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China’s Timed Provocation Challenges the US

On Monday, three Chinese coast guard cutters entered Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea, just two days after Secretary of Defense James Mattis publicly reassured Tokyo that the United States would defend the islands. The Chinese craft, which did not have permission for the incursion, loitered for two hours.

If Mattis’s words are to mean something, the US and Japan need to respond to China’s aggressive behavior.

In December 1971, China made an official claim to the Japanese-administered islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus. Taiwan also believes it has sovereignty over the barren and uninhabited outcroppings.

Taipei, a model international citizen when it comes to sovereignty disputes, has engaged in negotiations with Tokyo to settle differences. Indeed, Japan and Taiwan reached a landmark fishing agreement in 2015 regarding waters around the Senkakus.

People Power Rise Up Against Corruption in Romania

In a world that seems to be awash in bad news, there's a terrific story shaping up in Romania.

The government of Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu took office only a month ago, but one of its early decisions brought hundreds of thousands of Romanians to the streets to protest.

Grindeanu, who represents the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was not his party's first choice to be prime minister. After winning 46 percent of the vote in 2016's parliamentary election, PSD formed a governing coalition but was unable to make its leader, Liviu Dragnea, the prime minister. Mr. Dragnea is currently serving a two-year suspended sentence after being convicted of attempting to rig a 2012 vote on whether to impeach the then-president.

This conviction made him ineligible to serve as the country's prime minister, an unusual situation in a country where it is generally assumed that the leader of the winning party will take that post. He is, however, the chairman of Romania’s parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. The first proposed prime minister was rejected by the president for being too much an agent of Dragnea. The second was Grindeanu.

We Are Still Living With Eisenhower’s Biggest Mistake

The Tower magazine just published my latest long-form piece. Here's the first part.

American presidents make the same foreign policy mistakes over and over again. Intervening when they should not. Sitting on the sidelines when it’s the worst possible choice. Treating friends and allies like dirt while trusting duplicitous hostiles. If, as Karl Marx said, history repeats itself first as tragedy and a second time as farce, what are we supposed to say when history repeats itself decade after decade ad infinitum?

Historians are tasked with delivering us from George Santayana’s curse, where those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but historians can only save those who take the time to study the historical record, and even then it only works if the historical record is accurate.

Thank goodness, then, for Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Doran’s valiant attempt to save us from ignorance and bad history in his bracing new book, Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East. He expertly walks us through the Suez Crisis of 1956 and its ghastly aftermath when Republican President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower learned the hard way that Israel, not Egypt or any other Arab state, should be the foundation of America’s security architecture in the Middle East.

When Eisenhower began his first term in 1953, the Cold War was just six years old. Not every country had chosen a side yet. The Middle East and North Africa were for the most part non-aligned, and Eisenhower hoped to bring the Arab world into the American camp.

Great Britain and France were still the predominant Western powers in the region, yet a nationalist anti-colonial wind was blowing—especially in Egypt, where the self-styled Free Officers, led by Mohammed Naguib and the charismatic young Gamal Abdel Nasser, had overthrown King Farouk the previous year. At the time, Nasser and other nationalists in the Arab world seemed to be the vanguard for an entire region, and if Eisenhower wanted the Arabs to stand with Washington against Moscow, he’d have to get on their good side.

Ike was in a tough spot, though, since America’s traditional allies were still colonial powers. Britain and France had drawn most of the Middle East’s borders after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the waning days of World War I, and they’d installed and continued to maintain several governments in that part of the world. In Egypt’s case, Britain garrisoned troops in the Suez Canal, and both British and French investors owned the Suez Canal Company, which kept almost all the profits from ships transiting to and from the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Hostility to the new state of Israel was also rampant from Baghdad to Rabat, especially in Israel’s borderland countries like Egypt.

So Ike and his foreign policy team felt compelled to distance themselves from Britain, France, and Israel to prevent the Arab states from aligning themselves with the Soviet Union. Nasser was fast becoming a leader in region-wide Arab politics, and he wanted what remained of the British Empire out of Egypt entirely. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—both natural anti-imperialists—decided to act as an honest broker, as they put it, between Cairo, London, Paris, and Jerusalem.

The U.S. hosted talks between the British and the Egyptians over the status of Britain’s military base in the canal zone, and the Americans effectively took Egypt’s side and strong-armed Britain into signing an agreement mandating a withdraw of all of its soldiers within 20 months. With one victory under his belt, Nasser went after the next. He nationalized the Suez Canal Company, even though it wasn’t supposed to be under Egyptian control until 1968 per the treaty, and he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

On October 29, 1956, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt simultaneously and left Eisenhower holding the bag. Ike thought military action was the worst possible response, but at the same time he hoped for a quick Western victory, and he was exasperated with British delays and incompetence. Even so, he reluctantly took Egypt’s side and imposed crippling economic sanctions that effectively deprived Europe of imported energy. “Those who began this operation,” he told his aides, “should be left to work out their own oil problems—to boil in their own oil, so to speak.”

Britain had no choice but to withdraw, followed by France and Israel.

