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The Iraqi Debacle

The Iraqi catastrophe is the latest expression of the systemic crisis of the Middle East. Neither popular protest nor political Islam could solve that crisis. Now the jihadis are trying to fill the void in the artificial, weak, fragmented, sectarianized “states” created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement a century ago (and, in Iraq’s case, also by an invasion and occupation that Thomas E. Ricks famously described as a “fiasco”). The current crisis is simultaneously another front in a regional Sunni-Shia war that the West seems determined not to acknowledge.

How Putin Lost Ukraine

Half a year ago, in the fall of 2013, Ukraine was well on the way to becoming an authoritarian vassal state of Russia. Now, thanks to Russia’s neo-fascist dictator, Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is well on the way to becoming a democracy and a full-fledged member of the international community.

How did Putin snatch a humiliating defeat from the jaws of surefire victory? How could he have walked into a strategic trap of his own making? In a word, how did he lose Ukraine?

And make no mistake about it: it was Putin, and no one else, who lost Ukraine. He had it. He could easily have kept it. But now he’ll never have it again. And he has no one to blame but himself.

Putin has never understood Ukraine. For him, as for all too many Russians, it’s a historical mistake: a part of Russia that’s been swayed from the path of righteousness by a few dastardly fascist imperialist cigar-chomping bourgeois nationalists in cahoots with the CIA. If you treat a bona fide country with a bona fide people with a bona fide identity as your dirty backyard, don’t be surprised if you slip in the mud and fall on your face.

With Santos’s Reelection, New Chance for Peace

“Peace Wins” was the banner headline across the cover of Semana, Colombia’s leading political weekly, celebrating the comeback victory of incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos in the decisive presidential vote Sunday. It was a clear-cut victory for Santos, who received 51 percent of the votes against 45 percent for his conservative opponent, Óscar Iván Zuluaga. This reversed the first round in May when Zuluaga narrowly bested Santos in an election that had five candidates. Only Santos and Zuluaga remained for the runoff, and Santos won because there was a 10 percent increase in voter turnout, favoring Santos.

Beijing Redefines Hong Kong's Autonomy

On June 10th, China’s State Council issued its first white paper on Hong Kong since the city was handed from Britain to Beijing on July 1, 1997. The document, titled “The Practice of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” is a heavy-handed attempt to sway public opinion that is sure to backfire.

In the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, China promised Hong Kong, then a colony, a “high degree of autonomy.” At the time, Chinese officials sought to put the hearts of their Hong Kong compatriots “at ease,” as they said, by providing guarantees.

Police Raids, Intimidation Greet Moscow's Campaign Season

MOSCOW — The campaign for the 2014 Moscow legislative election began, as has become customary in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with police raids. Last week, Russia’s Investigative Committee charged Konstantin Yankauskas, a Moscow municipal legislator and a candidate for the City Duma in the September 14th vote, and fellow election contender Nikolai Lyaskin, with “fraud,” conducting searches in their apartments. Lyaskin was released under prosecutorial recognizance; Yankauskas was sentenced to house arrest and will be unable to file his nomination papers at the electoral commission.

Can Spain’s Monarchy Survive King’s Abdication?

A few days after his abdication announcement, King Juan Carlos of Spain received a standing ovation when he appeared in the royal box at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid. The 76-year-old monarch was visibly moved. With his popularity in steady decline, it had been years since he was cheered by his subjects, except at the bullfights, where he has long been a regular presence.

The exceptionally warm reception from the stands was their farewell to a royal aficionado at his last bullfight as king of Spain. As they have often done in the past, the two leading bullfighters dedicated their kills to him.

In a way it was a Hemingway moment: the old king, once the handsome, rugged, popular champion of the restored democracy, now ailing and prone to public relations missteps, cheered by the diehard supporters of a national blood sport that itself faces an uncertain future.

Egypt's Failed Revolution

I've spent enough time in Egypt and interviewed enough people there to know that authentic liberals (in the general, classical, sense of the word) are thin on the ground, but they do exist and Samuel Tadros is one of them.

