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My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Administration's Secret Overture to North Korea

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

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

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

Refugees Resettling in Latvia

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

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

Could a Missile Defense Plan Turn China on North Korea?

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

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

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

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

Moscow on the Tigris

My latest long-form piece is in the Winter issue of the print edition of World Affairs, and it’s now available online.

Here’s the first part.

America is tired of being America, so Russia is being Russia again.

While an exhausted and burned out United States wishes international migraines like the Syrian civil war would just go away, Russia is energized by the prospect of filling the vacuum and thus once again playing a major role on the world stage. Aggressively intervening on behalf of his ally in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad, and projecting force well beyond even the frontier states in his“near abroad,” Vladimir Putin audaciously aims to change political outcomes in a region that has been out of his country’s sphere of influence for a generation.

The telegram to President Obama has arrived: “The Iranian-Syria-Hezbollah axis—by far the world’s most powerful terrorist nexus and the bane of American servicemen and policymakers for more than three decades—is now officially the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Details to follow.”

*

Syria became a Russian client state in 1966 when the Arab Socialist Baath Party seized power in a coup d’état, overthrowing the relatively moderate Aflaqites and establishing a far more brutal regime influenced heavily by Marxism-Leninism.

The relationship atrophied, of course, after the Soviet Union collapsed. For a long time, Moscow could barely hold its own country together, and Syria found its international support from the Islamic Republic of Iran and its terrorist army in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

But Russia is back on its feet again, Assad needs some help, and four and a half years into the Syrian civil war, it’s obvious that the United States is largely uninterested in any serious attempt to resolve the conflict one way or another. Russia can do whatever it wants.

So in early September, Moscow began shipping military personnel and tons of matériel, including battle tanks and mobile artillery pieces, on huge Antonov-124 Condor flights into the Bassel al-Assad International Airport outside the Mediterranean city of Latakia.

According to at least one American defense official, as of September 14th—two weeks before the intervention officially began—Russia’s deployment was already the largest since the Soviet days. In late September, Moscow began launching airstrikes against the smorgasbord of Syrian rebels fighting the government in and around the cities of Homs and Hama, well outside territory held by ISIS, supposedly the target of the intervention. And by early October, Russia was launching cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and coordinating its attacks with Hezbollah.

Putin offered the prospect of a coalition against terror. But while the US and Russia agreed to a memorandum of understanding to avoid accidentally shooting each other out of the skies over Syria, Washington and Moscow otherwise aren’t cooperating.

“We’re not able at this time to associate ourselves more broadly with Russia’s approach in Syria because it is wrongheaded and strategically shortsighted,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said. “It attempts to fight extremism while not also at the same time working to promote the political transition” away from Assad.

Putin doesn’t care about Assad personally. Assad visited Moscow in late October for a meeting that according to all reports was as frosty as the temperature outside. Putin only cares about the Baath regime, its institutions, and its armed forces. It makes no difference to him which personality sits at the top of that structure. If some military commander were to shove Assad aside and rule like General Sisi in Egypt, Russia wouldn’t even blink.

The US is right to oppose both ISIS and the Assad regime. Syria’s government has sponsored terrorism not only against every single one of its neighbors, but also against the United States in Iraq. But let’s be honest: There will be no nonviolent political transition in Syria. The regime is overwhelmingly dominated by members of the non-Muslim Alawite minority, who will never negotiate with jihadists who want to impale them as infidels, nor with the ragtag “democratic forces” (now largely driven by Kurdish fighters) theoretically backed by the US.

Whatever is left of the moderate Sunni Muslim community would probably go along with a smooth transition of some sort, as long as it’s genuine. It’s what they wanted at the very beginning before the nonviolent protest movement escalated to war. But the regime wouldn’t be negotiating with passive moderates who have fled the country or are hiding under their beds. If there were negotiations, they would have to be with the men who have guns, almost all of whom at this point are battle-hardened extremists.

A proper transition to an inclusive and even quasi-civilized government in Damascus would first require the destruction of both the regime and the extremists, and right now no one is making any attempt to bring that about.

Fighting an insurgency with airstrikes, artillery, and cruise missiles is for losers. The US has been pinpricking ISIS from the skies for more than a year now with little to show for it. The Israelis thought they could beat Hezbollah from the air in 2006 and failed even more spectacularly.

