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No Impunity for Boris Nemtsov’s Killers

Last week, the European People’s Party—the largest political group in the European Parliament that holds 215 of its 751 seats—endorsed the idea of extending EU visa sanctions to employees of the Russian propaganda machine who were involved in state-sponsored incitement against Boris Nemtsov, the leader of Russia’s pro-democracy opposition gunned down in February 2015 in plain sight of the Kremlin. Earlier, the same initiative was backed by the parliament’s fourth-largest Liberal group, which holds seventy seats.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal Keeps Getting Worse

The nuclear deal with Iran is not going well.

Last month, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps fired two ballistic missiles that landed almost a thousand miles away. The US objected, but the Iranians are defiant.

“The reason we designed our missiles with a range of 2000 kilometers is to be able to hit our enemy the Zionist regime from a safe distance,” said Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh.

The Saudis don’t buy it. None of the Arab states buy it, except for the Assad regime in what’s left of Syria and the Iranian-aligned Shia government in Iraq. The rest of the Arab states rightly see Iranian muscle flexing as part of Tehran’s ever-expanding regional hegemony, not just over the Jewish state, but over the entire region, most of which is Sunni and Arab.

It ought to go without saying why nearly every nation on earth, whether or not they’re named “Israel,” ought to be concerned about Iran’s ballistic missile program. Ballistic missiles can carry nuclear warheads. Enough ballistic missiles can ravage cities even if they aren’t equipped with nuclear warheads. That’s why the Secretary of State John Kerry insisted last year that squashing Iran’s ballistic missile program was part of the deal.

But maybe it wasn’t part of the deal. It’s not entirely clear what is in the deal or if the deal is even entirely settled.

“Like most of Washington,” Eli Lake writes in Bloomberg, “I was under the impression that the nuclear negotiations with Iran ended in July…I should have been more suspicious when no one actually had to sign anything at the end of the negotiations or when the ‘deal’ was not submitted to the Senate as a treaty for ratification.”

A ballistic missile test ban certainly is part of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which informally codified the nuclear deal into international law and passed unanimously last July. It clearly states in Annex B that United Nations restrictions will only be lifted if the Iranian government agrees “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.”

Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes acknowledges that Iran’s ballistic missile tests violate Security Council Resolution 2231, but not the JCPOA struck between the United States and Iran. “Iran has complied with the JCPOA,” he said at the Nuclear Security Summit when a reporter asked him if the ballistic missile tests violate the agreement.

So the United Nations now takes a harder line on Iran than the United States does.

This sort of thing doesn’t play well in America. A deal with a government as hostile and duplicitous as Iran’s is controversial, to say the least. Last year, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a resolution opposing it. One might assume American support for the deal or lack thereof breaks down on party lines, but it doesn’t. A survey conducted last September by the Pew Research Center shows that only 21 percent of Americans think it’s a good idea.

It may not be long for this world, but earlier this week, the Obama administration warned the next president not to scrap it. Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said that an American rejection “would be grasped by hardliners in Iran to assert that we were an unreliable interlocutor.”

The Iranian government already thinks that. It’s already accusing the United States of violating the agreement, so what difference does it make?

“The Americans are now acting in violation of the nuclear agreement,” Iran’s judiciary chief Sadeg Amoli Larijani said on Monday because, according to him, Washington is dissuading American companies from doing business over there. “The Americans should know that the Islamic Republic of Iran would never compromise its interests and would never agree with investment of foreign firms in the country at any price, while it enjoys rich resources and abundant talents.”

You might think the Iranians would be grateful that Ben Rhodes is carrying their water, but nope. Iran’s Deputy Chief of Staff Brigadier General Maassoud Jazzayeri is directly accusing President Barack Obama of violating the agreement because of Washington’s non-existent push-back over the missile tests. “The White House should know that defense capacities and missile power,” he said, “specially at the present juncture where plots and threats are galore, is among the Iranian nation's red lines and a backup for the country's national security and we don’t allow anyone to violate it.”

Think about that for a second. Iran tests ballistic missiles. The United States says it’s unhappy about the test, but gives Iran a clean bill of health on the nuclear agreement anyway. And Iran responds by saying the United States is violating the agreement! Up is down and black is white and one plus one equals 125.

“There is barely a day that goes by,” Lake writes, “when [Iran’s] leaders don't affirm that they have a sovereign right to test as many missiles as they choose. And in case the message wasn't clear, Iranian television made sure to broadcast images of those missiles emblazoned with Hebrew words that said ‘Israel must be wiped off the earth.’”

Secretary Kerry promised Congress that Iranian ballistic missile tests would violate the nuclear deal, but that promise has passed its expiration date.

“We recognize that Iran remains a threat to stability in the Middle East,” Kerry wrote last summer in the Washington Post. “That danger is precisely why this deal is so necessary and why we fought so hard for the multilateral arms embargo to remain in place for five years and the embargo on ballistic missiles for eight.” [Emphasis added.] Those are John Kerry’s own words in an article with his own name on it.