Fortunately for us—and unfortunately for his country—he left and lives now in Washington.

Last year he published his first book, Motherland Lost, which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal, and he returns now with a short book (a long essay between covers) called Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt published by the Hoover Institution.

He and I spoke about it a couple of days ago.

MJT: You make a strong case in your book that the Egyptian revolutionaries commonly described as liberals are not really liberals. So who are these people really, and why do you suppose the West misunderstood them?

Samuel Tadros: They are really an amalgam of groups and individuals who took a stand against Mubarak. Some of them were Nasserists whose complaint with the regime was that it abrogated the promises made by Gamal Abdel Nasser [after the military coup of 1952]. They were upset about Mubarak’s internal policies as well as his policies toward Israel and the United States. Others were revolutionary socialists unhappy with the regime’s economic policies.

Most of the original revolutionaries before the crowds joined in were Nasserists and socialists, though some were what we could call proto-liberals. These were intellectuals who didn’t have strong convictions, and they didn’t really understand political liberalism, but the word “liberal” sounded good to them. Communism was less attractive to these people after the fall of the Soviet Union. Everyone abroad was talking about liberalism in Egypt, donors were seeking like minded Egyptians, so some Egyptians adopted the label for themselves without really understanding liberal ideas.

The West misunderstood them because of the natural tendency to find a good guy in the story, someone who looks like yourself. It’s hard to tell Americans there are no good guys. Everyone who was not an Islamist and not a supporter of the Mubarak regime assumed that role, but hardly anyone examined what these people were actually saying. Many of the revolutionary socialists, for instance, were offended when they were called liberals.

MJT: When the revolutionary socialists hear the word “liberal,” what do they think that means?

Samuel Tadros: Of all the groups in Egypt, the revolutionary socialists have the best understanding of political liberalism, partly because they are so strongly against it. They are especially against liberal economic policy. They don’t want an open economy. They’re also strongly opposed to procedural democracy. They don’t want to limit it only to the political sphere. They think it should be implemented everywhere, especially in the workplace. They want it inside companies between owners and employees.

The revolutionary socialists understand liberalism, but the other groups have only a shallow understanding of it. Some of them claimed to be liberals, but their behavior was extremely anti-liberal. They say they support human rights, but only for themselves, not for other people, especially people they’re against politically. Their discourse is extremely anti-Semitic and they tortured people in Tahrir Square.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone given the lack of liberal discourse in Egypt. It would be impossible to find five books in Arabic that stand for liberalism. The great canon of Western civilization is not available in Arabic.

MJT: Expand a bit on that torture business. Those incidents aren’t widely known outside Egypt.

Samuel Tadros: The core revolutionaries believed the Mubarak regime was pure evil, that it was all powerful, and that nobody supported it. So any person they encountered who was against the revolution was automatically assumed to be working for this enormous powerful state. Anyone who disagreed with the protestors was accused of working for the secret police.

I’m sure Mubarak had informers in Tahrir Square. Any regime would have sent informers down there. But the revolutionaries didn’t know who these people were, and they created a small prison inside the square for people arrested by the revolutionaries. They conducted justice in the square as if it were an independent state. You can see videos on YouTube of people who were tortured by the revolutionaries, who were arrested and beaten.

This revolutionary justice, the taking of the law into their own hands, was seen again when police stations were attacked with Molotov cocktails. Policemen were beaten and killed in the streets. The revolution is often described as peaceful, but that’s not entirely correct. It was peaceful compared with the civil war in Syria, but more than 800 people were killed during the 18 days before Mubarak was removed from power. Police stations were burned and ransacked. Weapons were stolen. There was a lot of violence then.

MJT: Your book includes a sentence that really struck me. You wrote that the revolutionaries were completely ignorant of the country they sought to transform. How could they be so ignorant of their own country, and what exactly did they not understand?

