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Ukraine's United Future Depends on Leaving Donbas in Its Divided Past

Before Ukraine can disengage from the occupied Donbas, it has to know just what disengagement means. Consider disengagement's opposite—engagement. If we are engaged, we are psychologically concerned about, ideologically committed to, and politically involved in some issue. Disengagement entails psychological indifference, ideological withdrawal, and political non-involvement with respect to that issue. 

Disengagement is especially useful with respect to issues that lie beyond the powers of the actor concerned. The war in the Donbas will continue as long as Vladimir Putin wants it to continue, and Ukraine—and the West—must accept that fact. Nothing, short of Ukraine's capitulation or collapse, will assuage Putin. Ukrainians will continue to die as long as he wants them to die.

US Pressures Kim Regime in North Korea

On Saturday, Pyongyang reacted to the Wednesday designation, by the US Treasury Department, of North Korea as a “primary money laundering concern” pursuant to Section 311 of the Patriot Act.

“North Korea is not frightened in the least by the US’s stereotypical method of labeling us as ‘money launders,’ not being content with already branding us as ‘nuclear proliferators,’ ‘human rights abusers,’ etc.,” said a spokesperson for the North Korean National Coordination Committee.

Pyongyang, despite the bravado of the statement, is undoubtedly concerned. The practical effect of the move is that banks and other financial institutions, both American and foreign, will not handle dollar transactions for Pyongyang’s entities and fronts. In all probability, these institutions will also shun dealings in other currencies for these customers.

A Donbas Strategy Going Forward

The following is an interview with George Woloshyn. George Woloshyn is a frequent commentator on Ukrainian affairs. He was the head of the National Preparedness Directorate at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and previously the Associate Director at the Office of Personnel Management during the Reagan Administration. He also served in the Navy Reserves as an Intelligence Officer. 

MOTYL: How would you assess Vladimir Putin’s goals and strategies vis-à-vis Ukraine?

The Third Battle of Fallujah

The third battle of Fallujah is on.

The assault began in the early hours on Monday when the Iraqi Army and Iranian-backed Shia militias stormed the city in Iraq’s Anbar Province under British and American air cover to expel ISIS once and for all.

Brace yourself for atrocities.

More than 300,000 people live there. The vast majority have fled, but roughly 50,000 are still trapped inside. ISIS is holding hundreds of families and using them as human shields.

Human shields can work against Western armies that hold their fire when possible to avoid killing civilians. The Iraqi Army doesn’t care about killing civilians, and the Iranian-backed militias care even less.

ISIS is also deploying suicide bombers, including suicide car bombers.

Organizations and diverse as Human Rights Watch and the US Department of Defense are worried about war crimes, not only from ISIS—which commits war crimes as a matter of course and of policy—but also from “our” side.

Last year, Iraqi and Iranian-backed forces took back the ISIS-held city of Tikrit, and they’ve been under investigation for war crimes ever since. Allegations include the massacring of civilians, torturing and summarily executing captives, and displaying human heads.

The US and Britain are in a terrible spot here. There is no getting around this: we’re militarily assisting gangs of vicious murderous bastards. The only reason it’s even remotely defensible is because the guys on the other side are even more vicious—the most vicious, in fact, in all of the world.

It’s safe to say at this point that ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq is the most oppressive place on the face of the earth. Cities like Fallujah and Raqqa make even North Korea seem mild.

People have been eating grass to survive.Executions of civilians for “crimes” as minor as shaving and smoking cigarettes is rampant, and residents are forced to watch. One resident says ISIS videotapes the executions and personally delivers DVDs to every house in the city.

ISIS is even forcing men to commit domestic violence. “Our husbands and fathers were pushed to discipline us,” an Iraqi woman told Al Jazeera. “Husbands would be forced to hit their wives for not wearing the niqab properly. If our men did not obey the orders of ISIL, they would face punishment.”

“Our biggest fear was to be caught by ISIL fighters,” she added. “They have no mercy; they will execute anyone whom they catch or even suspect of trying to flee.”

