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Liberal Democracy and its Discontents

A set of disturbing essays and reports has landed on my desk over the summer that together paint a grim picture of the state of liberal democracy in the early 21st century—and the grimness is not restricted to the dumpster fire of an election we’re currently enduring in the United States.

Let’s start with political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk. They published an unsettling report in the July issue in the Journal of Democracy that portends a rough road ahead for nearly all the Western countries. 

“Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders,” they write. “Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated.”

Their chart on page 7 is alarming. They track attitudes toward and confidence in democratic government, and they’ve found that each generation currently alive is more authoritarian than older generations—with young Millenials the least democratic of all.

For those born in the 1930s, 75 percent of Americans and 53 percent of Europeans say it’s “essential” that they live in a country that is governed democratically. The percentage of those born in the 1980s who say this, by contrast, is in the low 40s in Europe and the low 30s in the United States.

A majority—a majority—of young people in the West no longer think of democracy as essential.

Their chart on page 9 therefore isn’t surprising. Twelve percent of Americans 65 or older think “having a democratic political system” is a “bad” thing while almost 25 percent of Americans under the age of 24 believe this.

Shockingly, only 32 percent of Millennials think it's “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.”

What on earth is going on?

Partly it’s a matter of historical experience. Those born in the 1930s were alive during Hitler’s conquest of Europe. Those born a bit later have no memory of World War II, but they do remember Stalinist Russia, a more distant threat, but one that was still frankly terrifying. Those born later still have no memory of the darkest days of the Soviet Union, but they do remember the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.

Those born as late as the 1980s have no memory of living in a world where democracy was threatened in any serious way. It is so much easier for youngsters to take democracy for granted. For them, it’s like taking oxygen for granted. They have fewer real-world foils to compare democracy with. Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others doesn’t resonate with them in quite the same way.

It’s easy to take oxygen for granted if no one is holding your head under water, but none of us, it’s safe to say, would argue that oxygen isn’t essential or that it’s a bad thing. Yet a quarter of young people think democracy is actually bad.

There’s a lot more going on, though, than an authoritarian youth generation. Mounk just published another piece, this time in Slate, called The Week Democracy Died.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

[…]

Across the affluent, established democracies of North America and Western Europe, the last years have witnessed a meteoric rise of figures who may not be quite so brash or garish as [Republican presidential nominee Donald] Trump and yet bear a striking resemblance to him: Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many of the leading Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. They too harness a new level of anger that is quite unlike anything liberal democracies have witnessed in a half-century. They too promise to stand up for ordinary people, to do away with a corrupt political elite, and to put the ethnic and religious minorities who are now (supposedly) being favored in their rightful (subordinate) place. They, too, are willing to do away with liberal political institutions like an independent judiciary or a free, robust press so long as those stand in the way of the people’s will.  Together, they are building a new type of political regime that is slowly coming into its own: illiberal democracy.

[…]

Political elites are understandably terrified by the speed with which illiberal democracy is coming into its own. But if the populists are pushing for a political system that does away with one half of liberal democracy, the truth is that a large number of establishment politicians are increasingly tempted to embrace a system that does away with the other half. Where Trump and Le Pen seek to establish an illiberal democracy, a lot of sensible centrists are quietly seeking their salvation in what I call “undemocratic liberalism.” If the people want to violate the rights of unloved minorities, setting up the prospect of democracy without rights, the political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands, opting for a form of rights without democracy.

Here’s historian Jeffrey Herf in The American Interest echoing Mounk’s concern about the rising authoritarian tide on the political right:

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Trump phenomenon has been the bond he has created with, first, a third of Republican primary voters, followed by two thirds of them. Trump discovered what the classic demagogues of the 20th century understood: namely, that in a democracy it is possible to gain millions of votes by appealing to the worst in people. Trump, like Mussolini and Hitler but also like Stalin and Mao, understands that there are millions who enjoy hatred, who take pleasure in humiliating others, who find relief in giving a face and a name—Mexicans and Muslims today, Jews, capitalists and imperialists—to complex economic and social processes. The infuriating aspect of the Trump phenomenon was not only Trump but even more so that so many of our fellow Americans have proven to be suckers for his lies, and that the Republican Party political establishment, with some stunning exceptions, cravingly began to fall into line behind him or, in March, on the whole held back from taking him on with the ferocity and persistence that the defense of our democracy required. Donald Trump was not a fascist, but there was a whiff of fascism in the air around him. His rallies exuded menace and violence, and that too added to his appeal.

[…]

The Democratic Party is exasperating to those of us who opposed the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq, and his refusal to lead NATO into an intervention to stop the Syrian civil war. It is exasperating that the heart and soul of the Democratic Party gives no indication of being able and willing to carry on an ideological offensive against Islamism, or to explain how that perverted ideology is different from the religion of Islam. The rise of a genuinely leftist—not liberal but leftist—wing within the Democratic Party is also a source of concern. Yet in sharp contrast to the Republican Party, the Democratic Party establishment defeated [Bernie] Sanders’s effort at a hostile takeover. Its establishment held firm and defended its principles. The success of Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party, and Sanders failure to do the same to the Democrats, means that Hillary Clinton is now the only candidate running for President who supports the fundamentals of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus adopted by the United States since the Administration of Franklin Roosevelt. I look forward to voting for her!

Herf should heed Mounk before getting too excited. For indeed the establishment poses its own set of problems, which Myron Magnet exposes with ferocity in the pages City Journal:

We have lost the government we learned about in civics class, with its democratic election of representatives to do the voters’ will in framing laws, which the president vows to execute faithfully, unless the Supreme Court rules them unconstitutional. That small government of limited powers that the Founders designed, hedged with checks and balances, hasn’t operated for a century. All its parts still have their old names and appear to be carrying out their old functions. But in fact, a new kind of government has grown up inside the old structure, like those parasites hatched in another organism that grow by eating up their host from within, until the adult creature bursts out of the host’s carcass. This transformation is not an evolution but a usurpation.

What has now largely displaced the Founders’ government is what’s called the Administrative State—a transformation premeditated by its main architect, Woodrow Wilson. The thin-skinned, self-righteous college-professor president, who thought himself enlightened far beyond the citizenry, dismissed the Declaration of Independence’s inalienable rights as so much outmoded “nonsense,” and he rejected the Founders’ clunky constitutional machinery as obsolete.

[…]

[T]he Administrative State’s constitutional transgressions cut deeper still. If Congress can’t delegate its legislative powers, it certainly can’t delegate judicial powers, which the Constitution gives exclusively to the judiciary. Nevertheless, after these administrative agencies make rules like a legislature, they then exercise judicial authority like a court by prosecuting violations of their edicts and inflicting real criminal penalties, such as fines and cease-and-desist orders. As they perform all these functions, they also violate the principle of the separation of powers, which lies at the heart of our constitutional theory (senselessly curbing efficiency, Wilson thought), as well as the due process of law, for they trample the citizen’s Fifth Amendment right not to lose his property unless indicted by a grand jury and tried by a jury of his peers, and they search a citizen or a company’s private papers or premises, without bothering to get judge-issued subpoenas or search warrants based on probable cause, flouting the Fourth Amendment. They can issue waivers to their rules, so that the law is not the same for all citizens and companies but is instead an instrument of arbitrary power. FDR himself ruefully remarked that he had expanded a fourth branch of government that lacked constitutional legitimacy. Not only does it reincarnate the arbitrary power of the Stuarts’ tyrannical Star Chamber, but also it doesn’t even meet the minimal conditions of liberty that Magna Carta set forth 801 years ago.

This isn’t just an American problem. The European Union is an order of magnitude more bureaucratic and autocratic than the American administrative state, and it’s provoking a grotesque and dangerous backlash across the Atlantic. Back in June, Sohrab Ahmari wrote a chilling essay in Commentary about what he calls the worldwide crisis of rising illiberalism.

Trumpism (and Bernie Sanders-ism) are but the [parochial] American symptoms of a global phenomenon: the astonishing rise of illiberal movements of the far right and far left.

