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The Last Days of the Communist Party?

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

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

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

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

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

Hanoi, Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanoi, Vietnam

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

“Why is that?” I said.

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

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

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

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

“What’s that about?” I said.

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

*

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

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

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

Fish don’t feel the water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“They didn’t arrest him?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?” I said.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Release Day

My new book, Tower of the Sun, is now officially released.

Those of you who pre-ordered a copy should have it on your Kinde. The rest of you can get your electronic copy delivered right away from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, iTunes, Scribd, or Inktera.

If you prefer the trade paperback edition—real books look much better on shelves, don’t they?—you can get a copy right now from Amazon.

The Kurds Rise From the Ashes of Syria

Syria no longer exists.

The tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad governs parts of what’s left of it. The psychopathic Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controls another large swath. Small scraps of territory are ruled by sundry other militias which, more likely than not, will eventually be absorbed by Assad or ISIS.

Up north the Kurds have carved out a proto state of their own which they call Rojava. It is being violently squeezed by ISIS from the south, and it’s jammed up against the wall of the Turkish border to the north. It is split into three besieged non-contiguous cantons, the most endangered of which is based around the city of Kobani.

Yet Syrian Kurdistan, spliced and diced though it may be, stubbornly continues existing. 

ISIS says Rojava is an atheist entity that must be destroyed. Turkey says it’s a left-wing terrorist state that must at least be resisted.

The United States quietly considers Rojava an ally.

Darius Bazargan produced a short documentary about Kurdish Syria for the BBC’s Our World called Rojava: Syria’s Secret Revolution, where we see Commander Redur Khalil, spokesman for the armed forces: If the American and European plans are to succeed, he says, “they will need allies on the ground.” He and his people are it. There is no one else.

Their ideology is quasi-Marxist, which is hardly ideal, but it’s vastly preferable to the Assad regime and ISIS. At the very least it ensures there is no religious repression. Women, men, and people from all religious backgrounds—secular or otherwise—have the same rights. Apostates from Islam and converts to Christianity face no persecution. Jews wouldn’t suffer much either if there were many around. An Israeli woman recently volunteered to fight alongside them and she is most welcome. Rojava is also not a ethnocracy. Arabs live there too, and many fight in the armed forces against ISIS.

The quasi-Marxism of the proto state’s leaders may be a potential problem for the region’s long-term prosperity, but it poses no threat to the West whatsoever and is likely just a transition phase anyway.

Bazargan says two million people make up the area. Terry Glavin reports in the Ottawa Citizen that the refugee crisis has swollen the population to a bursting 4.6 million. No one can really know for sure what the number is. Some of the refugees may return to where they came from at some point, or they might continue to swell and become permanent.

The Turks are supremely unhappy about this. Roughly a fourth of Turkey’s own population is Kurdish. The nightmare scenario, from Ankara’s point of view, is an independent Turkish Kurdistan and a loss of even more post-Ottoman territory. But the human right of self-determination is not contingent on whether or not Turks find it convenient.

Turkey is nominally an American ally, but it steadfastly refuses to help in any meaningful way whatsoever. The Kurdish entity known as Rojava doesn’t even exist on the map, but it’s a better ally than the one Middle Eastern nation in NATO.

The Kurds can’t possibly extinguish the Islamic State or the Assad regime, but given enough support and time they may be able to carve out a functioning contiguous autonomous region with secure borders like the one that already exists in Iraq.

Making it so should be the first order of business for American foreign policy in Syria. It would make a clear definable objective and help keep ISIS in a box for the time being.

Saving or fixing all of Syria is impossible, but a partial victory is better than nothing. If you doubt this, consider how Seoul would look today if North Korea had swallowed the south at the end of the Korean War.

What’s happening in Syria is an echo of what happened in Iraq during the 1990s and 2000s. The Kurds first broke away from Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian rule, then shored up their defenses against Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS that the Kurds in Syria are facing today.

What the Kurds achieved in Iraq is permanent. Never again will that region be lorded over by Baghdad. Its independence from Iraq has been achieved in all but name. It’s a fait accompli. Nor will ISIS ever control it. The Kurds will fight ISIS with kitchen knives and even their own teeth if they have to.

Rojava’s leaders publicly say they don’t want to partition Syria, but only because it’s the safe thing to say. The Turks might invade otherwise. It’s Washington’s job to guarantee the Kurds their safety and freedom and to make it clear to Turkey that if it invades and fights on the wrong side of this war that its membership in NATO would be in serious jeopardy.

There is nothing holy about borders in the Middle East or anywhere else. Kosovo recently broke off from Serbia. Scotland nearly split from the United Kingdom earlier this year. Abkhazia told Georgia to sod off. Almost everyone on earth thinks the Palestinians will have their own state in the West Bank and Gaza at some point.

The only plausible things standing in the way of a permanent de-facto independent Kurdish state called Rojava at this point are ISIS, the Assad regime, and the Turks. Two of those three will eventually cease to exist.

There can be no peace in the Eastern Mediterranean until the Assad regime and the ISIS are both erased from the face of the earth, but the Kurdish regions can be saved and strengthened right now and used as beachheads—or at the very least buffer zones—in the future.

Postscript: My new book, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, will be released later this week. You can pre-order the Kindle version right now for just 7.99 and it will be automatically delivered to you on Thursday.

Russian Provocations Increase Against NATO

Russia is provoking Poland on purpose to see how NATO will respond. From Popular Mechanics:

NATO and allied jets have scrambled more than 100 times this year in response to Russian military sorties. This activity is growing more dramatic. Within the last week, NATO intercepted four groups of Russian aircraft. "These sizable Russian flights represent an unusual level of air activity over European airspace," the alliance said in a statement.

When the planes at Łask jump into action, it's called a Quick Reaction Alert, or QRA. Lt. Col. Ireneusz "Palm" Nowak, the base commander at Łask, says that while the Russians keep to their own airspace, the Poles scramble fighters to shadow them whenever they come near. Sometimes, Nowak says, Russian aircraft cruise right up to the Polish border in what professionals call RECCE missions — reconnaissance endeavors meant to test the enemy's readiness.