Ike didn’t feel comfortable doing any of this. Britain and France were American allies, after all, even though they behaved recklessly. He simply felt that he had little choice. “How could we possibly support Britain and France,” he said, “if in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”

Nasser had conned Eisenhower, however, and he had done it masterfully.

One of Nasser’s deceptions should be familiar to anyone who has followed the painful ins and outs of botched Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Over and over again, Nasser used a strategy Doran calls “dangle and delay.” He repeatedly dangled the tantalizing idea of peace between Egypt and Israel in front of Eisenhower’s eyes, only to delay moving forward for one bogus reason after another. He never planned to make peace with Israel or even to engage in serious talks.

Nasser did, however, participate in theatrical arms negotiations with Washington that he knew would never go anywhere.

Eisenhower wanted to equip the Egyptian army. Nasser wasn’t stupid, though. He knew that Ike would attach strings to the deal. Egypt’s soldiers would need to be trained by Americans, and they’d be reliant on Americans for spare and replacement parts. Nasser really wanted to be armed by and tied to the Soviet Union, but had to pretend otherwise lest Eisenhower side with Britain, France, and Israel. So Nasser slowly sabotaged talks with the United States in such a way that made Washington seem unreasonable. That way, when he turned to the Soviet Union for weapons, he could half-plausibly say he had no choice.

Nasser did such a good job pretending to be pro-American that he convinced the United States to give him a world-class broadcasting network that allowed him to speak to the entire Arab world over the radio. Washington expected him to use his radio addresses to rally the Arab world behind America against the Russians. Instead, he used it to blast the United States with virulently anti-American propaganda and to undermine the West’s Arab allies. “Nasser,” Doran writes, “was the first revolutionary leader in the postwar Middle East to exploit the technology in order to call over the heads of the monarchs to the man on the street. Suddenly the Hashemite monarchy [in Iraq and Jordan] found itself sitting atop volcanoes.”

Nasser strode the Arab world like a colossus after his American-made victory in the Suez Crisis, and he became more brazenly anti-American as he gathered strength. Conning Ike was no longer possible, but Nasser didn’t need the United States anymore anyway.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.


Missile Defense, North Asia Security on Mattis's Agenda

James Mattis, the new secretary of defense, spoke to his South Korean counterpart Tuesday, confirming to Defense Minister Han Min-koo the US commitment to defend his country “against the evolving North Korean threat.”   

The pledge, given over the phone days before his visit to Seoul, followed President Trump’s telephone conversation with the South’s acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, Sunday. During that call, the American leader reiterated the US’s “ironclad commitment” to defend the Republic of Korea, as South Korea is formally known.

Trump, according to the White House, also mentioned “the provision of extended deterrence, using the full range of military capabilities,”code for America’s willingness to use its nuclear arsenal.

World Affairs Statement on Vladimir Kara-Murza's Hospitalization

For the second time in less than two years, Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza was suddenly stricken ill and hospitalized in Moscow this morning. At this moment, he is unconscious, in intensive care, and on life support. His symptoms today are identical to those of two years ago when he was hospitalized under highly suspicious circumstances with many believing he had been poisoned. His wife and three children live in a suburb of Washington D.C.

The Real Problem with Trump’s Executive Order

President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” isn’t a Muslim ban. The now-infamous executive order he signed last week bans non-citizens from entering the United States regardless of religion if they come from one of seven Muslim-majority nations. Those affected include Christians, Jews, atheists, pre-Islamic Yazidis, Kurds and the brave souls who risked their lives and no doubt saved American lives while working with and for the United States military.

The travel ban initially even included permanent residents of the United States who weren’t allowed to come home and wouldn’t be allowed to return home if they left.

One of the first people detained at a port of entry was a Yazidi woman whose husband worked for the United States military and already lives here. Yazidis are the victims of ISIS genocide. Blocking her entry and separating her from her husband was the immigration equivalent of the TSA strip-searching nuns at the airport.

Vian Dakhil, an Iraqi Yazidi politician who gave a famous speech in parliament about ISIS’ genocide of her people, will not be able to visit Washington next week to pick up her Lantos human rights prize. Decent people everywhere find this outrageous and stupid and cruel.

A friend of mine moved to the United States last month from Iraqi Kurdistan. He got in just under the wire. His wife needs to return to Erbil for a month to finish her master’s degree, and he sent me an email telling me she can’t go if she wants to come back to her husband, her children and her new home in America. “Things are going well here,” he said when I asked how he’s doing, “but Mr. President is giving me a hard time.”

I hired this man on one of my trips to Iraq. He was my fixer, my translator and my driver. He took me into the war zone in Kirkuk outside the Kurdish autonomous area. I trusted him with my life. He is no terrorist. That’s for damn sure. The United States government also knows he isn’t a terrorist. They vetted him for two years.

I visited Iraq seven times and wrote a book about it. I know better than the president does how mind-bogglingly dysfunctional and dangerous that country is. Taking a closer look at immigrants and refugees from Iraq will never elicit a complaint from me.

