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We’re at 70 Percent. Let’s Get to 100.

I’ve raised around 70 percent of the money I need to get to Vietnam later this spring, but I won’t get any of it unless the project is 100 percent funded.

I’d like to get this wrapped up as soon as possible so I can plan my trip properly and get the prep work taken care of. I’ve already started that process, but I don’t want to move ahead at full speed until I know for sure I can go.

So if you haven’t pitched in yet, let’s get this done.

The toughest part about completing a successful Kickstarter campaign is getting the word out. I can reach lots of people with my blog, Twitter, and Facebook, but it will help if I can reach even more. There are thousands of people out there who would pledge a little money if they knew this project existed.

A new Web site called Kickdriver will allow me to reward those of you who have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts of your own if you tell your friends and followers what I’m up to. You can collect rewards from my past Kickstarter projects and even get complimentary electronic copies of my books that are for sale commercially.

It's easy. If you’re interested, sign up at Kickdriver and let’s get this done for our mutual benefit.

Most important, though, please pitch in if you haven’t already.

Thanks, everybody!

Could Russia Occupy Ukraine?

A Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine continues to worry Ukrainian and Western policymakers, despite statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Moscow has no such intentions. The illegal occupation of Crimea serves as one source of disbelief in Russian sincerity; a second source is Moscow’s refusal to recognize the Ukrainian government or the forthcoming May 25th presidential elections. A third is the continued placement of Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders. Estimates of their number have ranged widely, from 30,000 to 220,000, with most falling in the 50,000–80,000 range. (On April 4th, however, Ukraine’s first vice prime minister stated there were 10,000–15,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders and another 22,000 in Crimea.)

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India Goes to the Polls

On Monday, voters started to go to the polls in what a recent Economist editorial called “the largest collective democratic act in history.” When voting ends on May 12th, Indians will have chosen a new parliament—and a new leader of their democracy, the world’s biggest.

Manmohan Singh, the 13th and current prime minister of India, is stepping down. His party, Indian National Congress, has dominated politics since independence in 1947. Yet it is now conducting a dispirited campaign under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the fourth generation of the country’s most famous political dynasty

Putin and the ‘Good Hitler’

Just when you think Vladimir Putin’s propaganda cannot sink any lower, it invariably does.

Andranik Migranyan is a seasoned Kremlin hand. A former member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, a cavalier of the presidentially bestowed Order of Honor, he currently heads the New York office of the so-called Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a Russian GONGO created on the initiative of Vladimir Putin in 2007 (it also has an office in Paris).

I Need a Kickstarter Boost

My Kickstarter project is 54 percent funded and I will only get money if it’s 100 percent funded.

Help me out, folks. You need me out of the office just as much as I need to get out of the office, but I can’t do it without resources. The journalism industry used to cover travel expenses, but that’s a thing of the past.

Taiwan Protests Engulfing Beijing

Over the weekend, citizens from around Taiwan converged on their capital of Taipei for demonstrations over a trade agreement with China. On Saturday, a few thousand citizens rallied to support the beleaguered President Ma Ying-jeou as he pushed for ratification of the unpopular pact. On Sunday, more than a hundred thousand citizens—estimates ranged from 116,000 to 700,000—turned out to “write history,” opposing the deal and supporting students who had taken over the legislature last month.

On the evening of Tuesday, March 18th, students broke into the Legislative Yuan and blocked the entrances with chairs. At the time, they said they would leave by the following Friday, but they have since decided to stay and remain in place. 

Vladimir Putin and the Zombie Apocalypse

I’m on the Ricochet podcast again this week. James Lileks, Peter Robinson, and Rob Long interviewed me about Vladimir Putin’s general malfeasance and my new book, Resurrection: A Zombie Novel, which is still selling well and getting great reviews.

I come in at 18:15.