[…]

In France, President François Hollande’s Socialists and the center-right Republicans of former President Nikolas Sarkozy have had to resort to tactical voting alliances to shut out Marine Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front. In Austria, the anti-immigration Freedom Party, or FPO, thumped the mainstream parties in the first round of elections to the presidency in April, forcing the center-left prime minister to resign. Norbert Hofer, the FPO candidate, lost the runoff in May, after the mainstream parties urged their supporters to back his Green Party opponent—lest Austria become the first country in Western Europe to elect a far-right head of state since World War II.

Next door in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing nationalist Fidesz Party has gradually hollowed out the country’s democratic institutions. He has politicized the judiciary, nationalized pensions by decree, proscribed “unbalanced” media coverage, and removed a slew of other checks and balances on his own power. The prime minister has mused about “building an illiberal new national state” on Turkish, Russian, and Chinese blueprints. His main opposition is the openly anti-Semitic Jobbik Party.

A new government in Poland is following Orbán’s footsteps with a restrictive media law, efforts to erode judicial independence, and a defense minister who thinks the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are real. Finland’s election last year brought the populist Finns Party into the governing coalition on a platform of opposition to the previous government’s liberal-Atlanticist agenda. Germany’s local elections in March resulted in the far-right Alternative for Germany Party making significant gains at the expense of the embattled Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats.

Spain and Greece have seen the rise of Syriza and Podemos respectively—far-left parties with roots in the anti-globalization movement. Underscoring Greece’s Weimar-esque conditions, the Golden Dawn Party (with a Hellenic swastika for a logo) came third in 2015’s election. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s project to transform the country’s parliamentary democracy into an Ottoman sultanate is nearly complete.

Then there is Britain, where the hard-left wing of Labour has taken over the party. Rising to the leadership in the aftermath of last year’s electoral rout, Jeremy Corbyn has broken the party’s peace with free enterprise and individual responsibility—the main reformist achievement of Tony Blair’s New Labour. The party once again longs for socialism and speaks the language of class warfare at home, while anti-Americanism, pacifism, and blame-the-West attitudes dominate its foreign policy.

You may notice that these writers hail from both sides of the political spectrum, from the center-right as well as the center-left. There’s plenty to be alarmed about no matter where you sit if you aren't part of the problem.

Still, Mounk takes a deep breath. “Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed,” he writes. “Not once.” He adds, though, that throughout this period of stable consolidated democracies, living standards have been rising, the world’s most powerful nation has been a liberal democracy, and that most democracies have been relatively homogenous.

What will happen in a world where those things are no longer true, especially when rising generations care less for democracy than their elders? And what will happen, as we continue to pass through the transition we’re clearly in now, if Western democracies suffer sustained French-style terrorist campaigns by Middle Easterners with the warped minds of medieval genocidaires?

Nobody knows, but it’s probably safe to say at this point that the relative tranquility the West has enjoyed now for decades in ending. 

Comments are Temporarily Closed

This election year is a dumpster fire. Political discussion boards all over the Internet are more abrasive than usual—and the baseline is plenty abrasive already.

So I’ve decided to turn off my comment section for the time being. It’s better for the state of my nerves and mental health if I avoid the discussion threads for a while, and if I’m not there as a moderator, no one will be there as a moderator. If nobody is moderating the comment section, it will be taken over by trolls who will drive every half-way reasonable person away. This isn’t a maybe. It’s a virtually guaranteed outcome.

Better, I think, if we all just take a break for a while.

Iran Payment Wasn’t Ransom, but it Was Ransom

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that an American plane carrying 400 million dollars in cash landed in Iran at the precise time the Iranian government released four American hostages.

Critics claim the 400 million was a ransom payment. The White House and State Department deny it emphatically.

They’re right. The 400 million wasn’t a ransom payment, but it was a ransom payment.

The United States sort of owes Iran money. In 1979, the previous government of Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi paid 400 million dollars for weapons. The US never shipped the purchased weapons because Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah’s government and took 52 Americans hostage.

We could have given the money back, but the new Iranian government declared war on us and kidnapped our diplomats, so we didn’t. The Obama administration says we’re just paying Iran back, but the Iranians insist otherwise.

“Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies,” Iranian General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, commander of the Basij militia, said on Iran’s state-run television.

Only the willfully ignorant would claim the American government never lies about anything. Still, Washington is more honest and reliable than Tehran. And State Department spokesman John Kirby insists this is nonsense.

“The negotiations over the settlement of an outstanding claim…were completely separate from the discussions about returning our American citizens home,” he said. “Not only were the two negotiations separate, they were conducted by different teams on each side, including, in the case of The Hague claims, by technical experts involved in these negotiations for many years.”

That’s probably true as far as it goes. If the US owes Iran money, paying it back isn’t the same as paying a ransom because ransom money is extorted rather than owed. Fine.

But that’s not the whole story.

“American victims of Iranian terrorism won judgments against the Islamic Republic in U.S. courts,” Lee Smith writes in the Weekly Standard, “and the Clinton administration, as a Newsweek article reported in January, promised that the settlements would be paid out of the $400 million. But the Clinton White House never reimbursed the Treasury Department, nor did the Bush administration. The $400 million that Obama aides say belongs to Iran should have long ago been distributed to Iran's American victims and their families. Instead, it was U.S. taxpayers who compensated the victims of Iranian terror. And then we paid $400 million a second time, in January, to the Iranians themselves. The $1.3 billion of interest that the United States is supposed to have owed the Iranians is simply a fiction the Obama administration contrived to sweeten the pot, since the United States was under no legal obligation to pay Iran money that was no longer Iran's.”

But let’s put that aside for the sake of discussion. It’s not the whole story either. Assuming the United States legitimately owed Iran this 400 million, what’s up with releasing four American hostages at the very same moment the money arrived?

Did Iran’s ruler just up and decide to release these people because he had a guilty conscience?

Why did the Iranian government snatch these four in the first place? These people had no connection to each other. They were arrested—kidnapped—at different times and in different places. They were all charged with crimes.

Yet they were all released at the same time on the same day and went home on the same plane.

Why?

Something happened. If it wasn’t the 400 million dollar cash payment, what was it?

Only conspiracy theorists believe there are no coincidences, but some kind of a quid pro quo is a far more plausible explanation than a long chain of extraordinary coincidences. 

A letter from the Iranian government that says, in effect, “you have something of ours and we have something of yours,” isn’t exactly the same as a traditional ransom note, but it’s close enough for horseshoes, hand grenades and government work.

The fact that the United States sort of owes Iran money gives Washington a face-saving way to half-plausibly say it did not pay a ransom demand, but let’s keep in mind why American policy forbids paying ransom demands in the first place. If kidnapping American citizens is profitable, more American citizens will be kidnapped. If kidnapping American citizens is a waste of effort, money, and time—if, instead, it is punished—far fewer American citizens will be kidnapped.

Paying a ransom that isn’t technically a ransom encourages hostage-taking almost as much as paying a regular ransom. Which is why we shouldn’t do it.

One of the freed hostages, Saeed Abedini, said that he and the other three were ready to go at 10:00 pm but had to spend the night in the airport, and he complained to his captors about it. “The reason they said you’re here in the airport,” he said, “is because we are waiting for another plane.” The Iranians didn’t mention that there was money on the plane they were waiting for, but the hostages’ own plane was already gassed up and ready to go. It had been parked at the airport all night. They were waiting for another plane, but they weren’t waiting to switch planes.

State Department Spokesperson Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau disputes Abedini’s claim even though he was there and she wasn’t.

“I’m not going to get into the tick-tock of specifics,” she said in a press conference on Monday, “but claims that our freed Americans were not allowed to depart Iran until a plane full of cash landed anywhere are false. As U.S. officials have previously publicly discussed, there was a delay in our citizens being released that day that had nothing to do with the Hague settlement and was related to resolving some last-minute issues solely related to the prisoners – most importantly, locating and ensuring all of the individuals who were involved with the prisoner swap were on the plane and ready to depart – Mr. Rezaian, Mr. Abedini, Mr. Hekmati. Suffice it to say getting all the pieces put into place, making sure our citizens were released, and with our reciprocal goodwill gesture of providing relief to certain Iranian citizens here in the United States, required delicate diplomacy up to the end. So I think that answers your question.”

