Saudi Arabia Lightens Up on Women – A Little

Saudi Arabia is about to become slightly less like a Taliban state. Hardline Sunni Wahhabis have long enforced strict gender segregation and the veiling of women, but that’s about to change, at least around the edges a bit. The government has announced that on June 24, women will finally be allowed to drive cars, and this week, authorities allowed ten women to swap their foreign driver’s licenses for Saudi licenses in advance of the new law.

Draconian rules—including not just a ban on women drivers but also alcohol prohibition, severe dress codes requiring women to cover themselves before leaving the house, and state-enforced gender segregation in virtually all public places, including Starbucks—have been so well publicized throughout the world that many casual and distant observers of the Middle East think this sort of thing is par for the course over there. It’s not.

Women can already drive everywhere else in the world. Saudi Arabia is just one of just two countries (Iran is the other) that require women to cover their heads in public. Alcohol is legal in most Muslim-majority nations.

Saudi Arabia is an outlier, fanatically conservative even by Islamic standards. Women there still won’t be able to file legal complaints against domestic abusers, wear clothes that “show off their beauty,” co-exist in the same physical spaces as strange men in public, or even try on clothes in department store dressing rooms lest men imagine them naked.

The young reformist Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS for short) has had it with at least some of this stuff. Movie theaters are reopening for the first time since the 1980s, music concerts will be tolerated again, and women will be permitted to attend sporting events.

Expect more of this in the future, not just in Saudi Arabia but everywhere. The Middle East is by far the most culturally conservative region on earth, but every part of the world has been becoming steadily becoming more liberal for more than a half century at least.

Want proof? Take a look at the chart below from the World Values Survey showing the rise of liberal values worldwide since 1960, borrowed from Harvard Professor Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Think of “emancipative values,” charted on the y axis, as broadly liberal values. To be more precise, the surveyers define emancipative values as those which emphasize freedom of choice and equality of opportunities. “Emancipative values, thus, involve priorities for lifestyle liberty, gender equality, personal autonomy and the voice of the people.”

“Young Muslims in the Middle East,” Pinker notes, “the world’s most conservative culture, have values today that are comparable to those of young people in Western Europe, the world’s most liberal culture, in the early 1960s.” He adds that the Middle East’s liberalization is driven more by generational turnover than anything else as the young replace the old, a common story, especially in the West, since Enlightenment philosophers began reshaping our world in the 18th century.

My own experience in the Middle East and North Africa bears this out. The cultural gap between young and old is starker than it is here at home. Moroccan journalist Abderrahman Aadaoui explained it to me this way a couple of years ago:

We’re modern in the street, but we are conservative when we go home. We have two faces. A man may watch a pornographic movie outside, but if he’s home with his wife and he sees a kiss on the TV, he might change the channel. This is Morocco.

Modernity is new here. We got some of it from French and Spanish colonialism, and from America. After the French and Spanish left, modernity stayed. There will always be a debate between modernity and conservatism, but the new generation can be as modern as they want to be. They’re on Facebook and Twitter. They know only one thing. They are separating from the past. In twenty or thirty years, I think, we will no longer have two personalities. The duality we have here will fade. But people my age live in both worlds at the same time.

It’s worth pointing out that, contrary to popular belief, people do not tend to become less liberal—not in the general, emancipative, sense of the word—as they get older. Young civil rights activists in the United States didn’t become segregationists as they aged. Segregationists took the idea to their graves. Today’s Millennials aren’t at all likely to turn against gay marriage in their dotage. Likewise, today’s Saudi youngsters aren’t going to reach their 60th birthday and suddenly think women should have their driver’s licenses revoked after they’ve been on the roads for forty-plus years. That’s not how it works. Emancipative liberal progress is usually as permanent as change can be in this world.

In the Middle East of the future, when today’s young people are drawing their pensions, generations yet unborn could have values that resemble mine when I was growing up in the 1980s. Given even more time, young Middle Easterners may well be as liberal as today’s Millennials are. It’s tempting to think that Islamic conservatism will forever be as formidable as it is now, but scroll back up and look at that chart. Cultural liberalization in that region lags behind the rest of the world, but it has been progressing at almost the same rate as it has everywhere else since at least 1960.

Ten years ago, activists tried to convince then-Saudi King Abdullah to finally let women drive. He wouldn’t do it. He liked the idea on principle but thought the broader society wouldn’t go for it.

“I believe strongly in the rights of women,” he told Barbara Walters in an interview with ABC News. “My mother is a woman. My sister is a woman. My daughter is a woman. My wife is a woman. I believe the day will come when women will drive. In fact if you look at the areas of Saudi Arabia, the desert, and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time I believe that it will be possible.”

A little more than a decade later, here we are, with a younger generation of reformers making decisions.

If this kind of progress can’t be resisted forever even in as closed a society as Saudi Arabia’s, radical Islamic extremism itself may well sputter out and die over the long run, one birth date and funeral at a time.

The Populist Revolt Reaches Iraq

The worldwide populist revolt toppling conventional politicians in the United States, Europe and even the Philippines has now reached Iraq. Most Westerners still following Iraqi politics assumed that incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Dawa Party would handily win the parliamentary election, but nope. Dawa came in third. Firebrand cleric Moqtada al Sadr’s Sairun party came in first.

You remember Moqtada al Sadr. He’s the guy who mounted an Iranian-backed Shia insurgency against the United States, the Iraqi government and his Sunni civilian neighbors between 2003 and 2008. He’s a very different person today. He still raises and shakes his fist in the air but today he’s shaking it at crooked elites, and he’s shaking it at his former Iranian patrons.

“If corrupt (officials) and quotas remain,” Sadr declared, “the entire government will be brought down and no one will be exempt.” In other words, drain the swamp.

He’s Iraq’s version of the rabble-rousing populist: fundamentalist, anti-establishment and anti-foreigner. A champion of the working class and a declared enemy of liberal Western ideas. His list even included Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the colorful journalist who famously threw a shoe at President George W. Bush at a press conference in Baghdad in 2008.

He would of course be nowhere without the Westerners he despises. Americans, after all, cleared Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian Baath Party regime out of the way and established the election system that put him on top. He’d also be nowhere without Iran. His former allies in the Islamic Republic next door armed his Mahdi Army militia and gave him refuge when the Americans were coming to get him.

Now that the United States is (mostly) gone from Iraq, and now that Iran has been mucking around in Iraqi politics to disastrous effect for more than a decade, Sadr has become as anti-Iranian as he is anti-American. He’s not at all happy with a foreign capital using his government as a hand-puppet, whether that foreign capital is Washington, DC, or Tehran.

No need for surprise here. Many in Iraq’s large Shia majority feel a natural kinship with the even larger Shia majority in Iran, but ethnic tension between Arabs and Persians has been a feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics for as long as Arabs and Persians have inhabited the region, and nationalist tension between Iran and Iraq has been present throughout Iraq’s entire (albeit brief) history as a modern nation-state. Shia Iraqis and Shia Iranians are natural allies, but at the same time, Arab Iraqis and Persian Iranians are natural enemies.

