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A Landmark Meeting for Monarch in Waiting

In December, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, second in line to the British throne, made a one-day side trip to Washington from a longer visit to New York with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and met separately with both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Britain’s future monarch had a speaking engagement at the World Bank in Washington, so a courtesy visit to the president was good manners. But the Obama White House has done very little hobnobbing with foreign royalty and has been known to refuse occasional requests by other European royals for just such a visit, citing pressure of work or presidential travels (in which case, the royals in question don’t include the US capital city in their itinerary).

The Sydney Gunman’s Failed Message

A radical Islamist seized hostages in a café yesterday in Sydney, Australia. Sixteen hours later police shot him dead. At least two of his captives died and several others are seriously injured.

Shortly after he took over the café, he forced some of the hostages to hold a black flag up to the glass for news cameras to photograph. It is known variously as the black standard, the jihad flag, and the Salafist flag. It’s similar in some ways to the Saudi flag. It’s also similar to the black flag of the Abbasid caliphate.

Anybody who flies it is potentially dangerous.

Salafism is a relatively recent Islamic ideology (less than 150 years old) that arose as a reaction against 19th century Western imperialism in general and the liberal Western ideas that began percolating into the Middle East at the time, which was not ruled by Western imperialists but mostly by the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire.

Salafists wish to remove all modern “innovations” from Islam and to bring back the 7th century version as practiced by Mohammad. They also wish to build a caliphate—a state—based on the 7th century model. Some of them would be content to do this non-violently, but others are a little less, shall we say, patient.

So an individual won’t necessarily be violent just because he’s a Salafist—especially not in the Persian Gulf region where their numbers are huge—but Al Qaeda and ISIS are the armed wings of the Salafist movement.

When the Australian gunman forced his hostages to hold that flag up to the glass, he was identifying himself as a Salafist. But no one in media seemed to know what that flag is. Reporters just described it as “a flag with some Arabic writing on it,” as if it’s just some random flag from anywhere that could have meant anything.

The guman sent a message, but it wasn’t received. And we know he was monitoring the news in real time. He was directly across the street from an Australian news channel. He wanted attention, but he was not getting the attention he wanted. Reporters couldn’t even figure out who he was when he clearly identified himself and his ideology.

Hours into the standoff, he demanded an ISIS flag in return for the release of one of the hostages. CNN anchors wondered aloud why, if he wanted an ISIS flag, he didn’t just bring one with him in the first place. But he did bring a Salafist flag. He must assumed that at least somebody would recognize it and explain it to the audience. I recognize it because I’ve been working in the Middle East for ten years, but news anchors are generally not experts in anything in particular except presenting information on television. They’re generalists.

Would the standoff have ended better if the man had more quickly succeeded in delivering his initial message without all the mounting frustration of being misunderstood? Probably not. Obviously, since he took hostages at gunpoint, he was not from the non-violent wing of the Salafist movement. Nevertheless, it’s time for Westerners who aren’t Middle East experts to know who the Salafists are and what they’re insignia looks like. They’ve been at war with us now for a long time.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Obama Cites Dangers in Xi’s Consolidation of Power

At the beginning of the month, President Obama, in comments to the Business Roundtable in Washington, displayed his command of Chinese Communist Party politics. “He has consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping,” he said of his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. “And everybody’s been impressed by his … clout inside of China after only a year and a half or two years.”

“There are dangers in that,” Obama then remarked.

Yes, there are, and it was important for the president to have said so, even if it was unusual for the leader of the free world to comment on the political standing of an authoritarian supremo.

Israel's Comrade Rivlin

By Alan Johnson and Lorin Bell-Cross

When Shimon Peres’s term as president of Israel came to an end in July, many in Israel were fearful: Who could fill the shoes of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and elder statesman?

Their fears were deepened by the election of Peres’s successor: Reuven (“Rubi”) Rivlin, a veteran right-wing Likud Party parliamentarian, minister of communications under Ariel Sharon, opponent of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, and someone opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.  

Al Jazeera’s Scurrilous Attack on Morocco

Some people and organizations who claim to champion human rights don’t give a flying fork about the genuine article and would rather slam Western democracies and their allies than take an unflinching look at those who binge on anti-Westernism who, not coincidentally, include most of the worst human rights abusers on earth. The U.S. and Israel are the most abused targets, but Arab countries can get hit with it too.

The latest example came over the Thanksgiving weekend when Morocco hosted the second annual World Human Rights Forum in the city of Marrakech. (The first was held last year in Brazil.) I was invited to participate—I was not paid to be there, but travel expenses were covered—along with almost 7,000 others, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. 

Al Jazeera published a report about the conference before it even began and described it as a “masquerade” right in the headline. The forum, it says, was “designed to deceive Western political and business partners about the North African kingdom's 2011 political reform project.”

This is nonsense on stilts. The forum had nothing to do with Morocco or its internal affairs. It just happened to take place in Morocco. It was sponsored by an international institution concerned with human rights all over the world. Next year’s forum will be held in Argentina.

But Morocco is a pro-Western country, one of America’s major non-NATO allies, and a source of stability instead of “resistance,” so in certain quarters it’s suspect.

Al Jazeera’s hit piece describes the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, which boycotted the event, as the country’s “foremost civil rights activists,” but it’s actually a motley collection of hardcore leftists and far-right Islamists well outside the Moroccan mainstream.

