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Drums of War or Pipes of Peace?

In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro has called on his followers to march to the drums of war against a political plot, allegedly backed by the United States, to provoke the overthrow of his increasingly unpopular authoritarian regime. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos is cautiously testing a partial cease-fire in the conflict with leftist FARC guerrillas in the hopes of clinching a peace deal ending five decades of warfare that has cost 220,000 lives. The contrast could not be greater, and the different ways Venezuela and Colombia view the options of war and peace reveal a deep contradiction in Latin America over how to respond to violations of basic human rights and democratic political guarantees.

Lithuania's Independence Day and American Soldiers

This blog is called “Transatlantic Connection,” and this week in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, I experienced true transatlantic connections in action. As two colleagues and I jostled for a spot in the crowded Parliament Square for the country’s 25th anniversary celebrations, we found ourselves next to a group of young American soldiers. “Are you just here today or are you staying for a while?” one of my colleagues, a veteran Moscow correspondent from Soviet times, asked them. “We’ll be here for a while, sir,” one of them replied. American soldiers are currently serving in the Baltic states on permanent rotation.

“For a while”: that’s music to Lithuanian and other Baltic ears. The polite young men and women, not yet born when Lithuanians bravely dared to declare independence on March 11, 1990, despite their Parliament being surrounded by Soviet tanks, may just think of their Lithuanian sojourn as another overseas posting—they’re based in Germany, they informed me—but to Baltic leaders and citizens, these young Americans form a security guarantee. European solidarity with the Baltic states notwithstanding, it’s a US commitment that really counts.

A Real Downside to Any Deal With Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a stir last week when he blasted President Barack Obama’s attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. American television media covered little else for 24 hours. The prime minister and the president are still bickering about it this week on Twitter. Both have ignored a disturbing reality: any deal with Iran, good or bad, is likely to benefit ISIS.

President Obama is pursuing an agreement for understandable reasons. Far better to resolve the West’s differences with Iran diplomatically rather than violently. Prime Minister Netanyahu, likewise, is wary of the president’s plan for understandable reasons. A bad deal may be worse for Israel than no deal at all. Yet neither Obama nor Netanyahu seem to notice how an agreement, regardless of its content and efficacy, will be viewed by the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs, who are as alarmed as the Israelis are by Iranian ambitions.

The war against ISIS is being fought on two fronts in two countries, and the Middle East’s Sunni-Shia conflict rips right through the center of both. ISIS is the bloodthirsty wing of the Sunni jihadist movement, while Iran and its Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese allies make up the Shia resistance. In no way do average Sunni Arabs view ISIS as their standard bearer. Tens of thousands have lit out from its territory for squalid refugee camps abroad. But at the same time, most Sunni Arabs tremble at the rise of Iranian power and are reluctant to stand against the maniacs on their own side, especially when the U.S. and Europe appear to side with the Persians and Shia against them.

That’s not how it is, but that’s how it looks. Consider this: Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qasem Soleimani is personally leading the Iraqi operation to wrest control of the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from ISIS. When Iraq’s Sunnis see Shia militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops gunning for their territory, they feel a looming threat to their very existence. And at the same time, the West is bombing ISIS positions in both Syria and Iraq, while Washington is at least nominally allied to Baghdad and trying to cut a deal with Tehran. The Sunnis see the world’s only superpower teaming up with their enemies and gearing up to smash them to pieces.

It looks little better from a Sunni’s perspective in Syria. The U.S. hardly supports the malignant Assad, but all of Washington’s air strikes have landed on Sunni jihadist targets even after President Obama accused Damascus of deploying chemical weapons in civilian population centers. Like the government in Baghdad, the House of Assad is firmly in the Iranian camp. The state, along with the ruling family, is heavily packed with members of the Alawite minority, adherents of a heterodox religion that fuses Shia Islam, Christianity, and Gnosticism.

The Assads have had their boots on the necks of Syria’s Sunni majority since 1971, when the late Hafez al-Assad seized power, and they’ve been the Arab world’s staunchest Iranian allies ever since. Assad is also, along with Iran’s clerical regime, a patron and armorer of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, by far the deadliest Shia terrorist organization in the world and one which is actively and effectively fighting against Syria’s armed Sunni opposition on behalf of its masters. In light of all that, ISIS has an easier time presenting itself as the defender of the region’s Sunni Arab majority against an axis of Persian-Shia-Alawite perfidy.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Is China’s One-Party State on the Brink?

“We cannot predict when Chinese communism will collapse,” writes David Shambaugh in an essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “but it is hard not to conclude that we are witnessing its final phase.”

