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Kremlin’s Election Games Provide Opening for Opposition

IRKUTSK, RUSSIA—This Sunday, Russians will vote in their seventh parliamentary election since the fall of the Soviet Union. The last three of those elections—all of them under the government of Vladimir Putin—were assessed by Western observers as falling far short of European standards of democracy. The last vote, in 2011, was marred by especially high—and especially blatant—manipulation and fraud, as some 14 million votes were estimated to have been “stolen” in favor of Putin’s party, and was followed by mass protests across the country, when tens of thousands of people went to the streets to demand free and fair elections. This was the first time Putin’s Kremlin was not in control of the political agenda—and, for a short while, it seemed that the regime was beginning to crumble.

Cuba’s Walled Garden

The United States government no longer bans tourists from visiting Cuba. American commercial flights to Havana resumed this week for the first time in more than a half-century.

Most Cuban people are thrilled. Their isolation from their estranged American neighbors has finally drawn to a close. A certain kind of American tourist is also excited but wants to get down there in a hurry, enough to prompt Natalie Morales to write an op-ed with a rather blunt title: Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined.

Americans who sport Che Guevara T-shirts can rest assured that Cuba is still as oppressive and backward as ever.

A tiny percentage of Cubans have cell phones now, but text messages that contain words like “democracy,” “protest” and “human rights” are being swallowed up by the state. If you send a text with one of those words or phrases in it, your phone will say the message was sent, but it goes straight into the bit bucket. Your intended recipient will never see it. 

The Spanish-language blog 14ymedio first reported this, and Reuters reporters confirmed it by sending test messages from their own phones.

“We always thought texts were vanishing because the provider is so incompetent, then we decided to check using words that bothered the government,” Eliecer Avila, the leader of the dissident group Somos Mas, said to Reuters. “We discovered not just us, but the entire country is being censored. It just shows how insecure and paranoid the government is.”

Cuba is one of the least free countries in the entire world, and it’s among the least connected to the Internet. Most citizens have no access to the worldwide web whatsoever for a number of reasons.

First, they’re too poor to purchase the hardware. That’s not going to change any time soon. The last thing the regime wants is everyday citizens dialing up the Wall Street Journal every morning before heading down to the ration card line. That’s why, In 2009, the state sentenced USAID employee Alan Gross to fifteen years in prison for carrying computer equipment into the country and setting up broadband networks for Cuba’s Jewish community.

Those who do have laptops, smart phones and tablets only managed to acquire them because their relatives who escaped bought them in Florida. The government doesn’t mind too much since only a handful of wi-fi hotspots even exist, and using them is prohibitively expensive for just about everybody.

The Castro government is under relentless pressure from both inside and outside the country to lighten up, so it promises to boost access to the Internet by creating 35 wi-fi hotspots around the country. Stop for a second and ponder that sentence. Think about all it implies and you’ll understand why Cuba is so far behind almost every other country on earth and why, Castro propaganda to the contrary, it is not because of the US embargo.

There are more than 35 wi-fi hotspots within a one-minute walk of my house. Counting my own, there are 13 within range of my home office. (I just counted them.) All of these hotspots are private. None are provided by the government.

If I had to rely on a government hotspot, zero would be within range of my home office. God only knows how far I’d have to walk, drive or fly to find one.

I’d have to walk, drive or fly even farther if I had to rely on a government that deliberately keeps me ignorant and poor to protect its own ass. That’s what the Cuban government is doing. Why else censor text messages? Why else ban every newspaper and magazine in the world except the handful published by the local Communist Party? Why else ban commercial billboards to make room for billboards that browbeat citizens with soul-crushing slogans like “Socialism or Death”?

And why else make it virtually impossible for normal people to use the Internet in the first place?

The United States has a minimum wage. Cuba has a maximum wage, and it’s just 20 dollars a month. Cubans are required by law to be poor. Prosperity is a crime. And when I visited the island in 2013, it cost 15 dollars an hour access the Internet on a shared dial-up connection in a hotel lobby. It goes without saying that nobody who ekes out a meager existence on the state-imposed maximum wage and a ration card could afford that. Those hotspots were strictly for tourists.

The government recently dropped the price to $2.25 an hour. That sounds almost reasonable, except for two things. It’s still vastly more expensive than using the Internet in America—which is free at most public hotspots and only costs a few dozen dollars per month to use at home. Cuba’s new “low” price still costs more than ten percent of a person’s monthly salary, and that’s just to use the Internet for an hour.

The average monthly salary in the United States is a little under 4,000 dollars. How often would you use the Internet if the government required you to pay 400 dollars an hour? Probably not very often.

Even if you do manage to get onto the Internet in Cuba, you won’t get very far. Forget watching the news on CNN. Loading even a simple text-only site takes forever with Cuba’s deliberately excruciating download speeds. At the Hotel Habana Libre, I burned through 20 dollars in Internet costs just to open my inbox in Gmail. I would have spent the entire day and hundreds of dollars if I wanted to read and answer a half dozen messages.

It’s no secret that the Cuban government wants to adopt the Chinese model for the transition from old school communism, where technological and market reforms are strictly controlled by the state and only permitted when the state feels confident enough that the reform in question won’t threaten its power.

I suppose it’s better than no change at all. Living in a walled garden beats rotting away in a dungeon or being worked to death in a slave labor camp. China is a much better place now under authoritarian one-party state capitalism than it was under Mao’s totalitarian communism, so if Cuba does evolve along those lines, life will no doubt be a whole lot better for the average person. Perhaps in time Cuba will end up hewing closer to the Vietnamese model, which is a more relaxed and lenient version of the Chinese model. Who knows? Either way, Cuba is decades behind both and has a long road ahead of it.