But not a single terrorist from Trump’s seven countries—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen—has ever killed anyone on American soil. Every terrorist who has ever killed anyone inside the United States came from someplace else, and none of those countries are on the travel ban list.

The 9/11 hijackers were from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The Boston Marathon bombers came from Russia, one of the few foreign countries our new president is so far unwilling to criticize.

“Shoe bomber” Richard Reid was born in Britain.

The male shooter in San Bernardino was born in the United States. His wife is from Pakistan.

Omar Mateen, the Florida nightclub shooter, was also born in the United States.

If we’d had Donald Trump’s policy on the books without interruption for the past 100 years, not a single American life would have been saved.

*

The radical left is doing what it does best—hyperventilating about a rising Nazi regime in America. As if the United States and its allies killed millions of Germans in the 1940s because a clown like Donald Trump saddled up in Berlin.

Even so, it’s clear now that the White House was far more interested in imposing the most draconian ban possible than in protecting American citizens.

One should never assume malevolence as a motive when incompetence explains a botched outcome just as convincingly, but we know now that much of what happened with the rollout was deliberate. The Department of Homeland Security assumed that the travel ban would not apply to Green Card holders, but the White House overruled DHS and said that the travel ban does indeed apply to permanent residents of the United States.

Aides to the chairmen of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the House Homeland Security Committee say the Trump administration refused to consult with them or even give them a heads-up about the executive order. It doesn’t take a political rocket scientist to figure out why. They would have watered it down.

During his campaign against Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump said he wants to ban every Muslim on earth from coming here. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.” Those are his words. He posted them on his website. That declaration is still on his website as of the time of this writing. It has been there for a year now and will almost certainly be there tomorrow.

“When [Trump] first announced it,” former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said in an interview a couple of days ago on Fox News, “he said, ‘Muslim ban.’ He called me up. He said, ‘Put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally.’”

That is why thousands of protesters are streaming into airports all over the country, and that is why so many of them are calling Trump’s executive order a Muslim ban even though it is not. What the president wants is as obvious as a skyscraper to everyone who isn’t plugging their ears.

Trump didn’t want to hear from any experienced professional who might convince him to water down his executive order. Rudy Giuliani's team had already gone far enough.

With the apparent exception of General James Mattis, Trump’s terrific pick for Secretary of Defense, Trump wants to hear from as few experienced people as possible who might moderate his positions. How else to explain his appointment of Steve Bannon—publisher of the incendiary Breitbart website that recently included a “Black Crime” section—to the National Security Council while giving the boot to the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? “Who needs to hear from intelligence or military professionals,” Max Boot sarcastically writes in Foreign Policy, “when you can hear from the publisher of Breitbart?”

So things went as planned, but not really. Trump’s disapproval rating shot up 6 points in four days. It’s already above 50 percent. By contrast, Barack Obama’s disapproval rating early in his term was just 12 percent.

Everyone from the far-left to the Trump’s Republican critics are angry. “In the future,” said Michael McCaul, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, “such policy changes should be better coordinated with the agencies implementing them and with Congress to ensure we get it right—and don’t undermine our nation’s credibility while trying to restore it.”

“It would have been smarter to coordinate with us,” Virginia Representative Dave Brat said in an interview with The Atlantic. “They could have done a better job announcing how the complexities were going to work in advance.” Brat, by the way, isn’t a Democrat or a Never Trump conservative. He is a right-wing populist and one of the president’s political allies. At least for now, anyway.

The White House is responding to all this in the time-honored tradition of politics. With lies.

“Ha! That’s my formal response,” said an anonymous Republican Congressman to The Atlantic about White House Spokesman Sean Spicer’s claim that House and Senate Republicans wrote Donald Trump’s immigrant and refugee policy. “There was precisely zero coordination with us on the drafting of this executive order.”

Spicer also argued with a straight face that the travel ban had to be rushed through at once because terrorists would swarm into the country if they had a couple weeks notice. It takes more than a year and often up to two years to be vetted as an immigrant or a refugee. Everyone left stranded and everyone who remains banned have already been vetted. They aren’t illegal immigrants. Unlike Mexican border-hoppers, these people got in line and followed the rules.

“My policy,” Trump says, “is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months.”

No, it's not. And that statement can’t be aimed at his base. If Donald Trump’s refugee policy is no different from Barack Obama’s, what was the point of electing him in the first place? The Obama administration slowed down the refugee process for six months in 2011 for entirely sensible reasons, but it never imposed a full travel ban, especially not for permanent residents who already live here.

That’s why nobody protested at the time. To be sure, plenty on the left are partisan hacks—like every other president in American history, both Obama and Trump have their claques of clapping seals who think their guy is right about everything—but no one with a lick of sense ever thought Barack Obama wanted to ban Muslims from the entering the United States.

The president said on Twitter that only 109 people were detained and held for questioning and blamed the chaos on a Delta airlines computer crash.

Sean Spicer said the same thing and more. “Remember we’re talking about a universe of 109 people,” he said. “There were 325,000 people that came into this country over a 24-hour period from another country; 109 of them were stopped for additional screening…I think it’s a shame that people were inconvenienced, obviously. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about a couple hours. I’m sorry that some folks may have had to wait a little while.”

