Democracy in Retreat

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and China’s maritime ambitions are just a few of the issues that will make foreign policy a larger issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. As candidates assemble their advisers and get briefed, they should devote some time to considering whether these challenges to US allies and interests are related to a larger phenomenon.

In a recent article for the Journal of Democracy, Robert Kagan traced democracy’s advance and retreat over time, asking whether the triumph or failure of democratic ideals over ideological rivals has to do with “the victory of an idea or the victory of arms?”

Since President Obama took office in 2009, Kagan writes, the US, and Europe, have failed to counteract a worldwide decline in democracy. “Insofar as there is energy in the international system,” Kagan writes, “it comes from the great power autocrats.”

British Elections Postscript

Widely expected to give a muffled and incoherent answer, the British electorate opted instead for a decisive one. When the votes were counted in the 2015 general election, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had the necessary numbers to govern on his own with a small, but workable majority. As one re-elected Tory member told the BBC Friday morning, “We’re going to have none of the muddle that was predicted.” In an astonishing result that gave fresh meaning to the word unpredictable, there was no hung Parliament, no battle for power.

It’s a result calculated to cause trepidation in Brussels and relief in Washington. Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by the end of 2017 on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and the outcome could depend on prior negotiations to change the ground rules of Britain’s relationship with Europe. In the European Commission this is widely seen as the British wanting to remain EU members, but on their own terms: In Cameron’s Conservative Party, the widespread feeling is that Britain needs to regain some of what is perceived as lost British sovereignty to EU community rules.

The Brazilian Shipwreck

Like the captain of a ship that has hit a jagged reef, President Dilma Rousseff is attempting a salvage operation to prevent the breakup and sinking of her political vessel, the populist Workers Party that has been the champion of the left since electoral democracy was restored in Brazil in 1985. The name of the ship in this metaphor is the SS PT, the Brazilian acronym of the Workers Party. The name of the reef is corruption, which has battered Rousseff’s administration. The chief salvage engineer is Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, an advocate of free markets and fiscal stability named in January 2015, whose desperate efforts to save the Brazilian economy have been met by a rebellion of the PT crew against austerity measures. This led to a breakup of the multiparty coalition that has provided PT governments a safe majority in congress since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva first led the PT to power in 2003. These political storms have buffeted Rousseff since her election to a second term in 2014 extended 13 years of PT populist dominance, financed by colossal corruption diverting billions of dollars in public money to finance political payoffs.

The State of Ukraine

The following is an interview with Taras Kuzio, a leading expert on Ukraine and post-communist politics.


MOTYL: You’ve just completed a tour of the Ukrainian territories adjoining the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its proxies. What are some of your key conclusions?

KUZIO: Since the Euromaidan Revolution I’ve made six visits to southeastern Ukraine for research on a book on the Donbas (supported by the US-based Ukrainian Studies Fund). My just-completed visit was to Mariupol and Volnovakha, which is on the road to Donetsk and 20 kilometers from the front line. I have also visited Donetsk (during the Euromaidan) as well as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, both of which have been controlled by Ukrainian forces since summer 2014. The visit to Mariupol was with four journalists (two from Kharkiv, one from Kyiv, and one from Lutsk). It was funded by the EU through the Association of Polish Journalists and the TeleKrytyka Ukrainian media monitor and coordinated by Yuri Lukanov, president of the Trade Union of Independent Journalists of Ukraine.

China Creates Adversaries With South China Sea Reclamations

Beijing’s exchange of allegations with Manila over the South China Sea became increasingly nasty this week when the Chinese Foreign Ministry, on May 5th, accused the Philippines of “malicious hyping and provocation.” China accused its island neighbor of illegally seizing its possessions in that body of water. China claims almost all the islands, shoals, rocks, and reefs there as sovereign territory.

Beijing’s undiplomatic language accompanies its contention that the Philippines and other nations had, by building facilities, violated the nonbinding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed November 2002 by ASEAN states and China.

Blasphemy and Double Standards

Since the shooting in Texas targeting artists portraying the Prophet Muhammad, it is worth examining the US treatment of and reaction to blasphemy.