Cuban citizens, of course, yearn for the Czech model where communism collapsed in spectacular fashion and was replaced all at once with political liberalism and a market economy. It’s what those of us in the free world should hope to see down there, too.

If you want to visit Cuba before it changes, fine. Go. I did. It’s interesting. Just understand that change is a good thing, and the more change the better. Doubt it? Ask yourself if anyone but a political psychopath thinks abolishing communism destroyed Prague.

India and Vietnam Unite Against China

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in Hanoi Saturday to discuss their countries’ deepening relationship and sign various agreements. The word “China” rarely passed their lips in public, but that was the topic dominating the get-together. 

Beijing was able to scrub the formal agenda for the G20 of controversial geopolitical issues, like the South China Sea, but that did not mean regional leaders stopped talking about them privately. Modi, before proceeding to host city Hangzhou, stopped off in the Vietnamese capital to discuss the worsening situation in East Asia.

Is the Chinese Military Stirring Conflict in South Asia?

The killing of Burhan Wani, a young militant, on July 8 by security forces has triggered the worst crisis in Indian-controlled Kashmir in a generation. The continuing disturbances—they’ve been collectively called the “Second ‘Intifada”—not only threaten relations between New Delhi and Islamabad but also could draw Beijing into deeper involvement in South Asia.

Kashmir, in ways not evident at this moment, might affect ties between the world’s two most populous states.

China and India are not destined to be adversaries. Madhav Nalapat, the influential Indian thinker at Manipal University, believes they can develop an enduring relationship because Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping look like they share that goal.

To Ban or Not to Ban the Burkini

France is all over the news this month, first because several coastal towns banned “burkinis” on Mediterranean beaches, and again this week when its supreme court, the Conseil d’Etat, overturned one of the bans.

Burkini is a loosely defined word describing what basically amounts to a cross between an all-enveloping burka and a bikini which ultra conservative Muslim women wear to the beach and in the water so they don’t show any skin.

American commentators overwhelmingly oppose the French ban. There is no chance our own Supreme Court would fail to overturn legislation that forbids wearing anything in particular, even T-shirts bearing a Nazi swastika or the face of Osama bin Laden.

Even so, Peter Beinart in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz laments what he calls “the American Jewish silence” about an “outrageous assault on religious liberty.” “The ‘burkini ban’ can’t possibly be justified by national security,” he writes. “It’s a purely ideological effort to define French secularism in a way that forces conservative Muslim women either to violate their religious beliefs or vacate public space.”

He’s right, but that’s not the whole story.

Before we get to the rest of it, let’s get something out of the way: None of the severe clothing worn by some conservative Muslim women is mandated by the Islamic religion. Women are just told to dress modestly. That’s it. And “modestly” is an entirely relative concept.

The only places in the entire world where it’s the cultural norm for women to wear a full burka, which covers the face and even the eyes, are certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lots of women on the Arabian Peninsula wear a veiling niqab which conceals their face but at least leaves one or two eyes uncovered, but almost everywhere else in the world, Muslim women simply cover their hair with a scarf, or hijab, and leave it at that. 

Headscarves have been mandated by law in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Before that, Iranian women dressed like Western women. Don’t believe it? Take a look at these photographs from old Iranian magazines. Iranian women back then could have worn headscarves if they wanted to, but most didn’t want to. That’s why the reactionary clerical regime forces them to wear headscarves. Otherwise, most women wouldn’t.

In Tunisia, maybe half the women cover their hair. Only one percent at the most cover their face, and everyone on the street stares at that tiny minority as if they’re aliens. Whenever I’m in Tunisia and see a woman dressed like that, I assume she’s not even from there, that she’s visiting from Saudi Arabia. Morocco is a bit more conservative than Tunisia, but not much.

In Lebanon, no women cover their faces, and not even Saudi women on holiday bother to put on a headscarf. Kurdish women likewise never cover their faces. Maybe half cover their hair and call it a day. I don’t recall ever seeing a woman in Turkey with her face covered, but perhaps I saw one or two and just don’t remember.

The point is, burkas and burkinis aren’t even normal by Muslim standards let alone French standards where women can go topless on beaches without causing a stir. Showing up there, of all places, in a burkini is perceived by huge numbers of French people as a fat middle finger. It’s the offensive cultural inverse of going topless on a beach in Iran.

France isn’t Iran. It’s not the kind of place that’s supposed to tell people what they can wear and what they cannot, which is why the court struck down the burkini ban.

The ban isn’t racist, though, nor is it bigoted, and American journalists should resist the temptation to write about France as though it has been taken over by a bunch of Islamophobic Orcs. Rather, the French are pushing back against extremists who are menacing all of French society, including most of France’s Muslim citizens.

“The burkini,” Benjamin Haddad writes in The American Interest, “which was seemingly absent from beaches before this year, is seen as a mere episode in a broader pattern of every-day incidents in which republican principles are challenged by a radical minority constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable. It is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle. The censure (and worse) of moderate Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan, the requests of community leaders for gender-segregated hours in public swimming pools, the pressure on women not to accept the care of male physicians even in cases of emergency, the refusal of children to listen in biology class or to learn about the Holocaust: These incidents don’t make international headlines but are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. In June, a young Muslim waitress was attacked in the name of Islam in downtown Nice for serving alcohol during Ramadan.”

