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Syria’s Unfriendly Skies

There’s no doubt as to the sequence of events on November 24th: A Russian fighter plane crossed into Turkish airspace and the Turkish military shot it down. It’s not clear, however, that the pilots of the Su-24 intended to violate Turkish territory. Russian pilots rely heavily on instructions from their own ground control and don’t have access to the same modern positioning equipment as their Western peers. In the Middle East’s crowded skies, that can lead to more disasters.

“The Russian Air Force uses ground control instructions to the pilots more than other developed countries do,” explains Anton Lavrov, a Russian armed forces analyst affiliated with a Moscow-based defense think tank, the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “It’s a legacy of the Soviet era, when military planes were guided from the ground because of their rudimentary navigation systems and weak radars.”

Opposition Triumphs in Venezuela, But Hold the Champagne

In elections on December 6th, Venezuela’s democratic opposition won a supermajority—112 of 167 seats in the legislature, the election authority has confirmed. The opposition won 109 seats, and three other elected members from indigenous parties will ally with them.

The truism that democracy does not depend only on what happens on election day usually casts doubt on exercises that confirm autocrats and dictators in power. The election result raises a different problem. The election wasn’t free and fair. Political opposition figures were jailed, violence was a constant threat, and the regime has strangled the independent media. The opposition triumphed anyway. What happens when the opposition scores big gains but still doesn’t win control of the executive?

Putin vs. ISIS: Which Threatens the West More?

President Vladimir Putin’s December 3rd address to the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s national legislature, was an exercise in chutzpah, trying to present Russia as a victim of barbarism and a defender of peace:

Russia has long since been on the front lines of the struggle against terrorism. It’s a struggle for freedom, truth, and justice. For the lives of people and the future of our civilization.

Disregard the fact that Putin’s Russia has been on the front lines of promoting terrorism, at home and in Ukraine. Disregard the fact that Putin’s regime is the antithesis of freedom, truth, and justice. And disregard the fact that Putin has declared war on civilized norms of international behavior. 

Putin, Opposition Leaders Open Yeltsin Presidential Center

MOSCOW — Seldom is such duplicity found in today’s Russia as in the official attitude to the country’s brief period of democracy in the 1990s and the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. As far as lip service goes, Vladimir Putin is careful to emphasize his respect for his predecessor’s “forceful, direct, courageous character… thanks to which our country did not turn away from the democratic path.” In practice, in the first few years of his (now nearly 16-year) rule he has steadily dismantled all the major hallmarks of Yeltsin’s Russia, including freedom of the media, political pluralism, and genuine competitive elections.

Samantha, Powerless: Obama’s Problem from Hell in Syria

My latest piece of longform journalism has been published in The Tower magazine. Here’s the first part.

It’s hard to imagine a greater foreign policy failure than the American response to the conflict in Syria, which has mushroomed into one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War.

What started as a series of peaceful demonstrations for democratic and civil society reform in 2011 has since degenerated into a brutal multi-front conflict involving the Assad regime in Damascus, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a smorgasbord of mostly Islamist rebel groups including al-Qaeda, secular left-wing Kurdish militias, and, of course, ISIS—the most psychopathic army of killers on the planet.

Rather than live up to his earlier and undeserved reputation as a “reformer,” President Bashar al-Assad has proven himself the most violent dictator in the Middle East since Saddam Hussein.

ISIS, meanwhile, rather than living up to U.S. President Barack Obama’s description as al-Qaeda’s “JV team,” has evolved from a ragtag terrorist organization to a full-blown genocidal army massacring its way through Syria, Iraq and beyond.

The American response so far is only a tad more robust than the sound of chirping crickets.

Perhaps no one is as chagrined at all this as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. She began her career as a war correspondent in Bosnia during the near-apocalyptic civil war there, and she was so shocked and appalled at what she saw—first the mass-murder and ethnic cleansing waged by Serb genocidaires in the heart of Europe, and second the near-total paralysis of the Clinton administration—that she dedicated years of her life to researching and writing her first book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

Her conclusion: despite the cries of “never again” after the Holocaust, the international community, including the United States, nearly always stands aside when mass-murderers go to work.

