed their spinning swastika flags up on Hamra Street itself. Those flags stayed there for months. No one dared touch them until Prime Min­ister Fouad Siniora ordered city employees to take them down.

It was a warning of sorts—or at least it would have been heeded as such by most people. I didn’t go looking for trouble, Jonathan was as mild-mannered a writer as any I knew, but Christopher was brave and combative, and just hearing about what had happened riled him up.

When we rounded a corner onto Hamra Street, an SSNP sign was the first thing we saw.

“Well, there’s that swastika now,” Christopher said.

The militia’s flags had been taken down, but a commemora­tive marker was still there. It was made of metal and plastic and had the semipermanence of an official No Parking sign. SSNP member Khaled Alwan shot two Israeli soldiers with a pistol in 1982 after they settled their bill at the now-defunct Wimpy cafe on that corner, and that sign marked the spot.

Some SSNP members claimed the emblem on their flag wasn’t a swastika, but a hurricane or a cyclone. Many said they couldn’t be National Socialists, as were the Nazis, because they identified instead as Social Nationalists, whatever that meant.

Most observers did not find this credible. The SSNP, according to the Atlantic in a civil war-era analysis, “is a party whose leaders, men approaching their seventies, send pregnant teenagers on suicide missions in booby-trapped cars. And it is a party whose members, mostly Christians from churchgoing families, dream of resuming the war of the ancient Canaanites against Joshua and the Children of Israel. They greet their leaders with a Hitlerian salute; sing their Arabic anthem, ‘Greetings to You, Syria,’ to the strains of ‘Deutsch­land, Deutschland über alles’; and throng to the symbol of the red hurricane, a swastika in circular motion.”

They wished to resurrect ancient pre-Islamic and pre-Arabic Syria and annex Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, and parts of Turkey and Egypt to Damascus. Their vision clashed with Hezbollah’s, but the two militias had the exact same list of enemies and they were both Syrian proxies, so they worked together.

Many Lebanese believed members of the SSNP were the ones who carried out many, if not most, of the car-bomb assassinations in Lebanon on behalf of the Syrians since 2005. In December of 2006 some of their members were arrested by the Lebanese army for storing a huge amount of explosives, timers, and detonators amid a large cache of weapons. Then-party leader Ali Qanso responded, saying, “We are a resistance force, and we use different methods of resisting, among which is using explosives.”

Christopher wanted to pull down their marker, but couldn’t. He stuck to his principles, though, and before I could stop him, he scribbled “No, no, Fuck the SSNP” in the bottom-right corner with a black felt-tipped pen.

I blinked several times. Was he really insulting the Syrian Social Nationalist Party while they might be watching? Neither Christo­pher nor Jonathan seemed to sense what was coming, but my own danger signals went haywire.

An angry young man shot across Hamra Street as though he’d been fired out of a cannon. “Hey!” he yelled as he pointed with one hand and speed-dialed for backup on his phone with the other.

“We need to get out of here now,” I said.

But the young man latched onto Christopher’s arm and wouldn’t let go. “Come with me!” he said and jabbed a finger toward Chris­topher’s face. These were the only words I heard him say in English.

Christopher tried to shake off his assailant, but couldn’t.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” he said.

We needed to get out of there fast. Standing around and trying to reason with him would serve his needs, not ours. His job was to hold us in place until the muscle crew showed up in force.

“Let go of him!” I said and shoved him, but he clamped onto Christopher like a steel trap.

I stepped into the street and flagged down a taxi.

“Get in the car!” I said.

Christopher, sensing rescue, managed to shake the man off and got into the back seat of the taxi. Jonathan and I piled in after him. But the angry young man ran around to the other side of the car and got in the front seat.

I shoved him with both hands. He wasn’t particularly heavy, but I didn’t have enough leverage from the back to throw him out. The driver could have tried to push the man out, but he didn’t. I sensed he was afraid.

So my companions and I got out of the car on the left side. The SSNP man bolted from the front seat on the right side. Then I jumped back in the car and locked the doors on that side.

“He’ll just unlock it,” Jonathan said.

He was right. I hadn’t noticed that the windows were rolled down on the passenger side. The young man reached in, laughed, and calmly unlocked the front passenger door.

I stepped back into the street, and the young man latched once again onto Christopher. No one could have stopped Jonathan and me had we fled, but we couldn’t leave Christopher to face an impending attack by himself. The lone SSNP man only needed to hold one of us still while waiting for his squad.

