South Korea Plays China Against America

Uriminzokkiri, the state-controlled North Korean website, recently criticized South Korean President Park Geun-hye for planning to go to Washington in the middle of this month instead of commemorating the 15th anniversary of the inter-Korean summit, which falls on June 15th. Park is scheduled to meet President Obama on June 16th.

“Why does she plan to visit the US, the prime enemy that divided the two Koreas?” Uriminzokkiri asked. “This shows the repetition of Park’s bad habit for making overseas escape.”

There was never much possibility of a joint celebration of the now-maligned summit in 2000, but North Korean propagandists are correct to point out that Park has traveled abroad to great powers. And as she does so, she is controversially changing Seoul’s outlook toward the world.

Cuba Outside the Tourist Bubble

Most journalists who travel to Cuba write about how awesome the tourist bubble is.

Jonathan Ray, for instance, summed it up this way in The Spectator last year: “By the end, Havana had me in her spell. She was like a brash and vulgar party girl whom everyone adores and you can’t think why. Ten minutes in her company, though, and you too are smitten. My three nights passed in a flash and I long to return to discover more about this edgy but thrilling city.”

These kinds of articles are a genre unto themselves. They've appeared in our media for decades for a handful of reasons. Some reporters are lazy and incurious. Many, like the Spectator writer, don't stick around long enough to see past the mystique of the forbidden. A good number think they're poking “American propaganda” in the eye by being contrarian. A handful might even be true believers.

Others are concerned—with good reason—that publishing anything critical of the government or even everyday living conditions will get them arrested, deported and blacklisted. When the Wall Street Journal publishes pieces from Cuba, they often omit the reporter's name for that very reason.

Once in a while, though, journalists say to hell with all that and expose Cuba as the miserable place that it is.

Nick Miroff just did that for the Washington Post.

As one of Havana’s largest state-run retail hubs, the Supermercado 3ra y 70 is the communist government equivalent of a Target or Wal-Mart, created as a one-stop shopping center. It was designed, quite possibly, by sadists.

Customers with long shopping lists face no fewer than seven places to stand in line. One for butter. Another for cooking oil. A third for toothpaste. And so on.

He quotes a guy whose friend managed to visit the United States and misses two things above all: freedom and Home Depot.

Why Home Depot? For one thing, the lines are short. There may be seven or more lines at the checkout registers, but you only have to stand in one of them.

It's not about the lines, though, not really. They're just a symptom. Scarcity is the disease. And if you think Cuba's chronic shortages are because of American sanctions, think again. The guy that mentioned Home Depot? He makes a living selling screws and nails on the black market. He'll be sentenced to prison if he's caught, so Miroff left his last name out of the article.

Sentenced to prison. For selling nails and screws.

You'll also go to prison if you sell cooking oil or cheese. You'll go to prison if you're found in possession of a lobster whether or not you bought or sold it. Only tourists get to eat lobster, not because it's an endangered species but because the government sells them at state-run restaurants for foreigners and won't tolerate anyone challenging its monopoly.

Communism fails just as dismally in Cuba as it failed everywhere else, and for the same reasons. If you ban economic behavior, you won't have much of an economy.

That, along with the fact that the state-imposed Maximum Wage is a ration card plus a paltry twenty dollars a month, is why Cuba is poor.

It's one of the oddities of our time that most articles written about Cuba describe the island as an awesome place that's misunderstood. (Imagine if the bulk of written material about the Soviet Union during the Cold War described Moscow as though it were Prague circa the late 1990s.)

The army isn't out in the streets pointing guns at everyone's heads, but even lazy and incurious journalists must get at least a whiff of the island's oppression.

James Kirchick recently returned from there and opened his piece this way:

I've visited more than my fair share of dictatorships, but Cuba is the only one where travelers at the airport must pass through a metal detector upon entering, in addition to leaving, the country. Immediately after clearing customs at José Marti International Airport, visitors line up for a security check. Anyone found carrying contraband — counterrevolutionary books, say, or a spare laptop that might be given to a Cuban citizen — could find himself susceptible to deportation.

He spent much of his time interviewing dissidents—a risky move, for both reporter and dissident—but he also sprinkled his essay with the sort of fun facts most journalists who visit the island don't feel like communicating to the rest of us.