At some point between then and now, the deal was altered. Or at least the administration is pretending it has been altered. It’s not hard to figure out why. If the deal collapses, or appears to collapse, we’re on the road to war again with Iran. And that’s the last thing our current president wants.

It’s the last thing anybody should want, but a deal with the current Iranian government is no more valuable than a deal with Darth Vader. You may recall when, in The Empire Strikes Back, Vader convinces Lando Calrissien to betray his old friend Han Solo. As is his nature, Vader reneges. When Calrissien complains, Vader turns to him, hisses, and says, “I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further.”

Did Trigger-Happy North Korea Take a Shot at China?

On March 29, North Korea launched a projectile from a location near the port city of Wonsan. The ballistic missile or artillery shell traveled about 125 miles on a northeast path, in other words, toward China, landing near the border.

South Korean Defense Ministry analysts speculate that the North originally planned to fire the projectile out to sea but changed plans and pointed it inland instead due to last-minute problems. That seems highly unlikely, however, because if there were indeed problems they would not risk firing into China.

The NightWatch site maintains that the trajectory was intentional as well as “unprecedented.” In all probability, the North Koreans meant to send a hostile message to Beijing.

Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seem to deteriorate by the week. They are each other’s only treaty ally, but in recent years ties have evidently eroded. Now, the bilateral relationship has become, in my view, the most fascinating one in the world to watch.

Is Ukraine's Economic Potential Its Destiny?

The following is an interview with Ukraine investor, Ian Hague.

 

MOTYL: As a Founding Partner of Firebird Management LLC, a fund management company focusing on the capital markets of the former Soviet Union, you’ve pursued investment opportunities in Ukraine since 1994. Whence this long-standing interest?

China's Show of Force in Indonesian Waters

China has called on Indonesia to release eight crew members from a fishing boat that was seized in mid-March. The tense standoff could be the result of a new phase of lawlessness in China’s behavior in the South China Sea.

 On the 19th, a Chinese coast guard vessel entered the sovereign waters of Indonesia off one of the Natuna Islands. Just 2.7 miles from shore, the Chinese vessel rammed a Chinese fishing boat, the Kway Fey, to free it as it was being towed by an Indonesian craft. Indonesia had just seized the Kway Fey for illegally fishing in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

 China’s embassy in Jakarta claimed the Chinese craft was in a “traditional Chinese fishing ground,” but there is no such concept either in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Beijing has ratified, or customary international law.

Ukrainian Identity After the Euromaidan

The following is an interview with the Ukrainian intellectual, analyst, and critic, Mykola Riabchuk.

MOTYL: You’ve stated that independent Ukraine has never had a government as good as the one it has today. As you know, most Ukrainians think of their president and prime minister as corrupt and untruthful. Who’s right?

RIABCHUK: I meant only that a bad government is better than very, very bad governments, which is what we’ve had up to now. The incumbents deserve a minimal pass, whereas all their predecessors deserved Fs. Most countries can live with bad governments, but not Ukraine, especially given the war and the institutional ruin created by past governments.

I’m not sure the incumbent president and prime minister deliberately engage in premeditated duplicity and mendacity, as was the case with Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yanukovych, and Yulia Tymoshenko. Rather, they don’t keep all their promises or uphold their moral principles. But this is true of all politicians who face difficult trade-offs. People’s high post-revolutionary expectations make the problem particularly conspicuous.

Europe on the Brink

Europe appears to be falling apart.

Last week, an ISIS cell killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds more in twin suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and in the Maalbeek metro station, and the following weekend, a proposed March Against Fear was cancelled due to “security concerns,” which no doubt amped up the city’s anxiety even more.

On Sunday, riot police clashed with a mob of hundreds of angry men wearing black, some with shaved heads, who stormed into the square carrying an anti-ISIS banner and screaming Nazi-like slogans.

“It was important for us to be here symbolically,” a woman named Samia Orosemane said, but “there were lots of men who were here and doing the Nazi salute, shouting 'death to Arabs,' and so we weren't able to get through.”

Adam Liston told the BBC that the atmosphere in the square was “really positive” at first. “Then a bunch of skinheads just turned up, marched into the square, and started a major confrontation with the peace protesters. They got in the face of the protesters and police. They set off flares and chanted and it was getting quite ugly.”

There were no violent Nazi-like demonstrations in the United States against Arabs or Muslims, not even on or after September 11, 2001, when ten times as many people were murdered in the most spectacular terrorist attack in world history. But as Tom Wolfe famously put it, the dark night of fascism is forever descending on the United States and landing in Europe.

We can only imagine the violent convulsions that will wrack the continent if something on the scale of 9/11 ever happens on that side of the ocean. And it’s more likely to happen over there in the short and medium term than it is over here. Europe is already under much greater attack than the United States, and it has a far larger problem with Islamic radicalization.