Give us a break. That doesn’t take into account the 348 people in airports all over the world who weren’t allowed to get on planes in the first place, nor does it take into account those, like the Yazidi human rights activist who isn’t welcome here anymore, who were authorized to come here and can’t now. It certainly doesn’t take into account the massive diplomatic and political fallout worldwide or the fact that it feeds into the insane ISIS narrative that the West and the Muslim world are engaged in a clash of civilizations.

American diplomats in Baghdad are warning us—to no avail whatsoever—that our delicate military and political ties are in jeopardy right in the middle of the war against ISIS. You don’t have to take their word for it. Listen to Iraqi General Talib al Kenani in his interview with CBS News. “I’m a four-star general, and I’m banned from entering the U.S.? I have been fighting terrorism for 13 years and winning. Now my kids are now asking if I’m a terrorist? There are many American troops here in Iraq. After this ban how are we supposed to deal with each other? We thought we were partners with our American friends, and now we realize that we’re just considered terrorists.”

The very people we need to keep on our side in the Middle East feel like we hate them, and they aren’t imagining things. The president’s most strident supporters clearly do hate them. The mood in America has grown so alarmingly vicious and reactionary lately that I had to close my comment section for the first time in fifteen years. I will not even consider turning it back on until Donald Trump is out of the White House. The volume of nastiness and hostility is so overwhelming that the entire world is hearing it now that it has a champion in the White House. It’s going to blow back in our faces in ways that we haven’t even figured out yet.  

“It’s a very dangerous thing,” writes Hoover Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes, “to have a White House that can’t with the remotest pretense of competence and governance put together a major policy document on a crucial set of national security issues without inducing an avalanche of litigation and wide diplomatic fallout.”

Former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus is urging the administration to wind down the travel ban as quickly as possible. "Americans should not take the current international order for granted,” he said. “It did not will itself into existence. We created it. Likewise, it is not naturally self-sustaining. We have sustained it. If we stop doing so, it will fray and, eventually, collapse.”

The Trump administration deliberately crafted an executive order to inflict the maximum amount of pain possible, waited for everyone from the radical left to the moderate right to explode, then walked the worst parts of it back and lied about it on television. That isn’t governing. It’s tin-pot theatrics hatched by the former publisher of Breitbart who told journalist and historian Ron Radosh that he wants “to destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down.” It’s precisely the kind of thing more than 100 conservative foreign policy professionals had in mind last year when they signed a letter saying they refused to work for a Trump administration.

So what’s the real problem with the president’s executive order? The real problem is that President Donald J. Trump has proven himself to be a man who will replace foreign policy, national security, domestic tranquility and America’s reputation with manipulative axe-grinding political drama. “But Hillary” will cut it no more. She is irrelevant now.

Those of us who hoped against the longest of odds that he would grow up and pivot can’t anymore. We know him now as a president and not just a candidate. The gravity of the job is not inspiring him to rise to the majesty of his office. He’s not just boasting about grabbing women by the pussy and yukking it up at sports arenas before howling mobs demanding he throw his political opponent in prison. He’s actually governing now, and he is doing so as a chaos engine.

The Trump era in American history will be every bit as aggressively ugly and stupid as the majority of American voters feared it would be.

Church Condemns Duterte's Bloody War on Drugs

“It looks like he’s having a breakdown,” said John Batchelor on his nationally syndicated radio show on January 18. That day, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had told Catholic priests to take shabu, methamphetamine, if they wanted to understand his war on drugs. 

Or more precisely, his war on drug dealers, which according to a recent count has claimed the lives of 7,042 people since he took office last June 30. During this time, police had been “pro-actively gunning down suspects,” the conclusion Reuters draws from a 97 percent kill rate in police raids.

The United States Slams the Door on Cuban Refugees

One of Barack Obama’s last acts as president was a total jerk move, and Donald Trump approves of it.

Our outgoing president ended two long-standing policies that helped Cuban refugees flee the oppressive Castro regime and find safe harbor and the opportunity to live free and productive lives in the United States.

First, the “wet feet, dry feet” policy, a modified version of the Cuban Adjustment Act passed in 1966, granted political asylum to Cuban citizens who managed to reach American soil. Obama killed it with a stroke of his pen. Any would-be Cuban refugee who arrives on American shores will now be deported back to Castro’s police state.

Obama also ended the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, passed in 2006 during the Bush Administration, which allowed Cuban doctors to defect to the United States through any American Embassy in the world.

The Castro regime hated these policies. Granting asylum to Cubans lucky enough to reach the United States undermined the legitimacy of the dictatorship and put the lie to its propaganda. Any government that drives its own citizens into the ocean to escape has failed catastrophically.

Cuban doctors could defect even more easily. They didn’t have to come all the way to the United States to find shelter. Just reaching one of our embassies was enough, and it happened routinely because Havana exported doctors all over the world to countries that desperately needed medical help. At a glance, Cuba’s overseas doctor program seems like a wonderful thing that only a mean and cold-hearted grouch would ever complain about, but look closer.