Want to fight an effective counterinsurgency? Call General David Petraeus. He pulled it off smashingly in Iraq, but it required billions upon billions of dollars, tens of thousands of ground troops, substantial support from the local population, and years of determined effort and battlefield casualties.

And his gains evaporated almost instantly after he and his fellow soldiers went home.

Vladimir Putin is not going to call David Petraeus. At least for now, he’s only interested in a low-risk, low-budget intervention. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Moscow Times newspaper, Russia’s Syrian campaign is costing $4 million a day. That’s just $1.5 billion a year. Which sounds like a lot until you consider that the United States spent roughly $1.4 trillion in Iraq—a thousand times as much.

Will Russia be able to pacify an entire country while spending just a fraction of a percent as much as the US spent to pacify Iraq only temporarily? Probably not.

But no matter. Putin has three goals in Syria, and none of them involve permanent pacification.

First and most immediately he wants to prop up Russia’s sole ally in the Arab world.

The second goal is announcing that he wants America’s job as the world’s superpower now that we’re sick of it.

Putin wants America’s job because, why not? Russia is not Belgium, and it is not Canada. It was one of only two superpowers until the Soviet Union imploded under the weight of its own belligerent imbecility, and it has been wallowing in a post-imperial funk—“malaise” in Jimmy Carter’s lexicon—ever since.

It could theoretically regain some of its lost power as the West’s partner, but being one of many is not how Russia rolls. Whenever Washington makes a friendly overture to Moscow, Russians interpret it the way Luke Skywalker heard Darth Vader say, between bouts of heavy mechanical breathing, “Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”

Because he’s instinctively paranoid, as well as filled with ressentiment for what happened to his country after 1989, Putin does not trust the West, not even remotely. He is sure that NATO is coming to get him.

It sounds nuts from our point of view, and it is, but look at it Putin’s way. When he was still a lieutenant colonel in the KGB’s Directorate S, Europe was more or less evenly divided between NATO in the west and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in the east. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and NATO gobbled up just about everything in the old Communist bloc except Serbia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Imagine how it would look from the West’s point of view if the Warsaw Pact rolled westward in the 1990s and swallowed up everything except Britain, Ireland, and the Netherlands. Would we believe Russia if it said he wasn’t coming to get us?

Nope. And we’d be right not to.

Putin is projecting his own ideas and values onto us. He’s asking himself what he’d do in our place, and doing it.

His third reason for intervening in Syria is because it’s good for him personally. During the Communist era, many Russians took pride in the fact that their nation was powerful even though it was poor. Putin can’t raise Russian living standards to Western levels, but he can revive some of the motherland’s former glory, and he can do it without the slave labor camps. The man is no Joseph Stalin. Secretary of State John Kerry was right to compare Putin to a 19th-century czar born two centuries late. His ratings are far better than those of any Romanov: Shortly before Halloween, less than a month into his Syrian bombing campaign, Putin’s approval ratings in Russia exceeded 90 percent.

*

What is the US take after Russia’s intervention? Shortly after it began, President Obama told 60 Minutes that it was a “sign of weakness.” He bristled when interviewer Steve Kroft insisted Putin was challenging American leadership. “If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in,” he said, “in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.”

But like it or not, Putin is taking the lead in Syria. He’s the chief power broker. Everything has to go through him.

Sure, he might fail. (He’s plunging headfirst into the Middle East, after all.) And he may well run Russia’s economy into the ground before he’s finished, but since he’s doing the whole thing on the cheap, on a lousy $4 million a day, he probably won’t.

A weak nation couldn’t even consider doing what he’s doing. Only strong nations can project hard power beyond their own borders. Belgium can’t do it. Canada and Mexico can’t do it. None of the Arab states can do it.

Aside from running guns and money to various proxy militias, the Arab states can’t do anything about Syria, even the ones right there on Syria’s borders. Lebanon and Iraq can’t even handle the militias in their own countries let alone in somebody else’s, which is why they’ve spent the last four and a half years wringing their hands on the sidelines of the Syrian catastrophe and asking for American help.

But America isn’t interested, so Russia is “helping” instead. And the Obama administration is responding by carping at itself.

“We’re just so reactive,” one current official complained to Politico anonymously. “There’s just this tendency to wait.” Another one said of the Pentagon: “They’re on their back feet. It’s not like we can’t exert pressure on these guys, but we act like we’re totally impotent.”