Samuel Tadros: Egypt is a large country. There are around 90 million people, but 20 million people live in one city. It’s tempting to be blinded by Cairo. It’s a humongous city. So it’s not surprising that people who spend all their days in Cairo and only leave to go to the north coast on vacation would mistake Cairo for Egypt. Many of them have hardly seen the rest of the country.

They also saw the revolution as a struggle between black and white, between good and evil, between a corrupt regime and forces for change. That kind of struggle doesn’t require people to get involved in the details of the society. They didn’t want to see any gray in the story. For them, it had to be black and white.

And they don’t understand how politics really works. They entered politics through the human rights NGOs, which are inflexible and demanding, rather than the traditional method which requires you to visit villages, campaign, mobilize the vote, and make compromises with your opponents.

MJT: What do you think of Egypt’s new ruler General Sisi?

Samuel Tadros: He’s an extremely problematic figure. For someone who is now becoming Egypt’s president, for a long time we didn’t know much about him. He’s had an exceptional rise to power to say the least. But now we can see who the man really is, and it’s not pretty.

His view of the state’s relationship to the society is totalitarian. He’s not Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, but he sees no separation between the state and anything else. He views every aspect of the public and private sphere as an organic part of the state. When he talks about religion, for example, he says it’s his job as Egypt’s president to oversee the morals of the society. He thinks the media must work in harmony with the state in order to further Egypt’s national interest. Every businessman is expected to work in a harmonious way with the state.

MJT: He isn’t Hitler, but he does look a bit like Mussolini.

Samuel Tadros: He’s completely ignorant of how economics works. He’s probably a competent military officer. He can do the things he’s supposed to be good at—managing soldiers and tanks, etc. But he doesn’t understand the complexity of the modern economy.

And he did not view himself as a candidate who needed to win the support of the people. He viewed the people’s demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood as support for himself. He expects people to support him. He does not seem to think anyone should expect anything from him as a candidate. He had no campaign platform.

And lastly he’s a man with a very bad temper. Ministers who served with him after the coup said he banged his fists on the table whenever he heard something he didn’t like. He was easily provoked during media interviews, and these interviews were completely controlled by the military. Even then we saw outbursts of anger.

MJT: What’s the deal with his government claiming it found the cure for the HIV virus?

Samuel Tadros: That’s North Korean level lunacy. The military held a press conference and claimed Egypt found the cure for HIV and Hepatitis C. They say they can cure it with a device that looks similar to the device used to find bombs.

The public was shocked when the military announced this.

Ibrahim Abdel-Atti says the machine transforms the virus into nutrition. “I take AIDS from the patient,” he said, “and feed the patient on AIDS. I give it to him as a kebab skewer to feed on. I take the disease and I give it to him as food.” I’m not exaggerating. That’s actually what he said. The military claimed that by next year the entire country will be cured of HIV and Hepatitis C.

MJT: Did anybody actually believe this?

Samuel Tadros: Unfortunately, yes. There are those who under pressure will relent and say it’s probably crazy, but many people are afraid of what this tells us about our military. They don’t want to face the fact that lunatics are running the country.

MJT: Sisi has basically declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood, but I doubt that’s a war he can win.

Samuel Tadros: It depends on how you define the word “win.” The Brotherhood’s organization has been dealt a heavy blow, but that’s different from political Islam as an ideology. Political Islam won’t disappear any time soon, the reasons for the emergence of Islamism, the crisis of modernity and Egypt’s failure to find a place for itself under the sun are still there and there is no political ideology that can compete with Islamism at the moment, but the organization itself has really been hurt. The Brotherhood recruitment has stopped for eleven months. There are no new members joining the ranks.

The weekly meetings have been disrupted. Not only the first tier of leadership, but also the second and third tiers of leadership are in prison. So I think it’s possible for Sisi to win a war against the organization.

But where will the rest of the members go if there is no organization? There are hundreds of thousands of them. And these are not like people who decide to join the Democratic or Republican parties in the US where they can leave any time they want at the first sign of trouble. Muslim Brotherhood members commit five to eight years of their lives to become accepted. They study hard and are examined five times, and they go through all this despite personal risk to themselves. It was no fun becoming a Muslim Brotherhood member under Hosni Mubarak. They were often arrested. They spent time in jail. Their promotions might have been affected. Their businesses might have been confiscated. These people were extremely committed to the cause.