Few visitors bother to visit an actual Cuban home, and so you won't hear them coo about the "classic" 1950s-era refrigerators — that is, if the house is lucky enough to have one. Aside from a few carefully well-preserved plazas outside the main tourist hotels, Havana is much dirtier and more run down than I imagined. Walking down its narrow streets, I was reminded of bombed-out sections of Beirut, heaps of rubble and trash strewn about the decaying buildings. Steps from a billboard splayed with Castro's visage and some revolutionary verbiage, a woman picked through garbage. At a pharmacy, I watched a man purchase Band-Aids — individually, not by the package.

"Sometimes when you have money you want to go to the market and buy meat and there's nothing there," Berta Soler told me. "If you're able to find it, it's bad quality. We wake up every day thinking, 'What am I going to eat today?' and go to sleep thinking 'What am I going to eat tomorrow?'" I dined at a variety of Cuban establishments, from the restaurant of a moderately priced tourist hotel to a relatively upmarket café to a canteen in a small, extremely poor provincial city. Across the board, the quality of food was horrendous, and never before have I been more eager to consume airplane cuisine.

Cuba's current president Raul Castro is a little less severe than his brother, and he's reforming Fidel's imbecilic economic system one tiny rule at a time. At the current rate of change, Havana will be the Prague of the Western Hemisphere sometime around the year 2200.

In the meantime, more American tourists than ever are visiting the island now that diplomatic relations are beginning to normalize. Hopefully, some of the more curious among them will wander outside the tourist bubble for at least a couple of hours and get a glimpse of what actually existing communism looks like while it's still with us.

Fighting Corruption in Ukraine

The following is an interview with Bohdan Vitvitsky, a Ukrainian-born corruption expert and former US federal prosecutor and assistant attorney.


MOTYL: You were in the running for the position of director of Ukraine’s newly established Anti-Corruption Bureau. Although your candidacy was deemed invalid due to Ukraine’s age limits on public office, will you be helping out in some formal or informal way?

VITVITSKY: I am willing to be helpful in whatever way is feasible and I have recently been approached about one such advisory possibility.

MOTYL: Given your experience implementing anticorruption projects in Ukraine, your writing and lecturing on corruption in Ukraine, as well as your long experience as a federal prosecutor in the District of New Jersey, what advice might you give the head of the bureau, the 35-year-old Artem Sytnyk?

War and Hope

One of the notable figures on the margins of the Vietnam conflict was Bob Hope, famous for his Christmas shows for the armed forces in the war zone, and the television specials subsequently made from them. No doubt, today’s Hollywood stars flew to Afghanistan and Iraq and entertained the troops in Kabul and Tikrit, but nothing approached the scale of Hope’s role as entertainer-in-chief to American troops in South Vietnam for nine straight Christmases starting in December 1964 (and during the Korean and World War II before that).

There are several reasons why not. No war has engaged the American public, emotionally and politically, like the Vietnam War, for one thing. Television networks no longer have the appetite for long variety-type specials that were the money-making end-product of Hope’s shows.

And there was no Bob Hope, with his star stature, and his strong, if ego-feeding, life-risking patriotism.

World Affairs Statement on Vladimir Kara-Murza's Hospitalization

Vladimir Kara-Murza is a leading opposition figure in Russia. On Tuesday, May 26, 2015, he collapsed suddenly and lost consciousness in his office at Open Russia in Moscow. He was rushed to Pervaya Gradskaya (First City Clinical) hospital where he remains on life support, unconscious with an undiagnosed illness of undetermined origins.

Given the sudden, mysterious, and incapacitating nature of the illness, and the Putin regime’s appalling record with respect to the murders and mistreatment of prominent dissidents, there is widespread concern that Vladimir has been poisoned. His doctors have not ruled it out though one can imagine the pressure they are under. 

Vladimir’s wife, Evgenia, has attempted to have him evacuated for treatment outside the country. However, it has been determined that his condition is too fragile for him to be moved. 

Guatemala’s Legitimacy Crisis Dooms Obama’s Aid Package

The Obama administration’s proposed $1 billion aid package to Central America’s Northern Triangle—composed of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—already faced stiff resistance on Capitol Hill. But Guatemala’s growing “legitimacy crisis” makes the odds the United States will ultimately triple its aid to the region slim to none.