[…]

Because they can't match the Russians plane-for-plane, the Poles look to the United States for help. The U.S. has responded with an increased presence, but the American warplanes here arrive unarmed. They're here to train the Poles, not fight alongside them.

There’s also a report from the European Leadership Network describing “almost 40 sensitive incidents that have occurred over the last eight months. The locations of the majority of these are graphically represented in the map in Appendix A. These events form a highly disturbing picture of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, and other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area. While the majority of the documented incidents have taken place in the Baltic Sea, there have also been ‘near misses’ in the High North, Black Sea and along the U.S. and Canadian borders.”

The regular news media are paying little attention to this. (Perhaps because no one is shooting at anyone over Poland.) So we’re learning about this in Popular Mechanics—hardly a foreign policy magazine.

The war in Eastern Ukraine has also dropped off the screen, more or less, thanks most likely to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but not entirely.

This is unfortunate, not because we’re about to enter a new Cold War—we aren’t—or because Russia is planning an invasion of Poland—it isn’t—but because Russia, like ISIS, is determined to disrupt the international order and scare everyone else into giving it a free pass to do whatever it wants militarily within its self-declared sphere of influence.

Which wouldn’t be a problem necessarily if Russia were a responsible power like, say, France, which unilaterally invaded Mali to take out a proto Al Qaeda state in the north. Russia is acting more like a hegemonic 19th century power. Its ideology is much less extreme than that of ISIS, of course, but its size and its strength are orders of magnitude greater. The amount of pain and disruption Russia can cause if it wants is enormous.

It’s tempting sometimes to think we’ve moved beyond that stage in our history, but Vladimir Putin and his sometimes violent supporters have not. 

New Book Release – TOWER OF THE SUN

My new book, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, will be released on November 20. You can pre-order the Kindle version right now for only 7.99 and it will be automatically delivered to you the morning of the release date.

Here’s the description from the back of the book.

Prize-winning author Michael J. Totten’s gripping first-person narratives from the war zones, police states, and revolutionary capitals of the Middle East and North Africa paint a vivid picture of peoples and nations at war with themselves, each other, and—sometimes—with the rest of the world.

His journeys take him from Libya under the gruesome rule of Muammar Qaddafi to Egypt before, during and after the Arab Spring; from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in Syria on the eve of that country’s apocalyptic civil war to a camp on the Iran-Iraq border where armed revolutionaries threaten to topple the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran; from the contested streets of conflict-ridden Jerusalem to dusty outposts in the Sahara where a surreal conflict few have even heard of simmers long after it should have expired; and from war-torn Beirut and Baghdad to a lonely town in central Tunisia that seeded a storm of revolution and war that spread for thousands of miles in every direction.

Tower of the Sun is a timeless close-up of one of the world’s most violent and turbulent regions that will resonate for decades to come.

“A decade in the making, Tower of The Sun is not just an authoritative, intimate and lively reconnaissance of the tectonic upheavals shaking the earth from North Africa's Maghreb to Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s also a masterpiece of clear-eyed political analysis and literary journalism in the travel-diary style of Paul Theroux.” – Terry Glavin, author of The Sixth Extinction

“Totten…practices journalism in the tradition of George Orwell: morally imaginative, partisan in the best sense of the word, and delivered in crackling, rapid-fire prose befitting the violent realities it depicts.” Sohrab Ahmari, Commentary

“I can think of only a certain number of people as having risen to the intellectual and journalistic challenges of the last few years, and Michael J. Totten is one of them.” Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism

“Michael J. Totten, to my mind, is one of the world’s most acute observers of Middle East politics. He is also an absolutely fearless reporter, both physically—he has explored the darkest corners of Middle East extremism—and morally.” Jeffrey Goldberg, author of Prisoners

The release date is coming up and you can pre-order the Kindle version right now.

Eight Ways to Thrill

My first novel, Taken, is included in a thriller box set for a limited time from Storybundle.

When you buy a box set from Storybundle you pay what you want. You can even choose how much money goes to the authors and how much goes to Storybundle. As long as you pay at least twelve dollars, you get all eight books. That’s a buck and a half apiece. 

Eight thrillers for twelve dollars? That’s a great deal even if you only read a couple of them.

The box set is only available for a couple of weeks. Before November is out it will vanish from the shelves, never to be seen again. So if you want this--and of course you do--snap it up today so you don't forget until it's too late.

US Proxies Surrender in Syria

Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front just surrendered to Al Qaeda in Syria.

Most people have never heard of either organization, though they’ve been sort of quietly backed by the US since they oppose the Assad regime, the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and the Islamic State. Now they may be effectively finished. 

The US waited far too long to back proxies in Syria while the Islamic State and the Nusra Front spent years building up their strength and conquering territory. Throwing support behind anyone but the Kurds at this point is too little too late.

It’s over.

They were bad proxies anyway. The Syrian Revolutionary Front was an Islamist organization. Less deranged than Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, sure, but it was still an Islamist organization. Harakat Hazm is more secular, but it consists of a measly 5,000 fighters while the Islamic State has as many as 100,000.

Syria is gone. The only portions of that former country that may still be salvageable are the Kurdish scraps in the north. The Kurds are good fighters and they may be able to hold on with our help, but there is no chance they will ever destroy the Assad regime or the Islamic State. They don’t have the strength or the numbers.

So unless the United States decides to invade outright with ground forces—and fat chance of that happening any time soon—we’re going to have to accept that the geographic abstraction once known as Syria will be a terrorist factory for the foreseeable future.

Tunisian Voters Say No to Islamists

Tunisia just held a parliamentary election and Ennahda, the sort-of-moderate-but-not-really Islamist party lost to the ardently secular Nidaa Tounes, which translates into Call of Tunisia.

Ennahda is the Tunisian Branch of the Muslim Brotherhood under another name, and it wears a more moderate face than the Egyptian branch. Tunisia is a genuinely moderate country and Ennahda’s leaders have no choice but to tone down their rhetoric and their platform if they want to seriously compete in elections.