Cuba has a dire shortage of medical supplies and personnel at home. When I visited a couple of years ago, I had to bring my own anti-biotics, my own bandages, my own gauze, my own iodine, and other basic medical supplies in case I needed them while I was there because they are not available on the island.

Doctors are hardly available in Cuba anymore either because the government has exported so many of them. A brave soul risked imprisonment a couple of years ago and protested by hanging a sign from his crumbling balcony that read, “Do I have to go to Venezuela for my headache?” Cuban citizens may not have to pay for their healthcare, but they’re languishing in a medical hell.

Cuba doesn’t export doctors because it wants to help sick people in poor countries. It exports doctors because it needs money. Foreign governments pay millions of dollars for Cuban medical services, but nearly 100 percent of it goes not to the doctors who do the actual work but instead to the regime in Havana. The word exploited isn’t strong enough to describe how these people are treated. The Castro regime is basically selling slaves.

And don’t assume for a moment that the Castros have been using the money they “earn” from exploiting these doctors for the welfare of Cuba’s people. The government-imposed Maximum Wage is still only 20 dollars a month, yet ten years ago Fidel Castro’s net worth was estimated at 900 million dollars. For all we know, he was richer than Donald Trump by the time he died, and he got that money not by building anything but by ruling Cuba as if it were a 17th century plantation.

So until now, the United States did virtually everything it could to give Cuba’s suffering people a way out. It’s who we are and it’s what we do.

At least it was who we were and what we did before Barack Obama and Donald Trump. 

Yes, Obama deep-sixed these policies, not Trump, but Trump won’t reverse anything. Last year in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, our new president said America’s Cuban refugee policies are unfair. “I don’t think that’s fair. I mean why would that be a fair thing? I don’t think it would be fair. You know we have a system now for bringing people into the country, and what we should be doing is we should be bringing people who are terrific people who have terrific records of achievement, accomplishment.... You have people that have been in the system for years [waiting to immigrate to America], and it’s very unfair when people who just walk across the border, and you have other people that do it legally.”

So that’s it, then. Obama slammed the door on Cuban refugees, and Trump is not going to open it. That hardly counts as a bipartisan consensus, but it certainly fits with America First.  

The New Arab-Israeli Alliance

I wrote the following essay for the summer issue of World Affairs. It hasn't been available online until now, but it's just as relevant now as it was when I wrote it.

During the early years of the Obama administration, conventional wisdom in Washington held that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict trumped everything else in the Middle East, that no problem could be resolved until that one was out of the way. “Without doubt,” former president Jimmy Carter said, “the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.” The reason, said his former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, now a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, is because, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world.”

Similar views were expressed across the political spectrum, from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel and General David Petraeus.

“If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process,” Obama said in 2008, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region. If we’ve gotten an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, maybe at the same time peeling Syria out of the Iranian orbit, that makes it easier to isolate Iran so that they have a tougher time developing a nuclear weapon.”

This has long been a dubious theory and events in the meantime have proven it. The main drivers of chaos in the Middle East are conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, between Arabs and Persians, and between secularists and Islamists. This has been true for decades, but with civil war in Syria, the rise of The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), anarchy in Libya, a region-wide proxy war in Yemen, and an Iran unshackled by sanctions, it is obvious now even to casual observers. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been reduced almost to an asterisk.

The effect of all this is something no one would have predicted a couple of decades ago and only the most astute predicted even a couple of years ago—the Sunni Arab world, unofficially led by Saudi Arabia, is quietly forging a de facto alliance with Israel against Iran.

The Sunni Arab world, unofficially led by Saudi Arabia, is quietly forging a de facto alliance with Israel against Iran.

Read the whole thing.


Can Japan's Abe Bridge the Duterte-Washington Divide?

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Philippines Thursday and Friday last week. He is the first head of government to pay a call on President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office at the end of June.

The meeting between the two leaders reminds one of Abe’s common touch and how valuable he could be to help bridge the divide that has grown between the US and a most troublesome ally.

America’s Moment of Truth About Russia

Donald Trump finally acknowledged that Russia most likely hacked the Democratic National Committee and turned over stolen files to WikiLeaks. “I think it was Russia,” he said for the first time at a press conference earlier this week, though he angrily denied that Russian shenanigans swayed last year’s election. He’s right on both counts.

Until this week, though, the president-elect seemed to trust Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and WikiLeaks founder and fugitive Julian Assange more he trusted than the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. One can only imagine what Republicans would have said if Trump were a Democrat. The Ann Coulter wing would have cried treason—and worse.

“The GOP nominated the most pro-Russian U.S. presidential candidate since Henry Wallace,” Jamie Kirchick writes in the Washington Post, “whose 1948 bid on the Progressive Party ticket was largely run by communists.” Indeed. Yet Trump has flipped both parties on their heads, not just the Republicans. Every Democrat from the east coast to the west is now talking about Vladimir Putin as if he’s the worst person on earth, yet they jeered when the previous Republican Party nominee for president Mitt Romney said Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Barack Obama said during a presidential debate in 2012.