This is the third time in twelve years Fallujah has faced all out war. It was relatively quiet for a brief period after the US invaded in 2003. There wasn’t much looting. The mayor was pro-American. Resentment simmered, though, and then exploded in 2004 when a mob murdered and mutilated four Blackwater security contractors and strung their bodies up on a bridge.

The US military went in to clear the city the following month, but for political reasons they pulled back before finishing the job. Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by the psychopathic Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, gained total control of the city and imposed Taliban-style rule on the populace.

If something like this was going to happen in only one place in Iraq, Fallujah be it. “Fallujah is strange, sullen, wild-eyed, badass, and just plain mean,” Bing West wrote in his book, No True Glory. “Fallujans don’t like strangers, which includes anyone not homebred. Wear lipstick or Western-style long hair, sip a beer or listen to an American CD, and you risk the whip or a beating.”

Fallujah has been Iraq’s no-go zone since at least the time of the British in Mesopotamia. Even back then, everyone was warned to stay out, and it’s where Saddam Hussein recruited many of his regime’s most brutal enforcers.

I spent a month there during the war, and the only thing I can say in its favor is that it’s only the second-most broken and hopeless place I’ve ever seen. (The first-most is Baghdad, which is better educated and more open to the world, but it’s also where adjacent Sunni and Shia neighborhoods can hardly stop car-bombing each other even when they’re separated by walls.)

After losing the first battle of Fallujah, American soldiers and Marines went back in and fought the massive epic battle known as Al-Fajr, or Dawn.

Al Qaeda in Iraq proved itself so monstrous that the residents of Fallujah, who surely ranked among the most anti-American people in the world, forged an alliance with the hated enemy superpower to vomit the terrorists out.

The Iraqis claim they are not going to stop until they expel ISIS completely. If they manage to pull it off—and at this point that’s still a big if—they’d better learn from their earlier mistakes. ISIS would never have managed to take over that city two years ago if residents didn’t initially see its fighters as lesser evils compared with Baghdad’s central government. That’s extraordinary in and of itself since Fallujans had plenty of experience already with Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was just ISIS under a different name and different management.

Fallujah is a Sunni Arab city in a country where Sunni Arabs makes up only around 20 percent the population. The previous Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki ruled Iraq like an Iranian-backed warlord hell-bent on subjugating the minority. Incredibly, compared to him, ISIS looked sort of okay and tribal leaders opened the door.

It was the worst decision in the long history of deplorable decisions in that city. Only in the feverish dreams of insanely bigoted anti-Shia reactionaries was Nouri al-Maliki even as remotely bad as ISIS, let alone worse.

Maliki governed badly. No question about it. He purged Sunnis from the government, jailed dissidents, spuriously accused his political opponents of being terrorist supporters, and aligned himself with Iranian-backed militias. We should all be glad he’s out of power. But more oppressive than ISIS? Please.

It’s not clear that any Shia-led government will ever seem legitimate in the eyes of many of Iraq’s Sunnis—especially not if Baghdad re-takes Fallujah with Iranian backing. What drives Sunni sectarianism more than anything else is the perception that Iraq’s Shias are in cahoots with Tehran.

On the other hand, ISIS is so unspeakably awful that the residents of Fallujah and other Sunni cities in Iraq may see how wrong they were when they thought they’d be better off oppressed by “their own” than by the other.

On the third hand, they should have known better already. The Sunnis of Anbar Province suffered under ISIS before, and apparently they learned nothing from the experience. 

So who knows where this is heading? I certainly don’t.

I will say this, though. If Baghdad and its Iranian friends manage to purge ISIS in Western Iraq, they’d better get the hell out and stay out when they’re finished or a fourth battle of Fallujah is all but inevitable.

Hiroshima, Japan, and the US

“We can tell our children a different story,” said President Obama on Friday, after detailing the horrors of the day, 71 years ago, in which a “flash of light and a wall of fire” led to the deaths of some 140,000 in Hiroshima.  