Even so, they still only won 30 percent of the seats.

The previous regime was aggressively secular. Religion wasn’t banned, but it was heavily regulated by the state, as were the religious rights of individual citizens. Headscarves, for instance, were prohibited outright in schools and government buildings. The government wasn’t just secular. It was atheistic and hostile. Ordinary religious people who had no interest in living under an authoritarian or totalitarian theocracy found it offensive, and they voted for Ennahda not because they wanted an Islamic state but because they wanted a government that didn’t screw with them.

Ennahda earned the support of the true believers also, of course, the kind of people who really do pine for what Mohammad Morsi promised for Egypt before the country spit him out. Such people exist in Tunisia. Such people exist everywhere, including in the United States. They just can’t win elections on their preferred platform.

Tunisian politics might be more coherent if a viable mainstream conservative party were to compete with a more-brazen Ennahda and split the votes of religious moderates and religious extremists, but Ennahda certainly won’t split itself. The Islamists would have even fewer seats in the parliament if that were to happen. Ennahda can’t even win an election with its ostensibly moderate platform.

Much hay is being made of the fact that a large percentage of Islamic State terrorists in Syria and Iraq hail from Tunisia. We can speculate about the reasons for that, but I can tell you with absolute confidence that it’s not because Tunisia has a broader base of support for totalitarian political Islam than other Muslim countries.

On the contrary, Tunisia is the most liberal Arab country in the world. I’ve known that for a decade. In such marked contrast to Egypt, Libya, and Syria, it has emerged from the upheavals of the Arab Spring as a more-or-less properly functioning democracy. On January 26, 2014, Tunisia ratified the most liberal constitution in the entire Arab world.

There is no chance of establishing an ISIS-like “caliphate” on that soil unless an army invades and conquers it from the outside. The ideology can appear there, but it cannot grow there. Anyone interested in seriously pursuing it has little choice but to go somewhere else. So they’ve run off to Syria and Iraq where they will kill and where they will die. Think of it like brain drain, only the people being drained aren’t the smart ones.

The Twisted Appeal of ISIS

A poll released last week by the Washington Institute suggestss that the Islamic State may be more popular in Europe than in the Middle East. Lee Smith tries to make sense of it.

Europe’s got great health care, welfare, and lots of attractive young men and attractive women who, unlike the vast majority of women in the Middle East outside of Israel, are sexually available. So, why given a choice between a comfortable, if somewhat boring, life as a pharmacist in Hamburg, or fighting and dying in the desert, are thousands of Western Muslims opting for the latter?

Because, for all the awesome social services and consumer goods it can offer, Europe has become incapable of endowing the lives of its citizens, Muslim or not, with meaning. A generation of young European Muslims are giving up their relatively easy lives in Malmö, Marseilles, and Manchester for the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, because Europe is devoid of values worth living—or dying—for. They are leaving for the same reason that Europe’s Jews are moving to Israel: Strength and a sense of purpose can be found elsewhere, whether it’s ISIS, Vladimir Putin, Ali Khameni, or the IDF.

Human beings are wired for struggle and strife. There will always be those who get bored with the tranquil and easy lives most of us have in advanced Western nations. I can relate to this a little bit myself. I had a dull office job before I ran off to places like Beirut and Baghdad. I certainly didn’t go there to fight or to kill anyone, but the sense of adventure was a massive antidote to feelings of ennui. 

A French anarchist brilliantly articulated the most extreme version of this sentiment with a can of spray paint in Paris in 1968: “In a society that has abolished all adventure, the only adventure left is to abolish that society.”

Then there's Anthony Loyd who moved from Britain to Bosnia during the Yugoslav war to resolve his emotional and substance abuse problems. "I had come to Bosnia partially as an adventure," he wrote in his book My War Gone By, I Miss it So. "But after a while I got into the infinite death trip. I was not unhappy. Quite the opposite. I was delighted with most of what the war had offered me: chicks, kicks, cash and chaos; teenage punk dreams turned real and wreathed in gunsmoke."

Don't discount this sort of impulse. You may not be able to relate to it at all, but it's real. War is hell--that's for damn sure--but it's also an incredible antitode to alienation and boredom.

Turkey Bombs the Kurds

Turkey finally decided to use military force after watching the Islamic State in Syria advance on the Kurdish city of Kobani—and did so by bombing the Kurds.

The Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) deserves plenty of blame here. Its fighters reportedly fired on Turkish positions near the Iraqi border. But no one who has paid the slightest attention to what Turkey has been up to for the last several decades has any right to be shocked by Turkish willingness to bomb the Kurds but not the IS.

There was never much chance that Turkey would help defeat the IS in Syria or Iraq. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is primarily opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the PKK. Our interests are not in alignment.

He's quite right that Assad needs to go too, and the PKK is bad news--for real--but he, along with just about every other Turk in Turkey, is so freaked out by Kurdish independence anywhere in the world that he'd rather sit on his ass and let everyone die than do anything useful to resist the Islamic State. If he does feel like doing something useful he'll do it according to his interests, which means bombing the Kurds.

When he looks at the map he sees dominoes. Kurdish independence in Iraq could lead to Kurdish independence in Syria which could lead to Kurdish independence in Iran which could lead to Kurdish independence in Turkey. Every time a new independent Kurdish entity pops up in the Middle East, the liklihood that Turkey will lose an enormous swath of its territory increases.

His analysis is correct.

So he'll bomb the Kurds but not the Islamic State. He'd be against Kurdish independence in Syria even if the PKK didn't exist.

Turkish animosity against Kurds is hardly a secret, so I'm not sure why so many in Washington can't understand this guy. Maybe it's because he lets girls go to school and doesn't stone anybody to death.

From Havana to Hanoi

Vietnam’s communists are a hell of a lot smarter than Cuba’s.

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, thunders with economic productivity and bristles with new construction while most of Cuba’s capital Havana resembles a post-apocalyptic ruinscape.