Where will they go? That’s the big question.

MJT: I worry they’ll become more extreme and violent. What else are they going to do? It’s either that or quit, right? And like you said the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t an easy thing to quit.

Samuel Tadros: Definitely. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they will become jihadis.

Islamism has been dealt tremendous blows. It’s still powerful as an ideology, but all the methods attempted to achieve it have failed. Ayman al-Zawahiri may be correct in pointing out to the Muslim Brotherhood that their attempt to work within the political system has failed, but his approach hasn’t been successful either. Thirteen years after the September 11 attacks, what has he accomplished? The jihadis are no closer to achieving the dream than the Brotherhood.

Look at the failures of the jihadists and the fighting between jihadists in places like Syria between ISIS and Nusra. Is that what people should aspire to? Salafism hasn’t been successful either, nor is educating people and transforming them one step at a time.

So we’ve reached an interesting moment in history. The ideology remains coherent and powerful, but all the means to achieve it are proven failures. Where does that leave us? That’s the question.

MJT: Do you know the answer?

Samuel Tadros: Some of the Muslim Brotherhood members will become jihadis, but others will move to what I would call revolutionary Islamism, which would be violent but not jihadist. That may sound contradictory, but I’m talking about a low-level violent insurgency within the cities. Not car bombs in markets, but throwing Molotov cocktails at police stations. They will kill police officers, but they won’t mount sophisticated military operations like the jihadists in Syria. They will focus on traditional revolutionary activities in the streets.

We already have seen the beginnings of such a movement even before the coup. Young people who gathered around azem Salah Abu Ismail and formed Hazemoon. It would make Ali Shariati, the Iranian Shia scholar, quite proud. It’s a mixture of Islamism and a Marxist discourse on the people in one package. This would be a tremendous development. Sunni Islam has never been revolutionized in this way before.

MJT: Right. The Iranian revolutionaries were like that in 1979.

If President Obama were to ask you for advice on formulating a new Egypt policy, what would you tell him?

Samuel Tadros: That’s the toughest question in the world.

A lot of people think the US is extremely limited in what it can accomplish, but I disagree. The Brotherhood strongly reacts to public pressure, especially Western public pressure. If Washington had tried to force the Brotherhood to abide by certain standards, the Brotherhood might have decided to take a slower route.

As for Sisi, there is an important debate in Washington about human rights, about American values versus American interests, but I think that blinds us to another serious question. Will Egypt’s new regime advance American interests in the first place?

MJT: I don’t think so.

Samuel Tadros: Two points concern me in particular. One is the very strong anti-American conspiracy theories that are being sponsored and spread by the Egyptian regime. This government isn’t acting at all like a friend or ally of the United States and what it’s doing will have powerful ramifications, not only on Egyptian views of the US but also on actual events.

For instance, the names of Egyptian employees at the US Embassy were published in newspapers and they were attacked as traitors. An employee at the embassy was arrested and accused of being a secret link between the American conspiracy and the Muslim Brotherhood.

And there’s the question of whether Sisi’s policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood is creating a larger problem for the US in the future. He might think he can control the situation in the Sinai, but that will take a very long time if it ever even occurs. Will his actions create a higher risk of attacks in the Suez Canal? Will his actions create more radicalization in Egypt? These are things the US needs to be thinking about.

I haven’t yet answered you about what President Obama should do, but I think the real question should be whether or not the regime will help US interests.

MJT: I doubt it.

Samuel Tadros: I doubt it too. But that doesn’t mean the US and Egypt should become completely detached. US interests in Egypt are complicated—stability, the right of passage on the Suez Canal, the right for planes to cross Egyptian air space, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and Egypt as a potential moderate force in the region in general.