The organization has some legitimate complaints, though, to be sure. Morocco’s emergence from authoritarian rule is incomplete, and the Ministry of the Interior has shut down some of its meetings in hotels. Using instruments of the state to bust up meetings only gives them more things to complain about.

Robert M. Holley, a former diplomat at the US Embassy in Morocco, attended the conference. He knows the AMDH well and has little patience for them even if they are right about some things. “They have been especially adamant critics of the government for jailing people who have been rounded up on allegations of connections with jihadi groups here seeking to aid ISIS,” he told me. “They won a high profile lawsuit in the Moroccan courts against the Ministry of Interior for interfering with its organizational activities. I think that is clear evidence that the system they are protesting against seems to be working pretty well to address their grievances. There are always going to be dissident voices here. AMDH is an organization whose leadership is composed of many from the far left that has also been infused with new membership from the rejectionist Islamist political spectrum in Morocco. It’s a curious partnership that seems mostly united by its blanket rejectionist approach to most social and political issues in Morocco.”

Eric Goldstein at Human Rights Watch is also quoted in the Al Jazeera report. He thinks it’s “disturbing that at the moment Morocco is preparing to host this forum on human rights, it’s taking measures to restrict the freedom of its own human rights organizations.”

He neglects to point out that Moroccan courts sided with the AMDH against the Ministry of Interior. Perhaps he did say that and Al Jazeera snipped it, but Human Rights Watch, I’m sorry to say, has been on an anti-Morocco kick now for years, which is part of a most unfortunate pattern.

Robert Bernstein founded Human Rights Watch in 1978 and publicly broke with his own organization in 2009 for spending far too much time and effort beating on Israel—the nation with by far the best human rights record in the Middle East—at the expense of investigating Israel’s neighbors even when they’re guilty of backing terrorist organizations abroad and committing mass murder at home. In 2011 he founded a new organization, Advancing Human Rights, to correct the wrongs of his first organization.

But Israel isn’t the only country his first organization spends too much time grinding its axe against. It does the exact same thing to Morocco. Human Rights Watch at times acts as a volunteer shill organization for the Polisario, the communist guerilla army hatched by Fidel Castro and Moammar Qaddafi in the early 1970s and backed by Algeria. The Polisario to this day holds tens of thousands of citizens from the contested Western Sahara region hostage in “refugee camps” in the Algerian desert. Human Rights Watch reports from the Western Sahara read like ludicrous press releases from the Algerian police state, the Polisario’s primary patron, which resembles nothing so much as an Arab version of East Germany circa 1976.

“Refugees from the Western Sahara conflict who have been living in camps in the Algerian desert for four decades seem to be generally able to leave the camps if they wish,” according to a Human Rights Watch report issued in October of this year.

They seem to be able to leave? No. These people have been held against their will for almost as long as I’ve been alive. I’ve been to the Western Sahara. I know a number of people who fled the Polisario’s camps after being tortured nearly to death. I know people whose family members are to this day held in these camps as bargaining chips and who will be hunted down and perhaps even killed if they dare try to escape. There is no reason to expect anything better of an armed militia backed by the Castros and Algeria’s Soviet-style regime, let alone Qaddafi back when he was still with us. Yet Human Rights Watch takes their side against one of the few Arab countries that is successfully democratizing without bloodshed and mayhem.

There are a number of reasons why certain types of self-styled human rights champions bash Western democracies and their allies disproportionately while giving far worse actors a pass. Partly it’s because they have a double standard, partly it’s because of a reflexive anti-Western bias, and partly it’s because democratic and tolerant nations won’t kill, arrest, or blacklist those who complain. That last problem is built-in and unfixable, but the first two certainly aren’t.

What Al Jazeera, the AMDH, and Human Rights Watch ignore or don’t even care about much in the first place is the fact that Morocco is the most under appreciated Arab Spring success story. The Western media ignore this as well, not because foreign correspondents are generally suspicious of Morocco but because Morocco doesn’t explode. If it bleeds it leads, as we say in the media business, and Morocco doesn’t bleed. It successfully transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected government, and it did so with neither revolution nor war. Morocco, along with Tunisia, adopted one of the most liberal constitutions in the entire Arab world while much of the rest of the region went up in flames. But hardly anyone noticed because the infernos in Egypt, Libya, and Syria sucked up all the oxygen.

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Though Morocco’s King Mohammad VI did not attend the conference, a minister from the government read his speech at the opening ceremony. In it he explained why so many attendees were from Africa and the Middle East.

“It is a historical fact,” he said, “that international human rights instruments were developed in the absence of Africa. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, there were only four independent African countries. When the 1966 International Covenants were adopted, there were only about 30 African countries which had freed themselves from the colonial yoke.

“Africa cannot remain a mere consumer of international standards devised in its absence,” he continued. “Africa can no longer be the invariable object of international reports and external evaluations. Our continent has become mature enough to claim its rightful place in the global human rights architecture and to fully play its role in it.”

I attended some of the discussion groups in the following days and was curious what the attending Arabs and Africans would say about human rights and democracy considering they hail from regions where human rights and democracy are often in dismal condition at best. I’ve run into far too many people in this part of the world who have only the vaguest idea what these concepts even mean. The Muslim Brotherhood says it’s in favor of human rights and democracy despite championing terrorist organizations and governing like pharaohs after being elected. Many of Egypt’s secular activists likewise proved to be profoundly illiberal when they hailed the military dictatorship of General Sisi, who is far more of a brute than Hosni Mubarak.