All this, alas, is lost on most of the American commentariat. Here’s Paul Berman in Tablet:

The assumption is that France wants to regulate Islamic attire because the French are fundamentally biased against their Muslim minority. The French are frightened of the “Other.” They are unrepentant in their imperialist and colonialist hatreds for the peoples of North Africa. They are, in short, hopelessly racist. Worse: The French left is just as bad as the French right in these regards, and the Socialist Party, as exemplified lately by the prime minister, Manuel Valls, is especially bad.

And yet, the American interpretation acknowledges a complicating point, which is this: The French, who are hopelessly racist, do not appear to believe they are hopelessly racist. On the contrary, they have talked themselves into the belief that, in setting out to regulate Islamic attire, they are acting in exceptionally high-minded ways—indeed, are acting in accordance with a principle so grand and lofty that French people alone are capable of understanding it.

Berman effectively rebuts this simplistic thinking. I’ll go out on a bit of a limb here and add the following: the United States is one of the least racist countries in the world, and France is one of the least racist countries in Europe. (Critics can let me know when any European nation elects a head of state with African heritage, and also, at the same time, explain why the supposedly Muslim-hating France has more Muslim citizens per capita than anywhere else in Western Europe.)

Some French people are bigots, for sure, but most of them are revolting against extreme Islamic dress codes for the exact same reasons Tunisia’s government led by Habib Bourguiba, and the Turkish government led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, also did so in their time—not because they hate Muslims, but because they wish to protect moderate Muslims, and the society at large, from the radicals.

As Berman notes, this controversy didn’t start with Muslim immigration to France. It started with the rise of the Islamists.

If Islamic fundamentalists were like the Amish in America—if they were ludicrously conservative compared with everyone else but peaceably keeping to themselves—hardly anybody would care what they wore. The problem is that Islamic extremists routinely bully the moderates and at times lash out with psychopathic mass violence against everyone. Live-and-let-live can’t be a one-way street, at least not for long.

Here’s Berman again:

The veil has been brought into the schools as a maneuver by a radical movement to impose its dress code. The veil is a proselytizing device, intended to intimidate the Muslim schoolgirls and to claim a zone of Islamist power within the school. And the dress code is the beginning of something larger, which is the Islamist campaign to impose a dangerous new political program on the public school curriculum in France. This is the campaign that has led students in the suburban immigrant schools to make a series of new demands—the demand that Rousseau and certain other writers no longer be taught; the demand that France’s national curriculum on WWII, with its emphasis on lessons of the Holocaust, be abandoned; the demand that France’s curricular interpretation of Middle Eastern history no longer be taught; the demand that co-ed gym classes no longer be held, and so forth. The wearing of veils in the schools, then—this is the beginning of a larger campaign to impose an Islamist worldview on the Muslim immigrants, and to force the rest of society to step aside and allow the Islamists to have their way. From this standpoint, opposition to the veil is a defense of the schools, and it is a defense of freedom and civilization in France, and it is not an anti-immigrant policy.

Governments are in a tough spot here. They have no choice, really, but to compromise liberal-libertarian values no matter what they do.

Banning any kind of clothing is precisely the kind of heavy state action expressly prohibited by the United States Constitution, and for good reason. Thomas Jefferson and the rest of our Founding Fathers were rightly appalled by governments that micromanaged the daily lives of citizens, especially on religious grounds. Yet banning severe Islamic dress codes liberates moderate Muslims from the bullying and at times violent pressure from extremists who will only stand down when they’re forced to stand down.

The way forward, for many of us anyway, is not obvious.

How Do We Deal With a Self-Isolating China?

“It’s on China not to be isolated,” said Admiral Harry Harris to David Feith of the Wall Street Journal in an interview published this month. “It’s on them to conduct themselves in ways that aren’t threatening, that aren’t bullying, that aren’t heavy-handed with smaller countries.”

The chief of US Pacific Command is correct, of course. His comment, the WSJ noted, “raises a basic question.” As the paper asks, “At what point is it prudent to conclude that China is committed to the path of bullying and revanchism?”

As early as the beginning of the decade, Beijing has engaged in a series of hostile acts that, with abbreviated time-outs, has continued to this day. Even if one argues that China’s commitment to provocative conduct occurred later or has yet to be made, the country is roiling its periphery at this moment, most notably in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Trivializing Genocide: A Dangerous Distraction

What do the Polish Sejm and the Donetsk People’s Republic have in common? They’ve both contributed to the ongoing transformation of genocide into a term that has come to stand for little more than deplorable acts of violence.

On July 22, the Polish Sejm declared that the killing in 1943 by Ukrainian nationalists of “over 100,000” Polish citizens in Volhynia, in Ukraine’s northwest, was a genocide. On June 2, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the self-styled head of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, stated that “The public of Donbass initiates an appeal to the international organisations to stop the genocide of the people of Donbas by the Ukrainian authorities....”

Liberal Democracy and its Discontents

A set of disturbing essays and reports has landed on my desk over the summer that together paint a grim picture of the state of liberal democracy in the early 21st century—and the grimness is not restricted to the dumpster fire of an election we’re currently enduring in the United States.

Let’s start with political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk. They published an unsettling report in the July issue in the Journal of Democracy that portends a rough road ahead for nearly all the Western countries. 

“Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders,” they write. “Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated.”

Their chart on page 7 is alarming. They track attitudes toward and confidence in democratic government, and they’ve found that each generation currently alive is more authoritarian than older generations—with young Millenials the least democratic of all.

For those born in the 1930s, 75 percent of Americans and 53 percent of Europeans say it’s “essential” that they live in a country that is governed democratically. The percentage of those born in the 1980s who say this, by contrast, is in the low 40s in Europe and the low 30s in the United States.

A majority—a majority—of young people in the West no longer think of democracy as essential.