Feeling a little defensive, US Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney told a stunned audience of Syrian-Americans that the “Russians wouldn’t have to help Assad if we didn’t weaken him.”

“He should be on Saturday Night Live,” Republican Senator John McCain told the Daily Beast in response. “I strongly recommend it. I guess if Russia takes all of Syria and Iraq, then that shows they’re really weak. It’s ridiculous. . . just delusional.”

The administration has had trouble with Russia right from the start, beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s much lampooned “reset” with Moscow, which seemed to treat Putin’s intransigence as a hangover from the Bush administration.

The “reset” obviously failed. Badly. Putin is who he is. George W. Bush didn’t make him that way. The Soviet Union and the KGB made him that way. Any viable “reset” would have to come from the Russian side. The idea that Putin would play well with others if we simply acted nice and smiley was as delusional as calling Assad a reformer.

The problem begins at the top. In January of 2014, Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick that he didn’t need a grand new strategy, adding that where Russia was concerned he didn’t “really even need George Kennan right now.”

But with Putin in the Kremlin, Kennan is exactly who the United States needs. As a US diplomat (later ambassador) in Moscow during the Truman administration, Kennan first advocated the policy of “containment,” writing that the Soviet Union should be “contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may have been wrong in 2012 when he said Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe. Given the fact that ISIS didn’t exist at the time, Iran would have fit the bill better. Never mind, though. In hindsight it’s clear that Obama was a little too dismissive when he said, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”

Yes, the Cold War is over, and yes, Putin is spectacularly unlikely to ever attack the American homeland or any of America’s allies in NATO or elsewhere. But it’s obvious—isn’t it?—that Russia is brazenly expanding its role in the world, and that it’s doing so at America’s expense.

Read the whole thing.

 

No, Iran is Not a Democracy

Vox magazine just published a video on YouTube narrated by Max Fisher that supposedly explains how the next Iranian election could make history.

He starts by saying that Iran is confusing because it has “an unelected Supreme Leader at the top” and a president who is chosen in “far from perfect” elections. “So is Iran a dictatorship, or is it a democracy?” he asks before answering, “as it turns out, it’s both.”

No, it’s not. Max Fisher answered the question correctly before he answered it.

The head of state isn’t elected.

And his description of the elections as “far from perfect” is the kind of condescending euphemism that’s only ever used to describe somebody else’s problems.

Let’s leave aside the blatant vote-stealing in Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in districts that opposed him as overwhelmingly as San Francisco opposes Dick Cheney. Nevermind that disgraceful episode.

Elections in Iran are rigged even when they aren’t rigged.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hand-picks everybody who runs for president. Moderates are rejected routinely. Only the less-moderate of the moderates—the ones who won’t give Khamenei excessive heartburn if they win—are allowed to run at all. Liberal and leftist candidates are rejected categorically.

Imagine Dick Cheney as the overlord of America allowing us to choose which one of his friends will be in the co-pilot’s seat. That’s not democracy. That’s not even a fake democracy.

The Iranian system is worse, though. The president isn’t even the co-pilot.

He’s not quite a figurehead. He can tinker with a few things around the edges. But the country is run by the unelected Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is officially designated as a terrorist organization.

Fisher thinks the upcoming election may be a game-changer, though, because the so-called Assembly of Experts is an elected body, it will choose the next Supreme Leader, and the current Supreme Leader acknowledges that he’s likely to die soon. Therefore, if “moderates” win the election, the next Supreme Leader will almost certainly be a moderate.

That would be great. Really, it would. I’d pop a champagne cork. Iran would still be a dictatorship/democracy hybrid in Fisher’s formulation, but at least it would be a less extreme one. It could be like post-Maoist China, perhaps, or post-Soviet Russia. Unfree, but no longer totalitarian. It would be progress. No doubt about it.

But “moderates” in the Iranian regime aren’t moderate by any objective international definition. Everyone who gets to run in the election for the Assembly of Expert will be hand-picked by the Supreme Leader. And every single one of them will be an Islamic theologian. That’s what the Assembly of Experts is. A theocratic institution of Islamic theologians.

None of the “experts” are atheists. None of them are secularists. None of them are agnostic. None of them are liberals under any conceivable definition of the word liberal. Certainly none of them are Christians, Jews or Baha’is. They’re all Islamic theologians or they wouldn’t even be in the Assembly of Experts.