Sadr is painfully reactionary and more than a little bit dangerous. He’s also complicated. He is a Shia sectarian whose militia brutally “cleansed” Sunnis from neighborhoods in and around Baghdad but he’s also what passes today for an Iraqi nationalist, disavowing violence against all Iraqis and opposing all foreign influence. “We won’t allow the Iraqis to be cannon fodder for the wars of others nor be used in proxy wars outside Iraq,” says Sadrist movement member Jumah Bahadily of the Syrian civil war.

He also forged an alliance with communists—a horrifying ideological cocktail from the point of view of any liberal-minded Westerner, but alas there are few Jeffersonian democrats in old Mesopotamia. There are however, some secular reformists and technocrats, and they also formed an alliance with the Sadrists. Tehran has taken notice and isn’t happy about it. “We will not allow liberals and communists to govern in Iraq,” says Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iranian ruler Ayatollah Khamenei.

Precious few Americans would enjoy living under a government run by Sadrists. Even so, his pushback against Iran is nothing to sniff at. Westerners and Arabs alike have bemoaned Iran’s rising influence in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam, thanks in large part to Sadr’s own Mahdi Army, yet no one is resisting Iranian influence in Iraq as successfully right now as he is. Sure, the Sunni parties are pushing back as they always do, but the Sunnis are a small minority. Nearly all Iranian influence in Iraq comes through the Shias. Only they can successfully resist Tehran because they’re the only ones who can enable Tehran in the first place. With Sadr’s movement in the saddle, Iran faces the most formidable obstacle in Baghdad since Saddam flitted from palace to palace.

Sadr will not be Iraq’s next prime minister. His list won the most votes but he himself did not stand for election. He could be the next kingmaker, so to speak, but even that’s not guaranteed. While his party won more seats than the others, it did not win the majority. It’s still possible that the others will unite in a coalition against him. Nobody knows yet.

Whatever ends up happening, the main takeaway here ought to be this: Iraq isn’t even in the same time zone as high-functioning liberal democracies like New Zealand and France, but we can parse the result and guess at the ultimate outcome of its fourth consecutive election as if it were.

Hezbollah Wins in Lebanon – Sort Of

While the world has spent the past week rejoicing or fretting over the Trump administration’s scrapping of the Iranian nuclear deal, Iran quietly racked up a win that hardly anyone outside the region even noticed. In Lebanon, Hezbollah and its allies won more than half the seats in parliament in the first election held in nine years. As Hezbollah is effectively the Lebanese branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its victory could very well portend a catastrophe.

“Hezbollah=Lebanon,” says Israeli security cabinet member Naftali Bennett. “The State of Israel will not distinguish between the sovereign state of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.” Bennett is a right-wing religious-nationalist politician, so such a statement should be expected. His view is echoed, however, by the mild-mannered centrist historian and Knesset Member Michael Oren. “Should Hezbollah fire on Israel, we need to threaten that we will declare war on Lebanon,” he writes.

And since the Israelis just exchanged fire with Iranian forces in Syria from the Golan Heights, the possibility that yet another shooting war will erupt across the Lebanese-Israeli border is a little bit higher than it was as recently as a week ago.

Even so, let’s take a deep breath. The political coalition Hezbollah belongs to won more than half the seats in Lebanon’s parliament but Hezbollah itself only has 12 seats. That 12 out of 128, less than 10 percent of the total. By that measure, Hezbollah is a fringe movement, hardly more popular standing alone than the Green Party in the United States.

Hezbollah’s victory simply can’t be chalked up to a groundswell of support for another war of violent “resistance,” nor for the Party of God’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih, or rule by Islamist jurists. No, the coalition Hezbollah belongs to won because Christian voters put it over the top. And Lebanon’s Christians are, from Israel’s point of view, the least threatening people in the entire country. The reason they did this, when you strip away all of the mind-numbingly parochial details, is because, like most Westerners nowadays, they fear and loathe Sunni Arab jihadists like ISIS more than they fear and loathe Iranian-backed Shia militias like Hezbollah.

Only a third or so of Lebanon’s population is Shia. Another rough third is Sunni and the final third Christian. Yet Lebanon’s constitution guarantees that fully 50 percent of its seats in parliament go to Christians. (They made up half the population when the country achieved independence from France after World War II and managed to cement their proportion of parliamentary power in perpetuity.) Sunni and Shia Muslims split the other half of the seats in parliament. Since Sunni and Shia Muslims virtually always vote for their own sectarian parties, Hezbollah’s electoral ceiling in Lebanon should be around 25 percent at the most. And since the majority of Lebanese Shias are politically secular, Hezbollah’s actual electoral ceiling is less than half of that. So Hezbollah winning less than 10 percent of the seats is exactly what we should expect.  

Lebanon has more political parties than even most experts can keep track of without consulting a cheat sheet, and they clump together into two more or less stable coalitions. The Sunni parties are united and the Shia parties are united but the Christian parties are split, with a minority of the Christians standing with the Sunnis and a majority with the Shias.

The Sunni-led bloc, anchored by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, is pro-Western, pro-Arab and more or less liberal and democratic. The Shia-led bloc anchored by Hezbollah and Amal is pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian and more or less authoritarian. (I saw “more or less authoritarian” because while Hezbollah is thoroughly authoritarian, Hezbollah’s chief political ally Amal has more in common with Tammany Hall’s crooked ward heelers than with revolutionary fist-pumping theocrats of the Party of God.)

Hezbollah and its allies would be absolutely nowhere electorally in Lebanon if all the Christian and Sunni parties united against them. Why then does Lebanon’s now-largest Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Michel Aoun, stand with Hezbollah? At a glance, it hardly even makes any sense. The FPM’s ideology is a fusion of Lebanese nationalism, democratic socialism, and liberalism, all of which are anathema to Hezbollah.

Every party in Lebanon, though, positions itself regionally as well as domestically, and FPM voters are far more afraid of the Arab world’s overwhelming Sunni majority than its Shia minority. They believe the Shia minority—who are a majority only in Iran and Iraq—are currently at the peak of their power, that they cannot conceivably become any more of a threat than they already are. The Sunnis, though, could theoretically unite into a force as unstoppable as a Borg cube. Sunni jihadists like Al Qaeda and ISIS are also vastly more violent and deranged that their Shia counterparts. So from the FPM’s point of view, Iran and Hezbollah are the lesser of evils. And since a paltry 10 percent of Lebanon’s population shares Hezbollah’s draconian values, an Iranian-style theocracy of perpetual war where booze is banned and women have to cover themselves on the street will never materialize unless Iran itself invades and occupies the whole country.