Their chart on page 9 therefore isn’t surprising. Twelve percent of Americans 65 or older think “having a democratic political system” is a “bad” thing while almost 25 percent of Americans under the age of 24 believe this.

Shockingly, only 32 percent of Millennials think it's “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.”

What on earth is going on?

Partly it’s a matter of historical experience. Those born in the 1930s were alive during Hitler’s conquest of Europe. Those born a bit later have no memory of World War II, but they do remember Stalinist Russia, a more distant threat, but one that was still frankly terrifying. Those born later still have no memory of the darkest days of the Soviet Union, but they do remember the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.

Those born as late as the 1980s have no memory of living in a world where democracy was threatened in any serious way. It is so much easier for youngsters to take democracy for granted. For them, it’s like taking oxygen for granted. They have fewer real-world foils to compare democracy with. Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others doesn’t resonate with them in quite the same way.

It’s easy to take oxygen for granted if no one is holding your head under water, but none of us, it’s safe to say, would argue that oxygen isn’t essential or that it’s a bad thing. Yet a quarter of young people think democracy is actually bad.

There’s a lot more going on, though, than an authoritarian youth generation. Mounk just published another piece, this time in Slate, called The Week Democracy Died.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

[…]

Across the affluent, established democracies of North America and Western Europe, the last years have witnessed a meteoric rise of figures who may not be quite so brash or garish as [Republican presidential nominee Donald] Trump and yet bear a striking resemblance to him: Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many of the leading Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. They too harness a new level of anger that is quite unlike anything liberal democracies have witnessed in a half-century. They too promise to stand up for ordinary people, to do away with a corrupt political elite, and to put the ethnic and religious minorities who are now (supposedly) being favored in their rightful (subordinate) place. They, too, are willing to do away with liberal political institutions like an independent judiciary or a free, robust press so long as those stand in the way of the people’s will.  Together, they are building a new type of political regime that is slowly coming into its own: illiberal democracy.

[…]

Political elites are understandably terrified by the speed with which illiberal democracy is coming into its own. But if the populists are pushing for a political system that does away with one half of liberal democracy, the truth is that a large number of establishment politicians are increasingly tempted to embrace a system that does away with the other half. Where Trump and Le Pen seek to establish an illiberal democracy, a lot of sensible centrists are quietly seeking their salvation in what I call “undemocratic liberalism.” If the people want to violate the rights of unloved minorities, setting up the prospect of democracy without rights, the political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands, opting for a form of rights without democracy.

Here’s historian Jeffrey Herf in The American Interest echoing Mounk’s concern about the rising authoritarian tide on the political right:

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Trump phenomenon has been the bond he has created with, first, a third of Republican primary voters, followed by two thirds of them. Trump discovered what the classic demagogues of the 20th century understood: namely, that in a democracy it is possible to gain millions of votes by appealing to the worst in people. Trump, like Mussolini and Hitler but also like Stalin and Mao, understands that there are millions who enjoy hatred, who take pleasure in humiliating others, who find relief in giving a face and a name—Mexicans and Muslims today, Jews, capitalists and imperialists—to complex economic and social processes. The infuriating aspect of the Trump phenomenon was not only Trump but even more so that so many of our fellow Americans have proven to be suckers for his lies, and that the Republican Party political establishment, with some stunning exceptions, cravingly began to fall into line behind him or, in March, on the whole held back from taking him on with the ferocity and persistence that the defense of our democracy required. Donald Trump was not a fascist, but there was a whiff of fascism in the air around him. His rallies exuded menace and violence, and that too added to his appeal.

[…]

The Democratic Party is exasperating to those of us who opposed the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq, and his refusal to lead NATO into an intervention to stop the Syrian civil war. It is exasperating that the heart and soul of the Democratic Party gives no indication of being able and willing to carry on an ideological offensive against Islamism, or to explain how that perverted ideology is different from the religion of Islam. The rise of a genuinely leftist—not liberal but leftist—wing within the Democratic Party is also a source of concern. Yet in sharp contrast to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party establishment defeated [Bernie] Sanders’s effort at a hostile takeover. Its establishment held firm and defended its principles. The success of Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party, and Sanders failure to do the same to the Democrats, means that Hillary Clinton is now the only candidate running for President who supports the fundamentals of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus adopted by the United States since the Administration of Franklin Roosevelt. I look forward to voting for her!

Herf should heed Mounk before getting too excited. For indeed the establishment poses its own set of problems, which Myron Magnet exposes with ferocity in the pages City Journal:

We have lost the government we learned about in civics class, with its democratic election of representatives to do the voters’ will in framing laws, which the president vows to execute faithfully, unless the Supreme Court rules them unconstitutional. That small government of limited powers that the Founders designed, hedged with checks and balances, hasn’t operated for a century. All its parts still have their old names and appear to be carrying out their old functions. But in fact, a new kind of government has grown up inside the old structure, like those parasites hatched in another organism that grow by eating up their host from within, until the adult creature bursts out of the host’s carcass. This transformation is not an evolution but a usurpation.

What has now largely displaced the Founders’ government is what’s called the Administrative State—a transformation premeditated by its main architect, Woodrow Wilson. The thin-skinned, self-righteous college-professor president, who thought himself enlightened far beyond the citizenry, dismissed the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable rights as so much outmoded “nonsense,” and he rejected the Founders’ clunky constitutional machinery as obsolete.