So let’s run another thought experiment here. Let’s say Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson is the dictator-for-life in America. He’s more powerful than the White House. We get to vote for the president even though he isn’t our head of state, but Pat Robertson decides all by himself who’s on the ballot. And he chooses Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. Those are our options.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio is unemployed, Hillary Clinton is under house arrest and Bernie Sanders is languishing in an orange jumpsuit at the Camp X-ray prison in Guantanamo Bay. Liberal activists who complain in the streets vanish into dungeons forever.

Meanwhile, Pat Robertson is going to die soon, so he hand-picks hundreds of Evangelical Christians that we get to vote for or against. The winner will choose who replaces him.

Does that sound even remotely like a democracy? Like a system that has authoritarian elements alongside democratic elements?

Not to me, it doesn’t. And I’d bet my bottom dollar that Max Fisher wouldn’t think so either if he had to live in such a distorted version of America. He’d call it fascist, or something similar, and he would be right.

Vox uploaded the video to Facebook as well as to YouTube, and the comments are overwhelmingly hostile. Huge numbers of Iranian grownups are chiming in and schooling the Vox kids. It's fascinating and educational—hopefully for Max Fisher as well as the rest of us. 

Signs of Hope for Judicial Reform in Ukraine

Post-communist Ukraine has long struggled to reform its judicial system and rid itself of pervasive and systematic petty and serious corruption—one of the many poisonous legacies experienced by all post-Soviet states. I recently interviewed Oleksandr Marusiak, an articulate and serious 25-year old from Chernivtsi in western Ukraine, who is part of a new breed of young people being recruited to reform and modernize the country’s police and its policing methods. As he described his on-the-ground experience in the recruiting and training process, I couldn’t help but be hopeful that, despite the continuing problems in Kyiv, some reforms just might be taking hold in the provinces. Here’s why:

MOTYL: How did you apply for and get the job?

The Kremlin and Chechnya: A Cruel Irony

Of all the historical ironies, the one surrounding the Kremlin’s relationship with Chechnya must surely be one of the cruelest. 

When Chechens fell victim to Moscow’s heavy-handed campaign of force to reestablish control over the restive region, it was Russian democrats who protested the loudest against large-scale human rights abuses that accompanied the “counterterrorist operation.” Yegor Gaidar and Grigory Yavlinsky, the leaders of the rival liberal parties in Russia’s parliament, who agreed on little else, stood side by side in their opposition to the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. In January 1996, Boris Nemtsov, the newly reelected governor of Nizhny Novgorod, collected 1 million signatures (in a region of 3 million) under a petition against the war in Chechnya and brought them to President Yeltsin’s desk in the Kremlin. “Are these signatures for or against me?” an irritated Yeltsin asked Nemtsov. “That depends on what you do, Mr. President,” the governor replied audaciously. “If you continue the war, they are against you. If you end it, they are for you.

China Communist Party Elder Speaks Out Against Censorship

Censorship has gone too far, contends Zhou Ruijin, 76, in an essay published in China in January and on Phoenix TV’s ifeng.com early this month. “To be frank, some leaders in the party’s propaganda department were managing the press like how they would manage a train schedule, directly intervening in the approach and procedure of news reporting,” he wrote.

Zhou, a leading liberal writer in the 1990s, attacked today’s propaganda chiefs for taking down offending websites and deleting postings, calling these actions contrary to the concept that the Communist Party govern the country according to law. Moreover, he condemned “waves of campaigns, strict clampdowns, and public shaming,” the last a reference to the parading of people making Cultural Revolution-style confessions on television.

“In a phase of social transition, it is normal that there are different views and discussions in the field of ideology, that the public air their own opinions on deepening reforms,” wrote Zhou. “They can only be guided, but not repressed.”

Stalin’s Partisans in Ukraine

Alexander Gogun’s excellent study, Stalin’s Commandos: Ukrainian Partisan Forces on the Eastern Front, sometimes reads like an analysis of Putin’s commandos in the eastern Donbas. In both cases, the official Moscow line was and is that they’re a popular movement generated by discontent from below. In fact, Stalin’s commandos, like Putin’s, were largely creatures of the Kremlin—a point Gogun, a Russian scholar currently based at the Free University in Berlin, makes forcefully, repeatedly, and convincingly.