Originally proposed in January, the aid package was intended to stem the tide of unaccompanied minors at the US-Mexico border. Vice President Joe Biden explained in a New York Times op-ed that the aid would address the three countries’ “security, governance and economic challenges” and make the region a safer, more vibrant place for those who would otherwise flee. He even heralded Guatemala’s removal of corrupt government officials as a critical component to the countries’ joint economic reform plan.

Putin’s Wars at Home, and Abroad

Among the lesser noted but most revealing aspects of Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was that it took place on the same day, May 12th, that members of Russia’s democratic opposition released a report on the Kremlin’s involvement in Ukraine.

Titled “Putin. War,” the report was begun by Boris Nemtsov, the politician and former deputy prime minister, who was murdered on February 27th. It estimates the number of deaths of Russian soldiers at more than 200, the Kremlin’s expenditures as exceeding $1 billion, and alleges that control over the separatists enclaves in eastern Ukraine runs directly to the Kremlin.

Gloria Steinem, Nobel Laureates Attempt to Cross the DMZ

On Sunday, Gloria Steinem, two Nobel Peace laureates, and 27 other women crossed the Demilitarized Zone from North Korea into South Korea in an attempt to bring peace to the long-divided and troubled peninsula.

“We have received an enormous amount of support,” said Steinem, the 81-year-old women’s rights activist, on her arrival in the South. It is also true that she and her group, WomenCrossDMZ, also faced a chorus of sharp criticisms.

Much of the criticism centered on Steinem and the others not confronting the North Korean leadership over the horrific plight of women in that miserable state. Yet the group’s activities—both in Pyongyang, where they congregated before the crossing, and during the crossing itself—raised other issues. Among them is the most difficult Korea question faced by countries and international organizations, whether to isolate or engage the regime led by the Kim family.

A Brilliant Answer to a Ludicrous Question

My Canadian pal Terry Glavin brilliantly answers a ludicrous question. “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion of Iraq?”

It seems like a reasonable question, but it's not. We don't have the benefit of hindsight in advance. If we did, my goodness. The entire world would be radically different. The entire world would be so radically different that of course we should have invaded Iraq in 2003.

Here's Glavin:

To be blessed with such magical powers of clairvoyance would have been to know which decisions not to make, from the small ones – don’t send a column of Humvees down that road, it’s mined with IEDs – to the big ones – hey, let’s not put the 320th Military Police Battalion in charge of that prison at Abu Ghraib. Even the really big mistakes could have been foreseen and avoided. The whole “De-Baathification” project and the disbanding the Iraqi military? Let’s skip that. It’ll just come back to haunt us all in the worst possible way.

We could play this game all day. Why not ask the same question about Syria? Or the wars on drugs and poverty. The decision to build public housing blocks in Cabrini-Green. Staying out of World War II until after the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Putting New Orleans below sea level. Building a house where “we now know” an F-5 tornado would touch down five years later. Electing George W. Bush president. Electing Barack Obama president. Picking Sarah Palin as a running mate. Buying a lottery ticket that “we now know” was a bust.

In real life, we make decisions with the information we have at the time.

Here's Glavin again:

In the orthodox view, “what we know now” is that everybody was wrong back then and the cost was 162,000 dead Iraqis and roughly $900 billion. The lessons we take from this? We trade the fundamental human rights of the Iranian people for the shambles of a nuclear deal with the ayatollahs. We confront the Islamic State’s rampaging barbarism with a small, mostly air-power coalition that has no intention of victory. We allow Bashar Assad, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force and Hezbollah to wage war on the Syrian people.

Total cost to date: Afghanistan survives by the skin of its teeth. Libya no longer exists. Iraq is a failed state in all but name. Khomeinist Iran has never been so confidently ambitious. In Syria alone: more than 225,000 dead, nearly 10 million homeless, three million refugees, and a reconstruction bill the World Bank last year pegged at $200 billion and counting.

All that, too, is “what we know now.” So what lessons have we learned?

Well, at least two things are perfectly clear. Horrible things happen when we go to war, and horrible things happen when we give peace a chance.

Foreign policy is hard. When it's crunch time, hundreds of thousands of people will die no matter what decision you make.

The Borg of the Middle East

My latest piece, about the fall of Palmyra to ISIS, appears in City Journal. Here's the first part.