[…]

[T]he Administrative State’s constitutional transgressions cut deeper still. If Congress can’t delegate its legislative powers, it certainly can’t delegate judicial powers, which the Constitution gives exclusively to the judiciary. Nevertheless, after these administrative agencies make rules like a legislature, they then exercise judicial authority like a court by prosecuting violations of their edicts and inflicting real criminal penalties, such as fines and cease-and-desist orders. As they perform all these functions, they also violate the principle of the separation of powers, which lies at the heart of our constitutional theory (senselessly curbing efficiency, Wilson thought), as well as the due process of law, for they trample the citizen’s Fifth Amendment right not to lose his property unless indicted by a grand jury and tried by a jury of his peers, and they search a citizen or a company’s private papers or premises, without bothering to get judge-issued subpoenas or search warrants based on probable cause, flouting the Fourth Amendment. They can issue waivers to their rules, so that the law is not the same for all citizens and companies but is instead an instrument of arbitrary power. FDR himself ruefully remarked that he had expanded a fourth branch of government that lacked constitutional legitimacy. Not only does it reincarnate the arbitrary power of the Stuarts’ tyrannical Star Chamber, but also it doesn’t even meet the minimal conditions of liberty that Magna Carta set forth 801 years ago.

This isn’t just an American problem. The European Union is an order of magnitude more bureaucratic and autocratic than the American administrative state, and it’s provoking a grotesque and dangerous backlash across the Atlantic. Back in June, Sohrab Ahmari wrote a chilling essay in Commentary about what he calls the worldwide crisis of rising illiberalism.

Trumpism (and Bernie Sanders-ism) are but the [parochial] American symptoms of a global phenomenon: the astonishing rise of illiberal movements of the far right and far left.

[…]

In France, President François Hollande’s Socialists and the center-right Republicans of former President Nikolas Sarkozy have had to resort to tactical voting alliances to shut out Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front. In Austria, the anti-immigration Freedom Party, or FPO, thumped the mainstream parties in the first round of elections to the presidency in April, forcing the center-left prime minister to resign. Norbert Hofer, the FPO candidate, lost the runoff in May, after the mainstream parties urged their supporters to back his Green Party opponent—lest Austria become the first country in Western Europe to elect a far-right head of state since World War II.

Next door in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing nationalist Fidesz Party has gradually hollowed out the country’s democratic institutions. He has politicized the judiciary, nationalized pensions by decree, proscribed “unbalanced” media coverage, and removed a slew of other checks and balances on his own power. The prime minister has mused about “building an illiberal new national state” on Turkish, Russian, and Chinese blueprints. His main opposition is the openly anti-Semitic Jobbik Party.

A new government in Poland is following Orbán’s footsteps with a restrictive media law, efforts to erode judicial independence, and a defense minister who thinks the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are real. Finland’s election last year brought the populist Finns Party into the governing coalition on a platform of opposition to the previous government’s liberal-Atlanticist agenda. Germany’s local elections in March resulted in the far-right Alternative for Germany Party making significant gains at the expense of the embattled Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats.

Spain and Greece have seen the rise of Syriza and Podemos respectively—far-left parties with roots in the anti-globalization movement. Underscoring Greece’s Weimar-esque conditions, the Golden Dawn Party (with a Hellenic swastika for a logo) came third in 2015’s election. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s project to transform the country’s parliamentary democracy into an Ottoman sultanate is nearly complete.

Then there is Britain, where the hard-left wing of Labour has taken over the party. Rising to the leadership in the aftermath of last year’s electoral rout, Jeremy Corbyn has broken the party’s peace with free enterprise and individual responsibility—the main reformist achievement of Tony Blair’s New Labour. The party once again longs for socialism and speaks the language of class warfare at home, while anti-Americanism, pacifism, and blame-the-West attitudes dominate its foreign policy.

You may notice that these writers hail from both sides of the political spectrum, from the center-right as well as the center-left. There’s plenty to be alarmed about no matter where you sit if you aren't part of the problem.

Still, Mounk takes a deep breath. “Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed,” he writes. “Not once.” He adds, though, that throughout this period of stable consolidated democracies, living standards have been rising, the world’s most powerful nation has been a liberal democracy, and that most democracies have been relatively homogenous.

What will happen in a world where those things are no longer true, especially when rising generations care less for democracy than their elders? And what will happen, as we continue to pass through the transition we’re clearly in now, if Western democracies suffer sustained French-style terrorist campaigns by Middle Easterners with the warped minds of medieval genocidaires?

Nobody knows, but it’s probably safe to say at this point that the relative tranquility the West has enjoyed now for decades in ending. 

Comments are Temporarily Closed

This election year is a dumpster fire. Political discussion boards all over the Internet are more abrasive than usual—and the baseline is plenty abrasive already.

So I’ve decided to turn off my comment section for the time being. It’s better for the state of my nerves and mental health if I avoid the discussion threads for a while, and if I’m not there as a moderator, no one will be there as a moderator. If nobody is moderating the comment section, it will be taken over by trolls who will drive every half-way reasonable person away. This isn’t a maybe. It’s a virtually guaranteed outcome.

Better, I think, if we all just take a break for a while.

Xi Jinping Purge of Military Brass Continues

Two former Chinese generals were taken into custody in recent weeks, according to a report that appeared in the South China Morning Post. The detentions look to be in connection with General Secretary Xi Jinping’s campaign to clean house in the Communist Party’s sprawling People’s Liberation Army.

According to “a source close to the military,” former Generals Li Jinai and Liao Xilong were escorted out of meeting of retired senior cadres in July by “PLA disciplinary officers.” The report states the two generals, who both retired in the first part of 2013, were detained for possible “violations of party discipline,” the ruling organization’s code for corruption.

Iran Payment Wasn’t Ransom, but it Was Ransom

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that an American plane carrying 400 million dollars in cash landed in Iran at the precise time the Iranian government released four American hostages.