It’s an understandable way of looking at things up to a point, but it’s fatally flawed. Nevermind Al Qaeda and ISIS—Lebanon’s Sunnis are the Christians’ natural allies. They are among the most liberal Arabs in the entire world, with the vast majority having no use whatsoever for Sunni jihadism. Sunni jihadism is more popular in France than it is in Lebanon. According to the Pew Research Center, support for ISIS in Lebanon stands at zero percent.

The problem, from the FPM’s point of view, is that Lebanon’s Sunni parties are resolutely pro-Saudi. Future Movement Leader Saad Hariri himself was born in Saudi Arabia and holds dual Saudi-Lebanese citizenship. For years he even sported a Saudi-style goatee, though his beard now looks more like a Westerner’s. You can hang out in Beirut with FPM supporters all day, as I have, and recite the long list of Iranian crimes in the region, and they’ll answer, every time, “but what about the Saudis?”

These people, in short, are picking their poison. Tehran’s, for them anyway, goes down a little more easily than Riyadh’s.

The FPM is pro-Syrian (and by that I mean pro-Assad), and again, they’re picking their poison. FPM leader Michel Aoun himself fought Syria’s invasion of Lebanon to the bitter end during the civil war and paid for it by being exiled to France for more than a decade. And his supporters were part of the March 14 movement that non-violently ousted the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 2005. Virtually nobody in Lebanon aside from the miniscule Syrian Social Nationalist Party with its spinning swastika flag overlaps ideologically with the Arab Socialist Baath Party regime in Damascus. Aoun and the FPM are pro-Assad today only because Assad’s forces no longer occupy Lebanon and only because they’re afraid of the alternative in Syria if Assad falls and Sunni jihadists conquer Damascus.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General hailed the election result as “a great moral and political victory for the resistance choice that protects the country.” This is nonsense on stilts and on steroids. Hezbollah’s victory places all of Lebanon in extreme danger if Hezbollah sparks another war.

Lebanon’s political alignment changes constantly, kaleidoscopically and sometimes violently. Everyone who cares even a whit about the place ought to hope it changes again before the next war with Israel starts.

Hollywood Botches Beirut

Beirut, the new Hollywood production by director Brad Anderson and Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy, is getting mostly good reviews, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 78 percent. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of the reviewers aren’t any more familiar with the actually existing city of Beirut, Lebanon, than the film’s director and screenwriter are.

It tells the story of Mason Francis Skiles, the deputy CIA chief in Beirut in the early 1970s shortly before the civil war broke out. Terrorists kill his wife, and he leaves—with the intention to leave forever—saying he wouldn’t go back to Beirut if it was the last place on earth.

Ten years later, a fictional group calling itself the Militia of Islamic Liberation kidnaps his old friend and current chief of Middle East operations Cal Riley. They say they’ll trade him for the release of Rafid Abu Rajal, a man the Israelis insist is guilty of terrorist attacks against Flight 305 and the Munich Olympics, among others. The United States doesn’t normally negotiate with terrorists or agree to prisoner exchanges, but if Riley is interogated and broken, he could cough up the names of undercover agents all over the region. It’s a terrible dilemma, and in the end it’s resolved satisfactorily.

The trailer suggests solid performances by John Hamm, who starred as Don Draper in Mad Men, and Rosamund Pike who played the unforgettable Amy in Gone Girl, and the poster promises us the most tantalizing of settings.  “Beirut, 1982. The Paris of the Middle East was Burning.”

Beirut really was (and still is) the Paris of the Middle East, and it really was burning in 1982. For a political thriller set in a war zone, you can’t beat that place and time for the setting. The film itself, though, doesn’t even hint that Beirut is the Middle East’s Paris, doesn’t even suggest that it’s a place of beauty and high culture as well as of violence, doesn’t even mention that it’s a richly textured hybrid of the West and the East that stands dramatically apart from the rest of the region. No. The city of Beirut in Beirut could have been Baghdad in 2006 or Aleppo a couple of years ago.  

There are elements of Baghdad, to be sure, in Beirut, then and now. Beirut is what you get if toss Paris, Miami and Baghdad into a blender and press purée. It is the only city on earth where you can find a Ferrari dealership mere yards from bullet-pocked apartment towers, decadent nightclubs within walking distance of territory ruled by an Iranian-backed Islamist militia, and elegant French-style cafes a five-minute drive from immiserated Palestinian refugee camps.

The waterfront at Zaitunay Bay could be in Florida, Saifi village is startlingly European, and the Hezbollah-controlled suburb south of the city is the kind of opressive urban slum you’d expect to find hundreds of miles away, inland and to the east, in Iraq or Iran. Such stark and even violent contradictions make Beirut an endlessly fascinating city and a potential “character” in its own right, like Los Angeles in Michael Connelly’s crime novels, New Orleans in Anne Rice’s vampire saga, or Baltimore in The Wire. Absolutely none of what make Beirut Beirut makes its way onto the screen or into the story. The place seems composed of rubble, slums, dodgy checkpoints and little else.

The movie was jarringly yet predictably filmed in Morocco, specifically in run-down neighborhoods of Casablanca. We can partly forgive the location scouters for this. Morocco has a well-developed film industry, and the country is famously stable. Unlike in Lebanon, war is hardly more likely to break out tomorrow than it is in France. What’s less forgivable is the dearth of effort to find neighborhoods and streets in Morocco with a French flavor that look and feel at least a little bit like Beirut—such as this one, this one or this one—or to make even a token effort to capture the people and culture where the story is supposed to take place. The film even includes a shot of camels on the beach. There are no camels anywhere in Lebanon, let alone on the beach in the capital city.

There are no sympathetic Lebanese characters in this movie. Worse, there virtually no Lebanese characters at all, not even villains. Aside from the American characters, we get three Palestinian bad guys, a handful of Israeli walk-ons, and that’s it. All are one-dimensional. The writer and director might as well film a drama in the Moscow suburbs about Americans and call it Paris

In Beirut, Beirut is a placeholder for a generic Middle Eastern disastercape imagined by people who have never seen any of them in person and have read nothing about the place but newspaper articles and Wikipedia entries. Beirut isn’t really even set in Beirut. It’s set in the city Americans think Beirut is if they know virtually nothing about it. If the writer and director had done their homework and brought in some experts as consultants, the film would be more authentic and more interesting and compelling—especially for those in the audience who don’t know Beirut from Raqqa.

Castro Steps Down in Cuba. So What?

Cuban President Raul Castro, the younger brother of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, officially stepped down as the dictator of Cuba this week, passing the baton to Miguel Diaz-Canel. Nobody should get excited. Castro is still the most powerful man in the country, still the leader of Cuba’s Communist Party, still the head of its armed forces. Diaz-Canel is but a figurehead and a chair-warmer. The Berlin Wall fell more than a quarter-century ago, but Cubans who yearn to be free will still have to wait.