While civilized countries have a minimum wage, Cuba has a maximum wage of twenty dollars per month for almost every job in the country. A beer costs an entire week’s salary and a meal out in a restaurants costs a month’s, so drinking and dining establishments are almost strictly for foreigners. In Hanoi, though, you can’t walk a block without passing restaurants, bars, cafes, and food stalls packed from one wall to its opposite with local patrons.

Vietnam’s middle class travels on motorbikes for the most part rather than in cars, but in the 1970s almost everyone got around on a bicycle. Cuba hasn’t even reached the bicycle stage yet. Its streets and highways are more bereft of traffic than anywhere in the world except North Korea.

You can find more goods for sale on a single block in Hanoi than in all of Havana.

Havana, Cuba

Some countries are just better at economics than others.

In Vietnam, citizens are allowed to earn and keep money. This makes them rich compared with Cubans who, for the most part, are not. But Cuba is not only poor because the government imposed a glass ceiling an inch off the floor. It’s also poor because the government has banned ordinary commerce for decades. One should hardly expect a booming economy when nearly all economic activity is prohibited.

Cuba’s president Raul Castro is experimenting with microcapitalist reforms, but billboards in Havana broadcast a soul-crushing slogan even today: “In Cuba the only changes are for more socialism.”

By contrast, Vietnam’s Communist Party figured out that communist economics were bankrupt even before the Berlin Wall fell, a mere ten years after winning the war and conquering the south, and in 1986 it implemented the reforms known as Doi Moi. Decades later, the result is an extraordinary explosion of new prosperity that nullifies nearly everything the party did and said when it first came to power.

*

It wouldn’t be quite right to describe Vietnam’s reforms as economic liberalization. The ostensible goal was to produce a “socialist-oriented market economy” where the state still owned major industries. But it was still a far cry from the centrally-planned Soviet-style command economy, and as the reforms progressed the system functioned more or less as a market economy despite the fact that the largest companies were owned by the government.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Small businesses were left alone for the most part, and Vietnam developed what some have called “street front capitalism” where microbusinesses proliferated. You’ll still see them all over Vietnam now. Women sell fresh produce and baked goods from baskets. Men grill meat and sell it to passersby who sit on little stools and eat at tiny tables right on the sidewalk. Everything you can imagine is sold from little stalls in the night markets.

Nowhere in the world have I seen so many boutiques, from cafes and pubs to clothing and electronics stores. I can’t say with this with certainty, but I suspect, due to the sheer number of Vietnamese involved in one kind of small business another, that more people in Vietnam understand the basics of business and capitalism than people in the United States. And that’s in the north, which still lags behind the south.

When the communist leadership decided in the mid-1980s to put Karl Marx and Adam Smith into a blender and see what came out,” David Lamb wrote in Vietnam Now, “Southerners, exposed to capitalism for decades, were far more comfortable than their northern brethren in adapting to the demands of free markets.

“The Old Guard communist leadership of the North can bury its head in the sands of Marxist economic theory all it wants,” he added, “but its constituency wants the model that Saigon symbolized—an economy that rewards initiative, encourages private enterprise, values liberal ideas, and frees itself from rigid government control.”

He wrote those words in 2002. In the meantime, the north got what it wanted. At least it appears that way to me. I didn’t get a chance to visit the south and cannot compare them. Perhaps the south still has a freer economy, and everyone in the north will freely admit that it’s richer, but the north in 2014 is a capitalist wonderland, what Bill Hayton calls the “communist capitalist playground” in his book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon.

“The results of Doi Moi over the first eight or nine years were dazzling,” Lamb wrote. “The annual inflation rate fell to single digits from 700 percent. Farmers, freed from collectivization, transformed Vietnam from a rice importer into the world’s second-largest rice exporter after Thailand. The gross domestic product grew by nearly nine percent a year. Thirty-five thousand small businesses started up in the private sector.”

When Vietnam was still economically Marxist it was one of the world’s poorest countries. “Ninety percent of the roads were unpaved; farmers in the most impoverished provinces got by on the equivalent of perhaps five dollars per month; nationally, bicycles outnumbered cars forty-to-one…Personal freedoms had vanished for all but the communist elite. Food was rationed. A pair of shoes was beyond the means of most families, unless they were prominent Party members.”

Hayton notes that in 1993 more than half the county lived below the poverty line, but less than a fifth did by 2004. The government can cook its books however it wants, of course, and those figures are a decade old, but they seem more or less accurate now, at least in the capital.

Havana, Cuba

The same thing may eventually happen in Cuba after Fidel Castro is no longer with us. He doesn’t govern the country directly anymore—his less-doctrinaire brother Raul has been president since 2008—but it’s spectacularly unlikely than a Vietnam-style renovation is possible in Cuba until Raul and whoever follows him is entirely free of Fidel’s baleful presence and influence.

*

Hoan Do’s father was a fighter pilot for South Vietnam, and the communists put him in a re-education camp after the fall of Saigon.

His wife broke him out and they fled the country by boat. They were boarded by pirates, escaped to another boat, and finally made their way to the United States. Their son Hoan lives today in the Seattle area and works as a motivational speaker for high school students.

Hoan’s father has never gone back and doesn’t want to. He’s afraid the police will arrest him if they find out he escaped. He has so many bad memories there and doesn’t even like to discuss it.

But Hoan has been twice, eighteen years ago and again three years ago. The difference between Vietnam then and now, he said, is startling.

Hanoi, Vietnam

“It’s like night and day,” he told me. “The economic changes in the cities are incredible. The farmland hasn’t changed much—poverty is poverty—but the commerce in Saigon blows me away. It’s incredibly Americanized. The number of malls, shopping districts, and restaurants is amazing compared with when I was a kid. Eighteen years ago the entire country was broken-down. There was hardly any technology, but now even poor people can go to an Internet café and log onto Facebook and YouTube.”