Critics claim the 400 million was a ransom payment. The White House and State Department deny it emphatically.

They’re right. The 400 million wasn’t a ransom payment, but it was a ransom payment.

The United States sort of owes Iran money. In 1979, the previous government of Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi paid 400 million dollars for weapons. The US never shipped the purchased weapons because Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah’s government and took 52 Americans hostage.

We could have given the money back, but the new Iranian government declared war on us and kidnapped our diplomats, so we didn’t. The Obama administration says we’re just paying Iran back, but the Iranians insist otherwise.

“Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies,” Iranian General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, commander of the Basij militia, said on Iran’s state-run television.

Only the willfully ignorant would claim the American government never lies about anything. Still, Washington is more honest and reliable than Tehran. And State Department spokesman John Kirby insists this is nonsense.

“The negotiations over the settlement of an outstanding claim…were completely separate from the discussions about returning our American citizens home,” he said. “Not only were the two negotiations separate, they were conducted by different teams on each side, including, in the case of The Hague claims, by technical experts involved in these negotiations for many years.”

That’s probably true as far as it goes. If the US owes Iran money, paying it back isn’t the same as paying a ransom because ransom money is extorted rather than owed. Fine.

But that’s not the whole story.

“American victims of Iranian terrorism won judgments against the Islamic Republic in U.S. courts,” Lee Smith writes in the Weekly Standard, “and the Clinton administration, as a Newsweek article reported in January, promised that the settlements would be paid out of the $400 million. But the Clinton White House never reimbursed the Treasury Department, nor did the Bush administration. The $400 million that Obama aides say belongs to Iran should have long ago been distributed to Iran's American victims and their families. Instead, it was U.S. taxpayers who compensated the victims of Iranian terror. And then we paid $400 million a second time, in January, to the Iranians themselves. The $1.3 billion of interest that the United States is supposed to have owed the Iranians is simply a fiction the Obama administration contrived to sweeten the pot, since the United States was under no legal obligation to pay Iran money that was no longer Iran's.”

But let’s put that aside for the sake of discussion. It’s not the whole story either. Assuming the United States legitimately owed Iran this 400 million, what’s up with releasing four American hostages at the very same moment the money arrived?

Did Iran’s ruler just up and decide to release these people because he had a guilty conscience?

Why did the Iranian government snatch these four in the first place? These people had no connection to each other. They were arrested—kidnapped—at different times and in different places. They were all charged with crimes.

Yet they were all released at the same time on the same day and went home on the same plane.

Why?

Something happened. If it wasn’t the 400 million dollar cash payment, what was it?

Only conspiracy theorists believe there are no coincidences, but some kind of a quid pro quo is a far more plausible explanation than a long chain of extraordinary coincidences. 

A letter from the Iranian government that says, in effect, “you have something of ours and we have something of yours,” isn’t exactly the same as a traditional ransom note, but it’s close enough for horseshoes, hand grenades and government work.

The fact that the United States sort of owes Iran money gives Washington a face-saving way to half-plausibly say it did not pay a ransom demand, but let’s keep in mind why American policy forbids paying ransom demands in the first place. If kidnapping American citizens is profitable, more American citizens will be kidnapped. If kidnapping American citizens is a waste of effort, money, and time—if, instead, it is punished—far fewer American citizens will be kidnapped.

Paying a ransom that isn’t technically a ransom encourages hostage-taking almost as much as paying a regular ransom. Which is why we shouldn’t do it.

One of the freed hostages, Saeed Abedini, said that he and the other three were ready to go at 10:00 pm but had to spend the night in the airport, and he complained to his captors about it. “The reason they said you’re here in the airport,” he said, “is because we are waiting for another plane.” The Iranians didn’t mention that there was money on the plane they were waiting for, but the hostages’ own plane was already gassed up and ready to go. It had been parked at the airport all night. They were waiting for another plane, but they weren’t waiting to switch planes.

State Department Spokesperson Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau disputes Abedini’s claim even though he was there and she wasn’t.

“I’m not going to get into the tick-tock of specifics,” she said in a press conference on Monday, “but claims that our freed Americans were not allowed to depart Iran until a plane full of cash landed anywhere are false. As U.S. officials have previously publicly discussed, there was a delay in our citizens being released that day that had nothing to do with the Hague settlement and was related to resolving some last-minute issues solely related to the prisoners – most importantly, locating and ensuring all of the individuals who were involved with the prisoner swap were on the plane and ready to depart – Mr. Rezaian, Mr. Abedini, Mr. Hekmati. Suffice it to say getting all the pieces put into place, making sure our citizens were released, and with our reciprocal goodwill gesture of providing relief to certain Iranian citizens here in the United States, required delicate diplomacy up to the end. So I think that answers your question.”

Matt Lee from the Associated Press found that an unsatisfactory answer and continued to badger Trudeau.

LEE: I just want to know -- I just want to try and get this cleared up. Am I ever going to get an answer to the question about the planes?

TRUDEAU: I've given you the answer I can give.

LEE: So there is no attempt on your part to uncover more information about what...

TRUDEAU: We've given you what we can give, Matt.

LEE: So it's basically a waste of time to keep asking about it? Is that what you're saying?

TRUDEAU: Pretty much. Yeah. I appreciate the question. As we've said, we're not going to get into a tick-tock. We've explained what the delay was for the plane with the Americans leaving, and I'll leave it at that.

We all need to be clear about something. As Lee Smith writes, “Hostage-taking is a key instrument of Iranian statecraft. Tehran has found it useful for its adversaries to understand that it is willing to violate international political and diplomatic norms to have its way…It's simply how the Iranians do things. Hezbollah, Iran's praetorian guard in Lebanon, took plenty of Americans and other nationals hostage in Beirut in the 1980s. In order to free them, the Reagan administration gave weapons to Iran, Hezbollah's patron.”