Diaz-Canel was “elected” Cuba’s new president by Communist Party apparatchiks with a vote of 603 to one, a move no more transformative than the Soviet Politburo replacing Yuri Andropov with Konstantin Chernenko in 1984. These 603 apparatchiks were told to choose Diaz-Canel. And who told them? Castro. The only interesting question here is: what’s up with the one who bucked the 603?

Castro is old. He’s probably tired. It happens. There’s no good reason to assume anything else is going on here.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Diaz-Canel says so himself. “I confirm to this assembly that Raul Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country. Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism.”

Change never comes easily to police states, especially not to communist police states. Garden variety authoritarians like Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia are relatively easy to dispose of next to full-bore totalitarians. Former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick zeroed in on the key differences in her classic 1979 essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”

Traditional autocrats leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other re- sources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.

Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes. They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will “fit” better in a foreign country than in their native land.

As Christopher Hitchens once said of North Korea, communist states are places where everything that isn’t absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden. Mounting any kind of resistance against them is nearly impossible unless and until the state loses its will to continue. Don’t be deceived by Havana’s crumbling beauty, its upbeat music and people, its enviable location in the Caribbean. “The surveillance and denunciation system is so rigorous,” French historian Pascal Fontaine wrote in The Black Book of Communism, “that family intimacy is almost nonexistent.” “Cuba looks exactly like its photos,” M.J. Porter wrote in the Introduction to Havana Real by Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez in 2011, “and yet if feels different. I fell in love with Cuba and Cubans. Something felt like home. Completely unforeseen, however, was the weight of the totalitarian state.”

Communism, though, has been dead almost everywhere in the world for more than a quarter-century. North Korea, Cuba and Laos are its last holdouts, with China and Vietnam communist-in-name-only.

Unlike standard-issue authoritarian governments, communist states only collapse or reform themselves into something entirely different after counter-revolutions or funerals.

The Soviet bloc fell apart when liberal democratic revolutions toppled the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain that kept half the population of Europe and a huge swath of Eurasia in bondage. Most of these revolutions were peaceful; the dinosaurs finally lost the will to drive tanks over their citizens and dispatch survivors to slave labor camps. Aside from Belarus—Europe’s last dictatorship—every European country that once lived under Moscow’s communist yoke became democratic or semi-democratic afterward.

The two main communist countries in Asia—China and Vietnam—transformed themselves out of all recognition only after the state funerals of Mao Zedong, the Chairman of China’s Communist Party responsible for as many as 60 million deaths, and Ho Chi Minh, Chairman and First Secretary of Vietnam’s Worker’s Party.

Mao died of a heart attack in 1976. Real reform was still six years away, though, and didn’t get going in earnest until Deng Xiaoping took over in 1982 and oversaw the creation of a “socialist market economy.” He set China on the path from an immiserated totalitarian backwater to the authoritarian capitalist powerhouse it is today, with glittering megacities like Shanghai and Shenzhen rivaling their counterparts like New York City and Hong Kong.

Likewise, in 1986, a mere 11 years after imposing communism on South Vietnam, the government in Hanoi semi-officially junked it and announced the Doi Moi reforms designed to create a “socialist-oriented market economy,” just as Deng had in China. Small private businesses operated openly. Business people and their employees kept most of their profits and wages. Farmers sold rice again, no longer surrendering it to the state. In 1993, 60 percent of Vietnamese lived in poverty. By 2004, only 20 percent did, and Vietnam became the second-largest exporter of rice in the world.

Cuba’s new president says the economy needs to be modernized, suggesting to his subjects and to the world that his country may be ready to go the way of China and Vietnam even before Castro goes the way of Mao and Ho. Diaz-Canel is only able to say that, though, because Castro already said it and started tinkering around the edges a bit. We’ll have to wait and see if Diaz-Canel puts his foot on the gas pedal after the next state funeral. If he tries while Castro is still alive and in charge of his faculties, you can bet your bottom dollar that he will be purged.

The Case for Bombing Assad

Bombing Syria over President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Douma last week—as President Donald Trump promises to do—is almost an absurdity. Nearly half a million people on all sides have been killed in Syria since the civil war erupted in 2011, barely 100 of them by the regime’s most recent sarin attack. Assad can mass murder civilians by the hundreds of thousands with exploding barrel bombs packed with shrapnel, but he can’t gas 0.01 percent as many with a nerve agent? It barely even makes any sense and seems driven more by an emotional reaction to ghastly reports on television than anything else. And yet it makes sense. The use of any and all weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the world must remain taboo, and it can’t remain taboo if it isn’t punished.

War is hell and always will be, but it’s less hellish now than it was. The mood almost everywhere on earth during the smoldering aftermath of the two world wars was let’s never do that again. Alas, the first wasn’t the war to end all wars as so many had hoped, and genocide didn’t go the way of the dodo after the second.

Even so—and hard as it is to believe for anyone who pays even the slightest attention to news coverage—war is on its way down if not out. In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker makes a compelling case that homicidal violence of all kinds (including crime as well as war) have been steadily declining for centuries and that we are currently living in the least violent era of our species’ history.

Take a look, for instance, at his graph for war-related deaths since the end of World War II.


The first peak on the left represents the Korean War, the next bulge the Vietnam War, the second smaller bulge the Iran-Iraq War, and the last uptick the Second Congo War. The armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria hardly even register as a blip. Everything on that graph is a blip next to World War II. That’s why it isn’t shown. Word War II was so catastrophically violent that everything afterward would appear as a flat line hugging the bottom. Even more people per capita were killed before the bloody twentieth century when wars and homicidal violence of all kinds were as routine as the weather. 

Violence has declined for a vast number of complex reasons, far too many to list in a short article, and the long decline began centuries before the dates in the graph above. Since World War II, though, an array of treaties and agreements commonly referred to as “international law” have made wars not only less common but also less brutal.

For example:

  • The Geneva Conventions, negotiated in 1949, which protect prisoners of war from torture and other abuses.
  • The Law of Armed Conflict, also known as the “law of war,” a body of international agreements that regulate hostilities between belligerents and clearly define what is and what is not a war crime.
  • The International Criminal Court in The Hague, which places war criminals on trial if and when their home countries are unwilling or unable to do so.
  • The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which should need no explanation, signed in 1968 and effective in 1970.
  • The Biological Weapons Convention, signed in 1972 and effective in 1975, prohibits the development of “microbial or other biological agents…that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.”
  • The Chemical Weapons Convention, drafted in 1992, signed in 1993, and effective in 1997, prohibits the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and mandates the destruction of those that already exist.

Syria is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which as of 2017 has eliminated 96% of the world’s stockpiles, but treaties written by civilized people are worthless in the capitals of despotic criminal rogue states. Laws—or “laws,” if you insist in the international realm—are nothing more than suggestions without enforcement mechanisms. Air and missile strikes aren’t the only conceivable enforcement mechanisms, but sanctions and diplomatic isolation would likely have no effect whatsoever in the apocalyptic hellscape of Syria under Assad.