Matt Lee from the Associated Press found that an unsatisfactory answer and continued to badger Trudeau.

LEE: I just want to know -- I just want to try and get this cleared up. Am I ever going to get an answer to the question about the planes?

TRUDEAU: I've given you the answer I can give.

LEE: So there is no attempt on your part to uncover more information about what...

TRUDEAU: We've given you what we can give, Matt.

LEE: So it's basically a waste of time to keep asking about it? Is that what you're saying?

TRUDEAU: Pretty much. Yeah. I appreciate the question. As we've said, we're not going to get into a tick-tock. We've explained what the delay was for the plane with the Americans leaving, and I'll leave it at that.

We all need to be clear about something. As Lee Smith writes, “Hostage-taking is a key instrument of Iranian statecraft. Tehran has found it useful for its adversaries to understand that it is willing to violate international political and diplomatic norms to have its way…It's simply how the Iranians do things. Hezbollah, Iran's praetorian guard in Lebanon, took plenty of Americans and other nationals hostage in Beirut in the 1980s. In order to free them, the Reagan administration gave weapons to Iran, Hezbollah's patron.”

Even so, let’s just say for the sake of argument that this didn’t even resemble a ransom payment. Let’s pretend, for the sake of discussion, that Iran released its hostages because it had a guilty conscience and that the arrival of the 400 million in cash was a total coincidence. And let’s also pretend—while acknowledging that we’re venturing deep into an alternative universe here—that the 400 million shouldn’t have gone to the American victims of Iranian terrorism and hostage-taking.

Washington was still wrong to pay Iran the 400 million.

Why?

Because the United States shouldn’t give money to any nation for any reason that we aren’t at peace with. Would Washington have paid back a loan to Nazi Germany in 1943? Of course not. Would the US have given diddly-squat to the Taliban after 9/11? No way. Nor were Osama bin Laden’s 100 million dollars in assets ever unfrozen.

Far fewer Americans would have problem returning 400 million dollars to Iran if the payment came at the absolute end of hostilities and the beginning of an era of peace and cooperation, but that’s not even close to what’s happening.

Look. Refusing to pay a ransom isn’t about the money. Governments can afford it. Taxpayers won’t even feel it. It’s about refusing to endanger the life and liberty of American citizens abroad by refusing to make kidnapping profitable.

“The trouble is,” says NPR reporter Michele Keleman, “since then, Iranian authorities have arrested more Westerners. They're now holding three Iranian-Americans as well as dual nationals from the U.K. and Canada.”

Why shouldn’t the Iranian regime continue taking American hostages? It pays.

Russia Hacks the Republican Party

If Ronald Reagan could come back from the dead, he’d kick Donald Trump in the balls. Because somehow, astonishingly, the Republican candidate for president of the United States is pro-Russian and anti-NATO.

“NATO is obsolete and it's extremely expensive for the United States, disproportionately so,” he said in March. “And we should readjust NATO.” In July, he told the New York Times that he would only assist European nations during a Russian invasion if they first “fulfilled their obligations to us.”

“Look at Putin,” Trump said in 2007. “Whether you like him or don't like him—he’s doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.” “I think I'd get along very well with Vladimir Putin,” he said last year. “I just think so.” “Will he become my new best friend?” he tweeted in 2013.

Many assumed he was joking last week when he called on Russia to hack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

His tone of voice didn’t suggest he was kidding, and he doubled down on it the next day on Twitter. It wouldn’t be funny even if he were kidding, though, because it’s precisely in line with everything he has ever said about Russia and its dictator Vladimir Putin when nobody thought he was joking.

His respect for the Russian strongman is even creeping into his policies, such as they are. A few days ago he said he will “look into” recognizing Russian sovereignty over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and dropping sanctions. And his campaign edited the Republican Party platform, substantially softening criticism of Russia’s invasion and dismemberment of its neighbor and weakening its support for the embattled pro-Western government in Kiev.

Trump supporters who are willing to admit that their man doesn’t know the first thing about world affairs—every single person in my comments section knows more about the subject than he does, including the trolls—say it’s okay because he’ll hire advisors who do. Well, his campaign chairman Paul Manafort spent much of the past decade working for Putin’s Ukrainian pawn Viktor Yanukovych until the revolution toppled him a couple of years ago. Trump advisor General Michael Flynn is a regular guest on Kremlin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today) and even sat next to Putin at RT’s anniversary celebration. And Trump’s foreign policy advisor Carter Page has close ties to the Kremlin and Russian gas giant Gazprom.

“If you're not familiar with Gazprom,” Josh Marshall writes, “imagine if most or all of the US energy industry were rolled up into a single company and it were personally controlled by the US President who used it as a source of revenue and patronage. That is Gazprom's role in the Russian political and economic system. It is no exaggeration to say that you cannot be involved with Gazprom at the very high level which Page has been without being wholly in alignment with Putin's policies. Those ties also allow Putin to put Page out of business at any time.”

Josh Marshall is a partisan Democrat. If you don’t like hearing it from him, you can get it from Robert Zubrin at the staunchly conservative National Review. “Carter Page is an out-and-out Putinite. A consultant to and investor in the Kremlin’s state-run gas company, Gazprom, Page has a direct financial interest in ending American sanctions against the company. Not only that, but Page is tight with the Kremlin’s foreign-policy apparatus and has served as a vehement propagandist for it.”

These are the people Donald Trump hired to hold his hand and tell him what’s what.

He’s not a Russian “Manchurian” candidate. He doesn’t take orders from Moscow, nor is Vlad bankrolling the Donald. There is no conspiracy here. There doesn’t need to be. Their interests and opinions align organically. Trump genuinely likes Putin, and the feeling is mutual.

Still, as Franklin Foer reports in Slate, Putin doesn’t sit back and passively prefer various Western candidates for political office over others. He actively promotes them.

There’s a clear pattern: Putin runs stealth efforts on behalf of politicians who rail against the European Union and want to push away from NATO. He’s been a patron of Golden Dawn in Greece, Ataka in Bulgaria, and Jobbik in Hungary. Joe Biden warned about this effort last year in a speech at the Brookings Institution: “President Putin sees such political forces as useful tools to be manipulated, to create cracks in the European body politic which he can then exploit.” Ruptures that will likely multiply after Brexit—a campaign Russia’s many propaganda organs bombastically promoted.

[…]

Donald Trump is like the Kremlin’s favored candidates, only more so. He celebrated the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. He denounces NATO with feeling. He is also a great admirer of Vladimir Putin. Trump’s devotion to the Russian president has been portrayed as buffoonish enthusiasm for a fellow macho strongman. But Trump’s statements of praise amount to something closer to slavish devotion. In 2007, he praised Putin for “rebuilding Russia.” A year later he added, “He does his work well. Much better than our Bush.” When Putin ripped American exceptionalism in a New York Times op-ed in 2013, Trump called it “a masterpiece.” Despite ample evidence, Trump denies that Putin has assassinated his opponents: “In all fairness to Putin, you’re saying he killed people. I haven’t seen that.” In the event that such killings have transpired, they can be forgiven: “At least he’s a leader.” And not just any old head of state: “I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A.”

The overwhelming majority of conservatives everywhere in America have always been horrified by this sort of thing. Until now, heaping praise on thuggish anti-American dictators has been almost entirely the purview of people who make Bernie Sanders look like George Will—anarchists, flag-burners, useful communist idiots, radical ignorami with their Che T-shirts, Marxist professors and fatheaded celebrities like Sean Penn and Oliver Stone who can’t get enough of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.

There are a few famous exceptions. George W. Bush made a damn fool of himself in 2001 when he said of Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straight-forward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

“I looked into Putin’s eyes and saw three letters,” Senator John McCain said in response. “K, G, and B.”

That pretty much settled it on the right. The only holdouts are Pat Buchanan and his small claque of far-right dead-enders. “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?” Buchanan wrote in 2013. “In the culture war for mankind's future, is he one of us?”