I encountered none of this Egyptian-style faux liberalism at the World Human Rights Forum. Instead I heard one Arab and African speaker after another extolling the virtues of liberal constitutions, the separation of powers, the protection of minority rights, the right to worship freely, the need to dismantle authoritarian and unaccountable institutions, and the necessity of flourishing civil society organizations that act as buffers between individuals and the state.

A panel on democracy and human rights sponsored by the Embassy of Switzerland and the Council of Europe pondered a serious question: Can the Middle East and North Africa preserve human rights during democratic transitions and prevent the Arab Spring from turning to winter? The answer in Tunisia and Morocco is yes. The answer in Egypt, Libya, and Syria is an unambiguous no. 

Sectarian and ethnic divisions complicate things as well in the Arab world and in Sub-Saharan Africa. One speaker pointed out what simply can’t be denied: ethnically and religiously fractious nations that hold elections prematurely may discover that elections are civil war by other means. Iraq has proven that to everybody with eyes. Sunnis voted for Sunnis, Shias voted for Shias, and the Shias, with their demographic majority, used the power of the state to smash the minority. Some despondent Sunni leaders then made a fateful alliance with ISIS in order to keep Baghdad’s boots off their necks.

One speaker at the forum passionately argued that human rights existed before states and cannot be taken away by states, and that everyone on earth is born into this world with inalienable rights. He quoted Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism. Thomas Jefferson would have smiled. Many of the people who made these points spoke in the language of the Middle East and North Africa. They proved that Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir was right when he said, shortly before Syria’s Assad regime murdered him in Beirut with a car bomb, that “political liberalism can be conjugated in Arabic.”

On occasion I hear Arabs saying such things in opposition to their governments, but genuine democrats are thin on the ground in most of the Middle East, and they’re rarely numerous or powerful enough to transform their political systems. But in Morocco these things were said under the auspices of the government and the head of state. Nothing remotely like this will happen any time soon in Egypt, Libya, or Algeria. The very idea is absurd. It certainly won’t happen any time soon in Syria where would-be democrats are trapped between the anvil of the Assad regime on one side and the hammer of ISIS on the other. They have no choice, really, other than exile.

Al Jazeera can pre-emptively dismiss all this from thousands of miles away as a “masquerade” if it wants, but the real masquerade is Al Jazeera pimping human rights to its audience while elsewhere supporting the narrative of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations

Morocco doesn't have a perfect record—not even the US or Canada in 2014 have perfect records—but it has been moving in the right direction for years. Freedom House—a far more serious organization than Human Rights Watch—used to rank the country as Not Free, but now says it’s Partly Free and improving. Yet it remains imperfect. Even if were Free instead of Partly Free it wouldn’t be perfect. The country did not snap its fingers and transform instantly into a Jeffersonian democracy. But the Al Jazeera bosses in the quasi-medieval Qatari sheikhdom—which Freedom House bluntly dismisses as Not Free—have no clue what a Jeffersonian democracy even looks like.

Decoding Putin’s State of the Union Speech

Vladimir Putin’s December 4th “state of the union” address to Russia’s Federal Assembly once again explained why he annexed the Crimea. This time, his explanation reached new ideological heights, while again confounding academic realists, who continue to insist that Russia grabbed the Crimea in response to an aggressive West. Here are Putin’s words:

[The annexation of the Crimea] has special significance for our country and our people. Because our people live in the Crimea, and the territory itself is strategically important; because it is here that is found the spiritual source of the formation of a multifaceted but monolithic Russian nation and a centralized Russian state. It was here, in the Crimea, in ancient Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized and then baptized all of Rus.

Israel Bombs Syria – Again

The Israelis bombed Syria again. That’s what the Syrian and Iranian regimes are claiming anyway, though the Israelis won’t confirm or deny it.

Generally we should take Israel’s word over Syria’s and Iran’s, but not this time. Israel’s refusal to deny it is a tacit admission that it did indeed launch air strikes against Syria, this time on the outskirts of Damascus.

Israel is not bombing Syria randomly. It’s targeting weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The rest of us are focused on ISIS and ignoring what the Assad regime and Hezbollah are up to, but the Israelis have to live in that neighborhood. The main reason Hezbollah is fighting Sunni jihadists in Syria is because it desperately needs the Assad regime as backup in its relentless war against Israel. If ISIS defeats Assad, Hezbollah loses.

The Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers are claiming Israel is “in the same trench” as ISIS since it’s attacking those who are fighting against ISIS. There’s a certain logic there, but it’s circular. The United States is “in the same trench” as Israel, which according to these characters puts us “in the same trench” as ISIS. Yet the United States is also “in the same trench” as Assad and Hezbollah since we’re bombing ISIS. That’s a heck of a trench! It’s a circular trench, or perhaps even a three dimensional möbius trench. But that’s the Middle East for you.

Russia is furious about all this, of course, but that’s no surprise. There’s nothing complicated about which trench Vladimir Putin is in.

Taiwan Voters Reject China-Centric Policies

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou bowed for 10 seconds Wednesday as he confirmed his resignation as chairman of the ruling Kuomintang, taking responsibility for the party’s worst drubbing since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island after defeat in the Chinese civil war. On Saturday, voters thoroughly rejected the KMT, as the organization is known, in elections for 11,130 local posts across the island.

Voters turned down KMT candidates in seats that had been safely “blue” for decades. It was not so much that the electorate had gone “green”—the color adopted by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and its allies—as much as they had rejected Ma, who was nearing the end of his second and last term.