At the site of the first use of an atomic device in war, in Hiroshima, the American leader came to the Peace Memorial with messages for the future, one of them of disarmament. In the backdrop, was the Flame of Peace, first lit in 1964, which is supposed to remain burning until the world is free of nuclear weapons. While there, the president urged nations to give up their most destructive instruments of war.

American Hopes to Return to Prison Camp in North Korea

Since the Korean War, no American has spent longer in confinement in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea than Kenneth Bae. Yet Bae, released in 2014, wants to go back to see the guards who kept an eye on him in prison. As he told Seattle radio station KUOW on the 19th of this month, “I consider some of them as friends.” 

So is this a particularly bad case of Stockholm Syndrome? 

It’s not. Bae, a missionary, is out to educate the North Korean people, starting with those who kept him under lock and key in particularly harsh conditions.

During his confinement, Bae, a Southern Baptist minister, learned just how isolated North Korea has remained. Jesus Christ? One of his guards had never heard of him before. “Where does Jesus live?” his captor asked. “In China or North Korea?”

Answering the Critics: Donbas Disengagement

What should Ukraine do about the occupied Donbas enclave?

As readers of this blog know, I have long been arguing for disengagement. Critics of my view generally emphasize some or all of the following three points:

First, won’t disengagement help promote Vladimir Putin’s strategic goal of destroying Ukraine?

Second, doesn’t Ukraine have a moral obligation to reannex this territory and its citizens?

Third, what exactly does disengagement entail and how would it be brought about??

All three are serious questions that deserve serious answers. I’ll address the first two questions in this blog and the third in the next one.

Venezuela Collapses, Colombia Rises

Venezuela and Colombia have swapped places.

When the Cold War ended, Colombia was a crime-infested war zone while Venezuela, its neighbor to the east, was an island of sanity and stability. Colombia is now one of the world’s hottest new tourist destinations while Venezuela is on the brink of collapse.

For more than a half-century, Colombia suffered a bewildering multisided conflict that killed more than 200,000 people—the vast majority of them civilians—and displaced roughly five million. It was a no-go zone fractured by a communist insurgency that kidnapped and murdered tens of thousands, right-wing death squads that butchered people with chainsaws, and murderous drug cartels that often wielded more power than the government.

Meanwhile, during most of that period, Venezuela held democratic elections and experienced considerable, if uneven, economic growth. Throughout Latin America, Soviet-backed insurgencies battled it out with military regimes sponsored by the United States, but Cuba’s attempt to foment communist revolution in Venezuela fizzled.

After the Berlin Wall fell, pro-Soviet forces all but evaporated everywhere except in Colombia where the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) swapped Moscow’s largesse with drug money.

If one had to choose where to invest at the time, the smart money would have been on Venezuela. It had a small middle class and a great deal of poverty, but that was hardly unique in South and Central America. What set it apart was its vast oil reserves—more than any other country on earth—and its relative political stability.

The current United Socialist Party government led by Nicolás Maduro, and formerly Hugo Chávez, could have done amazing things for the country with that vast oil wealth. Instead, the party has done its damndest to import Fidel Castro’s Cuban model of socialism— Chávez called Castro his mentor—and turn Venezuela into a totalitarian anthill.

They never quite pulled it off, never quite managed to create a state powerful enough to smother every human being under its weight. Rather than molding Venezuelan society into a Stalinist Borg-hive, both—but Maduro especially—presided over a near-total collapse into anarchy, squalor and crime.

Last week the Washington Post called Venezuela a failed state. “The government has tried to control the economy to the point of killing it — all, of course, in the name of ‘socialism’…Venezuela has gotten something worse than death. It has gotten hell. Its stores are empty, its hospitals don't have essential medicines, and it can't afford to keep the lights on.”

The inflation rate is almost 500 percent this year and is expected to exceed 1,500 percent next year. A hamburger costs 170 dollars. Everything is in short supply. “Venezuela reaches the final stages of socialism,” David Boaz writes. “No toilet paper.” Even hotels are asking guests to bring their own, which is almost impossible unless they’re coming in from abroad.