Even so, let’s just say for the sake of argument that this didn’t even resemble a ransom payment. Let’s pretend, for the sake of discussion, that Iran released its hostages because it had a guilty conscience and that the arrival of the 400 million in cash was a total coincidence. And let’s also pretend—while acknowledging that we’re venturing deep into an alternative universe here—that the 400 million shouldn’t have gone to the American victims of Iranian terrorism and hostage-taking.

Washington was still wrong to pay Iran the 400 million.

Why?

Because the United States shouldn’t give money to any nation for any reason that we aren’t at peace with. Would Washington have paid back a loan to Nazi Germany in 1943? Of course not. Would the US have given diddly-squat to the Taliban after 9/11? No way. Nor were Osama bin Laden’s 100 million dollars in assets ever unfrozen.

Far fewer Americans would have problem returning 400 million dollars to Iran if the payment came at the absolute end of hostilities and the beginning of an era of peace and cooperation, but that’s not even close to what’s happening.

Look. Refusing to pay a ransom isn’t about the money. Governments can afford it. Taxpayers won’t even feel it. It’s about refusing to endanger the life and liberty of American citizens abroad by refusing to make kidnapping profitable.

“The trouble is,” says NPR reporter Michele Keleman, “since then, Iranian authorities have arrested more Westerners. They're now holding three Iranian-Americans as well as dual nationals from the U.K. and Canada.”

Why shouldn’t the Iranian regime continue taking American hostages? It pays.

China's Coming Population Crisis: Guns vs. Canes

“It completely baffles me why they are pushing for taking all those islands now,” a friend wrote to me late last month, referring to Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea.

China’s provocations are frequently attributed to President Xi Jinping’s nationalism, and another reason, almost always ignored, is the ascendance of the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing policymaking circles. Howard French, former bureau chief of the New York Times in Shanghai, suggests another often overlooked factor fueling Beijing’s expansionist impulse—China’s accelerated demographic decline.

Kremlin Tightens Grip on Devastated Donbas

Mykhaylo Pashkov, co-director of the Foreign Policy and International Security Program of the highly respected Razumkov Center in Kyiv, has written an exceptionally timely, sober, and important report on current conditions, as well as an astute analysis of the future of the Russian-occupied Donbas. It should be required reading for all Ukrainian policy makers. Once translated into English, it should also be required reading for Western policy makers.

Pashkov has no illusions about the occupied enclave’s return to Ukraine anytime soon. He has even fewer illusions about the likelihood that the Minsk accords will lead to anything. After all, the key stumbling block is Russia, whose “maximally simplified position vis-à-vis regulating the Donbas amounts to this: we will continue killing your soldiers until you change your Constitution according to our wishes.” 

Russia Hacks the Republican Party

If Ronald Reagan could come back from the dead, he’d kick Donald Trump in the balls. Because somehow, astonishingly, the Republican candidate for president of the United States is pro-Russian and anti-NATO.

“NATO is obsolete and it's extremely expensive for the United States, disproportionately so,” he said in March. “And we should readjust NATO.” In July, he told the New York Times that he would only assist European nations during a Russian invasion if they first “fulfilled their obligations to us.”

“Look at Putin,” Trump said in 2007. “Whether you like him or don't like him—he’s doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.” “I think I'd get along very well with Vladimir Putin,” he said last year. “I just think so.” “Will he become my new best friend?” he tweeted in 2013.

Many assumed he was joking last week when he called on Russia to hack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

His tone of voice didn’t suggest he was kidding, and he doubled down on it the next day on Twitter. It wouldn’t be funny even if he were kidding, though, because it’s precisely in line with everything he has ever said about Russia and its dictator Vladimir Putin when nobody thought he was joking.

His respect for the Russian strongman is even creeping into his policies, such as they are. A few days ago he said he will “look into” recognizing Russian sovereignty over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and dropping sanctions. And his campaign edited the Republican Party platform, substantially softening criticism of Russia’s invasion and dismemberment of its neighbor and weakening its support for the embattled pro-Western government in Kiev.

Trump supporters who are willing to admit that their man doesn’t know the first thing about world affairs—every single person in my comments section knows more about the subject than he does, including the trolls—say it’s okay because he’ll hire advisors who do. Well, his campaign chairman Paul Manafort spent much of the past decade working for Putin’s Ukrainian pawn Viktor Yanukovych until the revolution toppled him a couple of years ago. Trump advisor General Michael Flynn is a regular guest on Kremlin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today) and even sat next to Putin at RT’s anniversary celebration. And Trump’s foreign policy advisor Carter Page has close ties to the Kremlin and Russian gas giant Gazprom.

“If you're not familiar with Gazprom,” Josh Marshall writes, “imagine if most or all of the US energy industry were rolled up into a single company and it were personally controlled by the US President who used it as a source of revenue and patronage. That is Gazprom's role in the Russian political and economic system. It is no exaggeration to say that you cannot be involved with Gazprom at the very high level which Page has been without being wholly in alignment with Putin's policies. Those ties also allow Putin to put Page out of business at any time.”

Josh Marshall is a partisan Democrat. If you don’t like hearing it from him, you can get it from Robert Zubrin at the staunchly conservative National Review. “Carter Page is an out-and-out Putinite. A consultant to and investor in the Kremlin’s state-run gas company, Gazprom, Page has a direct financial interest in ending American sanctions against the company. Not only that, but Page is tight with the Kremlin’s foreign-policy apparatus and has served as a vehement propagandist for it.”