As the president said while announcing his resignation, “The results of the election tell us our reforms were not made fast enough and have yet to meet the expectations of the people, which is why the KMT failed to win the support of most voters.”

Who Will Save the People of the Donbas?

The answer, as is becoming increasingly obvious, is no one. Having ruined the economy of the Donbas enclave they occupy and caused a humanitarian catastrophe, neither Russia nor its terrorist proxies will come to the population’s rescue. Western powers reluctant to confront Vladimir Putin certainly aren’t going to open their wallets to the tune of billions of dollars. And Ukraine, which continues to proclaim that the territories are “temporarily occupied,” lacks the financial and military capacity to liberate the area. That leaves the enclave’s people isolated and, ultimately, completely dependent on themselves.

As many residents of the area now realize, the self-proclaimed leaders of the Donbas and Luhansk republics are more inclined to destroy than to create. As long as they’re around, the enclave will be unsalvageable, and it looks like they’ll be around for a while.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky on the Proposed Jewish State Law

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit this evening to issue letters of dismissal to Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Tomorrow the Knesset will likely discuss a bill to dissolve the current Knesset. One of the main reasons for the breakup of the government has been the acrimonious debate over the Likud leader’s determination to pass a new Basic Law enshrining Israel’s status as a “Jewish state.”

In this context, it is worth reflecting on what Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880–1940), the ideological godfather of the Israeli right and founder of the branch of Zionism now headed by Netanyahu, wrote on this question. The following commentary is composed entirely from Jabotinsky’s words.

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Dispatch from Vietnam: Will the US Foster a Natural Ally?

My latest essay in the print edition of World Affairs is now available online. Here's the first part:

Nearly forty years after the Vietnam War, Hanoi holds no grudges against the United States, in part because nearly all the country’s negative energy today is focused on China. And for good reason: China is big; it’s powerful; it’s right next door; and it has been hostile for two thousand years. Vietnam’s war with the US will never be repeated, but its long history of conflict with China, which is roughly as old now as Christianity, hasn’t been settled and might be revving up yet again.

Earlier this year, Vietnamese and Chinese naval vessels squared off in the South China Sea when China installed an oil rig in disputed waters. No one was hurt in this confrontation, but several Chinese nationals in Vietnam were killed later, in response to the incident, when furious mobs of Vietnamese rioters attacked Chinese-owned factories. Thousands of Chinese citizens left Vietnam in the wake of the violence. The government cracked down on what it rightly called “hooligans,” but relations between the two countries remain testier than they’ve been in a quarter-century.

This recent conflict may well blow over, but the tension that sparked it in the first place is not going anywhere. Vietnam and China both claim the Paracel Islands, and the Spratly Islands farther south are claimed by yet four more countries in Southeast Asia, but China claims almost the entire sea, more than a thousand miles from its own mainland, well south of Vietnam, and nearly all the way down to the coast of Malaysia.

Chinese maps show a so-called “nine-dash line” that supposedly delimits these claims over the sea. The line is also known as the “cow’s tongue line” for its vague U-shape. The United States insists rightly that this line is inconsistent with international maritime law, but Washington takes no position on who owns either the Paracels or the Spratlys. I spent quite a bit of time looking into it myself and had to give up in frustration. There are no right answers. These are legitimate disputes that need to be resolved amicably.

Vietnam refuses to recognize China’s claim over the Paracels, but at least Vietnam recognizes that China is making what it sees as an invalid claim. China, on the other hand, doesn’t even recognize that Vietnam has an invalid claim, making peaceful resolution all but impossible.

Robert D. Kaplan’s latest book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, describes maritime Southeast Asia as a major upcoming theater of conflict. “The composite picture,” he writes, “is of a cluster of states that, with problems of domestic legitimacy and state-building largely behind them, are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores. This outward collective push is located in the demographic cockpit of the globe; it is here in Southeast Asia, with its nearly 600 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian Subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. And the geographic meeting place of all these states is maritime: the South China Sea.”

Most modern wars are fought over power and ideology rather than resources, but a conflict in the South China Sea would be old school. It could begin and end with relatively minor naval skirmishes or it could escalate. Nobody knows. Either way, China and Vietnam are both growing economically and militarily more powerful, and they’re both expanding their presence in the South China Sea at the same time the United States is scaling back, creating a situation ripe with potential for a serious face-off.

“China makes us nervous sometimes,” says Huy Dang, a Hanoi resident from the south who works for General Motors. “Our common sense tells us not to trust the Chinese. We don’t use Chinese products. They’re bad quality.”

But what about the Chinese government and military? Do everyday Vietnamese feel threatened by the colossus to the north?

Click here to read the rest!

Criminal States Protecting Their Proxies at UN

On November 18, the United Nations Third Committee adopted a resolution recommending the referral of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court, alleging crimes against humanity. This was the first time a U.N. resolution recommended sending North Korea to The Hague.

The General Assembly is expected to accept the committee’s report next month and formally pass the matter to the Security Council.

 China and Russia, among the 19 voting against the Third Committee resolution, will undoubtedly use their Security Council vetoes to make sure the ICC does not get an opportunity to hear the case.

Europe: Deny the Vote to Putin’s Outlaw Regime

Earlier this month, the leaders of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE)—the oldest and largest pan-European organization that brings together national lawmakers from across the continent—visited Moscow for talks with State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin. The principal topic of discussion was the restoration of voting rights for Russian delegates, which were suspended in April following the annexation of Crimea.