Violent crime has spread throughout the country, even to rural areas. Police officers don’t even attempt to suppress or solve crime, partly because they’re too busy protecting the crooked and oppressive government from its furious subjects, but also because crime is as ubiquitous in Venezuela right now as the heat and humidity. Last week, a fed up mob doused a man with gasoline and burned him alive for mugging another man and stealing the equivalent of five dollars.

Hellish Colombia, meanwhile, has improved so dramatically over the same period of time that it’s hardly even recognizable anymore.

Only a fool would have bet on Colombia during the 1990s. Medellín, the county’s second-largest city, was the homicide capital of the world back then. More than 6,000 people were murdered there in 1991—almost twenty per day in a city of less than two million people. Not even Baghdad has been that violent lately. Barbet Schroeder’s 2000 film, Our Lady of the Assassins, portrayed Colombia, and Medellín in particular, as a terrifying place where casual violence was as routine as breakfast. 

The fool who would have bet on Colombia, though, would have been right.

The Medellín drug cartel no longer exists, nor does the Cali cartel. There’s not much left of FARC anymore, and the remnants are engaged in peace talks with the government. The right-wing AUC paramilitary units demobilized a decade ago.

By 2015, Medellín’s crime rate dropped by as much as 95 percent. In 2013, the Wall Street Journal named it the most innovative city in the world. The Urban Land Institute described the city’s transformation this way:

Few cities have transformed the way that Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, has in the past 20 years. Medellín’s homicide rate has plunged, nearly 80% from 1991 to 2010. The city built public libraries, parks, and schools in poor hillside neighborhoods and constructed a series of transportation links from there to its commercial and industrial centers. The links include a metro cable car system and escalators up steep hills, reducing commutation times, spurring private investment, and promoting social equity as well as environmental sustainability. In 2012, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy recognized Medellín’s efforts with the Sustainable Transportation Award.

But a change in the institutional fabric of the city may be as important as the tangible infrastructure projects. The local government, along with businesses, community organizations, and universities worked together to fight violence and to modernize Medellín. Transportation projects are financed through public-private partnerships; engineering firms have designed public buildings for free; and in 2006, nine of the city’s largest firms funded a science museum. In addition, Medellín is one of the largest cities to successfully implement participatory budgeting, which allows citizens to define priorities and allocate a portion of the municipal budget. Community organizations, health centers, and youth groups have formed, empowering citizens to declare ownership of their neighborhoods.

“The place has gone from adventure location to dream family holiday,” Bee Rowlatt writes in the Telegraph. “Tourists are heading this way like never before, and it’s not just the hairy ones who like an illegal puff, or the conflict-zone junkies seeking out a boastably tough destination. No, these days it’s pretty much anyone.” And why not? Colombia’s scenery is spectacular, its literary and arts scene world class, its biodiversity unmatched by any nation on earth. While it still has a moderately high crime rate in some areas, the homicide rate is now as low as Portland, Oregon’s. 

It’s almost as if whatever dark force consumed Colombia for so many decades picked up and moved to the country next door. Today, Caracas, Venezuela, has the dubious distinction as the murder capital of the world, followed closely by San Pedro Sula in Honduras, and it’s suffering the worst economic decline in its history.

Two-thirds of Venezuelans want Maduro out of power this year. There’s virtually no chance his United Socialist Party can hold onto power indefinitely under current conditions. Protests have been so widespread and violent during the last two years that they can be plausibly described as an insurrection.

Venezuela looks hopeless, but Colombia looked that way, too, not long ago. Latin America veers far more wildly from the extreme left to the extreme right than the West does, but it’s not the Middle East. Every Latin American country so far except Cuba has reverted to democratic rule after a period of dictatorship.

One way or another, Venezuela will get there eventually. Maduro isn’t at all likely to die in bed while in office like Chávez did in 2013. He’ll lose an election, the army will put him in jail, or he’ll be strung up, Mussolini-style, from a Caracas lamppost.

Whenever it finally happens, though, that country will face a long dig-out.