After Power finishes her current stint as a diplomat, she’ll need to update her book with a new chapter on Syria. Only this time she’ll have to blast the very administration she works for.

*

For the better part of a century, American leaders have repeatedly failed to stop the world’s monsters from turning swaths of the globe into killing fields. It’s not a uniquely American problem, nor should policing the world be a uniquely American burden, but nevertheless the United States has, as Samantha Power notes, inverted Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy doctrine, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” to “speak loudly and look for a stick.”

The change, she argues, was deliberate and bipartisan. “Contrary to any assumption I may have harbored while I traveled around the former Yugoslavia,” she writes, “the Bush and Clinton administrations’ responses to atrocities in Bosnia were consistent with prior American responses to genocide. Early warnings of massive bloodshed proliferated. The spewing of inflammatory propaganda escalated. The massacres and deportations started. U.S. policymakers struggled to wrap their minds around the horrors. Refugee stories and press reports of atrocities became too numerous to deny. Few Americans at home pressed for intervention. A hopeful but passive and ultimately deadly American waiting game commenced. And genocide proceeded unimpeded by U.S. action and often emboldened by U.S. inaction.”

Before building her case, she tells the story of Raphael Lemkin, the architect of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Lemkin was a Jewish lawyer from Poland who came to the United States in 1941, two years after Nazi Germany invaded his native country. It was Lemkin who coined the word “genocide” in the early 1940s to describe what he called the “race murder” of Jews, but of course the Nazis hardly invented the crime. Josef Stalin’s peacetime genocide in Ukraine—the Holodomor, or hunger-famine—took place during the previous decade, and the Turkish genocide against Armenians during World War I only two decades before that.

Lemkin campaigned tirelessly in the United Nations to get the international community to agree on the definition of genocide, to recognize it as a crime, and to spell out the measures for its prevention and punishment. It finally did so through UN General Assembly Resolution 260, which went in force in 1951.

In Article 2 of the resolution, genocide is defined as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

• Killing members of the group;
• Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
• Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
• Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
• Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

After providing the historical background, Power follows with a series of case studies that expose how the United States largely failed to prevent or punish one genocide after another, from Bosnia and Cambodia to Rwanda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Her case studies of the American reception to these atrocities follow the same pattern: Warning, Recognition, Response and Aftermath.

Admirers of Power’s work were thrilled when President Barack Obama appointed her ambassador to the United Nations in 2013. Finally, they thought, we might be in for a course correction. She’s only one person in a large administration and she can’t set foreign policy all by herself, but one could presume that the president must at least partly agree with her. Otherwise, why appoint her in the first place?

But the Syrian civil war and America’s epic-sized non-response have proven the optimists wrong. The Assad regime is perilously close to crossing the genocidal line—if it hasn’t already—and ISIS has clearly already crossed it with its brutal assaults on minorities like Christians and Yezidis. Meanwhile, the United States, in keeping with the precedents patiently described by Power, dithers impotently on the sidelines.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are ideological opposites. ISIS is brutally Islamist and theocratic, while the Assad regime is avowedly secular and at least nominally “Leftist.” Nevertheless, and despite ISIS harking back to a previous millennium, they’re both totalitarian political movements in the classic 20th-century mold.

All such movements, despite their variety, share the same basic set of ideas which Paul Berman spelled out in his landmark book, Terror and Liberalism. And the potential to commit genocide is baked into every single one of them.

“There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society,” he writes. “But society’s health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world. The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation—an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as André Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements—a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.”

Read the whole thing in The Tower.

Kim Calls First Party Congress in 35 Years

At the end of October, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency announced that the ruling Workers’ Party will hold its next congress in May 2016. The congress last met 35 years ago, in October 1980, during the reign of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

KCNA, with typical grandeur, announced that the meeting reflected “the demand of the party and the developing revolution that witness epoch-making changes in accomplishing the revolutionary cause of Juche, the cause of building a thriving socialist nation.” 

There is no indication of what will be on the agenda, and Korea analysts know they will learn about that only when the congress finally meets. After a  month of consideration, however, they have reached a basic consensus about what the holding of the congress means: that the party has consolidated power at the expense of the Korean People’s Army, and that Kim Jong Un, the country’s youngish ruler, has taken full political control of the regime.