ISIS has conquered Syria’s spectacular Roman Empire city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site long known affectionately as the “bride of the desert,” and in all likelihood is gearing up to demolish it. We know this because they’ve done it before. ISIS used hammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the ancient Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud near Mosul, and they did it on video.

“These ruins that are behind me,” said an ISIS vandal on YouTube, “they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The Prophet Muhammad took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.”

Muslims have ruled this part of the world for more than 1,000 years. All this time, they’ve been unbothered by the fact that Palmyra, Hatra, and Nimrud include pagan monuments, temples, statues, and inscriptions that predate Islam. Only now are these places doomed to annihilation. ISIS is more belligerently Philistine than any group that has inhabited the region for a millennium. The only modern analogue is the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan with anti-aircraft guns, artillery shells and dynamite in March 2001, mere months before their al-Qaida pals attacked New York City and Washington.

This attitude toward history harks back less to the seventh century than to the twentieth, when Pol Pot reset the calendar to Year Zero after the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia, and when Mao Zedong’s Chinese Cultural Revolution murdered millions in the war against everything “old.”

Maamoun Adbulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, told Reuters that the army carted hundreds of ancient statues away to safety, but of course the giant Roman columns and the museum itself aren’t going anywhere except, perhaps, underneath the jaws of ISIS bulldozers. “This is the entire world’s battle,” he said.

That’s how bad things are in Syria now. The mass-murderers, war criminals, sectarian gangsters, and state sponsors of international terrorism in Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime can plausibly tout themselves as the defenders of civilization. In this particular case and in this particular place, they’re right.

Palmyra is more than 2,000 years old. It began as a humble caravan stop in the second century B.C., but Rome eventually annexed it and turned it into a dazzling and prosperous metropolis. Lying in an oasis in modern-day Homs Governate, during Rome’s time it served as a crucial hub linking Europe to Persia, India, and China.

The ruins sprawl over a vast area, preserved in the desert, away from the dense and overbuilt coastal areas of modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Unlike most Roman ruin sites, this one includes nearly intact buildings, some of them enormous. The architectural style is a delightful blend of Roman, Greek, and Persian. Some of the standing columns bear inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic. It’s a magnificent place, the Levantine melting pot at its finest, a startlingly beautiful crossroads where the East meets the West, where everything and everybody is blended.

But now it has been overtaken by a totalitarian death cult that uses mass murder and heavy weapons and machinery to transform everything and everyone into a single block-like structure, with itself at the center. ISIS is the Borg of the Middle East.

Read the rest in City Journal.


China's Unprecedented Investment Offensive in Latin America

While President Obama spars with Democratic critics over fast-track authority to promote free trade in China’s Pacific rim, the Chinese have unleashed an unprecedented investment offensive in South America, Uncle Sam’s erstwhile backyard. The Chinese Communist leaders say they are not seeking to influence political affairs in the region, but the investments they promise are on a scale that will shape the future global relations of Latin America. When China is on the move, big things happen without delays.

Continuing Executions in North Korea

General Hyon Yong Chol, North Korea’s defense minister, was executed at a military academy near Pyongyang “around” April 30th, at least according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

Some analysts contend the NIS report is implausible, but, whether it is accurate or not, there has been an evident acceleration in the pace of executions. The deaths suggest to others that the Kim family regime is no longer stable.

There are experts who believe Hyon is still alive. He was featured in a documentary aired by North Korean state media on May 14th. Normally, the airing would be proof the NIS report was false. As Sue Chang of the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch site explains, “That Hyon was not edited out of that production raised eyebrows in light of the regime’s habit of expunging officials from public materials once the officials have been eliminated.”

Germany Must Lead in Europe

Nothing could be more unlike the Russo-Ukrainian war in the Donbas than Munich’s remarkably well-ordered condition. The desperate desire of Germans to look away from the death and destruction beyond their eastern border makes sense: War is too disruptive of their near-perfect orderliness to be thinkable, least of all real. Unfortunately for them, Germany has no choice but to play the role of Europe’s “well-meaning hegemon.” The European Union needs leadership, and, as distasteful as seizing the initiative may be to most Germans, who associate hegemony with the disaster of Nazism and World War II, only Germany has the geopolitical resources to be a consistent leader.