The George Washington University professor is known in the global China-watching community as having close ties to the Communist Party of China. In his essay, titled “The Coming Chinese Crackup,” he mentions attending a conference at the Central Party School in Beijing last December and having other contacts with cadres and officials. He was recently named one of America’s top 20 China watchers by China Foreign Affairs University, which is affiliated with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Kremlin’s Influence Game

Does he or doesn’t he? (Work for the Russians, that is.) With the tensions between Russia and the West growing, Russian subversion seems to be everywhere, including the genteel world of think thanks and NGOs. It’s no surprise, then, that the European Center of Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA), a Polish think tank, is finding itself under suspicion of working for the Kremlin. After all, it publishes some highly pro-Russian articles and analyses, including a recent interview with Aleksandr Kofman, the foreign minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic (a.k.a. the pro-Russian breakaway region of Ukraine).

Ukrainian Jewish Leader on Russian Aggression

Josef Zissels is the chairman of the General Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. He is sitting in the middle of a long table in the Ukrainian Restaurant in downtown New York. Before him is a bowl of borscht. As he eats, he shares his views of the current crisis in Ukraine with nine specialists and activists.

Zissels does not mince words. “There is no civil war in Ukraine,” he says. “There is a Russian aggression supported by local collaborators.” The war with Russia will be “long,” and Ukraine needs to construct a “militarist economy” like Israel’s. The Maidan Revolution had nothing to do with ethnicity, language, or religion. It was a “civilizational conflict” between those Ukrainians who supported Europe and those who supported Russia.

Has Putin Lost Germany?

A recently released German documentary about Vladimir Putin—Mensch Putin!—paints a decidedly unflattering picture of Russia’s leader. He is, according to the film, a disturbingly insecure man with a deeply rooted need to compensate for his inadequacies with manifestations of physical prowess and the exercise of power.

“So what else is new?” Putin’s many critics might ask.  The answer is: the film is German, produced by none other than the venerable ZDF, or Germany’s equivalent of BBC or PBS. That makes the film a touchstone of changing German attitudes toward Putin. The film updates former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s characterization of Putin as a “lupenreiner Demokrat” (“flawless democrat”) to something closer to Russia’s version of Hitler lite. What other German leader was a disturbingly insecure man with a deeply rooted need to compensate for his inadequacies with manifestations of physical prowess and the exercise of power? Germans will get the implied comparison, even if it remains unarticulated in the documentary.

Let Iraq Die: A Case for Partition

Iraq is finished, an expiring, cancerous nation on life support. Pulling the plug might be merciful. It might be cruel. But either way, it’s time to accept the fact that this country is likely to die and that we’ll all be better off when it does.

The Kurds in the north, who make up roughly twenty percent of the population, want out. They never wished to be part of Iraq in the first place. To this day, they still call the bathroom the “Winston Churchill,” in sarcastic homage to the former British prime minister who shackled them to Baghdad. Since the early 1990s, they’ve had their own government and autonomous region in the northern three provinces, and they held a referendum in 2005 in which 98.7 percent voted to secede and declare independence. The only reason they haven’t finally pulled the trigger is because it hasn’t been safe; the Turks—who fear the contagion of Kurdish independence inside their own country—have threatened to invade if they did.

The Sunni Arabs in the west, who make up another rough twenty percent of Iraq, aren’t itching for independence necessarily, but they sure as hell aren’t willing to live under the thumb of Shiite-dominated Baghdad any longer. Millions of them live now under the brutal totalitarian rule of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has declared its own state not only in a huge swath of Iraq but also in much of northeastern Syria. ISIS either controls or has a large presence in more than fifty percent of Iraq at the time of this writing.

Iraq’s Shiite majority, meanwhile, is terrified of its Sunni minority, which oppressed them mercilessly during Saddam Hussein’s terrifying rule and which now flies the black flag of al-Qaeda and promises unending massacres.

President Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq. For years—and for perfectly understandable reasons—he was very reluctant to wade into that country’s eternally dysfunctional internal problems, but even he was persuaded to declare war against ISIS in the fall of 2014 when its fighters made a beeline for Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region and the only stable and America-friendly place in the country.

But however engaged the US chooses to be, the current war in Iraq is likely to drag on for years. If Iraq somehow manages to survive its current conflict in one piece, another will almost certainly follow. Its instability is both devastating and chronic. Far better at this point if Iraq simply terminates itself as a state and lets its various constituent groups peaceably go their own way, as Yugoslavia did after its own catastrophic series of wars in the 1990s.

In his limited response to ISIS after its seizure of Mosul in early June, Obama called for, among other things, Iraq’s “territorial integrity” to be respected.

Obviously it would have been preferable had ISIS not invaded from Syria and conquered Iraqi territory, but generally speaking there is nothing holy about Iraq’s current borders. It has never been a coherent nation-state. Nor, for that matter, has Syria. Both are geographic abstractions that never would have existed had European colonial mapmakers not created them in the early twentieth century for their own self-interested reasons, now long obsolete and forgotten. Had Middle Easterners drawn their own borders, whether or not they did so peacefully, the map would be strikingly different—and more organic.