Hezbollah Devours Lebanon

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared victory last week in Lebanon.

He has made plenty of empty bombastic victory boasts in the past, most notoriously after the Israelis served his own ass to him on a kabob skewer during the 2006 war, but this time, thanks to the now-unchecked rise of Iranian power, Hezbollah really is winning.

“Iran can do anything it wants in Lebanon without any political opposition or challenges,” Hanin Ghaddar writes in NOW Lebanon. “And now Iran can focus to win what it needs in Syria, while everyone is busy making business deals with the ‘new Iran.’ Lebanon, on the other hand, is going to pay a very high price for all these deals and compromises, more so as Iran, Russia and the Assad regime are scoring more gains in Syria.”

Before Osama bin Laden destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001, Hezbollah killed more Americans than any other terrorist organization in the world. Its killing spree began, not long after the Iranian hostage crisis, in 1983 with the destruction of the US Embassy in Beirut and the Marine barracks near the international airport with suicide truck bombers.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps created Hezbollah from scratch during the chaos of Lebanon’s civil war in 1982, and the so-called Party of God has been the most successful export of the Iranian revolution ever since. Hezbollah is, in effect, the Lebanese branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. It answers to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei and their flags are almost identical.

Iran spent roughly 100 million dollars a year on Hezbollah before the war in Syria started. Now that the nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran is going into effect, the Iranian government has 100 billion dollars worth of previously frozen assets to play with. That’s a thousand times as much as its baseline Hezbollah budget.

And that 100 billion only includes previously frozen assets the United States returned a little more than a week ago. It doesn’t take into account all the additional wealth the Iranian government will be able to produce now that the sanctions are gone.

Hezbollah is already the most advanced terrorist army in the world. ISIS is larger and holds more territory at the moment, but ISIS doesn’t have a terrifying arsenal of missiles that can turn an entire nation into a kill zone. Hezbollah does. And if the Iranian regime decides to pull out all the stops, there’s no telling how much of a menace Hezbollah could become in the future.

The Syrian and Iranian governments have never stopped backing these guys to the hilt, and Hezbollah is repaying the favor by fighting in Syria on behalf of its beleaguered co-patron Bashar al-Assad, who is supported now not only by Iran but also by Russia.

So Hezbollah is part of an extremely powerful geopolitical bloc while leaders of Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah “March 14” coalition have seen every single one of their friends shrug and say, you’re on your own.

Lebanon has been politically deadlocked and without a president for almost two years now, but the anti-Hezbollah coalition can’t hold the line anymore. They’ve completely surrendered. In late January, two of March 14’s most prominent leaders finally threw in the towel and nominated pro-Assad and pro-Hezbollah figures to fill the vacancy.

Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces—a former Christian militia that was allied with Israel during the 1975-1990 civil war—made amends of sorts with his old nemesis, Michel Aoun, who has been angling for the presidency and backed by Assad and Hezbollah for a little more than a decade.

At the same time, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri whom the Syrians and Hezbollah assassinated with a truck bomb in 2005, nominated Marada movement leader Suleiman Franjieh for the presidency. Franjieh, like his father and grandfather before him, is so close to the House of Assad he may as well be a blood relative. He spent his teenage years in Syria as the protégé of Bassel al-Assad.

“Within March 14,” Hezbollah leader Nasrallah said last week and smiled, “one essential member supports Aoun, while another essential member supports Franjieh. Is this a loss for us, or a gain?”

Hariri and Geagea aren’t throwing their support behind their old foes because they suddenly think Assad, Hezbollah, the Iranian regime and Vladimir Putin are awesome. They don’t have much of a choice. The West doesn’t have their back anymore, so what else are they supposed to do? They can’t possibly take on the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah-Russian axis all by themselves. They tried for a while and got nowhere, and it’s finally over.

The US government saw this coming, of course, even while trying to downplay it, so Congress struck preemptively with the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, which will impose sanctions on any foreign banks that do business with Hezbollah.

Iran can do business with Hezbollah without using banks, of course, first and foremost by continuing to transfer an unlimited amount of sophisticated weapons as it has been doing all along anyway. Even if Iran were to use the international banking system, you can bet your bottom dollar that the US will pretend it’s not happening, at least for a while, to prevent the painstakingly negotiated nuclear deal from unraveling.