The talks brought good news for the Kremlin. According to Andreas Gross, a Swiss lawmaker and the Assembly’s rapporteur on Russia, most leaders of the European parliamentary body want to see “a full restoration of the rights of the Russian delegation” at the PACE’s upcoming session in January. The next round of negotiations will be held in December in Vienna.

If this agreement takes shape, it will represent one of the biggest acts of hypocrisy in the history of the Council of Europe.

Time for a Hybrid War Against Russia?

Should Ukraine embark on a “hybrid war” against the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its proxies? One of Ukraine’s best military analysts, Yuri Butusov, the Russian-speaking editor of the Censor.net website, effectively argues that the answer is yes.

Hybrid war is the term analysts apply to what many believe is Russia’s new way of war-making in southeastern Ukraine, one that employs a variety of means—propaganda, subversion, outright aggression, support for proxies, and the like—while remaining undeclared or denied.

The Last Days of the Communist Party?

Vietnam is an authoritarian one-party state that looks and feels like a free country.

Local people scoff at the government publicly without fear of reprisal. I saw plenty of men in uniforms from both the police and the army, but they did not look intimidating, nor did they look like they were trying to be. They carried themselves the way uniformed security people carry themselves in countries like the US and Canada.

I didn’t worry for even a second that my hotel room might be bugged. It wasn’t, and if it had been I wouldn’t have cared. There was no need for me to keep my identity as a journalist secret as I did in Cuba and Libya. I’d have to hide my true identity in China too and—especially—in North Korea. But not in Vietnam.

Tunisia was like that before the Arab Spring started. Azerbaijan is too to this day. Taiwan and South Korea passed through such periods shortly before their transitions to democracy.

One might even—with great caution—make a case that the final days of these waning dictatorships were and are characterized by regimes that aren’t really that bad, at least compared with other authoritarian and—especially—totalitarian states.

Hanoi, Vietnam

The idea of a good dictator, in the overwhelming majority of cases, is of course ludicrous. But once in a very long while relatively decent ones will appear. Robert D. Kaplan defines such a rare creature as “one who makes his own removal less fraught with risk by preparing his people for representative government.” He cites Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew as an example.

It’s not that Lee’s government was better than a representative democracy. It wasn’t. Lee was just better than other dictators because he created the necessary conditions for a non-violent transition to something more liberal and open.

“The worse the dictator,” Kaplan writes in his book Asia’s Cauldron, “the worse the chaos left in his wake. That is because a bad dictator eviscerates intermediary institutions between the regime at the top and the extended family or tribe at the bottom—professional associations, community organizations, political groups, and so on—the very stuff of civil society.”

Saddam Hussein did that in Iraq. Bashar al-Assad did it in Syria. Moammar Qaddafi ruined Libya in precisely the same way, as did Pol Pot in Cambodia, Adolf Hitler in Germany, and the Kim family in North Korea.

I’m tempted to argue that communist regimes have done this in every country where they have ever seized power, but I’m not certain it’s true. Vietnam’s Communist Party reformed itself out of all recognition, first by junking Marxist economics and then by ceasing and desisting from micromanaging Vietnamese citizens’ personal lives. The government did these things voluntarily.

“The good dictator,” Kaplan continues, “by fostering economic growth, among other things, makes society more complex, leading to more civil society groupings, and to political divisions based on economic interest that are by definition more benign than divisions of tribe and sectarian ethnic group.”

Vietnam’s government meets the threshold. Just barely. But let’s be clear about what exactly that means. It does not mean that since the dictatorship is relatively “good” compared with most others that it ought to continue. It definitely ought not continue. It’s only “good” compared with most others insofar as it’s at least arguably possible to transition to a more democratic system without the violence and mayhem gripping countries like Syria, Egypt, post-communist Yugoslavia, Ukraine after the removal of Viktor Yanukovych, Somalia after the implosion of Siad Barre’s communist state in 1991, and Libya after the destruction of the Qaddafi regime.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam today more closely resembles pre-democratic Taiwan and South Korea, and it’s in better shape, economically and politically, than South Vietnam before it lost the war to the communists. The Vietnamese have no experience with democracy, but neither did the South Koreans before they finally got it in the late 1980s and made it work without many hiccups. The Taiwanese had no experience with electoral democracy either while Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang was still in place, but they transitioned fairly smoothly during the 1980s and 1990s. Tunisia’s transition has been a bit rockier, but they take two steps forward for every slip-up.

I should stress that Vietnam appears to be the kind of place where a mostly non-violent democratic transition seems possible. I could be wrong. Historical optimists are often proved wrong. It has happened to me. It has happened to everyone who thinks they know which direction events might be heading.

To visitors, Hanoi looks and feels like the capital of a free country most of the time, but one must take seriously Bill Hayton’s warning in his book Vietnam: Rising Dragon. “The trappings of freedom are apparent on every city street but, from the economy to the media, the Communist Party is determined to remain the sole source of authority. Beneath the great transformation lurks a paranoid and deeply authoritarian political system. Vietnam’s prospects are not as clear as they might first appear to outsiders.”

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Thich Quang Do, head of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), is the most famous political dissident in the country. He won the Homo Homini Prize for human rights in 2002 and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize nine times. He’s living under house arrest inside a pagoda in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). His crime? Demanding democracy.