After World War I, the now-expired League of Nations ratified the Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. It lasted for a while, but it didn’t stick—Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used nerve agents with devastating effects during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

UN investigators issued a report and a warning at the time: “It is vital to realize that the continued use of chemical weapons in the present conflict increases the risk of their use in future conflicts. In view of this, and as individuals who witnessed first-hand the terrible effects of chemical weapons, we again make a special plea to you to try to do everything in your power to stop the use of such weapons in the Iran–Iraq conflict and thus ensure that they are not used in future conflicts. ... In our view, only concerted efforts at the political level can be effective in ensuring that all the signatories of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 abide by their obligations. Otherwise, if the Protocol is irreparably weakened after 60 years of general international respect, this may lead, in the future, to the world facing the specter of the threat of biological weapons.”

Biological weapons have never been used on the battlefield, but Saddam Hussein did receive an implicit green light from the rest of us, and he used chemical weapons again in his genocidal Anfal Campaign against the Kurdish population in Northern Iraq.

The Assad regime won’t disappear or suddenly turn into a model of good government by a couple of punishing strikes, nor will the number of Syrian dead in the future be reduced even by one. Those are not the objectives. The objective is (or at least should be) making the use of a weapon of mass destruction more costly than not using it, to demonstrate not just to Assad but also to every other would-be war criminal that the norm established in 1993 on behalf of every human being will not go down without a fight.

This is not what we might expect from a president who campaigned as an America Firster, but hardly any of us are mindlessly consistent ideologically.

Vladimir Putin Isn’t Our Pal

Donald Trump still can’t tell the difference between an enemy and ally, and neither can his press secretary. “Getting along with Russia would be a good thing, not a bad thing,” the president said on Tuesday this week. “And just about everybody agrees to that, except very stupid people.” When NBC News reporter Peter Alexander asked White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders if Russian President Vladimir Putin is a friend or foe, she said, “I think it’s something Russia will have to make that determination, to decide if they want to be a good or bad actor,” as if Putin is a babe just burst from the womb with a blank personality.

Putin has been the dictator of Russia for 18 years running. He has a longer track record in office, so to speak, than any American president in history. Even a cursory tour through his backstory shows that he’s a consistently hostile actor.

Let’s get something out of the way first, though, right at the start. In Russia’s political demonology, the United States of America is referred to as the glavny protivnik, or “main enemy.” And the nations in its so-called “near abroad”—mostly the constituent parts of the former Soviet Empire—are its near enemies. Both have been treated accordingly, with only a couple of brief pauses, for more than a century, starting before Putin was even born.

Putin continues the grand tradition, however, as should be expected for a man who came up as a foreign intelligence officer in the KGB’s Directorate S. He invaded and dismembered Georgia in 2008, a brutal crime I witnessed up close and in person as a war correspondent. He also invaded and dismembered Ukraine in 2014, an easily predictable crime that I wrote about in my book, Where the West Ends, two years before it even happened.

In 2010, his government backed an uprising in Kyrgyzstan that ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, partly because Bakiyev improved his country’s relations with the United States—an unforgivable sin for an upstart satrap to even attempt. Three years later, the new Russian-backed Kyrgyz parliament ordered the United States to permanently close the Manas military base used in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.  

In all three cases, Putin’s government hyped nonexistent threats against ethnic Russians and other minorities as its pretext for invasion and intervention. At the same time, Moscow has been laying the predicate for similar pretexts in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltic region where large numbers of ethnic Russians make up a minority of the population.

“Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones,” Putin said in a speech in 2014, “overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”

In his terrific book, The End of Europe, James Kirchick points out the obvious implications. “If the ‘Russian nation,’ a unitary entity, had been wrongly ‘divided by borders,’ then presumably it is the Russian government’s duty to reassemble it.” Putin’s message is sinking in, too. Last year, 61 percent of Russians agreed that “there are parts of neighboring countries that really belong to us.” Just 22 percent said so in 1991 when those territories broke free.

Russia is only slightly more capable of invading North America and Western Europe than North Korea is, so Putin is doing what North Korea does—intimidating us with nuclear weapons. Kim Jong-Un tests ballistic missiles in the Pacific and threatens to strike Guam while Putin announces a new nuclear missile, dubbed the Satan 2 that’s capable of destroying an area the size of Texas, with an animation that shows missiles heading toward Florida.

For years now, the Kremlin has mucked around in Western democracies not only with with Internet troll factories but also using identity theft, social media manipulation, truly fake news, and all the rest of it to stoke political extremism on the both the populist left and the populist right, hoping to see the West descend into a state of political chaos and semi-anarchy sufficient that liberal democracy no longer inspires its domestic political enemies.

Putin is also one of the world greatest hit men, assassinating journalists, rivals and former spies all over the world. Just a few weeks ago he even used chemical weapons in one of those hits in the United Kingdom.

It ought to go without saying that this is emphatically not how friendly countries behave. Friendly countries smile and cooperate like Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and Chile. Russia’s behavior is closer to that of Iran and North Korea, though unlike the smaller rogue states, Russia has the power to lay waste to even the far corners of the earth.

And yet. And yet. Donald Trump believes that all this is irrelevant. He doesn’t think it’s Vladimir Putin’s fault that the United States and Russia have dismal relations. No. He’s not just an America Firster. He’s a Blame America Firster. The sorry state of affairs between Moscow and Washington is all the fault of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the ‘smarts,’” the president tweeted a couple of weeks ago.  “Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET).”

Look. We could have a terrific relationship with Russia, and we could have it in five minutes. All we have to do is give Vladimir Putin everything he demands. Snap to attention and submit to vassalage like Belarus and Uzbekistan.

Getting along with Russia isn't a policy. It's an aspiration, a hope. A coherent policy starts with punishing Putin’s criminal behavior by excluding him and his claque of mini-me oligarchs from the international club unless and until they behaved like civilized people, after which a good relationship would develop as a matter of course.

The Turkish-American Alliance Heads Toward a Cliff

The long alliance between Turkey and the United States has been heading toward a cliff for years now, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan using razor-thin electoral majorities to consolidate dictatorial powers for himself at home and using his muscle abroad to thwart Western interests. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have barely reacted or even seem to have noticed, but with uber-hawk John Bolton coming into the White House as President Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, that may be about to change.

We’re approaching a potential tipping point now regardless of what’s going on in the White House. Earlier this month, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) withdrew from the fight against the last dregs of ISIS in Deir al-Zour, Syria, to defend the Kurdish enclave of Afrin from a far-more formidable Turkish army invasion.