In June 2011, the Broadway show The Book of Mormon received 14 nominations at the annual Tony awards (more than any other production) and won nine of them, including the coveted “Best Musical.” The script and lyrics are dirty and unfiltered. One song says “F*** you, God.” Throughout the play, the Mormon Church is mocked. Its founder, Joseph Smith, is ridiculed for his beliefs. His followers are insulted. Yet the play becomes a huge hit. Broadway critics and the general public instantly embrace it. Journalists deliver upbeat reviews. Ripples of liberal laughter can be heard across a country where religion is generally taken seriously.

Prospects for the Northeast Passage

It was going to be the advent of a new and cost-effective route for global trade, one that would cut through the Arctic ice, bypass the longer Suez Canal route, and conveniently sail from China to Finland and onwards from there. And considering that the vast majority of goods are transported by sea, and that many of them are made in China for consumption in Europe, the Northeast Passage—which stretches along Russia’s northern coast, linking China with Europe and the Atlantic Ocean—is indeed very conveniently located.

The Iranian Leader's Bizarre Twitter Feed

Want a trip into bizarroland? Take a look at the Twitter feed for Iran's “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Khamenei.

It's ridiculous that even though US President is black, still such crimes agnst US blacks continue to occur. #BlackLivesMatter #FreddieGray

No, his Twitter feed hasn't been hacked by Al Sharpton. Nor is this a spoof site. It's the real online megaphone for the Iranian dictator.

This pasty old man doesn't give a flying fork about black people, especially those who live in the United States. When he and his underlings chant “Death to America,” they don't mean death to white America. They're talking about the whole country, from our black president at the top to undocumented immigrants on the bottom and everyone in between.

Here are a few of his tweets for May Day.

It's not just a complement that the #Prophet kissed the hands of #workers, it's a lesson to all of us. #WorkersDay

Govt must not buy from outside #Iran its consuming goods which can be produced domestically. This is an example of honoring Iranian workers.

This one, though, is my favorite:

US Police kill people over any excuse; this type of power doesn't ensure security but leads to insecurity. #Baltimore

When Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon murdered former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with a gigantic bomb in downtown Beirut, did that lead to security or insecurity? Did Iranian-backed death squads in Iraq lead to security or insecurity? How about the Iranian-sponsored Houthi takeover of Yemen? How's that going?

And what about Khamenei's Basij militia cracking heads during the Green Revolution and torturing activists in prison?

Ok, perhaps I'm being unfair. Wallowing in whataboutery is for college students, not serious analysts. Maybe Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders could come over here and teach American police officers about cultural sensitivity. The plainclothes Basijis could train our undercover police officers so incidents like this don't happen again. Iranian judges who sentence gay people to death by hanging from cranes could be guest lecturers at American law schools. Perhaps MSNBC could invite the warden of Evin Prison to host one of their shows in the next season's line-up.

Then again, maybe not. Washington Post journalist Jason Resaian—who is an American citizen, by the way—is languishing in Evin Prison right now. He was arrested last year and has been slapped with the ludicrous charges of “espionage” and “conducting propaganda against the establishment.”

I long ago lost track of how many times paranoid Middle Easterners thought I was a spy while I was working over there—many of them think every journalist in the world is a spy—but I can't remember the last time I took it seriously.

That second charge, though, “conducting propaganda against the establishment” is something every journalist who works in the Middle East has to be wary of. Almost every Middle Eastern country is a police state of one kind or another that can and will arrest anyone for any reason or no reason at all.

In 2005, a spokesman for Hezbollah—the Lebanese terrorist organization founded, funded, and controlled by the Iranian regime that is now tweeting “black lives matter”—called me at home and said, “we know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live.” He accused me of “propagandizing against the party” because I cracked a joke about Hezbollah on my blog. I even made it clear in that very same blog post that it was a joke, so there was no misunderstanding.

From Hezbollah's and Iran's point of view, anything that doesn't precisely conform to the party line is propagandizing against the establishment or the party. Making sure everyone knows it, and knows there may be terrible consequences for anyone foolish or brave enough to give them the finger, is part of their mission statement.

And we're supposed to believe that the man who's in charge of all this cares even a whit about police violence in the United States or worker's rights on May Day?


Khamenei has 120,000 Twitter followers but only follows five people himself. Wondering who are the lucky five, I clicked to find out and discovered that three of them are his other accounts, one of them is from the ghost of his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the last is some random Islamic Twitter feed.