It’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of Republican primary voters did not choose Trump because they’re pro-Russia. They’re fed up with the bipartisan political class. They’re sick of illegal immigration. They are tired of being told what they can say and even think. Many appreciate his stance against trade. Working class folks in the Rust Belt feel relieved that somebody is finally paying attention to them. Virtually none of these people clicked “like” on Vladimir Putin’s Facebook page.

Trump is an anomaly. If any other Republican had won the primary and the general election, we would not be having the conversation that never seems to end about Russia. Can you imagine Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio getting defensive on Putin’s behalf? It wouldn’t happen. The Republican Party has been more hawkish on Russia than the Democratic Party for 100 years. Donald Trump is the only Republican that Putin would prefer over a Democrat, and he’s the only Republican who would even briefly take Russia’s side against the FBI and the CIA.  

I doubt Trump even looks at it that way. Mostly he’s just being defensive. He feels like the legitimacy of his election is being called into question, but no one with much sense thinks he won because of anything Russia did. He won because he flipped Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania from the Democratic column to the Republicans for parochial reasons that are almost unique to those states. Under what theory would Russia’s DNC hack and the exposure by WikiLeaks affect votes in a handful of Rust Belt states but nowhere else?

So let’s get two things clear. Donald Trump did not hack the DNC. Vladimir Putin did. Trump is entirely innocent of that crime. Nor did he win the election because of that crime.

But no mainstream critic of WikiLeaks and the Kremlin is saying Trump did it or that he won because of it. That’s certainly not what the FBI and the CIA have been saying, nor is it what critical Republican senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are arguing.

Trump did not need to be so prickly and defensive, and he still doesn’t seem to grasp that Putin isn’t his friend. “If Putin likes me, that’s an asset,” he said. No. It is not. Putin wants what’s good for Russia, not what’s good for the United States. Putin doesn’t “like” Trump anyway. He certainly doesn’t like Trump in the same way Trump’s base does.  

The president-elect seems to find it a shame that we can’t get along with a white Christian country with its capital in Europe at a time when we’re both facing threats from radical Islamists. It is exasperating, but everyone needs understand something. Yes, Russia is Christian and white, and the smaller part of that country is on the European continent, but it does not belong to the West. Russians have defined themselves against the West for longer than any of them have been alive. When they say “the West,” they are referring to us, not to themselves. In the Russian mind, the West is a hostile Other.  

Our next president won’t be any more successful resetting America’s relations with Russia than the last two presidents were, and it won’t be his fault. “Russia does not aspire to be like us,” writes Russia expert Molly McKew in Politico, “or to make itself stronger than we are. Rather, its leaders want the West — and specifically NATO and America — to become weaker and more fractured until we are as broken as they perceive themselves to be. No reset can be successful, regardless the personality driving it, because Putin’s Russia requires the United States of America as its enemy.”

Russian propaganda has been among the most effective in the world for at least a century. The communists used it (along with money, advisors and guns) to export their deranged revolution to Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, and to this day some their tropes still poison the minds of far-leftists all over the world.

The Kremlin’s propaganda in the 21st century is less brazen and obvious. It’s more insidious because it’s less overtly ideological. Russia sometimes uses it to promote the positions of right-wing populists like France’s Marine Le Pen in Europe. Some of it, meanwhile, is aimed at the Western left. The very same intelligence report that details Russia’s hacking of the DNC reveals that the Kremlin broadcasts bogus anti-fracking propaganda in the United States for a reason that ought to be obvious—American fracking hurts Russia’s oil and gas industry, the only industry in the entire country that’s healthy. Some Russian propaganda, like many of the fake news stories that circulated last year, doesn’t even appear on the surface to come from Russia at all.

The purpose of the Kremlin’s disinformation is not to export Putinism to the rest of the planet. Its purpose, instead, is “to erode our values,” McKew writes, “our democracy and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.”

At some point, Vladimir Putin is going to stab Donald Trump in the front. He’s a scorpion, and that’s what scorpions do. He doesn’t have much of a choice. He’ll have to stab Trump in the front or reverse Russia’s national interests. He’d have to pitch his entire worldview over the side, a worldview that was nurtured in the Soviet Union and hardened in the KGB’s Directorate S. Which do you think is more likely?

American politics is supposed to stop at the water’s edge. It seems an almost quaint notion nowadays, but we need to find our way back. Donald Trump and his Republican allies should always unite behind the Democratic Party against a hostile foreign actor like Vladimir Putin for one simple reaon. Because the Democratic Party is ours. Likewise, even the most strident anti-Trump progressives need to rally behind the incoming president when the choice is between an enemy and one of ours.

Russia is using an ancient strategy against the United States—divide and conquer, or at least divide and disrupt.

Resist.

US Blacklists Top Putin Lieutenant

MOSCOW—Earlier this week, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced five new additions to the Specially Designated Nationals List under the Magnitsky Act—a federal law that provides for visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in human rights abuse. This decision brought the number of people sanctioned under the Act to forty-four. It also shattered an unspoken glass ceiling that had been in place ever since the Magnitsky Act was passed by strong bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, and over objections from the Obama administration, in 2012. All of those placed on the sanctions list—at least in its unclassified section—have been low- or mid-ranking officials well outside of Vladimir Putin’s close circle.