The Rush for Moldovan Citizenship

Moldova is not the kind of country people move to. In fact, at a recent conference on global demographics at the University of Oxford, a CIS expert pointed to the small republic between Romania and Ukraine as a particular concern, pointing out that it’s been hemorrhaging population to Russia for more than a decade. What’s a country to do when residents decide they don’t want to live there?

But, a high-ranking European diplomat tells me, in the past 18 months 74,000 people have applied for Moldovan citizenship. That’s not 74,000 births; it’s 74,000 foreigners who’ve decided they want to become Moldovans. What’s suddenly making Moldova so attractive does, perhaps sadly, has little to do with the almost–Black Sea nation itself and a lot to do with the European Union. In November 2013, the EU concluded that Moldova was fulfilling a set of requirements in areas such as human rights and the rule of law, and granted its citizens the right to visa-free travel to its member states.

The Muslim Brotherhood Takes Off its Mask

ISIS is threatening to kill judges and security personnel in Egypt after a Cairo court sentenced former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi to death while, at the same time, what's left of the Muslim Brotherhood is promising a revolution that “exterminates all the oppressors.”

So much for the Muslim Brotherhood being moderate.

Human beings are naturally compelled to violently resist violent repression regardless of their ideology, but the Brotherhood's ostensible moderation was always limited to its strategy. Its members largely refrained from violence because they believed a peaceful path to their radical Islamist utopia may have been open to them. Now that that's off the table, the mask and the gloves have come off.

And that word, “exterminate.” This is not the language of freedom fighters. Thomas Jefferson and Vaclav Havel never threatened to exterminate anyone. This is the language of ISIS, Al Qaeda and Pol Pot. 

Most of the world's Sunni Arab terrorist organizations are spin-offs of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Al Qaeda. ISIS, meanwhile, is a spin-off of Al Qaeda. Hamas in the Gaza Strip isn't even a spin-off. It's the Muslim Brotherhood's Palestinian branch.

The ideologies of all these groups scarcely differ. They all want a Sunni theocracy, and they're all hostile to secularists, minorities, and the West. The differences lie only in their severity, but the Brothers are looking and sounding less moderate by the day, and there's no reason to be the least bit shocked that ISIS views them as their comrades and is threatening revenge on their behalf.

Egypt's young Muslim Brotherhood leaders exiled themselves to Istanbul to get clear the severe government crackdown which has so far killed more than 2,500 and imprisoned more than 16,000. And from there they mounted an insurgency against the regime and the relatively tepid leadership of their own organization.

As Eric Trager and Marina Shalabi write in Foreign Affairs, they “rebelled against the group’s older leaders, blaming them for 'misanalyzing' the political situation leading up to Morsi’s overthrow and then mismanaging the post-Morsi period. They further rejected their leaders’ calls for a patient, long-term struggle against Egypt’s military-backed government. They advocated instead for revolutionary—and violent—tactics to destabilize the government sooner rather than later.”

A few years ago, after the removal of Hosni Mubarak but before the election of Morsi, Western optimists argued that the Brothers were going to change, that the younger generation was more moderate than the dinosaurs, that it was only a matter of time before their less-conservative views dominated the organization.

It's easy, especially in hindsight, to see the fatal flaw in that analysis. Younger generations in the West are often more liberal than their parents and grandparents, at least in some ways. The majority of Republicans in the United States under the age of 30, for instance, support gay marriage. Almost half of Republicans under the age of 50 support gay marriage. Times here are changing.

But the Muslim Brotherhood is not the Egyptian Republican Party. Nor is General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's military regime the Democratic Party of Egypt. The only thing Egypt has in common with the United States politically is that it's more or less divided into two partisan camps—those who want a religious dictatorship and those who want a military dictatorship.

This is not new. I noticed it the first time I visited Cairo back in 2005. I met a handful of genuine political liberals at the time, but they were all too keenly aware that the percentage of Egyptians who agreed with them was in the high single digits at best.

You can't have democracy without democrats. And when the overwhelming majority want one kind of dictatorship or another, they're guaranteed to get one kind of dictatorship or another.

Historically, Egyptians haven't been prone to civil war the way the Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese are, but if the Muslim Brotherhood takes the next logical step and actually teams up with ISIS, watch out.


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