But I think there is a tendency in the US to view Egypt as more important than it really is. That’s partly a result of the Cold War. The Egypt that forged a strategic relationship with America in the 1970s no longer exists. Egypt is not such a powerful state anymore. Egypt’s previous role has been filled by a variety of states, including Saudi Arabia and even Qatar. I don’t think this realization has hit Washington yet.

MJT: What about the US aid money to the Egyptian government? Should we cut if off? I’m increasingly convinced that we should.

Samuel Tadros: If you cut off the aid money the question is, what happens next? Egypt would be shocked, partly because the government views that money as its natural right. They signed the treaty with Israel for US money. That was the deal. And Egypt kept its end of the bargain. There’s a strong sense of entitlement there.

The government even thinks it should get more money because inflation has made it worth less than in the 1970s.

Thanks to the rampant conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, the government believes the US is completely controlled by the Jews, which means they’re safe as long as they maintain the relationship with the United States and keep the peace. As long as they do that, the US would never dare touch them.

They think they understand the US, but they don’t. And US policy has reinforced this belief. They truly believe that no matter what they do, the aid will never be touched.

If the aid is cut tomorrow, it will send powerful shock waves through Egypt. And Egypt will not turn to Russia. Russia can’t sustain or become a sponsor of a country like Egypt. And Egypt can’t just change its military doctrine, its equipment, and its weaponry over to the Russian system. That would take a generation.

So if you cut off the aid money, it will create an enormous shock in Egypt that would lead to a reassessment of everything. They would be forced to re-examine their policies and how they’ve been conducting themselves. Money from the Gulf might replace the money Egypt receives from the US, but it can’t replace the prestige attached to its relationship with the US. Sisi studied at a US military academy for a year. So did the minister of defense. Those relationships are much more important than the money the Gulf can supply.

MJT: Would the Egyptian government’s reassessment push it in a good direction or a bad direction?

Samuel Tadros: In a good direction, I think. It would destroy their entire understanding about how the world works and force them to change.

 

Samuel Tadros is the author of Motherland Lost and Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt.

The Beginning of the End of Iraq?

Al Qaeda splinter group ISIS has taken the Iraqi city of Tikrit and the Kurdish Peshmerga has taken the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Iraq's army fled both and hardly fired a shot.

God only knows what happens next, but this much is clear—the Syrian war is no longer the Syrian war. It’s a regional war. It spilled into Lebanon at a low level some time ago. It sucked in Iran and Hezbollah some time ago. Now it is spreading with full force at blitzkrieg speed into Iraq and has even drawn in the Kurdistan Regional Government which managed to sit out the entire Iraq war.

This could easily suck in Turkey, Jordan, and Israel before it’s over.

Or maybe it won’t.

In the future we might see the events of the last few days as the beginning of the end of Iraq as a state, or at least the beginning of the end of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose American-trained army has proven utterly useless. Or maybe he’ll survive in an Iranian-backed rump state.

Maliki wants an American-backed rump state. Eli Lake in The Daily Beast reports that he’s asking for American air strikes and drone warfare.

But we are not going to save Iraq and we are not going to save Syria. It’s over. That’s what the Middle East wanted, and it’s what the Middle East is going to get.

Arab governments complain when we intervene and they complain when we don't intervene. Basically, they complain no matter what. So asking what they want is pointless. It takes a while to notice this trend over time, but there it is. They have not stopped to consider the consequences of this behavior, but those consequences are about to become apocalyptic for Nouri al-Maliki.

“We’ll kill you if you mess with us, but otherwise go die” is not even close to my preferred foreign policy, but it’s what President Barack Obama prefers (phrased much more nicely, of course) and it’s what the overwhelming majority of Americans prefer, including most liberals as well as conservatives.

Still, it’s only a matter of time before we get sucked in kicking and screaming one way or another. Because the Middle East isn’t Las Vegas. What happens there doesn’t stay there.

We're out for now, though. This is the time of festering.

The End of the Donbas?