A police officer casually ambled toward us as though he had no idea what was happening.

“Help,” Christopher said to the cop. “I’m being attacked!”

Our assailant identified himself to the policeman. The officer gasped and took three steps back as though he did not want any trouble. He could have unholstered his weapon and stopped the attack on the spot, but even Lebanon’s armed men of the law feared the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

A Lebanese man in his thirties ran up to me and offered to help.

“What’s happening?!” he said breathlessly as he trembled in shock and alarm.

I don’t remember what I told him, and it hardly matters. There wasn’t much he could do, and I did not see him again.

“Let go of him!” I said to the SSNP spotter and tried once more to throw him off Christopher.

“Hit him if you have to,” I said to Christopher. “We’re out of time, and we have to get out of here.”

“Back to the hotel,” Christopher said.

“No!” I said. “We can’t let them know where we’re staying.”

Christopher would not or could not strike his assailant, so I sized the man up from a distance of six or so feet. I could punch him hard in the face, and he couldn’t stop me. I could break his knee with a solid kick to his leg, and he couldn’t stop me. He needed all his strength just to hold onto Christopher, while I had total freedom of movement and was hopped up on adrenaline. We hadn’t seen a weapon yet, so I was pretty sure he didn’t have one. I was a far greater threat to him at that moment than he was to us by himself.

Christopher, Jonathan, and I easily could have joined forces and left him bleeding and harmless in the street. I imagine, looking back now, that he was afraid. But I knew the backup he’d called would arrive any second. And his backup might be armed. We were about to face the wrath of a militia whose members could do whatever they wanted in the streets with impunity. Escalating seemed like the worst possible thing I could do. The time to attack the young man was right at the start, and that moment had passed. This was Beirut, where the law of the jungle can rule with the flip of a switch, and we needed to move.

I saw another taxi parked on the corner waiting for passengers, and I flung open the door.

“Get in, get in,” I said, “and lock all the doors!”

Traffic was light. If the driver would step on the gas with us inside, we could get out of there. Christopher managed to fling the man off him again. It looked hopeful there for a second. But seven furious men showed up all at once and faced us in the street. They stepped in front of the taxi and cut off our escape.

None wore masks. That was an encouraging sign. I didn’t see any weapons. But they were well built, and their body language sig­naled imminent violence. We were in serious trouble, and I ran into the Costa Coffee chain across the street and yelled at the waiter to call the police.

“Go away!” he said and lightly pushed me in the shoulder to make his point. “You need to leave now!”

This was no way to treat a visitor, especially not in the Arab world, where guests are accorded protection, but getting in the way of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party could get a man killed, or at least beaten severely. Just a few months before, the SSNP attacked a journalist on that very street and sent him bleeding and broken to the hospital in front of gaping witnesses. A Lebanese col­league told me he was brutally assaulted merely for filming the crew taking down the SSNP flags as the prime minister had ordered. “He didn’t do anything to them,” she said. “He just filmed their flag.”

Christopher was encircled by four or five of them. They were geared up to smash him, and I reached for his hand to pull him away. One of the toughs clawed at my arm and left me with a bleeding scratch and a bruise. I expected a punch in the face, but I wasn’t the target.

Christopher was the target. He was the one who had defaced their sign. One of the guys smacked him hard in the face. Another delivered a roundhouse kick to his legs. A third punched him and knocked him into the street between two parked cars. Then they gathered around and kicked him while he was down. They kicked him hard in the head, in the ribs, and in the legs.

Jonathan and I had about two and a half seconds to figure out what we should do when one of the SSNP members punched him in the side of the head and then kicked him.

Christopher was on the ground, and Jonathan and I couldn’t fend off seven militiamen by ourselves. I was reasonably sure, at least, that they weren’t going to kill us. They didn’t have weapons or masks. They just wanted to beat us, and we lost the fight before it even began. I could have called for backup myself, but I didn’t think of it—a mistake I will not make again in that country.

Then the universe all of a sudden righted itself.

Christopher managed to pull himself up as a taxi approached in the street. I stepped in front of the car and forced the driver to stop. “Get in!” I yelled. Christopher got in the car. Jonathan got in the car. I got in the car. We slammed down the locks on the doors with our fists. The street was empty of traffic. The way in front of the taxi was clear. The scene for our escape was set.