Internet access in Cuba, though, is all but non-existent. Last year I was occasionally able to log on at a hotel in Havana on a shared dial-up connection if I paid the equivalent of a week’s local salary per hour, but it took almost that entire hour just to download my emails from the server. Internet access in private homes is still banned. You certainly can’t surf the Web from a smart phone, which hardly anyone in Cuba can afford to buy anyway unless they receive remittance cash from abroad.

In Vietnam, though, all the middle class kids seem to have smart phones and almost every hangout spot I found in Hanoi has blazing fast wi-fi. Facebook is no longer blocked like it once was.

The press is heavily censored, but I found the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for sale whereas I couldn’t find any media whatsoever in Cuba that wasn’t produced by the Communist Party. Even if Western newspapers weren’t for sale on the newsstands in Hanoi, the Vietnamese can read them for free on the Internet.

I spoke with Nguyen Pham, the founder of a high tech startup incubator called 5desire. Her company manages small- to medium-sized investment funds for technology startups and advises on operation, growth, funding, partnership and expansion. 5desire is based in Vietnam, but it has three managing partners in Silicon Valley.

“The incubation and funding of tech startups is still a fragmented segment of our economy,” she said, “and we’re working on streamlining the process and modeling it rigorously after those in Silicon Valley.”

Ho Chi Minh could not have even imagined high tech startups backed by angel investors. Not even Americans could imagine the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon.com back in the 60s. Fidel Castro is perfectly aware of such companies, but when he was president he never would have allowed anyone to develop something similar, especially not for profit.

The Cuban government blames the US embargo for the poverty of its people, but the truth is the Castros love the embargo because it allows them to deflect blame onto outsiders. Even if that weren’t the case, it was Cuba, not the United States, that cut off all economic relations after the communists seized power.

Vietnam, though, is forging as many economic ties with the United States as it can. The government is forging ties, and so are companies like 5desire.

“We organize technology events that attract world-class foreign speakers and investors,” Nguyen said. “One of our notable events was Hackathon Vietnam 2014 in August where we partnered with Formation 8, a well known venture capitalist firm from Silicon Valley and the Ministry of Science and Technology in Vietnam. More than a thousand people attended, more than 60 percent of them developers. Joe Lonsdale, co-founder of Palantir Technologies and managing partner of Formation 8, has spoken at our events, as have Ngo Bao Chau, Mathematics professor from the University of Chicago, and Jonah Levey, the CEO and co-founder of Vietnamworks.”

You don’t need as much capital to become an angel investor in Vietnam as you need in the United States. A few thousand dollars will do the trick. Even investments of that size, though, are large enough that many Vietnamese still feel reluctant to make their investments publicly known. Prejudice against the rich goes down hard, especially in a country, capitalist playground or not, that is still run by a nominal Communist Party. It may fade in time, and perhaps it already has more in the south than in the north, but it’s still there. It has been a long time since Ho Chi Minh’s goons ran around the north executing landlords, but that bloody period in Vietnam’s history is still within living memory of older generations.

With all this technology, Nguyen said, “we have seen great improvements, but the bad side is huge too. It’s easier to communicate, but people are more lonely than they used to be. When you walk into a restaurant it’s common to see a group of friends sitting together without anyone saying a word. They’re all concentrating on their smart phones. A large number of Vietnamese youths are addicted to online games.”

Local markets are still the main focus of most Vietnamese startups, but some are aggressively expanding outside the country, especially in Asia and Africa. “Going global is a dream of many developers now,” she said. “After the success of Flappy Bird, many game developers aim for the global market with some success, such as AmazingBrick from Tung Hoang and NinjaRevenge from Divmod. Adatao has a team in Silicon Valley.”

Vietnam’s economy, capitalist as it is, is still directed to an extent by the government. It doesn’t own the company that made the Amazing Brick game, of course, but it steers things from on high much the way China’s government does. The system is hopelessly opaque to an outsider like me and isn’t entirely understood by average Vietnamese either, so I had to ask: does the state get in the way of a company like 5desire or does the government do anything to make its job easier?

“The Vietnamese government is now paying more attention to innovative technology,” she said, “and the Ministry of Science and Technology wants to take bigger steps to improve the startup community. They’re operating a fund backed by the World Bank. That’s good for us because startups will have more access finance and support. Some investors still complain about the high fees and bureaucracy when they invest in Vietnam. I believe the government is trying to fix this, but it won’t happen any time soon.”

There was a time, not long ago, when the government wanted everyone to think it and only it was responsible for technological advancement. I saw two statues in Hanoi of men wielding gigantic power plugs, presumably representing the Communist Party’s electrification of the countryside.

Power Plug Guy, Hanoi, Vietnam

Communists governments all over the world have bragged about their electrification of poor rural countrysides despite the fact that, once discovered, electricity spread all over the world under every conceivable form of government, from liberal to monarchist to fascist as well as to communist.

It’s not like Saigon lived in the dark before 1975. Electricity would have found its way to the countryside no matter who was in charge. So it’s a bit of a stretch to credit the Communist Party with improvements that likely would have happened regardless, but the party deserves all kinds of credit for voluntarily scrapping communist economics. Hanoi’s rulers learned much faster how to enrich their country than the Castro family, which is only just now beginning to implement the kind of reforms that will allow people to join the 21st century after walling them off from nearly all progress the human race has experienced since the 1960s.

*

Southerners still hold grudges against the north for what it imposed on them in 1975, despite the fact that Vietnam is communist-in-name-only and despite the fact that South Vietnam wasn’t a free country either. Southerners today are arguably more free and are certainly more wealthy than they were when the United States defended their republic from the north during the war.

“We hate northerners,” said Tuong Vi Lam, “because they changed our lives overnight. Everyone became workers.”

“In the south there’s still amazing prejudice against the north,” her American husband Alex Kasner told me. “Whenever a crime is committed, someone always blames northerners. They are supposedly uneducated. Not all people think this way, but it’s astounding to me how much of it there is. They’re all Vietnamese, but at the end of the day they’re not the same people.”

Even though the north is richer than it used to be, the south is still vastly more wealthy. It only suffered full-blown communist economics for a decade or so. Almost everyone still remembered how capitalism worked once it was permitted again.

