China Threatens to Shoot Down Australian Planes

On November 25th the Royal Australian Air Force conducted a “routine maritime patrol” in the South China Sea as a part of Operation Gateway, a program of periodic flights. An AP-3C Orion surveillance plane flew near a reclaimed Chinese feature in the Spratly island chain, in the sea’s southern portion.

In response, the Global Times, a Beijing-based Communist Party newspaper, published an editorial that essentially threatened to start a war: “It would be a shame if one day a plane fell from the sky and it happened to be Australian.”

Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne responded to Beijing’s bluster with remarks that left something to be desired. “We always navigate in a very constructive way in the region,” she said.

Putin ‘Outlaws’ European Justice in Russia

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Last week, Vladimir Putin signed a law that effectively banishes international legal norms from Russian territory and denies Russian citizens access to European justice. The measure, overwhelmingly passed in both houses of Russia’s rubber-stamp Parliament, gives the Constitutional Court—whose chairman, Valery Zorkin, recently called for “transforming the legal system in the direction of military harshness”—the right to ignore rulings by the European Court of Human Rights by declaring them “non-executable.”

The Winners and Losers of ‘Nation-Branding’

The following is an interview with Robert Saunders, a professor in the Department of History, Politics, and Geography at Farmingdale State College–SUNY and an expert on “nation-branding.”

* * *

MOTYL: Harper’s once called you the world’s premier Boratologist. How and why did you come to study the Borat phenomenon?

Good Riddance to Child-Killer Samir Kuntar

The Israelis killed the infamous Lebanese terrorist and child-murderer Samir Kuntar and several other Hezbollah commanders with an air strike in Syria.

They are neither confirming nor denying that they carried out the attack, but it’s obvious that they did. No one else drops bombs from the skies on Hezbollah right now, and Kuntar committed one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in Israeli history.

On April 22, 1979, in the northern town of Nahariya, he killed policeman Eliyahu Shahar, civilian Danny Haran, and Haran's four year old daughter Einat by placing her head on a rock and smashing her skull with the butt of his rifle.

The Israelis convicted him of murder, but they released him in 2008 when Hezbollah agreed to return the bodies of captured Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

It was a bad trade.

When the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev were returned to Israel, former Chief Rabbi of the IDF Yisrael Weiss said, “If we thought the enemy was cruel to the living and the dead, we were surprised, when we opened the caskets, to discover just how cruel. And I’ll leave it at that.”

Shortly after Kuntar’s release, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as one of Hezbollah’s co-patrons, awarded him with the Syrian Order of Merit medal.

Just three months ago, in September of 2015, the United States government declared Kuntar a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224.

Perhaps letting Kuntar back into the wild seemed like a reasonable idea to Israelis at the time. Prison seemed to have changed him.

Israeli journalist Chen Kotes-Barr spent more than a year interviewing Kuntar in prison and getting to know him. I imagine she must have felt a little like Clarice Starling when she met Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs.

Lisa Goldman translated Kotes-Barr’s long story about Kuntar from Hebrew to English and published it on her blog. Here’s the first part:

For the first year, my conversations with Samir Kuntar were difficult. Our meetings, which began in February 2004, took place in the prison library – just the two of us, unaccompanied. Our conversations were open, and they lasted for hours. Samir spoke to me in Hebrew. He brought tea and biscuits, and he chain-smoked. Over the 29 years he spent in Israeli jails, I was the first and only Jewish Israeli woman he met and spoke with to face-to-face.

“I’m talking to you about reality,” Kuntar said, each time we met. “I am not trying to ingratiate myself with you.” As we slowly built up some kind of trust, we stopped talking about politics and turned to personal subjects – like prison life and his own life. “Don’t go with slogans and clichés,” he implored. “Just write the facts.” He showed me photographs of his family in Lebanon. He prepared a list of Hebrew-language books on the Arab-Israeli conflict for me.

I told him about my father, who survived Auschwitz, and about my 5 year-old son. Each time I wrap him in a towel after his bath, I told Kuntar, I think of Danny Haran and his daughter Einat. About the terror attack in Nahariya.

The girl’s death was a tragic incident, answered Kuntar. He insisted that he had not killed her. What does it matter, I told him, you shot at them. If you had not landed on the beach at Nahariya in your rubber dinghy, Einat Haran would still be alive. He never expressed any remorse.