Experts on Ukraine Still Getting It Wrong

When the West’s leading experts get elementary facts about Ukraine wrong, blithely encourage Russian expansionism, or make illogical arguments, I worry. As should everybody. After all, these are presumably the people influencing or making policy in the United States and Europe.

The latest two examples are Jacques Attali, the founding president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Ian Bremmer, president of the New York–based consultancy, Eurasia Group.

Attali’s views on Crimea, Ukraine, and Russia are alarming, indeed, irresponsibly so. Bremmer’s rest on definitional ambiguity and faulty logic.

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Botching North Africa

The United States government is putting another alliance at risk—this time with Morocco, which is a little like screwing up Canada. The White House is partly to blame, but the main culprit here is the State Department, the one institution that should be the least likely to drop the ball diplomatically since managing diplomatic relations is its job. 

Morocco’s main foreign policy problem is its Cold War with next-door Algeria which backs the Polisario—a communist guerilla army hatched by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Moammar Qaddafi. The Polisario claims the Western Sahara region in the south of Morocco, vacated by Spanish imperialists the same week its long-time dictator General Franco finally died in 1975. Most Americans have never heard of the Western Sahara, but wrapping up this holdover conflict from the Cold War is at the top of Morocco’s agenda, and there’s no excuse for the State Department—and especially its diplomats in Morocco—to blow it off like everyone stateside.

Yet State is blowing it off. And State is straining the US relationship with Morocco not only with its flippant attitude that the Sahara doesn’t matter but also with its nonsense-on-stilts belief that North Africa is some kind of Arab-Muslim Las Vegas, that was happens there stays there. On the contrary, the region is a conduit for guns, drugs, and human trafficking into Europe. It’s also an incubator for terrorists with a global outlook and global ambitions.

Libya is on the verge of disintegrating into a failed militia state like Somalia. In 2012 Al Qaeda-linked terrorist seized power in Northern Mali and posed a big enough threat that France saw little choice but to invade. Egypt is a darker and more sinister place today than it was when Hosni Mubarak ran it. Algeria’s Syrian-style civil war never did fully wind down and could mushroom again at any moment. All this is happening in a region so close to Europe that from one point—in and around Tangier in Morocco—you can see Europe.

Tunisia is doing sort of okay, but it’s tiny. Morocco is effectively the only stable place in North Africa. It’s also our only true ally.

Morocco has been allied with the United States for more than 200 years—longer than Canada. Morocco has never done anything bad to America. The United States has never done anything bad to Morocco. It was the first country to recognize our independence from Britain. It sat out the North African Barbary wars, the US Marine Corps' first major foreign engagement. It was a close ally of the United States throughout the Cold War, and it works more closely with Washington against the scourge of Islamist terrorism than any other nation in the Arab world with the possible exception of Jordan. The Bush administration upgraded Morocco to a Major Non-NATO Ally alongside Israel and Japan, and the Obama administration upgraded the alliance yet again with the Strategic Dialogue.

Western Sahara is not America’s most important problem in that region, but it is the most important problem for Morocco, partly because Rabat sees it as a threat to the nation’s territorial integrity, but also because—like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it prevents other states in the region from working together on the kinds of problems that concern the United States and Europe directly.

Most Americans don’t know a disputed territory called Western Sahara even exists. Fewer still understand it. Partly that’s because the Western Sahara conflict isn’t exploding like Syria, and partly it’s because the Sahrawis aren’t suffering in ways that make headlines. Those who actually live in Western Sahara are doing just fine. The Moroccans have invested huge amounts of money to make it livable. They’ve done a good enough job that the coastal city of Dakhla is a hot spot for tourists from Europe. But the tens of thousands of Sahrawis who live in the Polisario’s refugee camps in Algeria—which are really more like concentration camps—have been held hostage for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

It would be a relatively easy problem to wrap up if the United States prioritized it. There is no chance the Moroccans will ever cede territory to a gang of thugs sponsored by Castro, nor is there any chance the Polisario will force out Morocco. Rabat will no sooner “withdraw” from the Sahara than Washington will “withdraw” from Alaska and hand it over to Russia. So there’s no point, really, in pretending that the outcome is open to question. It isn’t.