“For the past few years,” he said in an interview, “I have been living like a prisoner on a long leash. All day, I stay in my room. I eat one meal per day. The routine is exactly the same as when I was in prison. Outside my door, there is a stool. At lunchtime, around 11 am, they bring my food up from the kitchen and put it on the stool. I take the meal and eat it inside my room. When I’ve finished, I put my tray back on the stool. They come and take it away. Exactly like in prison.”

Al Jacobson at Amnesty International has been working Do’s case since 2002. “We are tenacious after we adopt a prisoner,” he told me. “Since his church is so large, the Vietnamese government considers it a threat and refuses to recognize it. There was a nominal recognition of the Catholic church a couple of years ago, but it has a smaller following than the Buddhist church.”

“Is this primarily about politics, religion, or both?” I asked.

“It’s largely a political issue,” he said. “The church has developed a large following and it’s strongly opposed to the communist government. I follow this closely and I’ve never heard anything from the government that suggests it’s opposed to the church for religious reasons.”

The UBCV wants freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and freedom of assembly. “They’re opposed to the authoritarian nature of the Vietnamese government in general,” Jacobson said.

Recently, when tensions rose over the conflict in the South China Sea, Thich Quang Do wanted to organize a Buddhist demonstration against the Chinese, but the police surrounded his pagoda and wouldn’t allow him to travel. The government worried that a large gathering of people from the Buddhist church for any reason might pose a threat to the government even if the government and the church agreed with each other on the protest agenda completely.

“The government is very astute about how they treat him,” Jacobson said. “They say look, he’s not in prison, he’s in a pagoda. But he doesn’t have rights and we at Amnesty International consider him a prisoner of conscience.”

The authorities may keep him locked in a pagoda rather than prison for astute and cynical reasons, but it’s nevertheless significant that they haven’t thrown him into a gulag like the North Koreans most certainly would have. Vietnam doesn’t even have any gulags. The re-education camps are long gone. I had plans to meet with him myself in Saigon—his people were going to sneak me in and out under cover—but I had to cut my trip short for medical reasons.

“If there were a massive public protest movement in Vietnam,” I said to Jacobson, “how do you think the government would react to it? Would they do what the Chinese government did in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and shoot hundreds of people? I get the feeling they wouldn’t. The country seems too bourgeois for that now.” But I figured Jacobson may have a better feel for it than I do.

“There’s a wide continuum between mass killings and milder forms of repression,” he said. “Freedom of speech, assembly and so on are already restricted, and these are the issues Amnesty International cares about. There are clear violations of human rights in Vietnam, not only with Thich Quang Do but also with cyber dissidents. I doubt there would be a massive violent crackdown against a huge movement, but there’s no way to know that for sure. Either way, it doesn’t change our position at all.”

*

Vietnam’s government still calls itself the Communist Party, but I saw more market capitalism in Vietnam than anywhere else in the world, including the United States where the economy is much more heavily regulated. It’s a little confounding.

“What does the word communist even mean anymore?” I asked a Vietnamese man named Huy in Hanoi. He calls himself Jason when talking to Americans because it’s easier to pronounce, so I’ll refer to him as Jason from here on.

“Communism today just means we're run by one political party,” he said. “Some people complain about that, but it doesn't matter to me as long as the government creates a good business and living environment, and it does. I don't want different political parties competing with each other and creating a crisis like in Thailand.”

The Thai military overthrew the elected government in May of 2014.

“If you were unhappy with the government, though, could you criticize it in public?” I said.

He laughed. “It's okay. We do it all the time. We're in a public place and I'm not keeping my voice down. You can criticize the government all you want as long as you don't take any action. Protesting the government isn't allowed, but we have had a lot of protests against China recently. We do get anti-government protests sometimes, though, even in Hanoi. It happens in Hanoi more often than in Saigon. People in the south don't give a shit, but people in Hanoi do it more often. The protests disappear quickly, though.”

“What happens to protesters?” I said. “Do they get arrested?”

“No,” he said. “They just get corrected by the authorities.”

Interesting euphemism, corrected. In the United States, correctional institution is government longhand for prison.

“What does that mean, exactly?” I said.

“They're told that protesting is bad,” Jason said, “that it's not allowed, and if they do it again they'll be punished. People hear that and they get scared, so they quit. That's it. Someone who is extremely radical will get one warning, their name will go on a list, and if they do it again they'll be in trouble. But if they go home and don't do it again, they'll be fine. Nothing will happen. Vietnam is not North Korea.”

No, Vietnam is definitely not North Korea. Nor is it Syria under Bashar al-Assad or Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Nor is it as strongly repressive as China. It’s less repressive than Burma (Myanmar) was recently, and the regime in that particular country is beginning to reform itself out of existence. The process isn’t complete and it might backslide, but it’s happening.

“How much has Vietnam changed during your lifetime?” I asked Jason.

“It’s growing very fast,” he said, “especially Saigon. The south is growing faster than the north.”

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

“Why is that?” I said.

“Because the capital is in the north,” he said. “Everything is more restricted here and controlled by the government, but the south is more open. The government let the south open up so the economy could grow, and the money flows from the south to the north. That’s how it works.”

I was surprised to hear that Hanoi is more restricted and closed than Saigon. It doesn’t appear to be restricted or controlled. Looks can be deceiving, of course. Repression isn’t always out in the open. But I have a keen nose for subtle political repression and can say honestly that I didn’t feel any. One of the reasons I’m aware that it does exist is because Vietnamese people were willing to tell me about it in public. The country does not meet the definition of what Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky famously called a “fear society,” where citizens will not say what they truly believe if other people can hear. 