“Go!” I said to the driver.

“Where?” the driver said.

“Just drive!” I said.

One of the SSNP guys landed a final blow on the side of Chris­topher’s face through the open window, but the driver sped away and we were free.

I don’t remember what we said in the car. I was barely scathed in the punch-up, and Jonathan seemed to be fine. Christopher was still in one piece, though he was clearly in pain. Our afternoon had gone sideways, but it could have been a great deal worse than it was.

“Let’s not go back to our hotel yet,” I said. I covered my face with my hands and rubbed my eyes with my palms. “In case we’re being followed.”

“Where do you want to go?” our driver said.

“Let’s just drive for a while,” Jonathan said.

So our driver took us down to the Corniche that follows the curve of the Mediterranean. He never did ask what happened. Or, if he did, I don’t remember him asking. I kept turning around and checking behind us to make sure we weren’t being followed.

“Maybe we should go to the Phoenicia,” Jonathan said.

The Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel was one of the priciest in the city. Management installed a serious security regime at the door. This was the place where diplomats and senators stayed when they were in town. I doubted the guards would allow thugs from any organization into their lobby.

“He deserves a huge tip,” Jonathan said as our driver dropped us off.

“Yes,” I said. “He certainly does.”

The three of us relaxed near the Phoenicia’s front door for a few minutes. We would need to change cars but first had to ensure we hadn’t been followed.

“You’re bleeding,” Jonathan said and lightly touched Christo­pher’s elbow.

Christopher seemed unfazed by the sight of blood on his shirt.

“We need to get you cleaned up,” Jonathan said.

“I’m fine, I think,” Christopher said.

He seemed to be in pretty good spirits, all things considered.

“The SSNP,” I said, “is the last party you want to mess with in Lebanon. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you properly. This is partly my fault.”

“I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “But I would have done it anyway. One must take a stand. One simply must.”

Even after being forced out during the Beirut Spring of 2005, Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus still wielded some of its occupation instruments inside Lebanon. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party was one of those instruments, and it counted the regime as its friend and ally. The geographic “nationalism” of the SSNP differed from the racialist pan-Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Baath Party, but it conveniently meshed with al-Assad’s imperial for­eign policy in the Middle East. It logically followed, then, that the SSNP was also allied with Hezbollah.

The SSNP was first and foremost a Syrian proxy, and Hezbollah was first and foremost an Iranian proxy, but during the previous May when various militias invaded Beirut, the SSNP established itself simultaneously as a de facto Hezbollah proxy.

I still shudder to think what might have happened to Christo­pher, Jonathan, and me if we were Lebanese instead of British and American.

“If you were Lebanese,” said a longtime Beiruti friend, “you might have disappeared.”

The next morning I awoke to find more than a dozen e-mails in my inbox from friends, family, and acquaintances, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in a long time, asking me if I was okay.

None of us had written about the incident yet, so I wondered what on earth must have happened while I was asleep. Did another war just break out? Did another car bomb go off? I hadn’t heard any explosions or gunshots.

As it turned out, the incident on Hamra Street with the SSNP made the news on at least four continents, and possibly six.

Great, I thought. Now I’m the story. Christopher was the nearest thing the journalism world had to a celebrity, so pretty much every­thing he did was news.

Every single reporter without exception got the details wrong. In one version, we got in a bar fight. In another, we were attacked by foppish shoe shoppers. In almost every version, Christopher was drunk or had been drinking. Not one of the reporters who wrote up the story bothered to ask any of us who were actually there what had happened. Some even claimed they had “confirmed” this or that detail, but all they were doing was publishing rumors. It made me think, not for the first time, that first-person narrative journalism, whatever its faults, was far more reliable than the alternative.

Some of my politically connected Lebanese pals were furious when they heard what happened. One friend, whom I’ll just call Faisal so he won’t get into trouble, said it was time to retaliate.

“They attacked guests in our country,” he said as his blood pres­sure rose, “and they can’t get away with it.”

I appreciated that my friends were looking out for me, but I felt distinctly uneasy about where he was going with this. A retaliation could easily end badly and might even escalate. Still, I couldn’t dis­suade him, and he called his bosses and asked for a posse.

Party leaders turned him down, which disappointed him but relieved me. And it occurred to me later that what Faisal had in mind was likely much more serious than tit-for-tat payback.