There are five times as many Muslims in the United States as there are in Belgium, but the United States is not a hotbed of homegrown Islamic extremism. We’ve suffered some acts of terrorism since 9/11—the mass shooting in San Bernardino, the Boston Marathon bombing and the massacre at Fort Hood. If American Muslims and European Muslims were equally predisposed to jihadism, we’d experience roughly five times as many attacks.

But we don’t, mostly because Muslims feel more at home in the United States than they do in Europe.

The United States has always been better at assimilation than Europe. Ours is a nation of immigrants and always has been. Most of us on this side of the Atlantic have a civic identity, but Europeans, by and large, still have a national blood-and-soil identity.

Americans don’t want immigrants to self-segregate in cultural ghettoes. It happens to a certain extent anyway, but less so than in Europe. We not only welcome immigrants, we expect and encourage them to join us rather than live separately alongside us. In Europe, by contrast, Muslim immigrants are forever “the other.”

American Muslims are also more interested in joining mainstream American culture. Those who immigrate here must go through a rigorous selection process, and they can’t expect to just show up and live on state benefits in perpetuity like they can in Europe. They must work hard and assimilate to some extent, or they’ll fail. They have, on average, done a very good job of it.

American Muslims are actually a little richer on average than the general population. European Muslims, by contrast, are much poorer on average.

This is not, however, the reason Europe has a bigger problem with Islamic radicalization. Poverty is not a trigger for religious fanaticism. Islamic terrorists tend to be educated and financially successful. “Economists have found a link between low incomes and property crimes,” David R. Francis writes at The National Bureau of Economic Research. “But in most cases terrorism is less like property crime and more like a violent form of political engagement.” And political engagement requires education and the ability and wherewithal to engage in activities beyond mere economic survival. In that sense, American Muslims fit the terrorist profile better than European Muslims.

Yet Europe is still having more trouble.

Arab Muslims born and raised in the United States are just as American as I am, but Arab Muslims born and raised in Belgium will never be Belgian. They may or may not be citizens of the state of Belgium, but they won’t have a Belgian identity. A Belgian identity scarcely even exists. Most Belgians identify first and foremost as Dutch-speaking Flemish or French-speaking Walloons.

A Pew Research Center survey of 55,000 American Muslims in 2011 found that they are “largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world… On balance, they believe that Muslims coming to the U.S. should try and adopt American customs, rather than trying to remain distinct from the larger society. And by nearly two-to-one (63%-32%) Muslim Americans do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.”

A majority of American Muslims view themselves as Americans first, rather than as Muslims first, whereas 81 percent of British Muslims view themselves as Muslims first. French Muslims are as likely as American Muslims to identify first with the nation-state they live in, but France is the only country in Europe that has seriously attempted to nurture a French identity among its immigrant populations.

Europe’s Muslim population feels far more alienated from the general society, so it's easier for a violent anti-Western ideology to find traction. And when trouble erupts, as it is now, Europeans react far more harshly than Americans do.

“The Trump-Cruz police state exists,” Eli Lake writes in Bloomberg. “It's called France.”

Imagine if Ted Cruz or Donald Trump proposed a policy to monitor thousands of Muslim citizens even if they had no specific ties to terrorist groups. Then, for good measure, they called for a new law to allow the police to search the homes of suspected terrorists without a warrant and to place terror suspects under house arrest without a court order.

Sounds like a nightmare. One can imagine the indignation. Pundits and politicians of good conscience would intone against the politics of fear. Some on the right would respond that political correctness should not be a barrier to counterterrorism.

But what I have just described is not a Republican sound bite. Rather, it is the current counterterrorism posture of France.

France’s policies were put in place by a left-wing socialist government. It’s not hard to imagine the far-right shoving France over the edge if it ever wins power—and it might if Europe continues to be terrorized.

And Europe will continue to be terrorized. In The Observer, John R. Schindler argues that Europe now has so many ISIS-supporting extremists in its midst that it isn’t facing mere terrorism any longer, that the problem has been upgraded, if that’s the right word, to a guerrilla war or an insurgency.

The threat is now so great, with Europe possessing thousands of homegrown radicals bent on murder, that mere spying cannot prevent all attacks “left of boom” as the professionals put it.

Maintaining 24/7 human and technical surveillance on just one target requires something like two dozen operatives, and even the larger European security services can effectively watch only a few handfuls of would-be terrorists at one time.

[…]

Simply put, Europe has imported a major threat into its countries, one that did not exist a couple generations ago. It can be endlessly debated why this problem has grown so serious so quickly—for instance, how much is due to Europe’s failures at assimilation of immigrants versus the innate aggression of some of those immigrants (and their children)?—but that the threat is large and growing can no longer be denied by the sentient.