Twitter is a one-way conversation for this guy. Following other people? That's for teachable folks who might learn something from somebody else, or at least for those of us who are passively interested in what somebody else has to say.

Iran's ruler is doing what the Soviet Union used to do and what Hugo Chavez did more recently. Both used the West's language of human rights as weapons against the West while resisting everything Western human rights activists stand for. Partly they were just being cynical, and partly they were pointing out the West's supposed hypocrisy.

You could argue that I'm just doing what Khamenei is doing by saying the other guy has no clothes, but there's a difference, and it's crucial. I actually care about human rights, not just for Americans, but also for Iranians and everyone else. Plenty of Iranians care about human rights, too, but it's safe to say that pretty much none of them are fixtures in the Iranian government.

The most foolish among us might be convinced that tyrannical dictators on the other side of the planet care more about such things than we do. That's the theory, anyway. Hey, maybe the Iranian leader is one of us! Maybe everything our own government says is a lie!

Every village has its idiot. Moscow managed to sucker some of us during the Soviet era, at least for a while, with this sort of shtick. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez tricked a handful, as well. For years the Bolivarian Republic's embassy in Washington flooded my inbox with press releases that read like they were written by Elizabeth Warren.

The communist bloc was an unspeakable prison house spanning more than one continent, but its utopian ideals appeared lofty to a small percentage of Westerners who couldn't be bothered to look at the details. The utopian ideals of Iran's revolutionary regime, though, will never gain traction among those of us who aren't Shia Muslims.

Iran's tyrant will not pull this off, but it's fun watching him try.

Soviet-Nazi Collaboration and World War II

As May 9th, Victory Day in many post-Soviet states, approaches, decency demands that we celebrate the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Germany and honor the millions of soldiers and civilians who gave their lives to rid the world of the scourge of Nazism.

At the same time, if we truly want to honor the dead, we must take heed of the historical lies that the Kremlin, both in its Soviet and post-Soviet hypostases, promotes about the USSR’s relationship with Nazi Germany.

For starters, the Moscow-controlled Communist International, and its sidekick, the Communist Party of Germany, made Hitler’s rise to power possible, if not indeed inevitable, by tarring the German Social Democrats as “social fascists” who threatened to split the proletariat and were, thus, a greater evil than the Nazis. Had the German left remained united against the real threat—Nazism—Hitler might not have come to power. (Many leftists make a similar mistake today, preferring Vladimir Putin’s fascism to American capitalism and thereby promoting war in Europe.)

Has Islamic State Entered Afghanistan?

In late February, 31 men, mostly from the Shiite Hazara minority, were kidnapped in Afghanistan, and remain held hostage. This week, five Hazara men were beheaded in the remote eastern district of Malestan, and 36 civilians were killed and 125 wounded in a suicide bombing outside a bank in the city of Jalalabad. These attacks have shaken an Afghan population hardened by decades of war, not just because of their brutality, but because of the whispered name some believe to be behind them: the Islamic State of Khorasan. But how real is the threat from this new group?

China Goes After ‘Economic Fugitives' in America

On April 22nd, Xinhua News Agency reported that China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection released a wanted list of 100 individuals—77 men and 23 women—accused of corruption. Beijing is trying to get foreign governments to cooperate with its efforts to apprehend the suspects.

Of the 100 listed, 40 are believed to be in the US, and Beijing also maintains that in total there are more than 150 “economic fugitives” now in America. 

Chinese law enforcement officials have had some success in obtaining American assistance. Washington’s collaboration, however, raises fundamental issues for any free society.

North Korea Looks for a New Friend, India

On April 13th, Ri Su Yong met his Indian counterpart, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, in New Delhi. The trip is thought to be the first time a North Korean foreign minister has visited India.

Ri’s mission highlights North Korea’s attempt to isolate China, its only formal military ally, and establish new relationships in Asia and elsewhere.

Ri last week discussed his country’s nuclear weapon program and asked for additional humanitarian aid. Yet the topics of conversation were not nearly as important as the fact that the meeting took place at all, not to mention in the Indian capital.

Funding Ukraine's Recovery

Ukraine needs 60–100 billion euros in investment in the next 10 years in order to rebuild its economy and reach the GDP level it had in 2013, according to Gunter Deuber, an analyst at Vienna’s Raiffeisen Bank International. One half will have to come from the European Union and the United States; the other half from private investors.