The SDF is a secular pro-Western militia that has done nearly all the heavy fighting against ISIS in Syria. They are America’s only true friends in that country, but the Turkish government libels them as terrorists and has spent the past two months invading and carving up Afrin, killing thousands and displacing more than 100,000. Looters pillaged the city, stripping businesses, political offices, military bases, farms and houses of TVs, cars, food, cases of soda and even livestock. Erdogan followed up his rampage with threats to move into northeastern Syria where American soldiers are based, risking a direct military confrontation with the United States.

The decision to fight a NATO member rather than ISIS was “painful,” according to an SDF statement, but necessary. “We would not have taken such a decision today had it not been for the failure of the international community to curb the Turkish aggression and put real pressure on the Erdogan government to stop its insane frenzy within our Syrian borders under the pretext of protecting Turkey’s national security.”

“We are allies,” senior Kurdish official Aldar Xelil told the Washington Post in a Skype interview. “The Americans should have helped us. We were allies for a very long time…For one and a half months we have been under attack by Turkey. Turkey is using NATO weapons to attack an American ally. We were partners in the fight against [ISIS], and they did not do anything to help us.”

On the contrary. To this day, the Trump administration has done virtually everything it can to appease Erdogan.

It started with the president’s disgraced former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. He was on Erdogan’s payroll at the same time he campaigned for Trump and (briefly) worked in the White House before the president wised up and fired him, ostensibly for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with Russian officials. In the meantime, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller. Prior to copping his plea, he faced possible charges for money laundering, failing to declare himself a foreign agent of Turkey, and not paying taxes on the $530,000 the Turkish government gave him.

Erdogan burrowed his way into the White House with his very own bought and paid for American agent. Kicking Flynn out was necessary. It was not, however, sufficient. As recently as last September, Trump described Erdogan as his “friend.” “He’s running a very difficult part of the world,” the president said. “He’s involved very, very strongly and, frankly, he’s getting very high marks.”

Erdogan is indeed involved “very, very strongly” in the Middle East. He implicitly backed ISIS in the Syrian civil war, seized assets from more than 1,000 companies and purged more than 100,000 civil servants, judges, military officers in a Stalinist-style liquidation of the “deep state,” arranged sweeping new dictatorial powers for himself last year, joined the likes of Iran and North Korea by taking American citizens hostage, forged closer links with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and even purchased an S-400 missile system from Moscow, and now he’s at war with America’s only true allies in Syria and one of the precious few armed groups that can’t be plausibly accused of committing terrorism and war crimes.

The now also-fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was no better. In February, he flew to Ankara, described Turkey as an “enduring ally,” and—contrary to protocol—met Erdogan without his own translator, aides, or note-takers. "That Mr. Tillerson eschewed this sort of support in what he knew would be a tense and critical meeting with President Erdogan smacks of either poor staff work or dangerous naïveté on his part," former State Department spokesman Admiral John Kirby said at the time.

Outside the Trump administration, Erdogan is getting the same kind of “high marks” Nikolas Maduro’s socialist regime gets nowadays in Venezuela. “Turkey is out of control,” write Eric Edelman and Jake Sullivan in Politico. “Time for the US to say so.” Edelman is a former US ambassador to Turkey and Sullivan was a national security advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden.

“We fought for our democracy,” reads a New York Times headline on the opinion page. “Now Turkey wants to destroy it.” “If [Erdogan] continues on his present, reckless path,” writes the Washington Post editorial board, “a rupture in the alliance is inevitable, sooner or later. Syria’s Kurds should not be sacrificed to prevent it.”

The supposed peddlers of “fake news” have a much better understanding of what’s what over there than the Trump administration does. We’ll see what happens, though, now that John Bolton is replacing H.R. McMaster as the president’s national security advisor. On Turkey, he’s the diametric opposite of Mike Flynn.

“If [Erdogan] goes down,” Bolton said when a faction in the Turkish military attempted to remove him in a coup d’état in 2016, “I'm not shedding any tears. I do not believe he is a friend to the United States.” "If Erdogan wins,” he later added, “then he would follow up with an extensive purge, a real authoritarian acceleration and crackdown.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

Bolton is not only a staunch opponent of Erdogan. He’s a much better friend of the Kurds than anyone else in the administration. “I think it’s time for the Kurdish people in Iraq to give a voice to their aspirations,” he said in an interview with Kurdistan 24 when Iraqi Kurdistan defied both Erdogan and Trump and went ahead with a referendum on seceding from Iraq. “I think the Kurdish people are de facto independent already.”

“Erdogan’s increasingly dictatorial approach to governance has in recent years become ever clearer internationally,” Bolton wrote in the New York Post in 2016, “epitomized by his arrests and harassment of both foreign and domestic journalists he deemed critical of his regime. In earlier days, serving as mayor of Istanbul, he said publicly: ‘Democracy is like a street car. You ride it to the stop you want, and then you get off.’”

Bolton is being hammered from both the right and the left, and a lot of that hammering is entirely justified. The upside is that he’s one of the few at the top who consistently recognizes a bad guy when he sees one.

Go Ahead. Talk to Kim.

Donald Trump is the first sitting American president who has ever agreed to negotiate with the North Korean dictatorship. His predecessors were right to refuse, but Trump should go ahead anyway. Sit down. Talk to Kim Jong Un. (Just please don’t do it in his capital, Pyongyang.) As Winston Churchill put it, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war,” and we’ve been lurching toward war now for a while.

There’s plenty of skepticism and even outright opposition, of course. “While Americans (and South Koreans) often view engagement as a tool of conflict resolution,” American Enterprise scholar Michael Rubin writes, “North Korea’s regime and its Chinese sponsors see diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy with which to tie opponents’ hands while they seize strategic advantage.”

North Korea’s pattern, write the editors at National Review, “has been to buy time and get relief from sanctions, while continuing to pursue its core strategic goal of developing nuclear weapons and an advanced missile capability.”

North Korea wants to be “bought off,” says Daniel Russel, who until last year was the chief diplomat for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department. He’s looking for “a rental deal where [the Americans] basically pay off North Korea month to month, week to week, to tamp down its misbehavior.”

Axios lays out the diplomatic history between North Korea and the United States and points out that all previous seven attempts failed, each time because Pyongyang refused to honor agreements.  

All true. Which makes another round of talks with the world’s most bellicose, repressive and dishonest regime sound like a terrible idea. It is, but it raises the question: compared to what?

Last year, a retired US admiral warned that the odds of a nuclear war with North Korea were “only” 10 percent while the odds of a conventional war in his view were 50 percent. Just last month we learned that the Trump administration has been mulling the idea of a limited “bloody nose” strike against the North that could easily be the first shot in a total war. Even a non-nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula could kill hundreds of thousands of people and possibly millions.

For decades now, the wardens of Pyongyang have clamored for a meeting with an American president. It’s partly a matter of ego and image. They’ve wanted to be treated not as equals, necessarily, but at least as heads of state like every other world leader is. Denying them this has been entirely justified. No tyrant on earth has ruled with such pitiless cruelty since Soviet premier Josef Stalin. Unlike Stalin, though, no North Korean ruler has made the hermit kingdom powerful enough that it could not be ignored—at least not until now.