As Ukrainian army units battle it out with Putin’s terrorist commandos in eastern Ukraine, we should remember that, regardless of the outcome, the Donbas is probably dead. That may be good news for some and bad news for others, but the bottom line is that this uniquely regressive Ukrainian-Russian rustbelt region will never be the same.

Putin’s terrorists—both homegrown and imported from Russia—will almost certainly be defeated by forces loyal to Kyiv. Terrorists and separatists usually lose, especially under steppe-like conditions in which guerrillas do not thrive, and there’s no reason to think that Putin’s commandos will have any different fate from that of their counterparts in other countries. The only question is: how long will it take for their defeat to be final? For the longer it takes, the more unalterably different—and ruined—will the Donbas become.

As one resident of Donetsk recently wrote in a blog post:

China's Unusual Outreach to India's New Leadership

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid a visit to the newly installed prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, at his official residence in New Delhi. On the day before, Wang met his Indian counterpart, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, in a session lasting more than three hours.

The meeting with Swaraj, perhaps the more important of the two, covered most topics of interest between the two giants. The discussions, according to External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin, were “productive and substantive.”

Al Qaeda Conquers Mosul

Iraq is rapidly becoming one of the worst places in the world all over again.

Al Qaeda has reconquered the city of Mosul. Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons and fled.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has declared a state of emergency, but his army appears to be useless despite years of American training.

The Al Qaeda group that took the city is ISIS—the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The Syrian war has been exploding beyond its borders for some time now. I see no reason why that should stop or even slow down. Soon we might stop thinking of it as the Syrian war and refer to it as the region-wide war that started in Syria. 

Pivot to Asia

I’m heading overseas this week, but don’t wander off. The blog won’t go fallow. I’ve been preparing some long-form material in advance that I can publish while I’m out in the field.

Should be an interesting trip, especially now that the Mekong River and the South China Sea are Asia’s new battlegrounds. I’ve been looking long and hard at East Asia the last couple of months and I understand now why the White House wants to “pivot” there. See especially Robert Kaplan’s new book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.

But it’s not a zero sum game. The Middle East will still demand attention from the president, and it will demand attention from me. We don’t get to quit a troublesome part of the world just because it’s exhausting.

Let me know in the comments what you’d like me to look into while I’m over there. I have my own ideas, but I’m sure I have not thought of everything.

Kremlin Prepares Election Farce in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — This week, the Kremlin-appointed governor of St. Petersburg, former KGB officer Georgy Poltavchenko, became the latest in a string of Russian regional leaders who formally “resigned” their posts in order to seek early reelection on September 14th. Of the 30 gubernatorial polls to be held this fall, 19 will be early elections called because of the resignation or dismissal of the incumbents. The Kremlin and its regional henchmen want to capitalize on the temporary spike in support for the regime after the annexation of Crimea, and ensure reelection before approval ratings start falling again.

Europe’s Left in Crisis

Both of Europe’s lefts—radical and social democratic—are in crisis. The radical left has been turned inside-out and upside-down by the fall of communism and the rise of reactionary anti-imperialism—the attitude that one must support any and every opponent of America and Israel as “the resistance” to “empire.” This left marches down the streets of London carrying placards reading “We are all Hezbollah now!” (No doubt, soon enough, “We are all Hamas Now!”)

The Stop the War Movement in London supports Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, boosts Bashar al-Assad’s apologists, and protects the regime in Iran.

Chinese Generals Lash Out at America, Japan

Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of general staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army, attacked the US and Japan on Sunday, charging them with conspiring against his country. Speaking on the final day of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Asian regional security forum in Singapore, the general displayed, among other things, how out of touch the Chinese leadership has become.

The dialogue occurred at a time of tensions off China’s coast. In the South China Sea, China and Vietnam remained locked in an escalating dispute over the placement of a Chinese oil drilling platform near Vietnam’s shoreline and in waters surely within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Beijing, with its infamous nine-dash line on official maps, claims 90 percent of the South China Sea as its own. Over the East China Sea, Chinese jets dangerously buzzed Japanese reconnaissance planes operating in international airspace.

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