Afghanistan’s Precarious Future

The horrific attack in Jalalabad on Saturday by a group claiming affiliation with the Islamic State was another reminder that security risks in Afghanistan continue to metastasize and threaten the stability of the Afghan government. The coming drawdown of US forces—to be reduced to fewer than 1,000 by January 2017—will not only exacerbate this vulnerability but also reveal a sticky problem: Afghanistan cannot pay for its own government, including its army and police forces, and has no viable path to self-sufficiency.

Under the Black Flag

I reviewed ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan for Commentary. Here's the first half.

ISIS isn’t a terrorist organization. It’s a transnational army of terror. The CIA claims it has as many as 31,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, thinks the number may be as high as 200,000. When ISIS fighters conquered the Iraqi city of Mosul last year, they stole enough materiel to supply three fighting divisions, including up-armored American Humvees, T-55 tanks, mobile Chinese artillery pieces, Soviet anti-aircraft guns, and American-made Stinger missile systems. ISIS controls a swath of territory the size of Great Britain and is expanding into Libya and Yemen.

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, paints a gripping and disturbing picture of this new “caliphate” in the Levant and Mesopotamia. In the most comprehensive account to date, the authors chronicle ISIS’s roots as the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda under its founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, its near defeat at the hands of Americans and Iraqi militias in Anbar Province, its rebirth during the Syrian civil war, and its catastrophic return to Iraq as a conquering army last summer.

The book is personal for both authors. Hassan was born and raised in the Syrian border town Al-Bukamal, right in the center of ISIS-held territory. Weiss is an American journalist who reported from the Aleppo suburb of al-Bab, back when it had a burgeoning democratic civil-society movement and wasn’t the “dismal fief ruled by Sharia law” it is today. Anger and disgust are at times palpable on the page, but emotion never distracts from the richly detailed narrative—based in part on interviews with ISIS commanders and fighters—that forms the backbone of their book.

Like all good historians, they start at the beginning. ISIS began its life as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after the United States demolished Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. The Bush administration saw Arab democracy as the solution to the Middle East’s woes, and Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad didn’t want to be the next Saddam. Assad waged a proxy war to convince Washington that participatory politics in the region would be perilous. Weiss and Hassan quote former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, who says candidly that “[Assad] started to work with the mujahideen.” He dispatched Syria’s homegrown jihadists to fight American occupation forces, and most of those jihadists would sign up with AQI. Assad pulled off a win-win scheme, purging Syria of potential enemies while teaching both the American government and citizenry a lesson they still haven’t forgotten: Occupying and democratizing an Arab land is a far messier and bloodier business than most in the West are willing to stomach.

It worked so well in Iraq that Assad would eventually replicate it inside his own country. When the uprising against him began in 2011, he framed the conflict as one between his secular regime and Islamist terrorists, even when the only serious movement against him consisted of nonviolent protests for reform and democracy. Few in the West bought Assad’s line at the time, so he then facilitated an Islamist terrorist opposition. His loyalists like to present a choice: “Assad or we burn the country.” And they are not kidding.

As Weiss and Hassan detail, Assad opened the jails and let Islamist prisoners free as part of an ostensible “reform” process, but he kept democracy activists in their cages. He knew perfectly well that those he let loose would cut a burning and bleeding gash across the country, casting him as the only thing standing between the rest of us and the abyss. That was the point. “Après moi, le déluge,” as Louis XV used to say.

The first thing ISIS does when conquering a new city or town is set up the grisly machinery for medieval punishments in town squares. “Letting black-clad terrorists run around a provincial capital,” Weiss and Hassan write, “crucifying and beheading people, made for great propaganda.” It was all Assad could do to ensure the Obama administration wouldn’t pursue a policy of regime-change as it had in Libya and as the previous administration had in Iraq.

There was a precedent for this perverted Baathist-Islamist alliance. Osama bin Laden had declared the “socialist infidels” of Saddam’s government worthy allies against Americans, and the remnants of Iraq’s ancien régime—what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld mistakenly called the dead enders—felt the same way. As a result, Weiss and Hassan note, “most of [AQI’s] top decision-makers served either in Saddam Hussein’s military or security services.”

Read the rest in Commentary.



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