If Donald Trump randomly woke up one morning and decided to meet with Kim Jong Un for no particular reason, the naysayers would be right. It would appear recklessly naïve and foolish, and it would come across as mind-bogglingly weak. Why give Kim what he and his family have always wanted if he’s done nothing at all to deserve it?

Likewise, if Trump decided to meet with ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Al Qaeda’s terrorist-in-chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, he’d be out of his mind. Those two need to be zotted with Predator drones or captured and dumped into the ocean. They certainly don’t deserve recognition, and elevating them to the same plane as a head of state would puff them up to gigantic proportions. It would be a huge propaganda boon that could boost their recruitment by an order of magnitude.

The Kim family is responsible for far more human misery than even the worst terrorist organizations, but his regime’s propaganda is entirely useless outside his hermetically sealed borders, and unlike Al Qaeda and ISIS, North Korea, alas, is an actual state. Refusing to recognize it and them has no more effect on reality than Syria’s refusal to recognize Israel, and meeting Kim face-to-face is no more an endorsement of his government’s crimes than Richard Nixon meeting Mao Zedong was an endorsement of Communist China’s.

Meeting and therefore “recognizing” Kim will cost the United States nothing. Even so, there’s no good reason to get excited about this. Diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake is hardly more effective than spinning tires in mud. And the chances that Kim will agree to dismantle his nuclear program is vanishingly small. Even if he does, he’ll almost certainly cheat like his father and grandfather before him.

It’s slightly more likely that he’ll agree to freeze his weapons program in place, at least for a while, and as long as we pay into his protection racket. He’ll still probably cheat, though.

Our best bet is pressuring Kim to accept a peace treaty and finally end this. Because technically, the Korean War never ended. It only paused in 1953 with a decades-long cease-fire.

Kim isn’t an apocalypse nut who wants to burn down the world, nor does he have a martyrdom complex. He’s a young man who wants to revel in his time and rule over his kingdom until he dies in his bed at 90. And he wants a nuclear arsenal for the same reason every other country wants one—as a deterrent.

He already has a deterrent, though. The thousands of artillery pieces pointing at Seoul, which alone could inflict millions of casualties before anybody could stop him, prevent even a mad army from attempting to invade. Kim simply doesn’t understand that or doesn’t believe it. A peace treaty negotiated in good faith would do a lot to settle his nerves and allow us to live in mutual loathing of each other without perpetually fretting about a nuclear holocaust.

Broken ISIS Recruits Return Home

Now that ISIS has been all but destroyed in Syria and Iraq, thousands of surviving foreign fighters are returning home. Their home countries are bracing themselves, but the United States, it turns out, might have less to worry about than we feared.  

As many as 300 Americans traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight and possibly die for ISIS. None so far have returned as terrorists. Most never saw combat and wanted out more than anything once they go there. That’s according to a new book-length report called “The Travelers” published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Apparently, ISIS dispatched only one of its members, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud from Ohio via Somalia, to the United States with a plan of attack. Federal agents rolled him up before he could do anything, and a judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison.

National security professionals from one end of the Western world to the other have been fretting that suicide-bombings and mass shootings would follow the demise of the Middle East’s “caliphate” when the battle-hardened survivors finally made their way back. I count myself among those who are a little surprised, but it’s obvious, at least to me and in hindsight, why so many of them turned out to be duds as Robin Wright called them in The New Yorker. As disgruntled and disaffected as these recruits undoubtedly were with the United States when they signed up, they ended up disillusioned. After all, they spent most of their lives in a highly developed and more-or-less properly functioning country before finding themselves in a brutal and tyrannical hell.

ISIS promised a utopian society and paradise for its warriors. The reality was something else, a one-way ticket to a Hobbesian world of cruelty, violence and drudgery.

“The propaganda,” concludes the report, “while enthralling, presented an idealized version of reality, meaning that their real-world experience upon arrival was often jarring. Living conditions were much harsher than they saw in the online magazines and videos, and the promises of companionship and camaraderie were rarely fulfilled. Instead, cultural clashes, bitter infighting, and suspicion among recruits and leaders abounded.”

Hard as it is for those of us accustomed to the affluence and comforts of the West to relate to, living in a bunker or a safehouse alongside hardened jihadists can be be a step up for those used to the grinding poverty, severe state repression, indiscriminate violence and abject hopelessness that have characterized the shattered remains of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. But that’s just not the case—it can’t be—for someone arriving from New York or Miami even if they’ve so far lived a marginal existence in a relatively tough neighborhood far from Manhattan or South Beach.

To be sure, young men who suddenly find themselves rising from anonymous nobodies to exalted fighters in the vanguard of a rising new movement can find their status and ego inflated, even by gigantic proportions, but most American recruits ended up washing dishes and cleaning latrines, jobs that at least paid something back home.

As a Lebanese friend once told me, "when political theories fail in the Middle East they fail hard."

The ISIS dupes are a bit like the sad South Koreans lured to North Korea by communist propaganda in the mid-20th century. They encountered one horrific shock after another once they arrived in Kim Il Sung’s mythical worker’s paradise, but by then it was too late. They couldn’t go home.

ISIS barely even exists anymore except as an idea and an abstraction. Its Islamic “state,” such as it was, has been dismantled. The real threat doesn’t come from those who return from the losing side on the pitiable battlefield but from those like Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people and wounded 58 more at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando two years ago, persuaded to do so by jihadist propaganda online. Unlike the 300 or so who defected from the United States to the caliphate, he never saw the nightmare Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi created up close and in person. Those like him who choose to stay and fight at home are the ones we most need to worry about.

Turkey Takes its War Against the Kurds Into Europe

Czech police officers arrested a Syrian citizen named Salih Muslim last weekend at his hotel in Prague after the Turkish government issued an Interpol “red notice” describing him as a terrorist and asking for his extradition.

Muslim isn’t a terrorist. He’s a spokesperson for the Movement for a Democratic Society, a secular left-wing Kurdish organization aligned with the United States and Europe that stands foursquare against every terrorist army in Syria, especially ISIS.

He used to be one of the co-presidents of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political organization behind the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which has done more heavy lifting against ISIS in Syria—and suffered far more battlefield losses—than any other fighting force in the world. Yet Turkey’s increasingly paranoid and deranged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that everyone involved with them even peripherally is a terrorist, making the morally bankrupt old adage that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” actually true in this case.