China’s Coming Demographic Crash

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reports that Beijing’s obstetrics wards are overflowing. The city, according to the Health and Family Planning Commission, expects  300,000 births this year, an increase of twenty percent or 50,000 over 2015. Xinhua estimates that 22 million babies will be born nationwide in 2016.  

Yet the talk about newborns seems to me a feeble attempt to mask a population crash that looms.  

Effective the beginning of this year, the Chinese central government relaxed the notorious one-child policy to permit two children per couple. The liberalization will increase the birth rate nationwide, but, apart from state media, few think the increase will halt a severe decline in population.

“It’s already too late,” says Yi Fuxian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a critic of Chinese population policies. “China’s population is aging quickly and will start to shrink soon."

Dying for the Donbas?

Just about every day, soldiers die. Sometimes, it’s as many as three or four. Sometimes, it’s two or three. Usually, it’s only one.

Only one young life snuffed out—for what?

For the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave. That is to say, for nothing.

I can understand, intellectually, at least, dying for your family or friends, for your country or city or community, for democracy or peace or your nation.

But dying for a piece of crummy land populated by 3 million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom hate Ukraine and everything it stands for? That makes no sense.

Most Ukrainian policymakers and most Ukrainian people appear determined to win back the Donbas territory occupied by Vladimir Putin’s troops and proxies. At the same time, they appear to be equally determined to lead normal lives, as if the war—and make no mistake, it is a war—were taking place in some distant land.

Kim Announces Vague Five-Year Economic Vitalization Plan

In his three-hour speech Saturday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced his plan to vitalize the country’s beleaguered economy. “It is imperative to carry through the five-year strategy for the state economic development from 2016 to 2020,” he said, according to Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s most authoritative newspaper.

Kim’s plan provides no tangible goals or overarching strategies, but the young leader, speaking at the Korean Workers’ Party 7th Congress, seemed to signal he was serious about economic development. His plan is the first since the Third Seven-Year Plan, which ended—two years late—in 1995.

Regardless of the absence of detail, Kim, by emphasizing the economy last week, essentially made himself accountable to a largely impoverished population that values prosperity far more than ideology. As is said these days, the North now has a “money culture.”

Washington’s Idiotic Echo Chamber

David Samuels’ long-form essay last weekend in the New York Times Magazine about President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser and spokesmen Ben Rhodes has sent the media into a tizzy. 

Rhodes had to sell the Iranian nuclear deal to a skeptical American public. He freely admits that he did so by manipulating a select group of reporters that he and staff think are idiots and molded them into his own personal echo chamber.

It wasn’t difficult. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he told Samuels. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

What a gob-smacking couple of sentences.

First, though, it’s true that the vast majority of newspapers no longer have foreign bureaus. Foreign correspondence is spectacularly expensive to produce. Newspapers can’t afford it. Hardly anyone subscribes anymore, and one of their biggest old cash cows—the classified ads section—has been outsourced to eBay and Craigslist. Money is tight and foreign bureaus were always the most expensive part of a news operation. 

If you want to blame someone or something, blame the Internet.

This sentence, though, is incredible: “They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo.”

What on earth could a White House official possibly know about what’s happening in Moscow or Cairo? Journalists should only call Ben Rhodes if they want to know what’s happening in the White House.

If you’re a reporter who wants to know who’s who and what’s what in Russia or Egypt, you should get on a plane. It will set you back thousands of dollars, though, and your editors will pay you a couple hundred bucks at most for a story, so it’s not a viable option if you don’t have a trust fund. The media business ain’t what it used to be. That’s for damn sure.

But you can call people in Moscow and Cairo. You can talk to them on Skype. You can email them. You can interview Egyptians and Russians who live here. They usually know how to explain things in clear English with references that make sense to Americans.

And you damn well better read books about Russian and Egyptian history so that you’ll have some background and context. You don’t need to know the name of the pharaoh who preceded Cleopatra, but you should at least familiarize yourself with what happened there during the last century or two.

I spent more than a decade interviewing people all over the world, sometimes on the phone and via email, but most of the time in person on the other side of the world. I’ve interviewed every type of person imaginable, from military commanders and heads of state to war refugees and homeless people who sleep outside in slums.