Until now. Among the new names announced on January 9th was General Alexander Bastrykin, chairman of Russia’s Investigative Committee and a close confidant of Putin’s since their university days in Leningrad.

Turkey Goes Off the Rails

Last year was a gruesome one for Turkey, and this year is getting off to the worst possible start.

On the very first day of the new year, not six months after a botched military coup and an almost Stalinist-style purge of the army, the courts, the academy and the bureaucracy by its authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ISIS declared open war.

A terrorist crossed the border from Syria and shot his way into Istanbul’s posh Reina nightclub and murdered at least 39 people with an automatic rifle. He stalked and killed the wounded on the floor, then lined up and shot some of the initial survivors execution-style in the head.

Unlike most ISIS killers, this one escaped.

The Turkish government says it has identified the man but they haven’t released his name yet, nor have they caught him.

Journalist and Turkey expert Claire Berlinski lived in Istanbul for years and wrote this about Reina.  “I’d never go to Reina on my own. Too expensive, music too loud. But if you’d visited me when I was living in Istanbul, and if I knew you were on an expense account, I might have taken you there. It would be high on my list of places — top five, say — to take visitors who were only in the city for a day or two and who needed to be dazzled.”

That’s one of the reasons Reina was targeted. Every single person who visits places like that is an enemy of the Islamic State. Take a look at this video shot inside Reina four years ago. No such establishments exist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa, I assure you.

“Reina’s one of those places,” Berlinski continues, “where you’d sit with friends from out of town and, dazzled by the Bosphorus and its skyline, think, ‘This city makes every other city seem like a village.’ You’d watch your friends’ faces with pleasure because no one ever forgets the first time they see that skyline. Seeing someone see that for the first time is a delight of Istanbul in itself.”

I have never visited Reina, alas, but I can attest to the fact that Istanbul makes almost every other city on earth (aside from New York and possibly Tokyo) feel like a village. Claire is right. Even Paris feels like a delightful large village compared with Istanbul.

An enormous cosmopolitan megacity like Istanbul could never be ruled by the likes of ISIS unless it was first bombed out and mostly evacuated of its 14 million inhabitants. It isn’t as secular and hedonistic as Amsterdam, but it’s a lot closer to Amsterdam culturally than it is to Riyadh. I’ve been there three times, and each time I thought to myself I could live there.

That, however, was before the Syrian war, the rise of ISIS, and the widescale internal repression from President Erdogan.  

The attack at Reina in Istanbul is a hinge moment in Turkey for a couple of reasons. It’s not the first time ISIS has struck the country, but it is the first time ISIS has admitted it openly. A press release says the hit was personally ordered by “the prince of the believers,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Second, most previous ISIS massacres in Turkey targeted Kurds and leftists associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK), whose allies in the People’s Protection Units (or YPG) are fighting ISIS in Syria. Those attacks could be plausibly described as a spillover of the Syrian war.

The attack at Reina cannot. This time, wealthy secular ethnic Turks in the capital were the targets. Massacring party-goers at a nightclub is categorically identical to the mass murder at the Bataclan theater in Paris in 2015.  

ISIS hates bourgeois Turks for the same reason it hates Americans, the French, the Israelis and pretty much everyone else. They spell it out so plainly in their magazine Dabiq that there can be no excuse for misunderstanding it.

“We hate you because your secular, liberal societies permit the very things that Allah has prohibited while banning many of the things He has permitted, a matter that doesn’t concern you because you separate between religion and state, thereby granting supreme authority to your whims and desires via the legislators you vote into power.”

In other words, they hate us for our freedoms. That isn’t a Republican talking point. It’s an ISIS talking point.

Turkey isn’t as free as the West, but it’s a libertarian’s utopia compared with totalitarian Raqqa in Syria. Next to just about anywhere in the Arab world, Istanbul looks like Europe. It feels like Europe. The Western half of the city is actually in Europe, or at least on it.  

“Even if you were to stop fighting us,” ISIS continues in Dabiq, “your best-case scenario in a state of war would be that we would suspend our attacks against you – if we deemed it necessary – in order to focus on the closer and more immediate threats, before eventually resuming our campaigns against you. Apart from the option of a temporary truce, this is the only likely scenario that would bring you fleeting respite from our attacks. So in the end, you cannot bring an indefinite halt to our war against you. At most, you could only delay it temporarily.”

Erdogan used to think he could keep Turkey off ISIS’ hit list with an implicit non-aggression pact. He thought that if he postured against Syria’s criminal Assad regime, bombed the Kurds and left ISIS alone that ISIS would leave him and Turkey alone.

It didn’t work out. Not for long anyway.

“The Islamic State has now formally ended its separate peace with Turkey,” Graeme Wood writes in The Atlantic. “Turkey has, up till now, been unique among victims in never having its victimhood acknowledged by its assailant. Whatever value this fiction held, it has now ended.”