Mitt Romney spoke for the center-right when he (correctly, in my view) slammed President Barack Obama for his refusal to take Putin’s anti-American hostility seriously. “There's no question but that the president’s naiveté with regards to Russia, and his faulty judgment about Russia's intentions and objectives, has led to a number of foreign policy challenges that we face,” he said on Face the Nation in 2014.

Compare that statement to what former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said last week when he defended Trump’s dissing of NATO. “I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place [Estonia] which is the suburbs of St Petersburg.”

Gingrich is a Trump surrogate, not the president, but a crack like that from a government official would constitute a de-facto green light for a Russian invasion of Europe.

Reagan’s ghost would kick Gingrich in the balls, too, if he could.

Estonia is no more a suburb of St. Petersburg than Texas is a “suburb” of Ciudad Juarez, but never mind that. NATO was forged as a Western alliance to protect Europe from Russian aggression at a time when Russia occupied half of Europe. That’s what it’s for. If NATO members won’t protect each other from Russia, of all countries, then it might as well disband now. Alternately, if Estonia is somehow a lesser member of NATO due to its unlucky geography, then we might as well give it the boot.

Gingrich knows all this. Unlike Trump, he’s an intelligent man. (He used to be a history professor.) If Marco Rubio had won the Republican nomination, no doubt Gingrich would be lambasting Hillary Clinton for being too soft on Vladimir, and especially for her embarrassing SmartPower (™) “reset” with Moscow in 2009.

There should be no doubt that if any other Republican candidate won the primary election this year, we wouldn’t be where we are right now, that the Democrats would still be the soft-on-Russia party and the Republicans would still be the hard-nosed realists. Trump won, though, so the two party’s positions have been reversed.

It’s probably safe to say that virtually nobody on the Republican side of the aisle voted for Trump in the primary because of his positions on Russia and NATO. No, the two parties have swapped places, at least for now, because of the whimsical attitudes of a single Republican-in-name-only. But it’s worse than that, really, because the Democratic Party, for all its faults, at least isn’t pro-Russian, nor is it anti-NATO.

What we’re seeing here is basically a covert hostile takeover. The rest of the GOP will need to loudly resist this for as long as it takes or face a serious risk that Trump’s message will become normalized and entrenched—especially if he wins the election. If enough Republicans follow Gingrich’s lead and toe the new party line, they’ll transform themselves for the worse into a party that nobody recognizes.

Hanging with the People's Mujahadeen of Iran

In 1997, US President Bill Clinton added Iran’s People’s Mujahadeen (Mujahideen Khalq in Persian, or MEK) to the list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, and in 2012 his wife Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took them off.

One of them erred and erred badly.

The MEK fought hard against the Shah Reza Pahlavi before and during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Afterward, when the Islamist faction led by Ayatollah Khomeini emerged the strong horse in the ensuing struggle for power, they fought the new government alongside Iran’s leftist movements and lost.

Iran’s government insists on calling them terrorists and convinced Bill Clinton to do so as well.

They’re based in France now. They have to base themselves somewhere outside Iran because they’ll be tortured and executed if they go home. And they’ve formed a larger umbrella organization that includes other opposition movements called the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Every year they hold a huge rally in Paris that’s broadcast live on television (via satellite, of course) into Iran.

They invited me this year, so I went.

I was a little bit skeptical at the outset. Hillary Clinton only took them off the terrorist list a couple of years ago. Their roots are quasi-Marxist and Islamist. Their most strident critics insist that the MEK is some kind of a cult and that nobody inside Iran likes them. But I went anyway because…why not? I don’t work for them or answer to them. I can write whatever I want. I could denounce them as a gaggle of hysterical charlatans and propagandists and nothing bad would happen to me.

And they get that. “We won’t tell you what to write,” said Ali Safavi, the man who invited me. “We wouldn’t dare.”

He isn’t stupid. If they pressured me to write anything positive—or even anything in particular—I’d bust them for it in public and warn my colleagues in the media to avoid them.

I won’t, though. Whatever they were when they started out back in the 70s, they’ve gone mainstream in the meantime—not by Middle Eastern standards, but by Western standards.

They were squishily Marxist at the beginning, though they were never communist or even socialist, really. Mostly they belonged to Ali Shariati’s school of wild-eyed anti-imperialism. Since the United States backed the Shah, they were anti-American.

In the 1970s, when the Shah was still in power, they violently attacked Iranian targets. Some accuse them of attacking Western targets as well. Supposedly they bombed American-owned buildings and assassinated US military personnel in Iran. They insist, however, that they never attacked Westerners, that those hits were carried out by the communist splinter faction Peykar.

I don’t know who’s right. Maybe they didn’t do it. Maybe they pretend that they didn’t because they’re pro-American now and need American help. Either way, the 1970s were almost half a century ago. It’s not clear to me how much it should matter today even if they’re guilty.

What else was going on during the 1970s? Vietnamese officials were executing landlords and sending dissidents to “re-education” camps. Their soldiers killed tens of thousands of ours. (Ours killed many times more of theirs, of course.) America’s relations with Vietnam today are outstanding, though, because the past is the past. People change, parties change, governments change and history rolls ever onward.

Likewise, our relations with the MEK are outstanding. They haven’t even allegedly done anything bad to America for at least three and a half decades. Why would they? We have common enemies now. They’ve been ruthlessly persecuted by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Khomeinists insist the MEK is “contaminated” with atheism and the “Western plague.”

Here’s another reason the regime hates them so much: the MEK is the only major Middle Eastern political movement led by a woman, Maryam Rajavi. She is Iran’s Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled woman who wishes to overthrow an illegitimate government by rallying forces around her from abroad. (Unlike our Game of Thrones heroine, Rajavi is not angling to be queen, nor does she command any dragons.)

During the 1980s and 1990s, the MEK assassinated a number of regime officials and military officers inside Iran. Hence Iran’s designation of the MEK as a terrorist organization.

There is a difference, though, between guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Declaring that any and all violent action against a tyrannical regime is terrorism ignores the vast moral and political differences between the likes of Osama bin Laden and Thomas Jefferson. The imbecilic answer that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is not going to cut it. Crashing civilian airliners into the World Trade Center was an act of terrorism by any and all definitions while the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation was in practice and spirit its opposite.

Bill Clinton didn’t designate the MEK a terrorist organization because of what it did during the 1970s or even the 1990s. He added it to the list because he was trying to improve relations with the Iranian government after the alleged “moderate” Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election in 1997 and Khatami asked him to do it. Never mind that Khatami wasn’t a real moderate or even Iran’s head of state. Iran’s head of state, then as now, was “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei. Iran during Khatami’s time was no more “moderate” than it was with the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as its president. 

Want to know what real Iranian moderates look like? Take a look at the MEK’s 10-point platform for a future Iran.

1.                  A republic based on universal suffrage.

2.                  Individual freedoms, including free expression and a free press.

3.                  The abolition of the death penalty.

4.                  Separation of mosque and state.

5.                  Gender equality.

6.                  The rule of law.

7.                  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

8.                  Private property and a market economy.

9.                  A foreign policy based on peaceful coexistence.

10.              A non-nuclear Iran.

There’s nothing Marxist or Islamist in there. Those ten points read like the first draft of a constitution in a modern liberal democracy.

Under what theory should the West spurn these people in favor of a government that tortures dissidents, supports terrorist armies all over the Middle East and hangs homosexuals from cranes in the capital?

It’s disgraceful that the United States called them terrorists at the behest of a totalitarian regime, but that’s the kind of thing that happens when we try to make peace with our enemies before they’re ready to stop being our enemies. At least Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, had the decency to reverse what her husband did, but not until after a years-long legal battle finally forced her.

*

The event in Paris was a grand spectacle. It lasted eight hours.

Roughly 100,000 people attended, the vast majority of them Iranians living in exile. Never in my life have I seen so many human beings in one place. The MEK may not be popular inside Iran, but it sure as hell is in the European diaspora, which suggests its popularity back home may not be quite so near the floor as its critics allege.

The gathering was out by the airport. It couldn’t be held anywhere near the center of Paris. None of the Haussmann-era buildings are even remotely large enough to hold so many people.

Honestly, I thought I’d be bored. I was jet lagged and exhausted, and if I’m going to spend a few days in France, I don’t want to be stranded in the suburban asteroid belt near the airport. I want to hang out at a café in the Latin Quarter and peruse the Musee d’Orsay.