We should expect more guerrilla-like attacks like [in] Brussels yesterday: moderate in scale, relatively easy to plan and execute against soft targets, and utterly terrifying to the public. At some point, angry Europeans, fed up with their supine political class, will begin to strike back, and that’s when the really terrifying scenarios come into play. European security services worry deeply about the next Anders Breivik targeting not fellow Europeans, but Muslim migrants. “We’re just one Baruch Goldstein away from all-out war,” explained a senior EU terrorism official, citing the American-born Israeli terrorist, fed up with Palestinian violence, who walked into a Hebron mosque in 1994, guns blazing, and murdered 29 innocent Muslims.

When that violence comes, a practically disarmed Europe will be all but powerless to stop it.

Americans won’t likely ever forget how the supposedly “sophisticated” European opinion-makers said America’s chickens were coming home to roost when Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center, and how we—for one brain-dead reason or another—had it coming.

I wonder what Europeans think of that attitude now.

Time for Ukraine to Take the Initiative

Vladimir Putin’s maneuverings with the West and Ukraine are often compared to a game of chess. The comparison is spot on, with one qualification. Contrary to the image of grandmaster he prefers, the Russian president more closely resembles a loudmouthed barroom player who slams pieces against the board. The effect is intimidating at first, but the best way to beat him is to take a deep breath, stick to your strategy, and play a consistently offensive and defensive game.

Unfortunately, President Obama isn’t very interested in playing chess with Putin. Maybe the State Department and the Pentagon are, but they’re hamstrung by Obama’s apparent indifference. The European Union, almost by definition, doesn’t play well. Indeed, its member states can’t agree on whether the game is chess, checkers, or soccer.

Putin’s bullying and the West’s non-play give Ukraine’s leaders considerable room for maneuver. If Kyiv had a vision of its future, it could stop reacting to events and attempt to settle the war in eastern Ukraine on its own terms. By announcing bold initiatives, Kyiv could take the initiative and shock Washington and Europe out of their complacency or denial.

In Cuba, Prosperity is a Crime

So Barack Obama went to Havana, the first time in almost ninety years that a sitting American president visited Cuba, and the first time in more than fifty that the Cuban government would even allow it.

On Monday, his first full day down there, he said he spoke “frankly” to President Raul Castro about human rights behind closed doors. Most likely he did. But then the two men emerged for a chummy joint press conference. It looked a little unseemly, as if Obama was willing to whitewash the Cuban dictatorship in front of the cameras.

It matters, and it matters a lot. If Cuban dissidents think the United States government doesn’t care about them, that it only cares about diplomatic relations and business deals with the dictatorship, they’re more likely to lose hope and give up. It’s a lot harder to overthrow or reform a regime that’s backed by the United States that one that is not.

But if they see that the United States government does care about them and their problems, if they know that the United States will put pressure on the regime to get its boot off their necks, they’ll keep on keeping on. The government, not the dissidents, will clearly be on the wrong side of history.

Tuesday was different. Obama gave a speech that was broadcast live on Cuban television to 11 million people. He spoke in the Great Theater of Havana, built in 1838 when Cuba was a rich country, long before the communist bulldozer immiserated the overwhelming majority. This was his chance to show everyone whose side he’s on, and he took it.

“We should not ignore the very real differences we have about how we organize our governments, our economies and our societies,” he said. “Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state. The United States is founded on the rights of the individual.”

Indeed. In Cuba, only the state has rights. Individuals are treated as the property of the state the way slaves were treated as the property of the plantation.

“To President Castro,” Obama said, “I want you to know that I believe my visit here demonstrates you do not need to fear a threat from the United States. And given your commitment to Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination, I am also confident that you need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders.”

Castro should fear them, actually. No communist government has ever survived a free and open multi-party election. Even so, it was the right thing to say. Cuba will survive free and open elections. Cuba will thrive with free and open elections. It was once a rich nation. It has far more in common with Eastern Europe in the waning days of the Cold War than it has with failed states like Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s still ailing, though, the way East Germany was ailing when the Berlin Wall still slashed through what is now Germany’s capital.

"In the United States," Obama said, "we have a clear monument to what the Cuban people can build: it’s called Miami."

Snap.

Two years ago, he said he would only visit Cuba if he could confidently say “we’re seeing some progress in liberty and freedom. If we’re going backwards, then there’s not much reason for me to be there. I’m not interested in just validating the status quo.”

Well, we’re not seeing much progress. He is more or less validating the status quo, but he also kicked back against it. What happens to the status quo from here is anyone’s guess.

*

Most of Havana is in an advanced state of decay and collapse, as if it had been carpet-bombed from the air and abandoned. Only it isn’t abandoned. People actually live in the rubblescape.

Most foreign visitors avoid the vast slums. They stay in the tourist bubble. The refurbished part of Old Havana is really quite pleasant nowadays, but it’s just that. A bubble.