Erdogan should have read Dabiq magazine.

Why is this happening now instead of later? Because Turkey is finally bombing ISIS positions in Syria. Erdogan’s bizarre and stupid ambivalence toward ISIS was never going to last. He has always viewed Kurdish insurgents as the greater of evils—the Turkish state has been at war with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party for decades while ISIS is the spry newcomer in the region—but ISIS is at war with the entire human race, and Turks are part of that race. And Turkey shares a long border with Syria. There was never any chance that ISIS could forever resist lashing out at the decadent nature of the Turkish society that’s right on its doorstep.

Erdogan is an Islamist, sure, but he’s hardly an ISIS-style Islamist. Turkey is awash in liquor, stylish women, bikinis on beaches and all the other trappings of a Western liberal society. Roughly half the Turkish population is secular, and plenty of religious folks take a mild approach to their faith.

Nothing in Turkey is going to end well, not its war against ISIS, not its war against the Kurds, and not the government’s war against its opponents. Within a matter of weeks after the coup attempt last summer, Erdogan fired 21,000 private school teachers and 9,000 police officers. He suspended almost 3,000 judges and arrested more than 10,000 soldiers. He canned more than 21,000 officials from the Ministry of Education and ousted 1,500 university deans. He closed more than 100 media outlets and suspended more than 1,500 officials in the Ministry of Finance.

And he blames the botched coup on a reclusive exile who lives in the Pennsylvania mountains and, by extension, the United States government for refusing to extradite him for a kangaroo trial. Erdogan blames the United States for assassinating the Russian ambassador to Turkey last month even though a Turkish policeman pulled the trigger while screaming “Don’t forget Aleppo!” Pro-government newspapers are even blaming the United States for the New Years Day ISIS attack.

A normal country comes together after being assaulted from the outside. US President George W. Bush’s approval ratings climbed to a staggering 90 percent shortly after September 11, 2011. Nothing like that is happening in Turkey.

The entire country seems to be turning into a distorted funhouse mirror version of itself. “With each passing day,” Tim Arango writes in The New York Times, “public life descends deeper into what many Turks concede is a mix of darkness and seeming absurdity, with growing fears of violence and expressions of xenophobia set next to repressions on civic life.” He quotes Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Turkey is so deeply polarized around the powerful persona of Erdogan that, instead of asking why terror attacks are happening and how they can be stopped, the pro- and anti-Erdogan blocks in the country are blaming each other.”

Turkey’s government should respond by championing the values of civilization against totalitarianism and barbarism, but no. Instead, its president is championing Erdoganism, Islamism, and Neo-Ottomanism. He believes everything, even ISIS, is part of a sinister plot by the West. And he’s embracing the leader of the unfree world, Vladimir Putin.

Conspiracy theorists never govern well. Their analyses are cartoonishly flawed, so it follows that their solutions will be as well. When they inevitably fail, they continue to blame the wrong people, become more paranoid than they were before, and triple-down after doubling down. Erdogan has been trapped in this spiral for more than a decade. After a few more ISIS massacres in Turkey’s largest city, he may go completely over the edge—if it isn’t already over it.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned after spending more than a decade on and off in that part of the world it is this: there is virtually no limit to how far a Middle Eastern country (or any country, for that matter) can fall. Much of Iraq is a hellscape. Syria has gnawed itself down to rubble. Afghanistan imploded its way to the stone age.

Unlike the others, Turkey is a magnificent country. It is a long way down, and there are no parachutes.

Will North Korea Conduct Intercontinental Missile Test?

Within hours of Kim Jong Un’s televised New Year’s address, the Pentagon issued a statement urging countries to impose “consequences” on North Korea should it test a ballistic missile. The North’s leader suggested his regime will soon conduct an “intercontinental ballistic rocket launch,” which appears to be code for a missile test prohibited by the UN Security Council. 

Donald Trump also reacted. On Monday, he suggested the young Kim will not make good on his first boast of 2017. “It won’t happen!” declared the president-elect in a tweet.

Kim has three missiles—the Taepodong-2, the KN-08, and the KN-14—capable of reaching the lower 48 states. None of them is thought to be reliable or accurate. But a test firing, especially an unsuccessful one, will provide Kim’s technicians with data to help them correct deficiencies.

Deconstructing the Conventional and Simplistic Take on Ukraine

To travel through Ukraine is to journey through hundreds of years of history, the remnants of divergent diasporas, forced famines, Nazi and Communist atrocities, and not an insignificant number of now-defunct empires.

In his new book “In Wartime: Stories From Ukraine,” (Deckle Edge, Oct 2016) former Balkan War correspondent Tim Judah tours a modern Ukraine where history keeps returning with a vengeance. After Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and launched an armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Mr. Judah began reporting from the country, bringing his considerable expertise and critical eye to the only active conflict on the European continent. Writing in 2014 when the war between Ukraine and Russia was at its hottest, his series of vignettes from across Europe’s largest country beautifully tell the story of a country that has finally embarked on a journey of self-discovery after 25 years of independence.

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