Yet I wasn’t bored for even five minutes. The organizers managed to keep things interesting and engaging with a splendid diversity of programming, including thunderous speeches, riveting films, and music and dance.

Most of the speakers weren’t Iranian. They were high profile officials from the United States, the European Union and the Middle East, including Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal. He delivered a real stemwinder in Arabic, opening with heartfelt praise of the high accomplishments of Persian civilization since the time of the Zoroastrians—Persians are not accustomed to hearing this sort of talk from Arabs—and ending with a clarion call for regime-change in Iran.

Thanks to the MEK’s reputation and past, I expected the event to be strange, perhaps even a little surreal, but it was as conventional as the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, partly because the organization is so wired into Washington now.

Here is but a sample of who attended from the American side of the Atlantic:

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia)

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (Democrat)

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (Democrat)

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island.)

Former Senator Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey)

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (Republican)

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Republican) was also scheduled to be there, but couldn’t make it.

How far the MEK has come. From an officially designated “terrorist organization” to an organization with bipartisan clout inside Washington rivaling Britain’s.

Every single one of those speakers flew to Paris not only to support the Iranian opposition, but also regime-change in Iran. “The regime is doomed,” Howard Dean said during a pre-event panel discussion, “and we’d like to help it along on its path to doomsday as fast as possible…It stands for everything that is evil and bad about humanity. Our job is to make sure they don’t succeed, and the faster we get them out of there, the better.”

It was refreshing to see so many American officials from across the political spectrum on the same stage agreeing with each other about something so fundamental. They all made the current occupant of the White House and our current White House contenders look pale by comparison. Nice to see Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich, but it would have been even better if Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump decided to come.

Unlike Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich, Clinton and Obama are not calling for regime-change in Iran. Clinton almost certainly privately wants it, but there’s no real evidence that Obama does. Clinton is more skeptical than Obama about Washington’s new arrangement with Tehran, but she’s campaigning in part on his nuclear deal.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, would have prohibited every single one of the MEK’s members and supporters from even entering the United States on a tourist visa before he finally climbed down from his ludicrous proposition to ban every foreign Muslim on earth from setting foot on American soil. 

Critics say the MEK has little or no support inside Iran, in part because it opposes the nuclear deal. That deal is extremely popular on the Iranian street. It partially ends Iran’s international isolation and should, at least in theory, boost Iran’s anemic economy. Perhaps the critics are right. Honestly, I have no idea.

What I do know, without any doubt whatsoever, is that whatever these people were in the 1970s, today they’re genuine liberals and moderates. They are not the fake moderates of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Iranian presidency. Nor do they resemble, in any meaningful way, Turkey’s false moderate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is rapidly transforming himself from the Middle East’s Hugo Chavez into its Stalin. No, these Iranian folks are the real deal, and it’s nice to see Western capitals treat them accordingly.

Slow Blogging For Now

This isn’t exactly a slow news week with another ISIS massacre in France and an aborted coup attempt in Turkey. It is, however, a slow writing week for me.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran invited me to an Iranian opposition conference in Paris last week. I’m still in Paris at the moment, cat-sitting and house-sitting for my friend and colleage Claire Berlinski while she travels away from home to research her next book about Europe.

I’ll write about the Iranian opposition when I get home in a couple of days. It was a fascinating event attended by roughly 100,000 people, including Newt Gingrich, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (whom I was lucky enough to have dinner with, though our chat was off-the-record), Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, and too many other big shots to keep track of.

I won’t be home for long, though, because City Journal is sending me to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I’d cover the Republican convention also except that I’ll still be in Paris when it begins and, alas, I haven’t yet developed the ability to be in two places at once.

So please stand by while I pack and head (briefly) home.

Will Brexit Unite Ireland?

The British decision to exit the Europe Union may end up dissolving the United Kingdom and uniting Ireland.

Northern Ireland may not be part of the UK for much longer. While the majority of English voters chose to leave the European Union, 56 of Northern Ireland’s want to remain. The (Protestant) Ulster Unionist Party and (Catholic) Sinn Fein both supported the Remain faction, only the second time in history they’ve stood on the same side of a big political question. They’ve been at each other’s throats for the most part, even before the island’s partition.

The Irish Free State declared its independence from Britain in 1919 and won it in 1922 at the conclusion of a three-year long war. Britain retained most of the northern province of Ulster, though, ostensibly to protect the Protestant majority there. Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority was not very happy about this, of course, and continued to view the British as a foreign occupation force.

War broke out in the 1960s when Catholic and Protestant nationalists battled it with each other, Middle Eastern style, in the streets. Gun battles, assassinations, car bombs, and kidnappings became numbingly routine for three decades. Hideous walls like those in Baghdad and between the West Bank and Israel still keep Catholic and Protestant neighbors away from each other.

More than 3,600 people were killed during the Troubles. It’s a trifling number compared with the civil wars in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Latin America, but it’s a huge number for Western Europe, and in any case it’s worth keeping in mind that Northern Ireland is miniscule compared with Yugoslavia, Syria and Colombia. Fewer than two million people live in the entire region. Belfast, the largest city, is home to barely 300,000 people. Metropolitan Boise is larger than metropolitan Belfast. With that in mind, the number of dead doesn’t look quite so small. If Northern Ireland were as large as Syria, for instance, the number killed would be close to 40,000.

It finally ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. There is no longer a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. Citizens can carry British passports, Irish passports or both, regardless of their religion, nationalist identity or political affiliation.

Good Friday wouldn’t have happened without the European Union. Northern Ireland’s membership in the EU made its membership, so to speak, in the United Kingdom almost superfluous. Catholics and Protestants didn’t have to argue anymore about whether or not Dublin or London should be the capital since Brussels trumped both.

When the British partitioned Ireland, the north had a clear Protestant majority. It doesn’t anymore. According to the 2011 census, 42 percent identify as Protestant while 41 percent identify as Catholic. (17 percent don’t identify as either.) Catholics have a higher birthrate, so the Catholic minority may well be a slight majority now.

You might think this means the population has been more or less evenly split about remaining in the UK or uniting with Ireland, but no. The Good Friday Agreement worked so well for so many people that even most Northern Irish Catholics said never mind to a unified Ireland.

In 2013, 65 percent of poll respondents said they would vote to remain in the UK if a referendum were held. Only 17 percent said they wanted to unite with Ireland. Last year, only 25 percent of Northern Ireland’s Catholics said they wanted a united Ireland.

But what about now? A majority of Northern Ireland’s people want to remain in both the EU and the UK, but they can’t.

Northern Ireland (nor Scotland, for that matter) can remain in the EU if the UK leaves. “The EU rules are very clear,” says Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers. “Membership is at member state level, it's a national question.”

The next question then is, which do these people want more? To be part of the UK or part of the EU? Will they be willing to ditch the UK for Ireland if it’s the only way to remain in the EU?

Maybe.

Northern Irish Catholics aren’t as willing to go along with the status quo as they were even a month ago. “Unionists would have to rely on Catholics not wanting to be part of a united Ireland,” says Peter Shirlow at the Institute of Irish Studies in the UK. “That has been the trend up to last Friday, but I think that trend is now changing.”

After Brexit, even many Protestants are applying for Irish passports, not because they identify more with Ireland than the UK but because they wish to remain citizens of Europe, and they can only do so now through the Republic of Ireland.

“Our political structures,” SDLP leader Colum Eastwood writes in the Irish Times, “were shaped in the context of European membership.” The SDLP is the mainstream Irish nationalist party in Northern Ireland. Unlike Sinn Fein during the Troubles, it disavowed the Irish Republican Army’s physical force republicanism

We have known and understood the positive impact of Europe. We have known and experienced the example of its architecture and its advocacy for co-operation and peace. We opted to stay true to that vision. We have not given any consent to change it. Unionists and nationalists alike backed that verdict.

The paradox therefore persists. The change chosen by the English people was not chosen by the Irish people. Nor was it chosen by the Scottish. The simplicity of those facts point to one reality: their future cannot now be our future.