Saigon is the center of economics and culture while Hanoi is the center of government. The north dictates to the south and has since 1975. Southerners naturally feel resentment about it. They also resent the north for changing Saigon’s name to Ho Chi Minh City, which to this day many refuse to acknowledge.

The hatred, for the most part, goes only one way.

“I’m from the south,” Huy Dang told me in Hanoi, “but I live in the north and I married a northern girl. In the south they don’t like the north, but northerners feel okay about the south. Northern people see southerners as open and happy all the time. Northerners are more reserved. They’re more careful and lazy.”

“Hanoi doesn’t look at all to me like a lazy place,” I said. Really, it doesn’t. Everyone is busy going somewhere and doing something all the time, even in the unspeakable heat of the summer, which, for quirky reasons of climate, is hotter and more stifling than the south for a few months of the year.

“It’s lazy compared with the south,” Huy said. “Northerners do things slowly. They procrastinate. If you tell them to do something they’ll say, ‘Okay, I’ll do it tomorrow.’ But the next day they still haven’t done it. Northerners like working with people from the south because we meet deadlines. We get it done. We are responsible. But not here in Hanoi.”

I have no idea how much of that is true, how much of it used to be true, and how much of it is simple prejudice. I’m not qualified to say. I can tell you just by looking around that Hanoi is not objectively lazy by global standards, but I didn’t get a chance to visit Saigon and can’t compare the two.

“Why is the south so different?” I said to Huy.

“The south has been with the Western world for a long time,” he said, “much longer than the north, for several generations. The north has opened up, but less so and it happened more recently. Young people haven’t had time to learn it from their parents yet, but in the south it’s part of their culture. Saigon is like New York and Hanoi is like Paris.”

Huy works for General Motors, so I thought he might have an idea how easy or difficult it is for an American company to open up shop in Vietnam.

“It’s very easy,” he said. “After Bill Clinton's visit, the post-war restrictions were lifted. Just present them with a business plan, tell them what you want to do, and you're good to go.”

“What about small businesses?” I said. “I see a lot of them on every street, so I imagine it's not too hard, but let's say you want to run coffeeshop. Can you just rent the space and open it up, or do you have to go through some complicated bureaucratic procedure?”

“It’s easy,” he said. “Just rent the space, pay the taxes, and that's it.”

That seemed slightly hard to believe, but Vietnam is one of the most capitalistic places I've ever seen. It can’t be too difficult to go into business if so many people are doing it. “Is there anything left of communism here aside from the name of the ruling party?” I said.

“The Communist Party still controls electricity, communications—including the cell phones companies—mining companies, and shipping companies,” Huy said. “But they're now selling stock to the employees like your stock options in the US.”

After sunset I walked through the local night market in the Old Quarter when the heat was slightly less oppressive. Individual proprietors set up shop in the middle of a street closed to vehicle traffic. I saw grilled meat, clothing, bootleg DVDs, sunglasses, smart phones, incense sticks, fake money to burn as offerings to dead ancestors, motorcycle helmets—you name it. The market reminded me of a Middle Eastern souk, only this one was out in the open under the sky.

Ad hoc markets have been a feature of local economies for millennia. Today we call this capitalism, but nobody needed to construct an ideological ism before it took off. Buying and selling is what people naturally do when governments don’t get in the way and ban commerce. You don’t have to read Adam Smith to figure out how it works. You don’t even need to be literate. The process is natural, organic, and it’s universal across cultures.

Cubans would naturally behave much like the Vietnamese do if the government would let them, but Raul Castro’s reforms are still in their infancy. The tiniest businesses are still micromanaged by the state to the brink of oblivion. Even a ruined and shattered country like Iraq is more economically robust than Cuba right now.

In Havana there is hardly anything to buy. Across the street from the Melia Cohiba Hotel, which is known as the most luxurious in the country even though it’s faded and drab, is a “mall” where “rich” people go. It’s a concrete box from the 1960s. You can buy a washing machine or a TV there, or you can hit the grocery store and pick up a few things that aren’t available with government ration books, but I’ve never seen such a pathetic mall in my life, nor have I seen such a grim grocery selection.

Royal City Mall, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, though, has one of the most extraordinary shopping malls I’ve seen in the world. I wandered around the Royal City mega mall for hours without retracing my steps, gawking at its splendor and vastness. Enough middle class families fill it at any given moment to populate a small city. I would have been impressed by the Royal City if I found it in Los Angeles, and I don’t even like malls. I can only imagine how it would look to somebody whisked there from Havana.

*

All communist countries revert to capitalism eventually. Some just get there quicker than others.

Hardly anyone bothers to defend Cuba’s groaning economic system anymore, but a stodgy core of calcified defenders haven’t quite given up yet.

Havana, Cuba

Oliver Stone—whose documentary Comandante was axed by HBO for being “incomplete,” as the channel euphemistically put it—said Fidel Castro is “one of the Earth's wisest people, one of the people we should consult.”

And The Nation magazine recently took travelers to Cuba on an “educational” trip.

The Nation,” writes editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, “for decades has covered Cuba in a way that few publications have done or dared.”

That’s true. And the article produced by the magazine’s “educational” trip is yet another in its long line of ludicrous reads. “Cuba has democracy and freedom but they are defined differently,” vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel is uncritically quoted as saying.

The piece as a whole isn’t uncritical, but it bristles with defensiveness about a system that even its president realizes needs to be overhauled.

Decades of disinformation to the contrary, Cuba never had a kinder and gentler version of communism that works. No, the island is not North Korea or Cambodia under Pol Pot, but it was never any better than Vietnam or East Germany in the 1970s and the 1980s. It just had better PR. The sorry truth is that of all the communist regimes that have ever existed—with the single exception of North Korea’s—Cuba’s is the most stubborn, the most reactionary, and the slowest to figure out how economics actually works.