Trust me on this: government officials are almost always the worst sources and interview subjects. That’s true everywhere in the world. They live in rarefied bubbles. They lie. They leave things out, sometimes because they want to and sometimes because they have to. They’re often incompetent and even more often shockingly ignorant. Everyone has opinions, and lots of people have agendas, but nobody has an agenda the way government officials have agendas.

It has never even occurred to me to interview a government official in one country about what’s happening in another country.

There are exceptions. Occasionally I’ve been delighted by government officials in the most unlikely places, including in Cairo. In general, though, they’re the least interesting and the least reliable.

The last person you should be talking to, in other words, is Ben Rhodes.

“We created an echo chamber,” he said when Samuels asked him about the “onslaught of freshly minted experts” who explained the Iran deal to the American public. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

This wouldn’t be the big deal that it is if Rhodes gave honest information to the journalists in his little chamber, but he didn’t. “I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he told Samuels. “But that’s impossible.”

It’s not impossible. Saying it’s impossible is his excuse for being part of the problem instead of the solution.

According to him, the Obama administration began negotiating with the Iranian government in 2013 after the moderate Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election on a campaign based in part on mending ties with the West. It was a nice story. It convinced a lot of people who know little or nothing about the Iranian government. Even so, it failed to convince most. Even after Rhodes’ full court press, only 21 percent of Americans thought Washington’s deal with Tehran made any sense. That’s still far higher than the percentage of Americans who have a good opinion of the Iranian government. At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, that number was only eight percent, and it’s not much better now. Still, Rhodes’ tale had an effect.

There are a couple of things wrong with his story, however. First, as Samuels reports, “Obama’s closest advisers always understood him to be eager to do a deal with Iran as far back as 2012, and even since the beginning of his presidency.” Second, Rouhani isn’t even a moderate by Middle Eastern standards, let alone international standards. Third, Rhodes didn’t even believe his own story. “I would prefer that it turns out that Rouhani and [foreign minister Mohammad] Zarif are real reformers who are going to be steering this country into the direction that I believe it can go in…” he admitted to Samuels, “but we are not betting on that.”

All this was obvious to the Iranian opposition, Middle East experts, and professional Iran watchers. The know-nothing reporters Rhodes cultivated could have easily found real sources of information about what was really happening in Iran and how Iran’s political system really works. This is not secret knowledge. You don’t have to be some kind of an insider. You can find this information by Googling it.

You can find just about anything by Googling it, and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t when you’re unfamiliar with a subject as complex as Iranian politics, but under what theory is Ben Rhodes the wise man on the mountain who can make sense of it all?

Ben Rhodes has no more experience with arms control or Iran’s internal political system than the 27-year old reporters who, according to him, “literally know nothing.” He’s familiar with his own policy, of course, and he knows how to communicate, but all the rest of it is out of his wheelhouse. 

“It was, ‘Are you with us or are you against us?’” said David Albright, an arms control expert with the Institute for Science and International Security in an interview with US News. “The White House was looking for sound bites that beat the opposition, not necessarily sound bites that captured the truth of what was going on. I wish they were just putting out facts. They exaggerated and overstated to sell the deal.”

“Like Obama,” Samuels writes in the New York Times Magazine, “Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.”

It’s okay that Rhodes has a creative writing background. Creative writing is my field too. I studied it and practiced it long before I became a journalist, a travel writer, a foreign policy analyst and a Middle East “expert.” I’ve written two novels. My second, Resurrection, has been optioned for film. The sequel is now almost finished. I’m perfectly capable of learning how to do more than one thing. Most people are.