The Northern Irish—along with everyone else in the rest of the UK and Ireland—will be doing a lot of soul-searching and arguing about this in the days ahead. Minds will change. Heels will dig in. New banners will fly. And votes will be cast.

Hopefully, bullets won’t fly.

History Returns to Europe

The British decision to leave the European Union is the most momentous event across the Atlantic since NATO bombed Belgrade. 

If I lived in the United Kingdom, I would have voted to Remain in the EU, but it’s not hard to see why the majority voted to Leave. I wouldn’t want the United States to join the EU for the same reasons the Brexiters want out of it.

The EU is a brilliant idea. Unite splendidly diverse yet like-minded nations into a powerful bloc that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Provide minimum standards and guidelines for countries that aren’t as advanced (such as Greece and Romania). Pull down trade barriers and do business in a common market. Open up job opportunities and leg-stretching room for all. (I wouldn’t want to be confined to a place as cramped as Belgium for the rest of my life, but I’m one of those cosmopolitan “elites” everyone likes to complain about nowadays.)

The actually existing EU, though, isn’t so brilliant. It includes all the good stuff, yet it’s crushed by a staggering amount of centralized regulatory bureaucracy and a disregard for the wishes of its individual member states. It’s hardly a gulag empire, but it’s autocratic enough that Europe’s democracy deficit has its own Wikipedia page. And its internally borderless nature is bringing more immigrants than can be absorbed all at once without shocks to the system.

Here’s how my Canadian pal Terry Glavin put it, who also would have voted Remain if he lived in Britain. “You can’t tell the British people, as Tony Blair’s Labour government did a decade ago, that there will only be 13,000 new immigrants arriving in Britain every year in the absence of EU transitional controls and expect them to shrug it off when they discover, as they did last month, that last year’s arrivals numbered roughly 330,000. Racism doesn’t explain everything.”

No, it doesn’t. Every racist jackhole in Europe is whooping it up over the Brexit results and pining for more, but even the most welcoming people and nations can only take in so many strangers at any one time, and Europe has never been as good at assimilating immigrants as the US and Canada anyway. (We have a lot more experience on this side of the Atlantic.)

I’ve always been skeptical that the EU would survive beyond the medium-term. Uniting nations as diverse as Britain and Greece isn’t as daft as merging the United States and Mexico into a single polity, but it’s a lot less likely to work than marrying Maine and Texas—or even British Columbia and Quebec. It’s more like combining British Columbia and Argentina. That kind of arrangement can only work if the federation is incredibly flexible.

The EU is not incredibly flexible, and English people don’t appreciate having decisions made for them in Belgium any more than Canadians would enjoy decisions being made for them by Americans, and vice versa.

Britain would have been better off without joining the EU in the first place if it wasn’t going to stay. That would have been fine. Switzerland is flourishing outside the EU, and so is Norway.

It may be a bit premature to say the EU is dead just because Britain left. The British were always the most likely to leave. They never joined with the same enthusiasm as other people. Many have always felt that “Europe” is somewhere else, that it’s the Continent, not the islands, and they refused to scrap the Pound for the Euro.

That said, this could well mark the beginning of the end of the EU. Leaving is no longer unthinkable now that the UK actually did it. If one country can leave, any country can leave, and Euroskepticism has been on the rise all over the place for a while. The EU can get along just fine without Britain, and it would probably get along even better sans Greece, but it won’t survive if France and Germany head for the exits.

The United Kingdom itself may come apart. England and Wales voted to Leave, but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain. Scotland held its own independence referendum two years ago and narrowly voted to stay in the UK, but only because leaving the country would have meant leaving Europe, and Scotland doesn’t want to leave Europe. Within hours of the Brexit vote, officials in Scotland mulled a second referendum on independence. It’s far more likely to pass next time than last time.

People in Scotland don’t enjoy having decisions made for them in England any more than the English like having decisions made for them in Belgium. Nationalism in Britain cut both ways. English nationalists voted to Leave while Scottish nationalists voted Remain.

Cosmopolitan “citizens of the world” need to understand something: Nationalism isn’t necessarily bad. It can be—that’s for damn sure—but a lack of it can be just as destructive. Nationalism is exclusive, yes, but it’s also inclusive. It draws a line between those on in the inside and those on the outside, but it also binds those on the inside together.

Look at Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Precious little glue binds them. Huge numbers of people in all three identify more with their sect—Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Christian—than with their own country. They’ve formed military alliances with belligerent foreign states against people who live down the street. More than a million have been slaughtered because of it. "Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation," Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran wrote about his homeland a century ago.

The two Baath Party regimes in Syria and Iraq attempted to gloss over their sectarian differences with a patina of pan-Arab Nationalism, yet they still butchered hundreds of thousands of people from enemy sects inside their own countries. Fractious Northern Ireland is as homogenous and pacifist as Japan by comparison.

But Northern Ireland is not homogenous, and it is not pacifist. Belfast is the most car-bombed city in the history of Europe. There is no “Northern Irish” identity that binds everybody together. The Catholic half of the population identifies with the Republic of Ireland while the Protestant half identifies with the United Kingdom. If the UK breaks apart after Brexit, what will become of Northern Ireland? It can’t be neatly partitioned any more than Baghdad can be neatly partitioned.

The European Union may have helped calm nationalistic furies in Belfast. It makes less of a difference if the region belongs to Ireland or the UK if it’s part of a larger transnational entity either way—if Brussels is its ultimate capital either way—but that pressure release valve is now closed.

I would have chosen to Remain if I were British. Better to reform and liberalize the EU than to scrap it. The uncertainty following Brexit is nothing compared to what could happen if the whole thing collapses. Those economic shockwaves will hammer us here in the US. I guarantee it.

And what would become of Eastern Europe? Romania is no longer a Third World country thanks in part to the European Union, while Hungary—which likewise hasn’t fully recovered from Soviet-style totalitarian government—is lurching in an increasingly disturbing direction even from within the EU. “The era of liberal democracies is over,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared in Romania recently. “Copying Western models is a kind of provincialism that will kill us.” There’s only so much Brussels can do to prevent a nation like Hungary from descending into a Putin-esque hell of its own making, but it will have even less ability if the EU doesn’t exist.

This could be the beginning of a slow-motion and potentially ugly collapse, but who knows? The future isn’t yet written.

I can say this, though, with confidence: history is not over. The next quarter-century in Europe will not be the same as the last quarter-century. History never stands still for long, nor does it move in a straight line for long. It’s always turning corners, and it’s always surprising.

Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Radical Islam

Americans have been arguing about Islam since 9/11. It was perhaps inevitable that our presidential candidates would bicker about it eventually.

It finally happened last week when Donald Trump slammed Hillary Clinton for refusing to say the words “radical Islamism.” Clinton responded by saying the words “radical Islamism.”

President Barack Obama is a little more stubborn about it. He even insists that ISIS, or ISIL as he and other government officials call it, “is not Islamic” at all.

Of course ISIS is Islamic. The first letter in ISIS stands for “Islamic.”

Every literate person who knows what letters and words mean must at the absolute minimum recognize that ISIS claims to be Islamic. It sure as hell isn’t Christian, nor is it Jewish. It is not Buddhist, Hindu or Zoroastrian. No human being on this planet thinks ISIS is atheist.

Obama comes off like he’s living in an airy fairy fantasy land. “Unless,” Trump said last week, “you're willing to discuss and talk about the real nature of the problem and the name of the problem radical Islamic terrorism, you're never going to solve the problem.”

“What exactly would using this label accomplish?” Obama angrily said in response. “Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away…Not once has an advisor of mine said, man, if we use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around. If someone seriously thinks we don’t know who we’re fighting, if there’s anyone out there who thinks we’re confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we’ve taken off the battlefield.”

Of course Obama knows who we’re fighting and why. He’s been bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq for more than a year now. He’s been doing it half-assedly, sure, but he’s not bombing the Middle East’s Christians, Jews, Druze, Yezidis or Alawites.

And he’s quite right that we aren’t losing because he doesn’t use the phrase “radical Islam.” He could change his mind and use the phrase every day for the rest of his term and it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference on the battlefield.