Lebanon may not be the most crucial country according to narrowly defined American interests, but like Tunisia, it’s one of the few Arab countries that has had a real shot at building something resembling a democratic system during the last couple of years. Lebanon is divided against itself, though, as it always has been, and Syria and Iran are aggressively and even violently backing the anti-Western and anti-democratic side. With no one supporting Lebanon’s pro-Western and pro-democratic side, there was ever only one possible outcome.

The West’s current mood of conflict avoidance is perfectly understandable, and it’s all-too human, but it’s no more effective than conflict avoidance in interpersonal relationships. The problem is not being resolved. It’s left to fester and worsen instead.

Weak states like Qatar have no choice but to engage in perennial conflict avoidance, but since ancient times Foreign Policy 101 has demanded that great powers reward their friends and punish their enemies. Leaders who cleverly attempt to defy gravity will deserve everything they’re going to get.

Where Is China’s Central Bank Chief?

In China and elsewhere, there is increasingly intense speculation as to why Zhou Xiaochuan, the highly acclaimed governor of the People’s Bank of China, has for months been silent about the renminbi, the ailing Chinese currency. His silence and absence is most unusual and apparently prompted IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde to chide Beijing at Davos last month for the government’s inadequate communication with financial markets.

Zhou, notably, stayed away from the central bank’s August 13 press conference, held just two days after the shock devaluation of the yuan, as the Chinese currency is informally known. Though he appeared at a G-20 finance meeting in Ankara in early September, he has since vanished. That he skipped Davos, raised eyebrows.

At Last, Military Reform Makes Headway in Ukraine

When a close observer and frequent critic of Ukraine’s military establishment has something good to say about it, we may want to listen.

Yuri Butusov, military analyst and editor of the censor.net website, describes a January 21 roundtable on defense reform he attended at the Ministry of Defense. He lists a number of firsts:

Dismantling Nukes is Good, But How To Safely Bury Them?

Who knows what one might find in London in 10,000 years’ time? Or New York or Berlin? The town of Carlsbad, by contrast, has a clear future ahead. For the next 10,000 years, a facility nearby will store clothing, lab equipment, rags, and other everyday items contaminated by atomic bombs.

At the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located in the desert 26 miles (42 kilometres) from Carlsbad, New Mexico, toxic material is stored 2,150 feet (655 meters) below the surface in plastic-lined steel drums in rooms carved out of a 250-million-year-old salt bed. “Bedded salt is free of fresh flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable; an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment. However, its most important quality in this application is the way salt rock seals all fractures and naturally closes all openings,” informs the US Department of Energy, which is in charge of storing the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

Iran Gets its Blackmail Money

The Iranian sanctions are over. The United States has now officially returned 100 billion dollars in frozen assets to the Iranian government as required by last year’s nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington.

“These assets…have fully been released and we can use them,” said government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht.

If you’re negotiating a deal with a hostile party, it behooves you to ask who’s having who for breakfast.

The United States, as the world’s sole remaining superpower, should have had the Iranian rulers for breakfast. We should have eaten their lunch, too, while we were at it, but nope. Iran gets 100 billion dollars and we get…nothing.

Oh, sure, we get “promises” from the Iranian government that it won’t build nuclear weapons, and inspectors get limited access to old nuclear facilities, but even if Iran never cheats and never builds a bomb, the best we can say is that we paid Iran off so it wouldn’t do something horrible.

The word for that is blackmail. Blackmail is a crime for a reason—because the blackmailed person or party gets robbed.

A good deal with Iran would have required the government—at minimum—to cease and desist all funding of international terrorist organizations. Instead, this deal enables the regime to dramatically increase its support for international terrorist organizations.

But okay, let’s be super optimistic here and assume Iran will use 99 percent of its treasure chest for peaceful purposes and economic development. Only one percent goes to terrorists.

Iran’s baseline funding for Hezbollah, its most powerful terrorist proxy in Lebanon and Syria, is at most 200 million dollars a year. If it earmarks just one percent of its 100 billion dollars to Hezbollah—just one billion dollars—that would boost Hezbollah’s cash infusion by a factor of five.

If Iran earmarks ten percent of its treasure chest to terrorism, it could send fifty times as much money and weapons to Hezbollah or its other murderous playthings as it has in the past.