A single tidied-up corner wasn’t good enough for the first visiting American president in almost nine decades, so government workers painted over a huge number of rotting buildings during the last couple of weeks. They repaved roads and filled potholes. They could have done this earlier and made the city a little more livable, but Castro couldn’t be bothered. He cares more about Obama’s impression of Cuba than Cubans’ experience of living in Cuba. Why should he care what they think and feel? As far as he’s concerned, they’re his property.

He knows they’re unhappy, though. How could he not? Quality of life is so excruciatingly awful in Cuba that hundreds of thousands of people have thrown themselves into the ocean and risked death by drowning and dehydration and exposure and shark attacks to escape.

Fidel and Raul Castro have never taken responsibility. Instead, they’ve insisted for decades that American sanctions—or its preferred term, the blockade—are the cause of Cuba’s immiseration and poverty, but that’s nonsense on stilts.

“Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow,” Obama said to the live audience in Havana, “Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.”

Of course sanctions have a negative effect on the economy, but the main cause of Cuban poverty is communist economics. Every communist country in the history of the world has been impoverished. It’s a bankrupt system that has never worked and never can work.

Here’s just one reason why: The United States has a minimum wage while Cuba has a maximum wage. And that maximum wage is a paltry 20 dollars a month. No one can get ahead. It’s impossible. It’s illegal. When prosperity is a crime, there can be no prosperity, and that’s entirely the fault of Cuba’s communist party.

For decades, one of Cuba’s famous propaganda billboards has boasted that “The changes in Cuba are only for more socialism.” If Cuban officials want their fellow citizens to prosper, they know what they need to do. They need to turn that billboard around and declare that, at this point, the changes in Cuba are only for capitalism.

They know this, too, because they’re experimenting a little bit around the edges. Raul Castro is a bit less doctrinaire than his brother Fidel. He has implemented some microcapitalist reforms. The emphasis for now, though, still belongs on the micro. As Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes in the Wall Street Journal, Castro has “legalized a narrow number of economic activities for the purpose of putting to work millions of Cubans the bankrupt state can no longer ‘employ.’ But these businesses, such as selling fruit and shining shoes, are not allowed to hire employees, and they are only legal as long as they remain the urban equivalent of subsistence farming.”

Castro is still blaming it all on the United States, though, and he says relations cannot be fully normalized until the US leaves Guantanamo Bay and lifts the embargo.

The Cuban government may eventually relent on Guantanamo Bay—the United States Navy has been leasing it since 1903—but of course sanctions have to be lifted before relations between our two countries are normal. No one imposes or maintains sanctions on friendly countries. (Imagine American sanctions against, say, Ireland, Canada or Japan.)

If Castro were honest with himself and with Cubans, he’d add that relations cannot be fully normalized until Cuba conforms to the human rights norms in the Western Hemisphere. Lifting sanctions is up to Congress, not the White House, and there has been a bipartisan consensus on sanctioning Cuba since 1960. The reason that consensus still holds is because Cuba is still a police state. Congress won’t budge until Castro budges, and Castro admits that he is not going to budge.

There are, the dictator says, “profound differences that will not disappear over our political model, democracy, human rights, social justice, international relations, peace and stability.”

He says that as if the United States is the one with the human rights problem, but Cuba, not the United States, is the one-party state. Cuba, not the United States, is the one that does not hold elections. Cuba, not the United States, is the one with no civil liberties whatsoever. Cuba, not the United States, is the one that forces people by law to be poor. 

The Cuban people, Castro says, won’t “relinquish what they have gained through great sacrifice.” What he really means is that the government won’t relinquish the power it has gained through bloodshed and repression.

No serious person believes there will be riots in the streets of Havana if people are allowed to earn more than 20 dollars a month. Not even the most ardent Castro apologist thinks Cubans will go into open rebellion if they’re allowed to vote for more than one party. Not a soul fears they’ll yearn to relocate to North Korea if they suddenly find themselves with freedom of speech and assembly.

During Monday’s press conference, Castro lashed out when CNN journalist Jim Acosta asked him about political prisoners. “If there are political prisoners,” the dictator said, “give me a list, right now. What political prisoners? Give me their names, and if there are political prisoners, they will be free by tonight.”

Oh, please. Just yesterday—a few hours before Obama landed in Havana—the regime arrested more than 20 people at a Ladies in White demonstration. Secret policemen dragged women to a police bus and threw men onto the ground and handcuffed them. The Ladies in White is an all-women movement of sisters, wives, and daughters of male political prisoners. What does Castro expect us to believe they’re protesting for?

“The group and their supporters have held regular Sunday marches for more than 30 consecutive weeks,” Amnesty International wrote in December, “to call for the release of Cuban political prisoners and human rights protection. These peaceful demonstrations have been met with a pattern of arbitrary arrests and other harassment by the authorities.”

And it’s not just the Ladies in White. Activist José Daniel Ferrer says a bunch of his comrades have also been arrested in the last week.