What he’s doing here is picking up where former President George W. Bush left off when he repeatedly called Islam “a religion of peace.”

Trump says this is political correctness and that it’s killing us, but this is something else. It’s diplomatic correctness.

“There are good reasons why Obama—and President George W. Bush before him—did not describe jihadists in explicitly Islamic terms,” Eli Lake writes in Bloomberg. “It was not because they are cowed by political correctness. Rather it was because the wider war on radical Islamic terrorism requires the tacit and at times active support of many radical Muslims.”

Lake’s case in point is the Anbar Awakening during General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, when every tribal leader in the western Anbar Province aligned themselves with American soldiers and Marines against Al Qaeda.

“These sheiks were pious Muslims,” Lake writes. “Many believed that apostates should be punished by the state and that fathers had an obligation to arrange marriages for their daughters.”

He’s right. I spent more time than was good for my health in the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. These places are painfully, even brutally, backward. Not every Muslim who lives there is a fanatic, but virtually none can be described as liberal or cosmopolitan with a straight face.

Then there is Saudi Arabia. The United States has had a transactional alliance with the House of Saud since the 1930s. The Saudis provide the world with oil in exchange for American security. Since then, Washington and Riyadh have drawn closer together for other reasons. We share many of the same geopolitical interests, especially when it comes to Iran.

The Saudis are kinda sorta allies, yet they preside over and promote the most puritanical sect of Sunni Islam in the world—that of the Wahhabis, founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century. The Saudis spend enormous amounts of money spreading this noxious and dangerous brand of Islam all over the world. It’s a serious problem, and it’s long past time for the United States to demand they halt it or else, but the Saudis are nevertheless helpful in other ways and have been for almost a hundred years. 

So yes, we have fanatical as well as moderate and liberal Muslim allies, and Obama, like Bush before him, is reluctant to alienate them. American presidents have to weigh the diplomatic consequences of their words. Journalists, intellectuals, activists and historians don’t.

The downside is that people don’t like or trust leaders who appear disconnected from reality. And Obama is far more worried about this than he needs to be. All he needs to do is be honest and reasonable. He just needs to make it clear, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did when he was bombing the Taliban in Afghanistan, that “the war against terrorism is not a war against a religion.”

Middle Easterners are among the least “politically correct” people in the entire world. The very idea of Western-style “political correctness” in the Middle East is absurd. They are far less “sensitive,” in the progressive sense of that word, than virtually anyone in the United States. And they know damn well that ISIS is Islamic. We’re not earning any points with our allies in the Muslim world by denying this, nor would we alienate any of them by acknowledging it.

The United States government surely would alienate our friends and allies over there if we had a bombastic bigoted blowhard in the White House, but calling the Islamic State “Islamic” isn’t even in the same time zone as bigoted or bombastic.

Whatever Obama and Trump say, the rest of us need to get something straight. At one end of the American spectrum is the notion that Islam is a religion of peace while the other end insists that it’s a religion of war and jihad. They’re both right, and they’re both wrong. Islam is not a single monolithic thing any more than Christianity is.

Former Muslim and Somalia-native Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains this better than almost anyone in her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, which I reviewed last year for Commentary.

She divides Muslims into three groups, ignoring the theological and cultural distinctions between Sunnis and Shias and smaller sects like Wahhabis and Sufis. She also sets aside national differences between countries like Kosovo and Azerbaijan, where almost everybody is secular, and ultraconservative realms like Saudi Arabia where almost nobody is.

First there are those she calls Mecca Muslims, traditional and largely peaceful people inspired by Mohammad’s benign example during the religion’s early years when he lived in Mecca and politely invited others to follow him. The majority of the world’s Muslims fall into this camp.

Then there are the Medina Muslims, the often violent minority that follows Mohammad’s example when he lived in Medina and assaulted those who refused to convert. Medina Muslims include the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, and the ayatollahs in Iran.

Both types of people are authentic Muslims. Both can cite the Koran to back up their beliefs and behavior. Both can say they’re following Mohammad’s example. 

Hirsi Ali’s third group are the dissidents like herself. Some are ex-Muslims while others are reformers—including imams and respected scholars—who are doing everything they can to modernize the religion and discredit the Medina Muslims.

Insisting that the Medina Muslims aren’t Muslims is as pointless as it is wrong. It may be defensible as a diplomatic fiction, but it’s also unnecessary. The dissidents and the reformers know damn well who and what they’re up against. They wouldn’t need to reform the religion if it did not need reforming. They also know perfectly well that the Islamic State is Islamic. These people are our best friends in the Islamic world, and they won’t be the least bit offended if Obama or anyone else calls a radical Islamic terrorist a radical Islamic terrorist. 

The Saudis wouldn’t sever the alliance either if the White House calls a spade a spade. They need us more than we need them, after all. People like the sheikhs of Iraq’s Anbar Province wouldn’t refuse to work with an American president for using phrases like “radical Islam” either as long as the White House made it clear we’re not at war with an entire religion.  

Obama is far more worried about this than he needs to be, and Trump isn’t worried enough. A commander-in-chief who bares his teeth at 1.2 billion Muslims in the world would be a catastrophe for a reason that ought to be obvious: winning wars against radical Muslims without enlisting the help of friendly moderate Muslims is impossible.

Banning Guns and Muslims Isn’t the Answer to Orlando

The United States suffered the worst act of terrorism since 9/11 over the weekend when ISIS supporter Omar Seddique Mateen killed 50 people and wounded another 53 with a handgun and a .223 rifle at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Americans are good at solving problems. We’ve put men on the moon, cured countless diseases, and invented nearly all modern technology from televisions and telephones to microchips and the Internet. We created a durable democracy that has lasted more than 200 years, ended slavery, destroyed Hitler’s Nazi regime, and bested the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Surely, then, we can solve terrorism, or at least drastically reduce it, but let’s get one thing clear. There is no such thing as The Answer. There is no silver bullet, no magic wand, no perfectly calibrated piece of legislation that Congress can pass to make terrorists leave us alone.

Even if there were such a thing, a government ban wouldn’t be it. If it were so easy, we’d just ban terrorism and be done with it. Yet a large swath of the left wants to solve this with a gun ban, and a large swath of the right wants to ban Muslims.

We’ve never solved any of our great problems with bans. Bans always backfire. Remember Prohibition? How’s the drug war coming along? What does the underground sex industry look like?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says she wants stricter gun laws after Orlando. Reasonable people can disagree about the particulars of this or that piece of proposed gun regulation, but Clinton is kidding herself or pulling a fast one on voters by suggesting that better background checks, closing the loopholes at gun shows, or an “assault” rifle ban will prevent terrorists from getting guns.

The Orlando shooter worked as a security guard. He passed all kinds of background checks. He didn’t need to exploit any loopholes at gun shows. If the rifle he used had not been available in stores, he could have bought one on the black market.

France has strict gun laws. France has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. That didn’t stop ISIS from getting its hands on automatic Kalashnikovs seven months ago in Paris and tripling the Orlando shooter’s body count.

Ban guns in stores and at gun shows all you want—it will affect law-abiding citizens, not terrorists. Anything and everything banned by governments just moves to the black market, from guns and drugs to prostitution. According to the National Observatory for Delinquency, the number of illegal weapons in France has been increasing by double-digit percentages for years. Criminals and terrorists don’t need to pass background checks, nor do they need Wal-mart. They buy their guns on the street.

Even a draconian absolute gun ban wouldn’t work. Under what theory would a war on guns work any better than the war on drugs? Does anyone seriously believe that the government could ever take so many weapons away from so many people that terrorists would have to resort to running around with butter knives? Come on.

The French gun ban accomplished a grand total of jack squat last year when ISIS hit Paris. And Mohammad Atta’s crew killed thousands of people on 9/11 armed with nothing but box cutters.

Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States is even more ludicrous. The vast majority of guns are never used in mass shootings, and the vast majority of Muslims never commit acts of terrorism.

Almost three million Muslims live in the United States. The percentage who have blown up or shot anyone is only slightly more than one in a million.