As Lebanon Renaissance Foundation co-founder Eli Khoury put it, “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron. It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.”

Theoretically, Iraqis and Syrians still could have forged collective identities and ideals of patriotic nationalism between the time of their nations’ founding and now, but that didn’t happen in their neighborhood any more than it did in the former Yugoslavia. The dictators of Syria, Iraq, and Yugoslavia all tried to paper over the disunity in their countries with a theoretically binding international ideology—Baathist Arab nationalism, communism—but totalitarian regimes always crash in the end, and their ideologies inevitably go down along with them.

In the absence of tolerant pluralism and democratic political liberalism, the basic incoherence of these states guaranteed one of two outcomes. They’ll either be governed by “centralized iron,” as Khoury put it, or they’ll come apart at the seams. Centralized iron only holds incoherent nations together so long. Removing Hussein blew Iraq apart, and Syria blew apart even without its tyrant Bashar al-Assad being forced into exile or dragged from his palace.

Iraq’s current troubles began just one day after the US finished withdrawing its forces, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of planning terrorist attacks against Shiite targets and of murdering Shiite officials. Hashimi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan before security forces could grab him and now lives in Turkey.

In 2012, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death, along with his son-in-law Ahmed Qahtan.

Is he guilty? Did he do it? I have no idea. Iraq has no shortage of vicious individuals, inside and outside the government, willing to use deadly force both overtly and covertly against rivals. Some of Hashimi’s bodyguards confessed, but it’s entirely possible they were coerced or even tortured.

Whether or not Hashimi was guilty, Shiite militias carried out death squad attacks against Sunnis all over Baghdad both before and after this happened. Iraq’s sectarian violence never entirely dissipated during the American occupation, and after the withdrawal it rose again.

The following year, Maliki’s government accused Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi of the same thing Hashimi had been accused of. Some of his bodyguards were also arrested and charged with committing terrorist acts. But now the conspiracy theories were getting ridiculous. Issawi was and is known as a reasonable and peaceable man. Accusing him and his people of terrorism is like accusing Alan Greenspan of operating his own secret prison on the side when he was running the Fed.

Issawi convinced plenty of the implosive chaos at the heart of the Maliki government when he said, “The tyrant of Baghdad will not keep quiet until he targets all of his opponents.” If the finance minister, of all people, could be accused of something like this, any Sunni leader or even civilian could be rounded up and placed in front of a Stalinist show trial.

Click here to read the rest!

US Policy on Hong Kong Needs an Update

On February 27th, a bipartisan group in the US House of Representatives introduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. A companion bill is due to be introduced in the Senate soon as well. Both bills update US policy in response to last fall’s large-scale protests, dubbed the “Umbrella Movement” for the umbrellas that demonstrators used to shield themselves from tear gas. Protestors took over central Hong Kong streets after Beijing announced that it would screen candidates for the election of the territory’s top post—with loyalty to the Communist Party being a litmus test. 

Will Russia Buckle, Sell China Control of Its Oil Fields?

On Friday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich signaled that the Kremlin would be willing to give Chinese companies majority stakes in Russian oil and gas fields. “There used to be a psychological barrier,” he said, speaking from Krasnoyarsk, a city in energy-rich Siberia. “Now it doesn’t exist anymore. We are interested in maximum investments in new industries. China is an obvious investor for us.”

At present, Russia caps foreign ownership at 50 percent for oil fields where reserves exceed 70 million tons and gas fields containing more than 50 billion cubic meters in reserves. Yet that could change if the Chinese want bigger stakes. As Dvorkovich said, “If there is a request, we will consider it.”

In Ukraine: No Reform, No Investment

Here’s an idea for the European community. Instead of focusing on the fighting in the Ukraine, let’s talk about investments. Ukraine has plenty of people eager to work and improve their living standards, but companies aren’t investing, Dmitry Firtash told me at a meeting in Vienna this week. Firtash knows a thing or two about money, having accumulated between $673 million and $5 billion (estimates vary) in his quarter-century career as an oligarch. Though he’s also president of the Ukrainian Federation of Employers, he currently lives in Vienna: In fact, after being arrested by Austrian police on suspicions on money laundering last year (and released on bail soon thereafter), he’s stuck in Austria. The exact legal status of Firtash’s business dealings remain shrouded in mystery, but one thing is obvious: He’s keen to bring investments and jobs to his native country, where he’s a major, if controversial, investor and employer. “Any investor is a good investor,” he told me when I asked what sort of company would be particularly suited to do business in Ukraine. The country needs 300 billion euros, he estimates.