Obama is scheduled to meet with Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White. The fact that this is even possible is progress of a sort. If Fidel were still ruling the roost, all members of the Ladies in White organization would be in prison. No foreign leader, let alone the president of the United States, would be allowed to meet with them.

Still, Amnesty International says the number of political arrests and detentions is increasing lately. So don’t get excited.

 “The Obama administration boasts that it negotiated the liberation of 53 political prisoners in 2014,” O’Grady writes. “But more than half of those have been rearrested, and four who received multiyear sentences were exiled last week. In 2015 there were more than 8,600 political detentions, and in the first two months of this year there were 2,555.”

The ball is in Raul Castro’s court. The United States and Cuba can fully restore warm relations tomorrow if he does the right thing. The question for him is simple: Would he rather share or lose power in a free and prosperous country, or go down in history as the Caribbean’s unrepentant Caligula?

He might change. He’s old enough now that history’s judgment may outweigh the benefits of a few more years at the top. It’s possible. Against all expectations, the far more oppressive regime in Myanmar/Burma has done a near-complete about-face. But if past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, Cuba won’t be rich, free, and in from the cold until Fidel and Raul Castro are dead.

Postscript: My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.

You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

China’s 2016 Military Budget Up Only 7.6%

The biggest surprise to emerge from the highly scripted National People’s Congress annual meeting, which concluded last week in Beijing, was the announcement that the country’s military budget would increase a mere 7.6 percent this year. The figure is well below last year’s announced 10.1 percent jump and is the first single-digit rise since 2010, when the generals and admirals had to live with 7.5 percent.

Undoubtedly, the publicly announced budget does not include all military expenditures, but the percentage change is generally thought to indicate the spending trend line for the People’s Liberation Army.

Putin’s Syria Gambit

All the hullaballoo provoked by Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement of a Russian troop withdrawal from Syria misses two important points.

First, given that even Putin’s inner circle in the Kremlin appears not to have known anything about his plans, the episode has reaffirmed the widespread belief that Putin makes all the strategic decisions in the Kremlin. Which is exactly what we would expect from a dictator who models his leadership style on Benito Mussolini’s. Unconstrained by institutions or rules, Putin can invade Crimea, the Donbas, and Syria one day and announce a withdrawal from Syria the other. If he wanted to end the war against Ukraine, he could do so by declaring victory over the “Kyiv junta” and withdrawing his troops. That he chooses not to do so is less the result of a rational calculation of the war’s costs and benefits for Russia than the product of his whim.

Not surprisingly, Putin keeps surprising the world—and, in all likelihood, himself. That’s not leadership, and that’s certainly not genius. That’s authoritarian conceit.

Missile Defense in the Era of Kim Jong Un

“Our hydrogen bomb is much bigger than the one developed by the Soviet Union,” reported the state-run DPRK Today on Sunday. “If this H-bomb were to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile and fall on Manhattan in New York City, all the people there would be killed immediately and the city would burn down to ashes.”

North Korea’s threat followed its release on Wednesday of pictures showing Kim Jong Un standing next to what was reported to be a nuclear warhead. Although the object—a shiny sphere that has been compared to a 1970s disco ball—was most likely a mock-up of a weapon in development, it is probably just a matter of years before his technicians build a real one.

Putin Declares Victory in Syria

Mission accomplished. So says Vladimir Putin. Less than six months after embarking on his adventure in Syria to bolster his ally, President Bashar al-Assad, most of his forces are on their way home.

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” Putin said.

Yeah, right.

Oh, there’s a cease-fire in place, but there is virtually no chance it’s going to hold. Sporadic fighting persists, and it’s only a matter of time before it mushrooms again.

In the meantime, negotiators are supposed to meet in Switzerland under the auspices of the United Nations to hammer out an agreement for “a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance in Syria.”

Again, yeah right.

The government is controlled by secular non-Muslim Alawites who make up only 12 percent of Syria’s population. They’ve been in power since Hafez al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party mounted a coup in 1970, and they’re spectacularly unlikely to give it up. They’ll never get it back if they do. (Imagine if Coptic Christians took over in Egypt. Think they could pull that off and get away with it twice?)

Minorities in the Middle East get eaten alive, especially when the majority is represented, if that’s the right word, by armed Sunni Islamists.

A “peace process” in Switzerland sounds noble and makes a lot of people feel better, apparently, but it’s a roadmap to nowhere. We’re not talking about Northern Ireland here. The Syrian war is a Thunderdome, where two men enter, one man leaves. Only unlike the original Thunderdome in the third Mad Max movie, this one’s a three-way between Assad, the rebels and ISIS. You might as well have a peace process between Siamese fighting fish in a cramped aquarium.

“We will not negotiate with anyone on the presidency,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said. Assad, he insists, is a “red line and belongs to the Syrian people.”

So good luck creating an inclusive non-sectarian government with Assad in the saddle. And if he falls, good luck creating an inclusive non-sectarian government with armed Sunni Islamists in power. That’s about as likely as dope-smoking Deadheads sharing a hippie commune with the Taliban.