Arthur C. Clarke is most well known for his fiction writing—especially 2001: A Space Odyssey, but by using his technical and scientific knowledge he played a vital role in establishing our global system of geostationary telecommunications satellites. Michael Punke, author of The Revenant—made last year into the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio—is currently the U.S. Representative and Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Switzerland. Novelist Caleb Carr, author of the best-selling novel The Alienest, is also a military historian, a terrorism expert and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

So we shouldn’t think for a moment that Rhodes’ background in creative writing disqualifies him from his job as a foreign policy maker. Creative writing isn’t finger-painting. It cannot be mastered. Not even William Shakespeare pulled that off. A background in creative writing by itself, however, is no more relevant to successfully negotiating an agreement with a hostile totalitarian power than a degree in dentistry. Samuels is quite right to be startled that Rhodes leapt from fiction writing to foreign policy without much in between.

Rhodes at least learned something about the Iraq war before tackling Iran. As an aid to Representative Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana), he took notes during the Iraq Study Group meeting and wrote parts of the report. He never went to Iraq, though. The Iraq Study Group report was mostly a set of policy prescriptions, some of them smart and some of them boneheaded, crafted by people who were, as military personnel like to put it, “echelons above reality,” too far removed from what was actually happening on the ground in Iraq. None of the eight people in the Iraq Study Group were idiots, but Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor and businessman Vernon Jordan have no more business crafting American foreign policy than Robert DeNiro does. If you want to know what went on in Iraq, and how American policy affected that country for good and for ill, you’ll have to learn it from Iraqis who live there and American soldiers and Marines who served there.

Rhodes hates the foreign policy establishment. He calls it, for whatever reason, the Blob. Its members are all, according to him, a bunch of “morons.” “According to Rhodes,” Samuels writes, “the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.”

Aggressive intervention in Iraq failed to make the Middle East a better place. No question about it. So did light intervention in Libya. So did non-intervention in Syria. Nothing seems to work over there. Whether you’re hawkish or dovish, interventionist or isolationist, the last decade of history should be embarrassing. 

Foreign policy is excruciatingly hard. It requires us to choose the least horrible option, and the least horrible option is never obvious, especially not in an unpredictable and often nonsensical place like the Middle East. Ghastly things happen no matter what we do, even if we do everything right. That wouldn’t change if we launched every member of the Blob into orbit.  

We are all anti-establishment now (except those of us who are not). Even President Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor is anti-establishment now, even though, as Eli Lake put it in Bloomberg, Obama's foreign policy guru is the 'Blob' he hates.

Hatred of the establishment, whether it’s genuine or affected, is a reaction against the inadequacies and failures of the past and present, and it’s perfectly understandable. Sometimes it’s tempting to think a plumber from Poughkeepsie or a real estate agent from Des Moines might handle world affairs better than George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but replacing the old Blob with a fresh one produces the same result as a revolt against knowledge and experience.

Postscript: My seventh book, Dispatches, is out now. You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

Kyiv’s New Leadership and Ukraine's Economic Prospects

MOTYL: Mr. Monyak, as Executive Vice President for Eurasia at WorldBusiness Capital, how would you assess existing investment opportunities in Ukraine?

Great Power Confrontation in the South China Sea

On Friday in Beijing, Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, presented a united stand against the US on a host of issues in their joint press conference.

Among the topics were Beijing’s territorial claims. “We are of the same view with Minister Lavrov that the disputes around the South China Sea should be settled peacefully through negotiations among the directly involved countries,” declared Wang. “We discussed the situation in the South China Sea,” Lavrov noted. “The Russian stance is invariable—these problems should not be internationalized—none of the external players should try to interfere in their settlement efforts.”

The irony, of course, is that Russia, a non-claimant, was involving itself by telling others not to involve themselves.

The US and Russia are not the only non-South China Sea states believing they have an interest in that contested body of water. India and, more recently, Japan have also made their presence felt, sending ships through what they consider to be a part of the global commons.

Iran Recruits Child Soldiers – Again

The Iranian government is broadcasting a music video made by the Basij militia recruiting children to fight in Syria’s civil war.

The original is in Persian (Farsi), but the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) translated some of the lyrics.

“On my leader [Ayatollah Khamenei’s] orders I am ready to give my life.

The goal is not just to free Iraq and Syria;

My path is through the sacred shrine [in Syria], but my goal is to reach Jerusalem.