Don't Bother Talking to ISIS

Jonathan Powell, formerly the chief of staff of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has done the impossible. He has written an article for The Guardian that is almost entirely correctly yet utterly wrong.

Bombing ISIS is not enough—we’ll need to talk to them too.

That’s his headline.

But he’s not a fraction as naïve as you might think. He gets pretty much everything right until he asserts that we’ll have to talk to ISIS eventually.

He’s not the kind of guy who thinks wars can be ended on the Dr. Phil show. He doesn’t believe diplomacy will ever convince a genocidal terrorist army that’s massacring innocent people on three continents to join the civilized mainstream.

He recognizes that bombing ISIS is necessary.

He also realizes destroying ISIS will require boots on the ground. But whose? Kurdish militias do very well in battle, but they’re neither equipped nor willing to conquer or liberate the vast swaths of Arab territory.

And Powell realizes that Iranian-backed Shia militias like Hezbollah are out of the question for entirely different reasons. Unlike the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, Iranian militias are themselves terrorist organizations.

Sunni militias in Syria, meanwhile, are mostly unwilling to fight ISIS until they first drag Bashar al-Assad out of his palace in Damascus.

So he thinks we’ll have no choice but to talk to ISIS at some point.

What on earth would we say?

Well, he acknowledges that we have nothing to say to each other right now, but he thinks we’ll eventually think of something once everyone realizes there is no military solution.

He’s wrong.

Look. It’s true that there is no viable military solution right now. The West could in theory send tens of thousands or even hundreds of ground troops to Syria and Iraq and smash the ISIS “caliphate” in short order, but it’s not going to happen for a very simple reason:

We don’t want to.

There is virtually zero appetite in the West right now to launch any kind of a rerun of the Iraq war. 

Another 9/11-style attack could change public opinion in an instant, of course. A series of Paris-style attacks in New York City or anywhere else in America might have the same effect over time. But in the meantime, we’re in a holding pattern.

The thing about holding patterns is that they’re temporary. At some point, something is going to change even if it takes a l-o-n-g time.

Perhaps Assad will be overthrown and Sunni wrath in Syria will shift from the capital and toward the deranged “caliphate” out in the desert. Perhaps the civilian population in ISIS-held territory will finally say enough and fight the bastards themselves. Maybe Russia will say eff it and go in there whole hog.

Maybe something totally unpredictable will happen. It’s the Middle East we’re talking about, after all.

Even if the holding pattern lasts years, we still won’t be able to resolve the ISIS problem by talking to ISIS because we’ll have no more to say at that time than we have today.

ISIS is a genocidal army. It murders Yezidis, Shia Muslims, Christians, Alawites and Westerners not because of anything they’ve done but because of who they are. There is no conceivable political solution to be had with these kinds of people. They will continue to kill until they are no longer able to kill.

That’s how it always is with genocidaires.

“It is important to understand that talking to terrorists is not the same as agreeing with them,” Powell writes. “The British would never have discussed a united Ireland at the barrel of a gun against the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland. But when we sat down with the IRA, its leaders wanted to talk about legitimate subjects like power-sharing and human rights. The same will be true of Isis. No one is going to talk to them about a universal caliphate, but we can talk about Sunni grievances and a way of ending violence.”

ISIS is not the Irish Republican Army. It is not even Hezbollah. It has far more in common with the Nazis. And we didn't resolve the Nazi problem by talking.

The IRA was at least somewhat interested in human rights. Obviously ISIS is not. Nor are its leaders and fighters interested in “ending violence.”

Abu Bakr Naji, one of ISIS’s intellectual architects, made it abundantly clear what they’re interested in when he published The Management of Savagery. “Jihad,” he wrote, “is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [people], and massacring.”

That’s what ISIS wants. They're not even trying to hide it.

“I am not arguing that talking is an alternative to fighting,” Powell writes. “Unless there is military pressure the armed group will never be prepared to talk. But judging by history, fighting is unlikely to provide an answer by itself.”

History has proven over and over again that fighting can provide an answer all by itself. Not always. But sometimes. And sometimes there’s no other option.