I did not try to understand, to resolve or even to interpret. I just wanted to get to know the man. “I met the enemy,” Samir said, when I asked him how he would explain our meetings to his children. “I met the enemy and I saw that he has a face.”

Samir Kuntar’s Jewish enemy does indeed have a face, which is why Hezbollah and the Assad regime have done everything in their power to ensure that the people of Lebanon and Syria have no contact whatsoever with Israelis. It’s a bit harder to see people as a diabolical “other” after spending quality time with them.

Sending an email to Tel Aviv from Beirut or Damascus can land a person in prison. (I’ve done it hundreds of times myself, but I refuse to obey such a contemptible law, and anyway I’m not Syrian or Lebanese.) Even saying hello to an Israeli tourist on holiday in a third country like Cyprus or Greece is a crime.

Kuntar really did seem to change, and he seemed to change even before Kotes-Barr met him. Perhaps it was all a big put-on—he wouldn’t be the first person to pretend he had seen the errors of his ways in order to get out of prison—but either way he knew exactly how to tell the Israelis what they wanted to hear.

Ha’aretz interviewed him in 1995. “Theology enlists people to hate blindly,” he said, “both on the Israeli and the Arab side.

If instead of talking about the Promised Land you would find a way to introduce into the Palestinian education system – for which you are responsible – the horrors of the Holocaust, the history of Jew-hatred from the days of the Romans until the Nazi era, I have no doubt everything would be different. We never recognized Jewish suffering. We saw an entire people being thrown out, and a prosperous country thriving at its expense.


You have to accept Israel as a fact, in order to move on and not return to the cycle of losses. The message to the coming generations, especially the Palestinians, is that you have to include presenting the suffering of the Jewish people. Without this, it’s impossible to develop any empathy toward Jews.

He didn’t change, though. Or, if he did, he changed back and signed on with Hezbollah shortly after his release even though he isn’t even a Muslim. (He’s Druze.) Until the Israelis killed him this weekend, he was one of Hezbollah’s most formidable commanders and spokesmen in Syria.

He has been busy fighting Syrians lately rather than Jews. Perhaps one of these days, maybe—just maybe—the Arab world will realize that terrorists who kill Jews will turn right around and kill Arabs and that the Israelis are doing everybody a favor by zotting them from the skies.

US Diplomat is Roughed-Up in Scuffle in Beijing

On Monday, unidentified men, many of them wearing smiley-face stickers on their jackets, shoved journalists so that they fell onto American diplomat Dan Biers as he was reading a statement in Beijing about the persecution of Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. Biers, a deputy political counselor at the US Embassy, had to stop reading but was later able to finish.

The incident took place while Biers was standing outside Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court, where Pu’s trial is being held.

The men, almost certainly from Beijing’s Public Security Bureau or a similar unit, also interrupted a European Union delegate. Diplomats from 10 countries other than the US were on hand for the proceeding—“the capital’s biggest political trial in two years,”  according to the Wall Street Journal’s “China Real Time Report”—and many of them were also harassed.

The Baltic States' Vital Step Toward Energy Independence

The Baltic states may have declared independence a quarter-century ago, but Monday marked independence of a different kind. With the inauguration of its NordBalt electricity connector with Sweden and its LitPol Link with Poland, Lithuania has permanent energy links going westward, and several other links are planned. The Baltic states’ quest for energy independence, especially their desire to break away from the region’s Moscow-run electricity grid, isn’t sitting well with Russia.

Construction of the NordBalt energy connector, between the Lithuanian town of Klaipeda and Nybro, in southeast Sweden, began two years ago; LitPol Link construction began last year. Given Russia’s willingness to cut energy exports to countries it considers rebellious, Lithuania’s haste is understandable. Lithuania, with a population of 2.9 million, imports 72 percent of its energy, of which 48 percent is bought from Russia.

Most Americans Now Support Using Ground Troops

The terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, earlier this month dramatically changed the American mood.

53 percent of Americans now think we should use ground troops against ISIS in Syria, Iraq or both.

I’ve been asked repeatedly over the last couple of years what I think might snap Americans out of the isolationist funk we’ve been wallowing in since the Iraq war and the economic downturn of 2008. I haven’t had the answer. I may be some kind of an “expert” on Middle Eastern affairs, but I don’t have a crystal ball that shows me the future of American politics.