… I don’t regret parting from my country;

In this just path I am wearing my martyrdom shroud.”

Iran’s regime has done this before. During the Iran-Iraq War, which killed around a million people between 1980 and 1988, the Basij recruited thousands of children to clear minefields.

After lengthy cult-like brainwashing sessions, the poor kids placed plastic keys around their necks, symbolizing martyrs’ permission to enter paradise, and ran ahead of Iranian ground troops and tanks to remove Iraqi mines by detonating them with their feet and blowing their small bodies to pieces.

Children have been fighting in wars as long as there have been wars, but shoving them into the meat grinder in the 21st century is a war crime expressly prohibited and sometimes even punished by all civilized governments. The International Criminal Court in The Hague, for instance, convicted Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of war crimes in 2012 for “conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities.”

The Basij is a paramilitary branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or Pasdaran, and it’s commanded by the iron-fisted head of state, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It's mostly used for internal repression and provided many of the shock troops who brutally suppressed non-violent demonstrations during the Green Revolution in 2009.

“Parallel institutions” (nahad-e movazi) is how Iranians refer to the quasi-official organs of repression that have become increasingly open in crushing student protests,” writes Human Rights Watch, “detaining activists, writers, and journalists in secret prisons, and threatening pro-democracy speakers and audiences at public events. These groups have carried out brutal assaults against students, writers, and reformist politicians, and have set up arbitrary checkpoints around Tehran. Groups such as Ansar-e Hizbollah and the Basij work under the control of the Office of the Supreme Leader, and there are many reports that the uniformed police are often afraid to directly confront these plainclothes agents. Illegal prisons, which are outside of the oversight of the National Prisons Office, are sites where political prisoners are abused, intimidated, and tortured with impunity.”

The Basij is also known, ludicrously I should add, as the Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed. These people are superpredators. They attack unarmed civilians with knives, motorcycle chains and axes. They rape young women and boys. They have raped and murdered women who don’t adhere to strict Islamic dress codes.

If these people behaved this way in most parts of America, they’d be tried for capital murder and executed, but they’re above the law in Iran, answering only to the Supreme Leader, and now that they’re recruiting children again, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate them from ISIS.

“Deception of children by the mullahs and demagogy such as reaching Jerusalem via Aleppo point to two realities,” Shahin Gobadi, who’s on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the NCRI said to me in an email through an intermediary. “First, despite deploying more than 60,000 forces from the IRGC, foreign mercenaries, and even its regular army, the clerical regime is facing a complete deadlock in Syria. Its forces have sustained heavy casualties in Syria and as such are totally demoralized. For instance, at least 40 IRGC generals have been killed there. In order to fill this vacuum, the regime has resorted to deceiving children to be dispatched to the war fronts. This is what it used to do during the Iran-Iraq war, but it ultimately failed miserably.

“Second,” he continued, “the war in Syria and keeping the dictator Bashar Assad in power is so crucial for the Iranian regime's supreme leader Ali Khamenei that he is willing to pay any price for this objective.  In February in a meeting with the families of the regime’s forces who were killed in Syria, Khamenei said that if we did not fight in Syria, we would have had to fight with our opposition in major Iranian cities. Resorting to the tactic of mobilizing teenagers only leads to one conclusion, the mullahs are facing a deadly impasse in Syria.” 

The Iranian government desperately needs the Assad regime in Damascus and the Abadi government in Iraq because they’re Iran’s only allies in the entire Arab world. A moderate and democratic Iran would have no trouble forging normal and friendly relations with moderate Arabs governments like Jordan’s, Tunisia’s, Morocco’s and possibly even Egypt’s, but the revolutionary state that’s been entrenched there since 1979 isn’t tolerated any better in capitals like Cairo and Riyadh than it is in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

By cutting deals with the Iranian government, the United States is increasingly out of step with the region, but if the Basij actually sends children into battle in Iraq and Syria—where ISIS crucifies and beheads its enemies and detests no one on earth as much as Iranian Persians and Shias—it’s going to be harder for Washington officials to explain themselves without going red in the face than it has been in a while.

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