But Morocco is not asking the United States to resolve it right now. Nor is Morocco asking for money. It’s only asking the United States for technical assistance and training for local government and civil society groups so the Western Sahara can govern itself and to help out with private foreign investment so the Sahrawis can wean themselves off the welfare state that exists now. The United States is good at these things. And it’s the kind of help that doesn’t make American taxpayers groan after pouring so much money into the sinkholes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet the State Department refuses to do it even though it has been the policy of the White House during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Congress recently asked State to do it, and it still refused to do anything. So last year Congress passed a law, embedded in the appropriations bill, requiring the State Department do to it, and State is still dragging its feet, despite a joint statement from President Obama and King Mohamed VI last November where they embraced a “shared commitment to improve the lives of the people of Western Sahara.”

This is partly the fault of the White House. President Obama sent an ambassador there—Minneapolis lawyer and businessman Samuel Kaplan—who had no diplomatic experience and knew nothing of Morocco or Africa. American presidents have been rewarding their friends and backers with ambassador posts for decades. This is no way for a superpower to behave, especially in unstable, dangerous, and bottomlessly complex parts of the world where the US has precious few friends. It screams unseriousness. But at least the White House and the Congress are aware that this is getting ridiculous. The question at this point is, what are they going to do about it?

UN General Assembly Stigmatizes Putin's Russia

If Vladimir Putin’s propaganda is to be believed, one of his major achievements has been “restoring Russia’s prestige” and making the country “respected again” on the international stage. As with most claims by the Kremlin spin machine, this does not pass the muster.

The 1990s—vilified by Putin’s propaganda—were a period of economic difficulty and political uncertainty for Russia, the former caused to a large extent by the record-low oil prices, and both of them inevitable after the collapse of decades-long totalitarianism. It would not have been surprising to see Russia consequently weakened in its international standing and isolated from global decisionmaking.

China Courts South Korea

On Sunday, China’s Xi Jinping and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye met on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, their fourth meeting in less than ten months.

The two leaders discussed cooperative projects they have been working on since last year, including a memorial hall in China to honor Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean independence fighter known for his 1909 assassination of Hirobumi Ito, when he was Japan’s first governor general of Korea. Xi also said his country would dedicate a stone marker honoring Korean independence fighters. Park, for her part, said Seoul would repatriate 400 sets of remains of Chinese soldiers from the Korean War.

Putin's Landgrab Alarms Baltics

Putin’s landgrab of the Crimean Peninsula is understandably viewed with considerable alarm in the Baltics. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia all have Russian minorities; for example, in Estonia, a quarter of the population is of Russian descent. In Latvia, about 30 percent of the population is of Russian descent, and there is a strong ethnic Russian presence in the Latvian Parliament.

Still, the region’s media are sounding alarm bells of Kremlin efforts to destabilize their respective countries. The English-language Baltic Times reported that the Lithuanian intelligence service, the VSD, has warned that its Russian counterpart and other Russian security services “were acting most aggressively against Lithuania.”

In Latvia, the daily paper Neatkariga quotes the country’s security police chief as saying Russia has intensified its “soft power” efforts “through information campaigns, as well as through cultural, educational, and other similar instruments,” the paper said.

Is Putin Next?

Here are a few trick questions. Who was elected democratically—Viktor Yanukovych or Vladimir Putin? Who violated his country’s Constitution? Who enjoyed popular legitimacy? Whose rule was unstable?

The answer to the first question—Who was elected democratically?—is obvious. That was Yanukovych, back on February 7, 2010, in elections that were roundly considered to be fair and free. Putin, in contrast, was elected democratically in 2000, semi-democratically in 2004, and non-democratically in 2012.