Let me say that again. If Iran uses 90 percent of its releases assets peacefully, it could still spend fifty times as much money on terrorism as it used to.

A lot of people were worried about this, not just in the United States, but also in Israel, the Arab world and even in Europe. Secretary of State John Kerry tried to downplay it.

“Sanctions relief will pour lots of money into Iran,” James Robbins said to him during an interview with the BBC last summer. “There must be a considerable risk they’ll spend at least some of that money supporting extremist terrorist groups who they’ve supported in the past.”

“What Iran has done for years with Hizballah does not depend on money,” Kerry said.

Let’s stop right there for a second. Can any serious person actually believe that? Iran isn’t giving Hezbollah moral support the way, say, the United States used to give moral support to Cubans languishing under the Castro regime. No. Iran gives Hezbollah sophisticated weapons and money. Obviously that depends on Iran having money. There is no way around this. Kerry would be right if Iran simply grandstanded impotently on the sidelines, but Iran not only supports Hezbollah, it created Hezbollah with money, weapons and training. All of which costs money.

“What Iran is doing,” Kerry continued, “and by the way, they’re fighting ISIL and helping Iraq in many ways, but that has not depended on money. So sure, something may go additionally somewhere. But if President Rouhani and his administration do not take care of the people of Iran, they will have an enormous problem.”

Fighting ISIS costs money. “Helping” Iraq with Shia militias costs extraordinary amounts of money.

It’s true, of course, that the Iranian government will have an enormous problem if no money goes into the Iranian economy. But Iran could pour 90 percent of its sanctions relief into the Iranian economy and still have an amount left over that’s 50 times greater than the baseline Hezbollah budget. The government is not facing an either-or proposition here. Not even close. It’s easy to do lots of different things if you suddenly find yourself 100 billion dollars richer.

John Kerry is more honest about this today. He might as well be. The deal is done. No point obfuscating the obvious anymore.

“I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] or other entities,” he said during a recent interview in Davos, Switzerland, “some of which are labeled terrorists. You know, to some degree, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that every component of that can be prevented.”

The United States won’t be able to prevent any “component of that,” as Kerry put it, not even by breaking the deal and reimposing sanctions all over again, because Iran already has its assets back.

One could make the case that this is nevertheless an improvement over the status quo ante, that it’s better to have a powerful terrorist-supporting Iran than an Iran with nuclear weapons, and it’s better than the cost of a huge war to cripple of remove the Iranian government.  

And maybe that’s true. But where does that leave us?

The Iranian government has been a malignant force since the day it seized power in 1979. It has taken diplomats hostage, destabilized one neighboring state after another—beginning with Lebanon, then moving to Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen—and created terrorist armies that have killed Americans, Israelis, Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians and—yes—even Argentines.

The Iranian government has done all this without nuclear weapons. The only reason it wasn’t able to wreak even more havoc is because it was crippled by sanctions.

That’s over now. 

Even if this nuclear deal “works,” if Iran never develops nuclear weapons, the Iranian government will be able to a far more destructive role in the Middle East than it ever has in the past. And it’s already by far the most troublesome.

“Right now,” Kerry said, trying to make everyone feel better, “we are not seeing the early delivery of funds going to that kind of endeavor at this point in time.”

Of course not. Iran is only just now getting the 100 billion. Iran hadn’t even received it yet when he said that. We can’t track every dollar it spends anyway, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we could. The Iranian government can allocate funds however it wants. It doesn’t matter if Iran uses the 100 billion in sanctions relief to fund terrorism directly or indirectly. Iran is going to do it one way or another.

It’s not even controversial anymore. Kerry himself says it’s going to happen.

“If we catch them funding terrorism,” he said, “they are going to have a problem with the United States Congress and other people, obviously.”

Why should we have to catch them? We already know it’s going to happen. Iran has been funding terrorism for decades. Iran hasn’t stopped funding terrorism for even five seconds since the day it started.

We can safely assume that since Iran funded terrorism yesterday, and that since the sun came up this morning, Iran is still funding terrorism today. And unless the government is overthrown before midnight tonight, it’s safe to assume that Iran will continue funding terrorism tomorrow.

Iran’s rulers haven’t even pretended to stop, so let’s just cut through the b.s. and assume we’ve already “caught” them so we can figure out what we’re going to do about it.

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