I assumed a huge ISIS attack in the United States on the scale of 9/11 would change American public opinion. How could it not? Likewise, a series of smaller Paris-style attacks might do the job.

I never would have guessed that a single attack by two people who might not even have a direct connection to ISIS would swing the pendulum back to the hawkish side of the spectrum all by itself. 

Nothing has actually changed except the American mood. Using ground troops in Syria and Iraq is no better or worse an idea after San Bernardino that it was before.

The downsides are the same and at this point should be obvious. Lives will be lost, and some of them will be ours. American soldiers can’t fix what ails the Middle East. Sure, they can overthrow dictators. They can kill terrorists and push them out of territory.

But eliminating the appeal of a fascistic ideology is something else entirely. Replacing a totalitarian regime with some kind of functioning democracy in lands riven by ancient sectarian hatreds and hobbled by political and religious extremism is something else entirely.

Terrorism in the United States didn’t begin with ISIS, nor will it end with ISIS. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik would almost certainly have taken up arms if ISIS didn’t even exist. Their desire and ability to murder American citizens was unrelated to who controls the streets of Raqqa and Mosul.

The upside of using ground troops may be a little less obvious. At least it was less obvious until recently. ISIS can be defeated militarily, at least temporarily. It has happened before.

ISIS began in the mid-2000s as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Back then, AQI, like ISIS today, controlled entire Iraqi cities. It resembled a state-within-a-state, like a more deranged Sunni version of Hezbollahland in Lebanon.

American ground troops, in an alliance with the tribes of Iraq’s Anbar Province, first destroyed AQI’s “government” in Fallujah and Ramadi, then destroyed AQI is a fighting force. It was reduced to a few dozen fugitives and an idea. Nothing more.

It came back, of course, under a new name in Syria, and then it exploded back into Iraq. The victory was temporary. The utopian jihadist idea lives on, and there are plenty of lawless and anarchic places in the Middle East and North Africa were the likes of ISIS can take root and metastasize.

You could say fighting them as like playing a game of whack-a-mole where they always pop back up somewhere else. You can say fighting them is like mowing the lawn. The grass keeps on growing relentlessly.

But that leads us to a couple of questions. Do you refuse to mow your lawn because it keeps growing? What will happen if you stop mowing the lawn? Are you better off with a weekly lawn-mowing chore or a jungle in your front yard?

Fighting these guys indeed looks and feels futile, but refusing the fight them—or refusing to fight them seriously and effectively—only allows them to grow stronger.

My guess—this is an educated guess, but it’s still a guess—is that we’re going to settle into something resembling an Israeli view of this problem. We will not indulge the fantasy that we can send in the Army and the Marines and end terrorism once and for all. It’s not going to happen. Not any time soon. But that doesn’t mean we’ll never send in the Army and the Marines, that we’ll sit back and wring our hands while one nation-state after another becomes Talibanized.

Some time is likely to pass before the American government registers the American mood shift. Barack Obama isn’t going to mount a ground invasion of Syria. Republican presidential candidates have likewise been falling all over themselves promising not to mount a ground invasion of anywhere.

It won’t last. It can't. The American public won’t let it. Neither will ISIS. As Michael Walzer once wrote, paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

‘Airpocalypse’ in Beijing

Monday afternoon, the Beijing municipality issued its first-ever red alert for air pollution. The warning, the highest in a four-level system, expires at noon on Thursday.

During this alert, primary and secondary schools are closed, as are kindergartens. Individual cars are only allowed on the road on alternate days. Government offices must reduce car use by 30 percent. Public transportation operates on extended schedules. Heavy trucks must stay off the roads. All outdoor construction is stopped. Factories are required to close for two days. Fireworks and barbecues are banned.

The air in Beijing is now a dark gray. And it is deadly. PM2.5 readings, which measure the most hazardous particulates, exceeded 900 in recent days. The World Health Organization’s safe level is 25. In China, some 4,000 people a day die from bad air, according to one study.

Russian Expansionism, Compatriots, and Energy Transformation

The following is an interview with Agnia Grigas, an expert on energy and political risk in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the post-Soviet region.

* * *

MOTYL: Your forthcoming book, Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire, argues that Moscow’s expansionist policies are driven by a desire to in-gather Russian and Russian-speaking “compatriots” in the non-Russian states. How does this process work?

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.


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