“What, exactly, did Faisal mean by retaliate?” I asked a mutual Lebanese friend.

“He wanted to shoot them, of course,” she said.

He wanted to shoot them!

I later sat down with Christopher over coffee in the hotel lobby and asked him to reflect on the recent unpleasantness.

“When I told you that I should have warned you,” I said, “that I take partial responsibility, you said. . .”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said. “Thank you, though, for giving me a protective arm. I think a swastika poster is partly fair game and partly an obligation. You don’t really have the right to leave one alone. I haven’t seen that particular symbol since I saw the Syrianization of Lebanon in the 1970s. And actually, the first time I saw it, I didn’t quite believe it.”

“You saw it when you were here before?” I said.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “But it was more toward the Green Line. I did not expect to see it so flagrantly on Hamra. Anyway, call me old-fashioned if you will, but my line is that swastika posters are to be defaced or torn down. I mean, what other choice do you have? I’d like to think I’d have done that if I had known it was being guarded by people who are swastika fanciers. I have done that in my time. I have had fights with people who think that way. But I was surprised first by how violent and immediate their response was, and second by how passive and supine was the response of the police.”

The men of the SSNP had to use force to maintain a hold in West Beirut. Many of its members were Orthodox Christians, as was its founder Antun Saadeh, while most West Beirutis were Sunni Muslims. They would hardly be any less welcome in Tel Aviv. If its enforcers didn’t jump Christopher in the street, their commemorative sign would not have lasted.

“But I was impressed,” Christopher said, “with the response of the cafe girls.”

“What was their response?” I said. “I missed that.”

“Well,” he said, “when I was thrown to the ground and bleeding from my fingers and elbow, they came over and asked what on earth was going on. How can this be happening to a guest, to a stranger? I don’t remember if I was speaking English or French at that time. I said something like ‘merde fasciste,’ which I hope they didn’t misinterpret.”

I did not see the cafe girls. Or, if I did, I don’t remember them. Once the actual violence began, it was over and done with in seconds.

“By then,” Christopher said, “I had become convinced that you were right, that we should get the fuck out of there and not, as I had first thought, get the hotel security between them and us. I thought no, no, let’s not do that. We don’t want them to know where we are. The harassment might not stop. There was a very gaunt look in the eye of the young man, the first one. And there was a very mad, sadistic, deranged look in the eyes of his auxiliaries. I wish I’d had a screwdriver.”

“You know these guys are widely suspected of setting off most or all of the car bombs,” I said.

“They weren’t ready for that then,” he said.

“They weren’t,” I said, “but they’re dangerous.”

“Once you credit them like that,” he said, “you do all their work for them. They should have been worried about us. Let them worry. Let them wonder if we’re carrying a tool or if we have a crew. I’d like to go back, do it properly, deface the thing with red paint so there’s no swastika visible. You can’t have the main street, a shopping and commercial street, in a civilized city patrolled by intimidators who work for a Nazi organization. It is not humanly possible to live like that. One must not do that. There may be more important problems in Lebanon, but if people on Hamra don’t dare criticize the SSNP, well fuck. That’s occupation.”

“It is,” I said, “in a way. They have a state behind them. They aren’t just a street gang; they’re a street gang with a state.”

“Yes,” Christopher said. “They’re the worst. And also a Greek Orthodox repressed homosexual wankers organization, I think.”

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party spokesman denied the attack ever took place. He lied.

Postscript: My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.

You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

Finland's New Anti-NATO Party and Its Founder

A curious chain of events has unfolded in Finland that makes one wonder about the country’s newly formed anti-NATO political party, its founder, and his discomforting relationships with some shadowy characters.

Paavo Väyrynen is a veteran politician of the first order. Representing Finland's primarily rural Center Party, he has been a candidate for president three times. And, he has also served at one time or other as foreign minister, labor minister, minister for foreign trade and international development, minister of trade, as well as an MP and now an MEP. Earlier this month, as the country begins to debate NATO membership, Väyrynen announced that he’s launching a new party, the Citizens’ Party, which he says will fight to maintain Finland’s military non-allied status. That is, he wants to keep Finland out of NATO.