The Nazi regime no longer exists. The Empire of Japan no longer exists. Moammar Qaddafi’s regime no longer exists. Saddam Hussein’s Arab Socialist Baath Party no longer exists. Thanks to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1977, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government no longer exists.

At some point—lord only know when—ISIS will no longer exist. And it won’t happen because anybody talked them out of existence.

Interpreting Gorbachev's Very Mixed Signals

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s response to Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter plane on November 24th nicely reveals the contradictions on which so much of contemporary Russian political thinking is based.

Gorbachev starts by endorsing Vladimir Putin’s hard-line response—recall that the Russian president called Turkey’s action a “stab in the back”—as “understandable” and “justified.” That’s not surprising, as Gorbachev also believes that America’s desire for “dominance” produced Russia’s war with Ukraine. Back on January 31, 2015, Gorbachev said

Time to Retaliate Against China’s Cyber Espionage

“To my Chinese counterparts, I would remind them, increasingly you are as vulnerable as any other major industrialized nation state,” said Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and the chief of US Cyber Command, on November 21st at the Halifax Security Forum. “The idea you can somehow exist outside the broader global cyber challenges I don’t think is workable.” 

That, in all probability, was not an observation. A year ago, it was inconceivable that an American four-star officer would talk like this—in other words, make a threat—in public. 

The temperature over cyber matters in the American capital has risen fast in recent weeks. If there has been any reason for the change in attitude, it may well be China’s not honoring its agreement, reached while President Xi Jinping was in Washington in September, to stop cyber attacks for commercial espionage purposes.

Suddenly, Dialogue with North Korea Is in Vogue

On Friday, Seoul’s Unification Ministry announced that North Korea had accepted the South’s invitation to hold a working-level meeting in the truce village of Panmunjom, in the Demilitarized Zone. The talks, scheduled for Thursday, are supposed to prepare the way for high-level discussions between the two Koreas, to be held in either Pyongyang or Seoul.

Belgium Terrorizes Itself

Brussels has been in full lockdown all weekend, and it’s going to remain in full lockdown at least through Monday while the police mount raids against suspected terrorist cells planning Paris-style attacks.

“The threat is imminent, precise,” said Vice Prime Minister Didier Reynders. “We're talking about possible attacks by several individuals, heavily armed, so obviously in parallel we are looking for one and more individuals with weapons, explosives.”

Schools are closed. Universities are closed. The trains haven’t been running all weekend, nor will they be running into the work week. Streets near Grand Place square are closed off. Armored vehicles are out in the streets. Helicopters are flying over the city. The US Embassy is advising American citizens living there to stay home.

The whole place looks and feels not only thoroughly terrorized but also like some kind of a war zone.

It’s a cliché to say the terrorists win when this sort of thing happens, but it’s a cliché because it’s true.

Why put the capital into lockdown for just a couple of days? Unless the police are damn sure they’ll capture the suspected terrorists right away, there’s no point.

And the police can’t be sure they’ll capture the suspects right away. Maybe the authorities think they know where the suspects are and are preparing to capture (or kill) them, but they can’t know in advance that they’ll succeed. Their intelligence could be off. They might hit the wrong house. The suspects could flee.

Any number of things can go wrong and often do.

If a handful terrorists are planning an imminent attack and don’t get rolled up even more imminently, all they have to do is wait until Tuesday when the city is back to “normal” to strike.

The authorities certainly aren’t wrong to raise the alert level, but locking down an entire city is ill-advised. Terrorists get a small victory even if they end up captured or killed before hurting anybody. It teaches distant terrorists who aren’t even in Europe that they can terrorize Belgium in the future any time they want just by putting fake threats into the air. And it could lull everybody who lives there into a false sense of security when the lockdown is inevitably lifted even if no danger has passed.

Look. Terrorists have been killing people in Western cities for decades. They are not going to stop any time soon. The worst attacks always take everyone by surprise. They cannot be forecast like weather. Shutting everything down every time something might happen just hands the bastards more power than they already have.

Stop it.

The Kremlin's Continued Attack on Dissent

The upper house of Russia’s rubber-stamp Parliament will shortly consider a request to extend the list of so-called “undesirable foreign organizations” that supposedly threaten state security and constitutional order and are prohibited from operating in the country. The list, adopted unanimously by the Federation Council in July, currently includes 12 foreign and international NGOs, among them the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House.