Here are excerpts from three Final Reports of the Election Observation Missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR):

Russian election of March 26, 2000:

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Let's Go to Vietnam

I’m finished writing about Cuba, but you are not yet finished reading about Cuba. Two of my essays haven’t been published online yet except in the e-book which has been privately distributed to those who backed my fundraising project on Kickstarter. (Those essays will appear here eventually, but I sold them to magazine editors and can’t publish them anywhere else in advance. One of them has, however, appeared in the print version of World Affairs, so you can always pick up a hardcopy if you didn’t back my Kickstarter project and want to read it right now.)

In the meantime, it’s time to raise travel expenses again, so I’ve just launched a new Kickstarter project. (Why Vietnam? Keep reading.)

I’m not asking for donations. I’m asking for funding and will give something back in return, just as I did for those who supported my last project.  

Check out the new project page for all the details. With Kickstarter, you can see how much money I need and how much I’ve raised. I won’t get any money at all unless the entire project is funded, so please make sure I don’t come up short. You and I both need me out of my office, but alas traveling costs money. There’s a promo video on the Kickstarter page you can watch, but here’s the text.

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The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago. Just two short years later, the Soviet Empire collapsed. Yet communist parties still rule five nations—North Korea, Cuba, China, Laos, and Vietnam.

I intend to visit them all. I’ll have enough material for another book at the end. Cuba was first. Next is Vietnam.

The United States lost the war there, but won the argument. Vietnam is still ruled by the Communist Party, but it junked Marxist economics and leapt with both feet into the global economy. The country is eradicating extreme poverty faster than almost any other in history. And its people are enthusiastically friendly to Americans—surprising considering our history in the 60s and 70s.

The Vietnam War is a wound in the American psyche. Even though I’m too young to remember it, I feel it a little bit too. But the Vietnamese seem to have moved past it.

Why?

Is it because they realize we were right about Ho Chi Minh, Mao, and the Soviet Union from the beginning? Or is it not that at all? Perhaps there something in the Vietnamese national psyche—tragically lacking in some parts of the world—that lends itself to reconciliation with former enemies. Maybe it’s simply because most Vietnamese are too young to remember the war, or because they were more wounded by the war with each other. The Vietnamese themselves might not even know. But I’m going to try to find out.

Vietnam’s citizens no longer live in a vast prison state like the Cubans, but is that enough? Is the country taking the same path Taiwan and South Korea did earlier, or will it stagnate like Belarus, Europe’s last total dictatorship? Will Vietnam one day join the United States as a major non-NATO ally like Japan, or will it plod along as a smaller and non-imperial version of China? Is Vietnam’s government blazing a path out of totalitarianism and toward democracy, or will the country explode all over again?

I don’t know, but either way, Vietnam should provide a dramatic contrast to Castro’s hard-line police state. My first-person narrative dispatches from Middle Eastern countries at war and in the throes of revolution garnered me three blogging awards and a book prize from the Washington Institute. But I still work as a freelancer. I don’t have a salary, let alone a travel expense account.

That’s where you come in. Fund my next trip—to Vietnam this spring—so I can produce a brand-new batch of first-person narrative dispatches. You can follow along as I publish them on my blog. And at the end of the project, I’ll publish all my material as a dispatch pack—including full-color photographs—that you can read on your iPad, your Kindle, or any other tablet or reading device. And if you don’t have a tablet or reading device, you can read them on your computer. Generous backers will receive public thank-yous from me, on my blog, and in the dispatch pack when it’s published.

I’m not asking you for donations. I’m asking you to participate and will give you something back in return. Let’s go to Vietnam.

'Experts' on Ukraine

An astoundingly large amount of nonsense has been written about Ukraine ever since it came to occupy center stage in the public mind. That’s not surprising: most people in most countries barely knew the place existed or assumed it was “really” Russia. The number of Ukraine specialists outside of Ukraine is probably no greater than a few hundred in the entire world. Their expertise was of little interest to people who had no interest in or use for the country.

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