This conflict resembles no other as much as the Lebanese civil war. Syria’s war has lasted five years now, but Lebanon’s lasted fifteen. Roughly three times as many people have been killed in Syria in only one-third the time, though, which makes it almost ten times deadlier.

The Lebanese civil war wasn’t really even one war. It was more like a series of wars punctuated by false endings and failed cease-fires. It began with the initial clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias and morphed into a war between the Israelis and Palestinians—which wasn’t a civil war at all, but a foreign war hosted on Lebanese soil. After the Iranians got involved, another war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, and between Hezbollah and the secular Shias of Amal. Late in the civil war, Christian factions slugged it out with each other up north. The Syrian army fought pretty much everybody in Lebanon at one point or another, including the Israelis.

It was a bewildering conflict that confounded almost everybody who tried to make sense of it at the time, but its basic outline was simple: Lebanon’s multitude of sects went for each other’s throats, and all enlisted the help of foreign interventionists against their internal enemies. Israel and the West backed the Christians, Iran backed the Shias, and the Arab world backed the Sunnis and the Palestinians. At one time or another, Syria’s Assad regime backed everyone and opposed everyone.

Observers all over the world thought the Lebanese civil war was finally over during one botched cease-fire after another, but it never truly ended until the Assad regime conquered the entire country and forced everyone to disarm.

Don’t expect anything different in Syria. The same basic dynamic is at work there. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are backing the Alawites, Sunni Arab regimes are on side with the rebels, the West is half-assedly supporting the Kurds, and the creepiest elements in the Muslim world are throwing their weight behind ISIS.

Like the Lebanese civil war, there are wars within the larger war. Unlike the Lebanon war, which mostly turned out to be pointless, the Syrian war is truly a death struggle. Each side poses an existential threat to the other. Whoever loses will almost certainly be massacred. Wars of that nature are never settled in the lobbies of hotel rooms in Europe.

Leaving at a time of relative quiet is a wise decision on Putin’s part. Syria is a smoldering crater right now, but it’s calmer than usual, and his ally Assad is safe for the moment. Withdrawing today doesn’t look like a defeat. On the contrary, he’s made everybody opposed to him look like a chump. No one beat his forces or his proxies on the battlefield. He can plausibly say that the next round of chaos isn’t his fault, that Syria was more stable when he left then when he arrived.

But a peace process? Get real. We won’t be seeing any of that until either Assad or the rebels are defeated definitively and ISIS is obliterated from the face of the earth.

China's Capacity to Project Power Is Going Global

Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China is looking to build “some infrastructure facilities and support abilities,” Beijing’s code for military bases, outside China. “I believe that this is not only fair and reasonable but also accords with international practice,” he said.

If Wang sounded defensive, it is because for decades China adamantly insisted it would never maintain such bases outside its borders.

At the moment, however, the Chinese navy is building “support facilities” in Obock in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, which guards the southern entrance to the strategically important Red Sea. The location is generally considered, inside China and elsewhere, as the first of the country’s foreign military bases.

More are on the way as China develops port projects around the Indian Ocean. Take the Chinese-funded Colombo International Container Terminal, for instance. In both September and October 2014, the Sri Lankan government allowed a Chinese submarine and its tender to dock there, which shocked and angered New Delhi.

New City Journal Essay

A few weeks ago I published a short op-ed in the Los Angeles Times about the homelessness problem in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. It was adapted from a much longer essay in the winter issue of City Journal.

The City Journal essay is online now. Here’s the first part.

My hometown, Portland, Oregon, has a homelessness problem. Portland is often called the City of Bridges—more than a dozen cross the Willamette and Columbia Rivers—and beneath almost all, at one time or another, one sees miserable-looking camps constructed of tents, plastic tarps, and shopping carts. It’s impossible to avoid running into homeless people downtown, where ragged people sleep on park benches and in doorways, and where you can’t walk long without being hit up for spare change. You can hardly drive near the city center without encountering men or women holding up cardboard signs asking for money at an intersection.

Roughly 620,000 people live in Portland, and the suburbs push the metro area population to more than 2.3 million. As of January 2015, Multnomah County, which includes most of the city proper and all the city center, had 3,801 homeless people. Of these, according to the county’s biennial count, about 800 live in temporary shelters, 1,000 are in transitional housing, and more than 1,800 are “unsheltered”—that is, sleeping under bridges, in parks, and on sidewalks.

Almost everyone who visits me asks what’s wrong with this place. Portland is a prosperous, high-tech Pacific Rim city, so why does it have so many street people? Is something uniquely the matter with the city? Not necessarily. But Portland is a better place to be homeless than most American cities. The weather is mild, the citizens are generous—Portlanders spend millions yearly in private donations and tax dollars trying to help the homeless—and public officials are blocked by the courts from regulating vagrancy in ways that are routine elsewhere. Some homeless actually move to Portland from other cities. Homelessness is so visible here that it has encouraged not only expansive nonprofit relief efforts, some of which seem to be doing real good, but also, in at least one case, an innovative approach that may truly ease the problem—and that other cities might consider adopting.