Spying on Friends

“Friends don’t spy on one another,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel two years ago, when new NSA leaks revealed that the US signals intelligence agency had snooped on her and other German politicians’ mobile phones. Around the same time it had been revealed that the NSA had targeted leading French politicians, including Presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande, as well. 

A Frenchman Comes to Ukraine

Meet one of Ukraine’s most determined pro-Western politicians and Ukrainian patriots. He’s the mayor of Hlukhiv, a small city located northeast of Kyiv, in Sumy Province, just a few miles from the border with Russia.

His name is Michel Terestchenko.

RIP, André Glucksmann

The great French philosopher André Glucksmann died last week in Paris. Before passing on, he asked—charged—the also great Paul Berman to write his obituary.

Most Americans aren’t familiar with Glucksmann. Sartre and Foucault overshadowed him on this side of the Atlantic. But he was a towering figure in France, and he should have been a towering figure in the United States. At the very least, he should be better known here than the competition.

Berman complied with Glucksmann’s charge to write his obituary in Tablet. The whole thing is worth reading even if you’ve never heard of the man.

André Glucksmann was a great man, and he played a great role in history. I think that, in the world of ideas, no one in modern times has played a larger and more effective role in marshalling the arguments against totalitarianisms of every sort—no one outside of the dissident circles of the old Soviet bloc, that is. Even within those circles, Glucksmann and his arguments played a mighty role. Adam Michnik has told us that, during the bad old days in communist Poland, the dissidents used to pass around Glucksmann’s writings. In communist Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel was his friend. I have seen with my own eyes that, in Ukraine and in the Republic of Georgia, Glucksmann has continued to be revered into our own moment, and the list of countries could go on. It is also true that he has always had detractors. Glucksmann was America’s most vigorous defender among the modern French intellectuals, and I think that not more than one or two university departments in the United States ever invited him to deliver a lecture. In the American universities, no one has bothered to translate his major writings. The fashion for French philosophers in the American universities has always been a fashion for the wrong philosophers. Then again, the universities in America may not be as central to the intellectual world as they imagine themselves to be.

On the New Yorker website just now, Adam Gopnik recalls whiling away afternoons with Glucksmann in Paris during his time as a magazine correspondent there, and the description makes me reflect that, if the intellectual world does have a center, Glucksmann’s apartment ought to count as one of its locales. I recognize Gopnik’s details: Glucksmann’s purposeful conversation, the combination of a sweet demeanor and a moral firmness, the habit of referring everything to the classics of literature. I can attest that conversation in that apartment could make a powerful impression. My own first knock on the door took place in 1984 because the American political philosopher Dick Howard, who had played a part in the French student revolution of 1968, had talked me into reading Glucksmann. Just then Glucksmann had scandalized the French public and the enormous French left by coming out in favor of Ronald Reagan’s anti-Soviet missiles in Europe, which seemed to me unimaginable. And I talked Mother Jones into sending me to Paris to produce an article, in which I intended to reveal Glucksmann as a deplorable case. I do not have the heart to look at that article today, but I think I did try to suggest that Glucksmann was a fool. Only, by the time the article was in print I had begun to doubt my own evaluation.

The New Yorker writer Jonathan Schell had written a plea for nuclear disarmament titled The Fate of the Earth, in which he made disarmament seem like common sense. And Glucksmann had written a response called The Force of Vertigo, which—though it took me a while to recognize my own response—impressed me. Glucksmann worried about dreamy visions of world peace. Dreamy visions seemed to him a ticket to war. He had a lot to say about the Soviet Union and its own weapons. He argued that, in the face of the Soviet Union, nuclear deterrence and common sense were one and the same. Pessimism was wisdom, in his eyes. He wanted to rally support in the West for the dissidents of the East, which was not the same as staging mass demonstrations against Ronald Reagan. His book was a tour de force of mockery, erudition, spleen, and energy, together with a habit of banging on big philosophical drums from time to time. Reading it made me bug-eyed in wonder.

Read the whole thing in Tablet.

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