It’s too bad the individuals who paid good money for The Nation’s dog-and-pony show didn’t head to Vietnam when they were finished. Every single one of the Cuban regime’s talking points would have been shown up as absolute nonsense within an hour of leaving Hanoi’s airport. The fools who think Cuba is anything but a disaster need to visit Vietnam post-haste and see what Fidel Castro’s socialist paradise will look and feel like when his imbecilic ideology is finally overthrown or reformed out of existence.

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

The Walking Dead in an Age of Anxiety

After the release of my zombie novel, Resurrection, City Journal asked if I could explain why so many people worldwide are obsessed with zombies. Here’s the first part of my essay:

“Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us,” the German poet and journalist Heinrich Heine wrote in 1842, “and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of Saint John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.” Heine wasn’t thinking of zombies, necessarily, but 170 years later, many of us are. Zombies seem to be everywhere these days. Barnes and Noble called the decade from 2003 to 2013 a “Golden Age for zombie fiction.” Max Brooks—son of comedian Mel Brooks—has written several zombie-themed books, the most popular of which—2006’s World War Z—sold more than 1 million copies and inspired the blockbuster 2013 movie of the same name, starring Brad Pitt. (I recently jumped into the genre myself, with a novel called Resurrection, which has been optioned for film.)

Zombies dominate the video-gaming world. Dead Rising 3 for Xbox One and Microsoft Windows, released last November—the latest in a zombie-killing franchise—has already sold 1.2 million copies, at $50 a pop. In May 2014, CNN reported that the Department of Defense had come up with an elaborate (fictional) zombie-based contingency plan for a military response to “a planet-wide attack by the walking dead.” Pentagon planners liked CONOP 8888 (a.k.a. Counter-Zombie Dominance), the report claimed, because it allowed them to avoid “casting” the role of the bad guys in their training scenario with denizens of real countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted a Zombie Preparedness page on its website, meant to be “a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages.” The Wall Street Journal recently noted a surge in dissertations and academic books with the word “zombie” in the title. Zombie characters show up frequently in everything from road races to flash mobs, as well as at the expected Halloween parties.

But when it comes to zombies’ hold on our collective imagination, AMC’s The Walking Dead, starting its fifth season October 12, is in a class by itself. Based on Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic book of the same name, the show chronicles the efforts of a small group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse to stay alive in the ruins of civilization. Ratings were good for the first season, in 2010, and have grown every year since, making The Walking Dead a massive hit—indeed, a cultural phenomenon. According to Variety, 16.1 million viewers watched the season-four premiere—a record not just for AMC but for basic cable—and that’s before counting everyone who saw it on Hulu, Netflix, and other on-demand outlets. The Walking Dead’s popularity has spawned a small industry of related products, from video games to action figures, and regularly put stars Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus on the covers of big magazines like Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and GQ.

Why so much enthusiasm for a show filled with gruesome violence and almost unbearable tension? Why all the interest in the end of the world generally?

The ongoing story of The Walking Dead begins with sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Lincoln) waking in a hospital bed, dazed, from a three-month coma—he’d been wounded in a gun battle—and finding himself in a world gone mad. The hospital, located near Atlanta, is seemingly empty, with signs of violence, including the mangled corpse of a woman and blood-splattered walls, all around. Outside, the dead are piled high in bags. Stumbling about, Rick heads home to find his family. On the way, he comes to a park—where, to his horror, a severely decomposed body, missing its lower half, begins to crawl toward him.

At first, Rick doesn’t understand any of this. He slept through the apocalypse—a virus has animated the dead with a mindless, relentless urge to consume human flesh, spreading the plague further by their lethal bites, and civilization has collapsed—and it’s too much to comprehend. But he soon meets a live human being, Morgan Jones, who gives him shelter and a rude education.

“Hey mister,” Jones says. “You even know what’s going on?”

“I woke up today in the hospital,” explains Rick, “came home, and that’s all I know.”

“But you know about the dead people, right?” Jones asks.

“Yeah,” Rick says. “I saw a lot of that, out on the loading docks piled in trucks.”

“No,” Jones says. “Not the ones they put down. The ones they didn’t. The walkers”—what The Walking Dead’s protagonists call zombies. “They might not seem like much, one at a time,” Jones later warns Rick, “but in a group all riled up and hungry, man, you watch your ass.”

Rick sets out to find his missing wife, Lori, and son, Carl, and, against the longest odds, succeeds, becoming the leader of a small group of ragged survivors, struggling against infection and death in a world where everything is shattered and danger lurks around every corner. The suicidal Dr. Edwin Jenner, whom the group meets at the abandoned offices of the Centers for Disease Control, sums up the bleak reality in the season-one finale. “This is what takes us down,” he says. “This is our extinction event.”

Read the rest at City Journal.

Islamic State: Army of Psychopaths

Roughly one percent of human beings are psychopaths. Most aren’t violent, and nearly all are high-functioning. Supposedly they are overrepresented in Congress, on Wall Street, in corporate boardrooms, and in large urban areas.

They’re even more overrepresented in terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda. Every violent psychopath with Muslim parents for thousands of miles in every direction is drawn to these organizations like maggots to meat. It gives them permission to behave monstrously with impunity.

I wasn’t a bit surprised to learn recently that two British jihadists purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies before heading to Syria. They weren’t drawn there by religion. They were drawn by the license to kill.

Unlike Al Qaeda, IS is trying to build an actual state, but its behavior is so unrelentingly savage that little the organization does gets attention anywhere in the world except when its goons behead foreign civilians, crucify dissidents, and wage war with genocidal intent against local minorities.

IS fighters conquered a lot of ground this way in a hurry, but it will eventually be their undoing.

Shashank Joshi explains in London’s Telegraph:

There are two ways in which a strategy of brutality can backfire.

The first is that it can induce your enemies to fight even harder, because surrendering is such an awful option. One academic study shows that “the Wehrmacht’s policy of treating Soviet POWs brutally undercut German military effectiveness on the Eastern front”. Moreover, the Soviets’ own relative brutality to Germans meant that German soldiers fought harder in Russia than in Normandy. The lesson? The Islamic State can make its enemies flee, but it would be a foolish Iraqi unit that surrendered – and the net effect is that the Islamic State has to fight all the harder.