Homelessness is not a new issue in American life, but it started getting much worse everywhere—not just in Portland—beginning in the 1970s, thanks to the deinstitutionalization movement, which closed many state psychiatric hospitals. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia, by 2010, the number of beds per capita in psychiatric hospitals had plunged to 1850s levels. When the most severely mentally ill patients were freed from a system discredited by 1960s social movements and books like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they were ill-prepared for normal life. Many found themselves relegated to a Hobbesian existence on sidewalks.

“Dammasch State Hospital closed 20 years ago,” says David Willis, the homeless-services coordinator at Union Gospel Mission, a Christian nonprofit. “Some went into adult foster care, but others stayed on the streets. The people who work in foster care don’t have a background in psychiatric counseling or care. They can’t handle these people. And mentally ill homeless people can’t help themselves. Somebody has to take care of them. Somebody has to make sure they bathe, change their clothes, and take their medications.”

Portland city councilman and housing commissioner Dan Saltzman agrees. “That did increase the homeless population on the streets of Portland and a lot of other cities,” he says of deinstitutionalization. “It’s a nationwide problem, and it really pulled the rug out from underneath a lot of people. Community resources were supposed to be put into place when we closed the big institutions, but the second part didn’t happen.”

About three-fourths of Portland’s homeless are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and roughly half have a mental illness of one kind or another, though many remain undiagnosed. “We see people with schizophrenia, depression, and trauma,” says Alexa Mason at the Portland Rescue Mission, another Christian nonprofit that provides food, blankets, and temporary shelter downtown. “Women on the streets are likely to be assaulted within 72 hours. Men get beat up. Just living outside is traumatizing. . . . When you add that on top of schizophrenia or dissociative disorders, people keep getting worse. This is one thing that everybody in government, social services, and the business community agrees on.”

Not everyone on the streets is mentally ill, and not all are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some just lost their jobs, slipped through the cracks, and found themselves in a maze from which they couldn’t escape. What almost all of them share, however, are weak social and family ties. “Almost everyone we help here is struggling without any support network,” says Mason. “A lack of family support is the one common denominator that unites almost everybody.”

But these problems aren’t confined to the American Northwest; why does Portland seem to have so many more homeless people than elsewhere? One reason may be simple: Portland is a relatively “easy” place to be homeless—or, at least, it’s less brutal than elsewhere. Portlanders are indeed tolerant, and so are the police—not necessarily because they want to be but because they have to be. The city has repeatedly passed anti-panhandling statutes and so-called sit-lie ordinances, which ban sitting and lying on sidewalks, but they’re tough to enforce, thanks to reliably libertarian interpretations of Oregon’s constitution by the state supreme court and lower-level circuit courts. The result is that homeless people are more visible—and more numerous—here than in many other cities.

Portland’s gentle climate is another factor. Contrary to popular belief, Portland gets a third less rain than New York City, and the temperatures are milder year-round. Snow falls and sticks only once every few years. Sleeping outside in January’s 40-degree weather may not be comfortable, but it sure beats sleeping on the sidewalk in, say, Chicago, where one night in subzero weather can be fatal.

Portland’s nonprofit homeless services are extensive. “Portland Rescue Mission provides emergency services including meals, showers, clothing, and shelter for people living on the streets,” says Mason. “It’s open 24/7. We have mail service for about 1,000 people. From November 1 through March 31, we offer a free blanket exchange every night.” Though it doesn’t have beds for everyone—those get awarded by daily lottery—Portland Rescue Mission never runs out of food. “We have really good food here,” says Stacy Kean, the communications director at Union Gospel Mission, “food that you would want to eat. Having breakfast here is like going out to brunch. We have fresh scrambled eggs, bacon, and pancakes.” “You wouldn’t believe how much food they have in the freezer,” a friend who volunteered at the Oregon Food Bank told me. When homeless people in downtown Portland ask passersby if they have any spare change, most of us assume that they need money for food. They don’t.

Are the homeless coming to Portland from elsewhere? “I don’t really believe these stories about other jurisdictions buying homeless people bus tickets to Portland,” says Commissioner Saltzman, but then he concedes: “Portland is a tolerant city and has a moderate West Coast climate, so I think there’s some truth to it.” “Most of the homeless people I know are from Portland or another West Coast city,” says Mason, “but I have met people who said they were homeless somewhere else and moved here intentionally to take advantage of Portland’s services and milder weather.” Agrees Willis of Union Gospel Mission: “They’re from Seattle. Texas. Alabama. People are coming here because we make it comfortable to be homeless.”

Read the rest in City Journal.

 

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