Iraq Wants More American Bombs Dropped on Iraq

My how things change. The Iraqi government is cheesed off at the United States right now because Washington isn’t dropping bombs on Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

“The Americans continue procrastinating about the time it will take to liberate the country.” That’s from Ali al-Alaa, an aid to the new prime minister Haider al-Abadi, to the New York Times yesterday.

Tikrit is occupied by ISIS. Baghdad wants it back. Washington would like to see Baghdad get it back, but the Pentagon has good reasons to keep its finger off the fire button right now. The Iraqi armed forces consist partly of Shia militias led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters who are firing artillery and even operating surveillance drones.

The Iranian-Iraqi coalition has made almost no progress at all in Tikrit. ISIS laced the area with mines and is dispatching suicide bombers with reckless abandon--another bit of irony. Iran’s Lebanese client Hezbollah pioneered suicide bombings in the Middle East during the 1980s, and now that very deplorable tactic is being used against its own architects closer to home.

Still, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey says Iranian support of Iraq’s push into Tikrit might be “a positive thing” if it doesn’t exacerbate sectarian tensions. Okay. But in what alternate universe will Iranian armed forces and undisciplined Shia militias not exacerbate sectarian tensions? Tikrit is a Sunni city—and a particularly hard one at that. ISIS massacred more than 1,000 of Baghdad’s soldiers there last year when it captured the city. The residents, whether or not they support ISIS, have every reason on earth to fear retribution. ISIS wouldn’t have been able to conquer Sunni territory in Iraq in the first place if people in that part of the country didn’t already think Tehran and its proxies wanted to subjugate them forever.  

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gets it right. “Sectarianism is what brought us to the point where we are,” he said in testimony on Capitol Hill, “and so I do look at it with concern. We are watching it very closely.”

The offense against Tikrit is a prologue to a planned Iraqi assault later this year against ISIS-held Mosul, the second-largest city in the country. The Iraqis would be well-advised to enlist the Kurdish Peshmerga as its primary backup instead of Iranians. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds don’t get along famously, but at least they aren’t divided by sect. (The overwhelming majority of the Kurds also are Sunnis.) And the Kurds are good fighters. They liberated the northern part of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s army after the first Persian Gulf War, and they’re holding their own against ISIS right now with American air cover.

So far they’re the only ground fighters in the region who can hold their own against ISIS. And the city of Mosul is practically walking distance from the border of their autonomous region. They’re even more motivated than Baghdad to keep the wolf away from their door.

In the meantime, the sectarian maelstrom that engulfed Iraq in civil war after the removal of Saddam Hussein is building again and will be with us indefinitely.

Conscription in the Baltics

When Germany suspended conscription in 2011, it seemed to spell the end of the people-based armed forces. For historical reasons, Germany had been perhaps the most ardent believer on a non-professional army. And there it was, returning to exactly that. (The result, one hastens to add, are armed forces that are not just professional but extremely respectful of every aspect of democracy.) So when even Germany decided that there was not enough reason to maintain armed forces focused on territorial defense—as conscription armies are—it was a sign that the era of the swift, mission-based armed forces, whose primary mission would be to assist in foreign hotspots such as Afghanistan, had arrived.

Brazil's Conundrum: Corruption and Economic Realities

Brazil, the jumbo democracy of Latin America, has been driven into an economic, political, and moral rut so deep that it is going to take profound changes in governance to recover the bright promise this key economy enjoyed until recent setbacks.

Brazil’s crisis is a perverse conjunction of economic stagnation, growing inflation, rampant corruption, unsustainable public indebtedness, and public sector incompetence. This is a homemade crisis brought about by misguided economic policies during the first four-year term of President Dilma Rousseff. During this period, Rousseff followed the advice of her populist advisers from the leftist Workers Party (PT), whose economic choices were guided mainly by the political objective of mustering electoral majorities by dispensing overgenerous, inadequately financed social programs, and by brazen political corruption.

Boris Nemtsov, 1959–2015

MOSCOW — This is probably the most difficult piece in my life.

Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov was a rarity in politics. Having raced up the political power ladder—member of Parliament at 30, regional governor at 32, senator at 34, first deputy prime minister at 38, leader of the parliamentary opposition at 40—he always maintained his honesty, his character, and his principles, never betraying his ideals or his friends.

He was the face of a different, freer, more hopeful, and more European Russia. A committed democrat and modernizer, who propelled his Nizhny Novgorod region to one of the leading economic positions in the country, helped to end the first war in Chechnya, and won election after election, Boris Nemtsov was the best president Russia never had. The most popular politician in the country, he was appointed deputy prime minister in 1997 and was openly talked about—including by the then president himself—as Boris Yeltsin’s likely successor in the Kremlin.

History decided otherwise.

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