These are the people Donald Trump hired to hold his hand and tell him what’s what.

He’s not a Russian “Manchurian” candidate. He doesn’t take orders from Moscow, nor is Vlad bankrolling the Donald. There is no conspiracy here. There doesn’t need to be. Their interests and opinions align organically. Trump genuinely likes Putin, and the feeling is mutual.

Still, as Franklin Foer reports in Slate, Putin doesn’t sit back and passively prefer various Western candidates for political office over others. He actively promotes them.

There’s a clear pattern: Putin runs stealth efforts on behalf of politicians who rail against the European Union and want to push away from NATO. He’s been a patron of Golden Dawn in Greece, Ataka in Bulgaria, and Jobbik in Hungary. Joe Biden warned about this effort last year in a speech at the Brookings Institution: “President Putin sees such political forces as useful tools to be manipulated, to create cracks in the European body politic which he can then exploit.” Ruptures that will likely multiply after Brexit—a campaign Russia’s many propaganda organs bombastically promoted.

[…]

Donald Trump is like the Kremlin’s favored candidates, only more so. He celebrated the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. He denounces NATO with feeling. He is also a great admirer of Vladimir Putin. Trump’s devotion to the Russian president has been portrayed as buffoonish enthusiasm for a fellow macho strongman. But Trump’s statements of praise amount to something closer to slavish devotion. In 2007, he praised Putin for “rebuilding Russia.” A year later he added, “He does his work well. Much better than our Bush.” When Putin ripped American exceptionalism in a New York Times op-ed in 2013, Trump called it “a masterpiece.” Despite ample evidence, Trump denies that Putin has assassinated his opponents: “In all fairness to Putin, you’re saying he killed people. I haven’t seen that.” In the event that such killings have transpired, they can be forgiven: “At least he’s a leader.” And not just any old head of state: “I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A.”

The overwhelming majority of conservatives everywhere in America have always been horrified by this sort of thing. Until now, heaping praise on thuggish anti-American dictators has been almost entirely the purview of people who make Bernie Sanders look like George Will—anarchists, flag-burners, useful communist idiots, radical ignorami with their Che T-shirts, Marxist professors and fatheaded celebrities like Sean Penn and Oliver Stone who can’t get enough of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.

There are a few famous exceptions. George W. Bush made a damn fool of himself in 2001 when he said of Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straight-forward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

“I looked into Putin’s eyes and saw three letters,” Senator John McCain said in response. “K, G, and B.”

That pretty much settled it on the right. The only holdouts are Pat Buchanan and his small claque of far-right dead-enders. “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?” Buchanan wrote in 2013. “In the culture war for mankind's future, is he one of us?”

Mitt Romney spoke for the center-right when he (correctly, in my view) slammed President Barack Obama for his refusal to take Putin’s anti-American hostility seriously. “There's no question but that the president’s naiveté with regards to Russia, and his faulty judgment about Russia's intentions and objectives, has led to a number of foreign policy challenges that we face,” he said on Face the Nation in 2014.

Compare that statement to what former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said last week when he defended Trump’s dissing of NATO. “I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place [Estonia] which is the suburbs of St Petersburg.”

Gingrich is a Trump surrogate, not the president, but a crack like that from a government official would constitute a de-facto green light for a Russian invasion of Europe.

Reagan’s ghost would kick Gingrich in the balls, too, if he could.

Estonia is no more a suburb of St. Petersburg than Texas is a “suburb” of Ciudad Juarez, but never mind that. NATO was forged as a Western alliance to protect Europe from Russian aggression at a time when Russia occupied half of Europe. That’s what it’s for. If NATO members won’t protect each other from Russia, of all countries, then it might as well disband now. Alternately, if Estonia is somehow a lesser member of NATO due to its unlucky geography, then we might as well give it the boot.

Gingrich knows all this. Unlike Trump, he’s an intelligent man. (He used to be a history professor.) If Marco Rubio had won the Republican nomination, no doubt Gingrich would be lambasting Hillary Clinton for being too soft on Vladimir, and especially for her embarrassing SmartPower (™) “reset” with Moscow in 2009.

There should be no doubt that if any other Republican candidate won the primary election this year, we wouldn’t be where we are right now, that the Democrats would still be the soft-on-Russia party and the Republicans would still be the hard-nosed realists. Trump won, though, so the two party’s positions have been reversed.

It’s probably safe to say that virtually nobody on the Republican side of the aisle voted for Trump in the primary because of his positions on Russia and NATO. No, the two parties have swapped places, at least for now, because of the whimsical attitudes of a single Republican-in-name-only. But it’s worse than that, really, because the Democratic Party, for all its faults, at least isn’t pro-Russian, nor is it anti-NATO.

What we’re seeing here is basically a covert hostile takeover. The rest of the GOP will need to loudly resist this for as long as it takes or face a serious risk that Trump’s message will become normalized and entrenched—especially if he wins the election. If enough Republicans follow Gingrich’s lead and toe the new party line, they’ll transform themselves for the worse into a party that nobody recognizes.

The End of World’s Rules-Based Order?

On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry, standing next to Perfecto Yasay, his Philippine counterpart, gave strong rhetorical support to the effort by Manila to negotiate with China over their sovereignty and other disputes.

Kerry’s words followed Monday’s statement issued by Australia, Japan, and the US calling for compliance with the July 12 award of the arbitral panel in The Hague on the South China Sea in Philippines vs. China. The ruling, now known in China as the “7.12 Incident,” essentially invalidated Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim to approximately 85 percent of that vital body of water.

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