The Muslim world is enormous and varied. A ban on all Muslims would be a de-facto ban on the Kurds, and the Kurds are America’s best friends in the entire Middle East. They’re more militantly anti-ISIS than anyone else in the world, and they’ve supplied most of the ground troops against ISIS.

Here’s what my Kurdish friend Ejder Memis wrote on Facebook today. “Let me offer my commiserations to the LGBT community for the savage murder of 50 and the maiming of as many in [an] Orlando gay club by an Islamofascist terrorist.” After getting that out of the way, he goes after the Orlando shooter’s father who said that what his son did had nothing to do with religion. “Where were you when ISIS killed, raped and pillaged their way across Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan? Where were you when they attempted a genocide on Yazidis, enslaved 'infidel' girls and women, cut off heads and burnt prisoners? Where were you when they blew up worshipers in churches and peaceful protesters in Suruc and Ankara? Where were you when they threw gays off the roof tops? Pray tell you were not at a 'No to Islamophobia' march rubbing shoulders with those who would rather see you dead.”

Raise your hand if you think America will be safer if the man who wrote that can’t come here.

Should the United States be more careful about who it lets in? Absolutely. But here’s a not-so secret secret about Middle Easterners—many of them are more clear-eyed than Westerners are about the likes of ISIS.

Banning all of them with a blind and blunt instrument probably wouldn’t directly help ISIS recruitment as much as Clinton alleges. Psychopathic totalitarians are not provoked by Western illiberalism. They are, on the contrary, provoked by Western liberalism. Who thinks the Orlando shooter just randomly chose a gay night club?

Banning all Muslims would, however, sour America’s good relationships with moderate Muslims and their governments from Morocco and Tunisia to Jordan and Azerbaijan. And it would profoundly alienate the Muslims who already live here, which could make them more susceptible to radicalization down the road.

In any case, the Orlando shooter was born in America. Trump’s proposed Muslim ban wouldn’t have touched him. 

So what’s the answer? The answer is that The Answer doesn’t exist.

We can start, though, by destroying the Islamic State. That would do a lot more good than preventing me from buying a gun, and it would do even more good than preventing my Kurdish friends from visiting Washington. ISIS can recruit and inspire people far more easily if it looks like it’s winning rather than losing. Even if it isn’t winning per se, if it simply looks durable and permanent, it can and does recruit and inspire people.

Destroying the ISIS “state” in Syria and Iraq won’t kill the ideology, obviously. The ideology will live on, almost certainly for the rest of our lives. Nazis and Communists still exist, after all. They are, however, a lot less dangerous now that Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union are buried.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Iran Unleashes the Morality Police

Just at the moment sanctions are being lifted on Iran, and even Saudi Arabia’s medieval government is easing up on internal repression, Iran’s “morality police” are back in force. This time they’re going undercover.

7,000 new officers have been unleashed into the streets to ensure everyone—especially women—adheres to strict Islamic codes of morality when they’re out in public. The officers don’t wear uniforms. They don’t identify themselves in any way. Instead, they blend in and mix with people as much as possible, then report the “criminals” they find, such as women who wear fingernail polish or have too much hair showing under their headscarves, to uniformed authorities.

“On Sunday,” Yara Elmjouie reports in the Guardian, “195 members of the Iranian parliament signed a letter warning moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to get serious about confronting women failing to properly observe modest Islamic covering - or hijab - or else, the letter reads, Iranian society will face ‘irreversible consequences’ from a western cultural onslaught seeking to ‘change the Iranian people’s way of life vis-à-vis hijab and chastity.’”

It ought to go without saying that there’s nothing inherently Western about women refusing to cover their heads when they go out in public. Japanese women don’t cover their heads. Neither do women in South Africa, China, or Mexico. Neither, for that matter, do women in Muslim-majority Kosovo.

Iranian women are retaliating against all this nonsense by defiantly publishing photographs of themselves taking off their hijabs on websites like Facebook, but the regime is fighting back.

“For weeks state TV has drawn attention to the hijab in televised debates,” Elmjouie continues, “and pro-hijab posters likening badly veiled women to unwrapped candy bars preyed on by flies made the rounds on social networks.”

Naifs the world over applauded when the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani replaced the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2013, but this guy was never going to make much of a difference. The Iranian presidency is not quite a ceremonial role, but it’s not a very powerful one either.

Ali Khamenei, the self-styled “supreme leader,” is the head of state. He and his Revolutionary Guard Corps control foreign policy absolutely, and he mostly directs internal policy. Rouhani asked the hardliners to stop interfering so much in everyone’s personal life like the totalitarians they are, but there’s not much he can do about it. He could be a pot-smoking libertarian transgender rights activist, and it still wouldn’t change anything in Iran—except, of course, that he’d be flogged and tortured in Evin Prison if he were any of those things.

He’s not, of course, and he’s not even meaningfully moderate. Khamenei hand-picked him and just a few others to run for the presidency a couple of years ago. Khamenei selects every candidate for the presidency, and he’d rather chew off his own legs than choose anyone who is moderate by any definition of that word outside Iran.

Khamenei’s people don’t even qualify as moderate by Middle Eastern standards, let alone global standards. Iran is one of only two countries in the entire Middle East where women are required by law to cover their heads when they go outside. Even foreign women who aren’t Muslims have to cover their heads in Iran. That’s completely unnecessary everywhere in North Africa and the Levant. It’s not even required in the Hezbollah-occupied regions of Lebanon. It’s only the law in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Just north of Iran in Azerbaijan, which would be part of Iran today if Russia hadn’t conquered it roughly 200 years ago, more than 99 percent of women dress like women everywhere else in the world. I spent a week there and saw fewer Islamic headscarves than I see in Seattle—just two during the entire week. I assumed the young women wearing them were probably foreigners. If they were locals, they were as far out of the mainstream as Zoroastrians are in America. There’s a statue in the capital that shows a woman removing her headscarf. It has been there for more than 100 years.

Iran probably wouldn’t be that aggressively secular if it had a genuinely representative government—unlike Iran, Azerbaijan spent more than a half century under communist rule—but it would almost certainly look like Lebanon or Turkey where there’s a healthy balance between the secular and the devout. The Iranian government wouldn’t need to send thousands of undercover “morality police” into the streets in the first place if adherence to strict Islamic codes was what everybody actually wanted.

Iranians, when left alone, are far more liberal-minded and modern than Saudis. The Iranian and Saudi governments, though, are remarkably similar in their fanatical absurdity. The Saudi government has always been more severe, but just at the moment when the Iranian regime is tightening the screws again, Saudi Arabia’s own morality police are being stripped of some of their powers.

The Muttaween, or the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, are no longer allowed to question, ID, chase, arrest or detain people suspected of any “crime,” such as mingling with members of the opposite sex. As of two weeks ago, that’s the job for the regular police. According to the Cabinet, the Muttaween must “encourage virtue and forbid vice by kindly and gently advising as carried out by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his rightful successors.” They are also required to show their identity cards.

Iran’s “morality police,” meanwhile, do not have to show their identity cards. Instead, they’re blending into the civilian population and ratting out their friends and neighbors like a Middle Eastern version of East Germany’s Stasi.

The regime has proven itself remarkably durable since seizing power in 1979. All tyrants fall in the end, but the hardliners are feeling confident in the meantime. Why shouldn’t they? They put down the Green Revolution in 2009. The United States just cut a world historical deal and will even cover for them when they cheat. There’s hardly any external pressure on Tehran whatsoever to grant its citizens even an iota of freedom or dignity. Like most people on earth, Iran’s people have to seize it by force for themselves. When it finally happens, the country will be all but unrecognizable.

The truth, though, is that it will simply be reverting to normal. It’s easy to find photographs from the 1970s that show no women at all wearing the hijab, as if they were living in the United States, Europe or Israel rather than any nation anywhere in the world with a Muslim majority.

“The name Iran,” Iranian writer Reza Zarabi wrote a decade ago, “which used to be equated with such things as luxury, fine wine, and the arts, has become synonymous with terrorism. When the Islamic Republic government of Iran finally meets its demise, they will have many symbols and slogans as testaments of their rule, yet the most profound will be their genocide of Islam, the black stain that they have put on this faith for many generations to come.”

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