“What does the government control here?” I asked Jason. “When I look around it doesn’t look very controlled. What am I not seeing?”

“Bars are forced to close earlier in Hanoi,” he said. “There can be no entertainment here after midnight. In Saigon they can stay open 24/7. Here we have to go home and sleep. We can be out on the street after midnight, but we can’t gather together or the police will come and tell us to go home.”

“What’s that about?” I said.

“That’s what we call the capital law,” he said. “It’s only in Hanoi. We have to disband after midnight.”

*

There is no getting around it: my Vietnamese colleagues in the media cannot write whatever they want.

I asked a local journalist about how the censorship system works and she seemed to answer me honesty. I will not print her name here because I don’t want to get her in trouble. Vietnam is not North Korea, but it’s not Canada either.

“The government technically owns everything but no longer controls it directly,” she said. “I’m honestly not sure how much press freedom I have or how much self-censorship I engage in because I’m so used to it.”

Fish don’t feel the water.

“No one tells me what I can and can’t write. I just instinctively know the things I shouldn’t say because I grew up here. The rules are not written down, but they change. In the past, for instance, we couldn’t print the word democracy in any context whatsoever, but now we can. Criticism of China used to be over the line, but now it’s okay.”

“What would happen if you broke the rules?” I said.

“The story wouldn’t make it past the editors,” she said. Of course it wouldn’t. News editors have to meet with the Propaganda Department once a week to hear what can and cannot be covered. “If it did somehow get past the editors, they’d get a call from the government and they’d have to fix it.”

Corruption gets covered in the media, but only low level people are named, she said, never ministers or high officials. “When corruption at the higher levels is mentioned by the press, the government in general is blamed rather than anyone in particular in the government.”

Social media sites are no longer banned, but they’re monitored. If you complain about the government on Facebook it’s sort of “okay,” apparently, although the state will be watching. If you make a complaint group on Facebook, things might get a little iffy for you. And if you make a complaint group on Facebook and take it offline and into the street, the rubber is going to meet the road.

Despite all this, Vietnam feels less repressive to me than any other one-party state I’ve ever visited. It’s a lot less repressive than Cuba, its supposed communist brother. The Castro regime strangles everything whereas the Vietnamese government only does what it must to stay in power which, somewhat paradoxically, has led to less control over everyday people’s lives rather than more. 

Tunisia looked and felt similar when Ben Ali was still around before the Arab Spring started, when Christopher Hitchens astutely pointed out that “its system of government is fractionally less intelligent and risktaking than the majority of its citizens.” Aside from the regime, things were going rather well in Tunisia the first time I visited in 2004. The state was a pain in the ass, but the society itself was open, tolerant, prosperous, and complex. It’s no surprise—not to me anyway—that Tunisia’s transition from authoritarian rule went smoothly for the most part and did not degenerate into civil war or an authoritarian counter-reaction as in Syria, Libya, or Egypt.

I could be wrong, but I get the strong sense that Vietnam will fare similarly when the trigger point is finally reached. It’s more prosperous and more free than at any time in its history. Things are getting better, and that is what often precipitates successful democratic transitions. When a sizeable middle class first emerges from poverty amidst a slackening of repression it tends to heave a sigh of relief and count its hard-won blessings and live content with its progress so far. But when a new generation is born with no personal experience of a more difficult past, the lack of political freedom is vastly more aggravating. Even older middle class citizens begin feeling secure enough to demand more after a while.

Whatever happens later, it’s clear what’s happening now. Vietnam’s citizens and government have achieved a temporary modus vivendi: if you won’t screw with us, we won’t screw with you. It’s a dismal state of affairs for anyone who’s politically minded, and it’s especially dismal for people like me who write about politics for a living, but most Vietnamese are staunchly apolitical—partly, I suppose, because they have to be, but also because the culture right now is primarily concerned with commerce and economic development.

Arguing about politics is a national pastime in most Middle Eastern countries despite the fact that few are politically free. Citizens can't always talk about their own governments, but they certainly can and do talk regional politics if not both. In the Middle East I always feel like I am in the middle of history as it’s unfolding. In Vietnam that feeling is less. The present is certainly a time of transformation, but there is much less daily intrigue, fewer things happening out in the open. There is no war, no revolution, and no terrorism.

But history is hardly over in Southeast Asia. China is bullying the region. Thailand’s military overthrew an elected government. Burma (Myanmar) is finally moving away from unspeakable repression. How much longer before something similar happens in Vietnam? It’s surprising that Burma is pulling ahead since its starting point was drastically lower, but if it can happen there it can certainly take root in Hanoi and Saigon.

The lack of horrible things happening or getting ready to blow in Vietnam makes my job harder, but the part of me that isn't a journalist, the part of me that's just a regular person, finds it refreshing. The Middle East could use a break from history like Vietnam is getting right now. But that's what it is: a break. The break will end. You can bet your bottom dollar on that.

*

Washington pressures Hanoi to make specific improvement rather than harping on human rights in general, which is more likely to get results. Generic complaints can be dismissed out of hand, but it’s harder to bat away targeted criticism from friends. Recent progress is modest, but improvements from the 1970s and 1980s have been dramatic.

“My family tried to leave in the 1970s and couldn’t,” Tuong Vi Lam told me. She grew up in Saigon during the war, and her family faced hell when the communists won. “My father and grandfather worked for the old government, so we had no chance there after the communists came. My father had to go to a re-education camp. He was forced to do hard labor in the fields. The camp was supposed to be for re-education, but it was really all about labor. He wasn’t abused, but many were and some were even killed.”