Why Reintegrating the Donbas Is Suicide for Ukraine

If you’re wondering why the Minsk peace process isn’t leading to peace, look no further than a recent interview with Vladislav Inozemtsev, a highly respected Russian economist and director of the Center for the Study of Postindustrial Society in Moscow. The bottom line—surprise, surprise!—is this: Vladimir  Putin doesn’t want peace. He wants to make Ukraine into a permanent backwater state dependent on the Kremlin.

New Book Release

My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.

Here’s the description from the back of the book.

Prize-winning author and award-winning foreign correspondent Michael J. Totten returns with a riveting tour of some of the worst places on earth in the early 21st century.

From crumbling Havana, Cuba—still stubbornly communist decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall—to a comparatively upscale Hanoi, Vietnam, still struggling to free itself from Chinese-style authoritarian rule.

From a nightmarish Libya under the deranged Moammar Qaddafi, to an exhausted, polarized and increasingly fanatical Egypt before the Arab Spring finally ripped the region to pieces.

From the Lebanese border during the devasting war between Israel and Hezbollah, to Iraq in the grips of an insurgency mounted by the murderous precursor to ISIS.

Partly a collection of Totten’s best previously published work, Dispatches includes plenty of new material from Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the dysfunctional quarters of Europe. He goes to rough places so you don’t have to, and his dispatches are by turns entertaining, harrowing and occasionally even hilarious despite the dark subject matter. Whether you're an established fan or discovering the author for the first time, this one is not to be missed.

“Totten…practices journalism in the tradition of Orwell: morally imaginative, partisan in the best sense of the word, and delivered in crackling, rapid-fire prose befitting the violent realities it depicts.” Sohrab Ahmari, Commentary

“It is extremely rare to read such an accurate account of anything to which one was oneself a witness.” – Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great

“One of America’s premier foreign correspondents.” – Damien Penny, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Of all the journalists now alive and writing in English, ther are few whose reporting interests me more than Michael Totten’s—in fact, none that I can think of offhand.” – Claire Berlinski, author of Menace in Europe

“Michael J. Totten is one of a rare breed. Moving from front to front, he brings experience and context and the willingness to go where few men dare.” – Michael Yon, author of Moment of Truth in Iraq

You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

Obama Administration's Secret Overture to North Korea

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that at the turn of the year the Obama administration discussed the initiation of talks with North Korea with the goal of formally ending the Korean War, which was only suspended by a truce, not ended with a treaty, in 1953.

According to the Journal report, the White House dropped the US’s long-standing precondition that the North would have to end its nuclear program before talks could begin. Instead, the administration said that denuclearization would simply be an agenda item in the peace negotiations. The North reportedly rejected Obama’s overture, refusing to permit its nuclear program to even be placed on the agenda. Pyongyang then detonated a nuclear device on January 6, ending the White House’s “diplomatic gambit.”

The paper’s report, if true, indicates the Obama administration was willing to execute another stunning reversal of American policy by essentially accepting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a nuclear state and condoning its violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Refugees Resettling in Latvia

Six out of 4.6 million: a figure so small it’s hardly worth mentioning. But earlier this month, Latvia accepted its first six refugees from the current refugee crisis. Considering that 4.6 million Syrians have fled their country since civil war erupted five years ago, that’s a miniscule figure. Besides, only three of the asylum seekers received by Latvia were Syrians—the others were Eritreans.

Still, their arrival is a breakthrough considering that like its Baltic neighbors, Latvia has virtually no experience receiving or integrating refugees from other parts of the world. Indeed, in agreeing to receive asylum seekers—it will accept a total of 500 within the next two years (possibly up to 800)—Latvia can claim to have acted in accordance with its new status as a full-fledged member of the EU and the Schengen area.

Could a Missile Defense Plan Turn China on North Korea?

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry urged Washington to start direct talks with North Korea over its most destructive weapons.

“The focus of the nuclear issue on the peninsula is between the United States and North Korea,” said Hong Lei, ministry spokesman, at the daily news briefing. “We urge the United States and North Korea to sit down and have communications and negotiations, to explore ways to resolve each other’s reasonable concerns and finally reach the goal we all want reached.”

Beijing, with the urging of the Bush administration, had sponsored the so-called Six-Party Talks, which began in 2003. The concept was that progress was possible when the US and all regional stakeholders—China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea—were present in discussions with North Korea.

The White House thought that giving China a leading role would bring out the best in Beijing, which would then use its considerable leverage to “denuclearize” the Kim regime. North Korea and China are each other’s only formal ally.


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