The second problem is that the Islamic State is in the state-building game. It is out to conquer, not merely to annihilate. But it was precisely such excessive and indiscriminate violence that proved the downfall of the Islamic State’s precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sunni groups, armed and protected by a surge of US forces, turned on the group in the so-called Awakening, expelling it from the same Sunni-majority areas in which it’s now encamped. Although the Islamic State initially sought to restrain itself in the places it seized over the first half of this year, its record has been patchy, to put it mildly. Iraqis may be accustomed to being ruled by terror, but it doesn’t mean they like it.

Meanwhile, Israeli doctors saved the life of a five year-old Syrian boy who was shot in the head. Try to imagine IS or Al Qaeda doing anything of the sort for one of their enemies. The idea is ludicrous, isn’t it?  

It could take an awfully long time before every place in the Middle East adopts a zero tolerance policy toward organizations like IS and Al Qaeda, but such gruesome people are always destroyed in the end. 

Islamic State Using Human Shields

The Pentagon says Islamic State fighters in Syria are using human shields to protect themselves from American airstrikes. I can’t verify that claim, but it’s a little like saying the Islamists breathe oxygen. Of course they’re using human shields. It’s what terrorist armies in the Middle East do when facing a civilized enemy.

It wouldn’t accomplish squat against a war criminal like Bashar al-Assad. His regime would happily take out a thousand Sunni civilians to kill a single Islamist fighter. He’d see the thousand civilians as bonus points. But the West doesn’t fight like that and the Islamic State knows it.

Civilians always die in war zones. It’s unavoidable. The United States, however, takes great care to keep that number as low as possible. When the US Army and Marines took Fallujah back from Al Qaeda in Iraq (the Islamic State under its previous name) in 2004, for instance, they first spent weeks evacuating the city of as many civilians as they could before going in.

The US cares more about the welfare of Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq than the Islamic State does—which is not likely to help the medieval head-choppers and crucifixion enthusiasts much in the hearts-and-minds department.

Hamas gets an almost-free pass for this gruesome behavior in Gaza, but that’s only because no one but Israelis and Palestinians fear Hamas might one day come after them. Dozens of countries are involved in the war against the Islamic State, including Arab countries, and the Islamic State is clearly at war with the entire human race, beginning with the very civilians it’s hiding behind.

Dig In For a Long War

The Islamic State drove a convoy of stolen Humvees into an Iraqi army base named Camp Saqlawiya just north of Fallujah and exploded themselves. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers are dead or missing.

I paid a visit to Saqlawiya six years ago. “That's where you'll want to go,” an American Marine told me, “if you want to say you get shot at once a week.” Nobody shot at me. Saqlawiya was relatively “quiet” back then because the American military was occupying the area.

The American military is no longer occupying the area. And since the Iraqi army is effectively useless, despite years of American training, the Islamic State can wage its scorched earth campaign of murder and mayhem almost with impunity.

I say “almost” because air strikes by the US-led coalition are putting a crimp in their plans, but IS rules a huge area straddling two large countries and somebody will need to go in there, clear ground, and hold it if anything substantial is going to change.

Likewise in Syria. The US and several Arab governments are now bombing the Islamic State on the Syrian side of the border, including its “capital” in Raqqa and several oil refineries in order to keep cash out of the terror group’s pockets.

Again, though, somebody will have to go in there and clear and hold ground if anything substantial is going to change.

No one we like will be able do that anytime soon. If the Iraqi army can’t handle it at this late date it might never be able to handle it. As for Syria, according to David Ignatius in the Washington Post, “the U.S. military will…lead the training of Syrian forces, but this will take longer because the opposition there starts from a low base of readiness. The hope is that by sometime next year, a well-vetted force of at least 5,000 Syrians, trained in Saudi Arabia and other countries, will be ready.”

Nobody really knows how many fighters the Islamic State has, but estimates are in the tens of thousands. And those 5,000 American proxies in Syria don’t even exist yet.

So in the meantime, any ground cleared of IS fighters will be open to the Syrian and Iranian regimes and their terrorist proxies such as Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah. Washington may be coordinating with Bashar al-Assad indirectly through the Iraqis and admits that it’s coordinating with Iranian-backed militias through the Iraqis.

We could argue all day about who is more dangerous—the Sunni terrorists of the Islamic State or the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. The Iranian-led bloc isn’t cutting off American heads on YouTube at the moment, but Tehran has a nuclear weapons program and will certainly place Assad and Hezbollah under that protective umbrella if it’s ever completed. IS is unspeakably savage, but it will never acquire that kind of strength or pose a threat to anyone on that scale.

Standing aside and letting the two blocs cancel each other out was always wishful thinking. History and war don’t work that way. Prioritizing threats and focusing on one without indirectly assisting the other is most likely impossible. Defeating both at the same time without a massive commitment of ground forces is also impossible.

So we’re resisting one group of odious actors and boosting the other.

We’ve done this before, most famously during World War II when the US and Britain formed an alliance with Josef Stalin against Adolf Hitler in Germany. The long Cold War against Russia began almost immediately after the allies defeated the Nazi regime. One of the West’s last moves in that war was backing the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation, some of which later formed the Taliban as others joined the Northern Alliance.

If there were an easier way to clean up the world, believe me, we’d do it. But there’s not. So here we are.

When the Syrian civil war started I argued that the Assad should take be taken care of before the Sunni Islamists, but the latter were weaker then, and in any case we’ll have to deal with both in the long run either way. Because there can be no chance whatsoever of peace and quiet in the Middle East until both the Islamic State and the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis are defeated. Effectively dealing with just one of those factions will take many years.

The Obama administration has been perfectly in line with American public opinion these last few years in wishing the Middle East would just sod off and leave us alone. Huge numbers of Middle Easterners have felt the same way about us. After working in and writing about the region for ten years, I’m sick of it too. But we’re stuck with each other, like it or not.

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