The only reason he was sent to a camp was because he worked for the old South Vietnamese government. He didn’t commit any actual crime. The communists had a list with everyone’s name on it. He got a notice in the mail telling him to report on a certain date.

“They didn’t arrest him?” I said.

“They arrested some people when those who were ordered to report didn’t return home,” she said.

“How bad was it in the south when the north took over?” I said.

“Very bad,” she said. “All the schools were shut down. My aunts and uncles were in college and they had to quit. They just couldn’t get there. Property was confiscated and given to northerners. Communist propaganda was even put in our math books. We had questions like this: ‘Yesterday a soldier killed three Americans and today he killed five. How many Americans did he kill total?’ The books don’t have those kinds of questions anymore, but they did for five or ten years.”

Her father eventually escaped the re-education camp and her family tried to flee on a small boat to a larger boat. The larger boat was so crowded that people had to cram themselves together on the deck. And they got caught.

“Where were you trying to get to?” I said.

“Either the Philippines or Thailand,” she said. “They had refugee camps there. But America was always the end goal.”

She eventually did make it out and lives now in Oregon.

“Why did the government even care that you were trying to leave?” I said.

“Because we were trying to escape the country,” she said.

“Yes, but why did they care? What was the reason they gave?”

“They just said we were trying to leave the country,” she said.

So that was it. Jailed for trying to leave. The entire country was turned into a prison. Jail was just a jail inside a jail.

“They didn’t come up with some other excuse,” I said, “like accusing you of smuggling? They just brazenly said leaving the country was a crime?”

“If you tried to leave the country you went to jail, even the children. Once a month family members were allowed to visit and bring us food and medicine. My father was sent to a camp and sentenced to stay there forever. But he escaped.”

“How?” I said.

“Everyone had to work in the fields in the morning and go back to jail at night,” she said. “One day they were working near a river, and he’s a very good swimmer. When the guards weren’t paying attention he threw a large rock into the water and hid in some bushes. They thought he had jumped into the river. He stayed hidden while they were yelling and shooting. And after four hours when it was dark and no one was around he jumped in, swam seven miles, and ran to my mom’s relatives. They gave him some money and he took a bus to Saigon. He couldn’t go back to the province, but he could hide in plain sight in a city of millions of people. We finally escaped to America and he didn’t return to Vietnam for twenty years.”

*

The Vietnamese government’s respect for human rights is hardly ideal and would be intolerable if ported over to the United States, but it is improving and it is currently better than at any time previously. That’s something, isn’t it? Surely it’s at least worth pointing out.

The country enjoys no freedom of the press, but foreign newspapers and magazines are available. So is the Internet, which includes information from everywhere about almost everything. That’s not enough—foreign newspapers and websites rarely cover local Vietnamese issues—but it’s also not nothing. At least people have a decent idea what’s going on beyond their borders, unlike the poor souls slaving away in North Korea with nary a clue.

Demonstrations are against the law, but some people go out in the streets and demonstrate anyway. At some point—it’s all but inevitable, really—so many people will demand change simultaneously that fear of doing so will be vaporized.

Impossible to say for sure, but the country could be one screw-up, reform, or mass protest away from blowing wide open. The timing of historical hinge moments is always unpredictable. No one could have predicted that Tunisia’s Mohammad Bouazizi would set himself on fire and trigger the Arab Spring, but it happened and something like it was bound to happen eventually. Authoritarian regimes can only achieve stasis and stability until they can’t. They always fail in the end.

The human rights record of every country on earth must be judged by the same standard. At the same time, it’s only fair to give a nation points for improvement if the improvement is genuine. One should not expect an authoritarian regime, let alone a totalitarian one, to snap its fingers and transform itself instantly into a Jeffersonian democracy. That’s not how history moves.

Pete Peterson—former prisoner of war in Vietnam, former Democratic Congressman from Florida, and the first US Ambassador to Vietnam after the war—agrees.

“When I was ambassador,” he told me, “I wanted to measure progress rather than compare the country to a 100-percent ideal. It did get better, and it’s still getting better. If you were to graph it, you’d definitely see the progress.”

Citizens aren’t fleeing the country by the millions anymore. Re-education camps no longer exist. Landlords are no longer executed. Facebook is no longer banned. Local people aren’t prohibited from speaking with foreigners anymore. Uncensored foreign newspapers and Web sites are available to everyone. 

“There are still abuses, though,” Peterson said. “The government doesn’t tolerate opposition and dissidents are nipped in the bud at once. There is a lot of censorship, including self-censorship. Nobody wants to be the tall poppy that gets smacked down.”

The United States nevertheless had friendly relations with Vietnam, as it should. The war is long over. Our two countries share the same strategic vision for Southeast Asia, and our two peoples, despite a terrible history several decades ago, genuinely like each other.

I asked Peterson what he thinks is the biggest misconception Americans have about Vietnam, and I wholeheartedly agree with his answer.

“Not just Americans,” he said, “but people all over the world have no idea how huge Vietnam is. It’s not a wide spot in the road we can ignore. It’s the 13th largest country on earth and it has an enormous military, economic, and strategic capacity. It should not be ignored, but it is. And our blind spot—if we aren’t careful—could create a vacuum that’s filled by someone or something that we do not like.”

Post-script: If you enjoyed reading this dispatch, please consider contributing with a donation. Many thanks in advance!

Also, I have a brand-new book out now. Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

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