The PYD and the YPG are emphatically not terrorist organizations, and Erdogan is no more an authority on the subject of who is and who isn’t a good guy than talk radio conspiracy jock Alex Jones, who went on a tear in January about Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, for being a “devil worshipper” who “drinks children’s blood.” Since the botched coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan has purged more than 150,000 people—including novelists, journalists and professors—for supposed membership in the Turkish “deep state,” that shadowy group of military, intelligence and judiciary officials who have frightened children and would-be dictators since at least the mid-1990s. Erdogan’s regime even arrested a NASA scientist. The evidence against him? He has a bank account at an institution allegedly “linked” to dissident cleric Fethullah Gulen and had a one-dollar bill in his pocket, which is supposedly how Gulen’s followers identify themselves to each other.

At the same time he’s been rolling up the Gulenists and the deep staters he’s been mounting a breathtakingly draconian campaign against supposed Kurdish terrorists and their supporters, so far jailing and indicting thousands of civilians—including a Wall Street Journal reporter—on nonsense charges. Hasip Kaplan, once a member of parliament, is facing a 142-year prison term, and the court won’t even let him attend his own trial. As of the end of 2017, the state has arrested more than 11,000 members of his avowedly secular People’s Democratic Party (HDP).  

The Czech Republic went ahead and complied with Erdogan’s “red notice” request by arresting spokesperson Salih Muslim, but a judge ordered him released from custody when he learned what the fuss was about. Turkish officials are vowing to “hunt the Kurdish leader wherever he goes” and are offering a four million lira reward (the equivalent of roughly one million American dollars) to anyone with information that leads to his capture.  

“This decision clearly means to support terror groups,” Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said about Prague letting his prey go. It means no such thing whatsoever. The Czech Republic simply refuses to send an innocent Syrian into a third country’s dungeon.   

The decision also, Bozdag added, “will negatively impact relations between Turkey and the Czech Republic.” No doubt Turkey’s attempt to rope Europe into its witch hunt will also negatively impact relations.

The Russian Attack Against America You Didn’t Hear About

You probably didn’t hear this because few media organizations have even mentioned it, but Russia committed an act of war against the United States a little more than a week ago. No, this is not about more social media and election shenanigans. Russia mounted an armed assault against American soldiers and our allies in Syria, including Kurdish security forces affiliated with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, at a military base in the city of Deir Ezzor, the largest in eastern Syria. Russian combatants fought alongside Assad regime fighters and Shia militias armed, funded and directed by Iran.

Both the Pentagon and the Kremlin are going out of their way to keep this as quiet as possible. If you only read the New York Times story about the incident on February 13, you’d have to squint and zero in on the subtext. After the United States used air and drone strikes to obliterate incoming assailants, including dozens of Russians, American military spokespeople assured the press in calm tones that there was never any chance that Russian and American forces would clash directly in Deir Ezzor or anywhere else. The Kremlin, for its part, said any Russians who might have participated in the assault were mercenaries unaffiliated with the Russian armed forces.

The problem with the Kremlin statement is that Russian mercenaries in Syria are employed by the Wagner Group, which works for the Russian government, and specifically for Russia’s Ministry of Defense, not for the Syrian or Iranian governments. And the problem with the American statement is that the Pentagon is asking us to assume that dozens of Russians were killed not by the bombs it had just dropped but by somebody else…or perhaps by spontaneous heart attacks or a catastrophic series of vehicle accidents.

Some fine reporters at Bloomberg News dug a bit deeper. First, on February 14, Henry Meyer and Stepan Kravchenko reported that wounded Russians were flown from the battlefield to hospitals administered by the Ministry of Defense in Moscow and St. Petersburg, belying the claim that they were freelancing for somebody else.

Second, Eli Lake reported on February 16 that several US officials confirmed that the Russian government understood perfectly well what was going on in Deir Ezzor—thanks to the so-called “deconflicting” agreements in place to prevent American and Russian soldiers from accidentally shooting each other. He also helpfully pointed out that one of the leaders of the Wagner Group, Dmitry Utkin, is closely linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin (aka “Putin’s chef”), one of the 13 Russian nationals whom FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller just indicted for information warfare during the 2016 presidential election. The Wagner Group is also, by the way, responsible for the out-of-uniform Russians dubbed the “little green men” fighting in Ukraine in 2014, and the Washington Free Beacon obtained a photograph taken in 2016 that shows some of these mercenaries given medals by Vladimir Putin himself.

Take a look at how carefully Secretary of Defense James Mattis describes what happened in Deir Ezzor. “I have no idea why [the Russians] would attack there,” he told reporters after the incident. “The forces were known to be there, obviously the Russians knew. We have always known that there are elements in this very complex battle space that the Russians did not have, I would call it, control of.” He’s going along with the story that the Russian government has “no control” over the Wagner Group, which clearly isn’t the case.

And why would he do that? Lake thinks Mattis is committing a “noble lie” for the common good in both countries. “If Mattis acknowledges the obvious,” he writes, “that the Kremlin authorized a direct assault on a U.S.-sponsored base by non-uniformed personnel -- he risks an escalation spiral in Syria. Better to express bewilderment and give Russian President Vladimir Putin a chance to back down and deny culpability, which he ended up doing despite the heavy casualties suffered by his mercenaries.”

Aside from the stories I’ve cited above, this incident has received almost no media coverage in the United States. Perhaps it’s because Americans suffered no casualties while, according to numerous Russian media accounts, as many as 200 Russians were killed, and three separate sources told Reuters that Russia suffered as many as 300 killed and injured. Maybe it’s also because during what would have been this story’s news cycle, Americans were transfixed by yet another bloody massacre at a high school, this time in Parkland, Florida. Another possibility is that, in this inward-looking and tribal partisan time in American history, a botched Russian attack doesn’t neatly fit into one of our pre-existing media narratives, where the Democratic Party is focused on Russian election meddling and the Republican Party would rather talk about almost anything except the Kremlin’s malfeasance. 

Whatever the reason or reasons, Americans have missed an opportunity to take stock of a terrible fact—that Russia is an outright enemy of the United States that just committed an act of war against us in the Middle East. Unless Vladimir Putin has suddenly and silently been deterred—fat chance of that being the case—something else will have to happen to get our attention. Something bigger, something worse, something more dangerous.

So Much for Egypt’s Secret Alliance with Israel

The New York Times reports that Israel and Egypt are secretly working together to fight ISIS on the Sinai Peninsula. For more than two years now, with official Egyptian approval, the state of Israel has conducted more than 100 air strikes inside Egypt using planes, helicopters and drones that fly in long winding arcs to appear as though they’re coming from the direction of Cairo. The Egyptian army  denies the report, but the Israelis do not. Jerusalem is simply declining to comment.  

Jihadists in the Sinai have been waging a deadly insurgency against the Egyptian government since shortly after the army arrested long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The insurgency consists of a hodgepodge groups, from disgruntled Bedouin tribes to Al Qaeda, but more recently, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the most powerful and organized faction, changed its name to Islamic State-Sinai Province, as if their territory, such as it is, is the “caliphate’s” detached exclave province in Egypt.

They’ve already killed thousands of people, downed a Russian passenger jet with a two-pound bomb smuggled onboard, murdered chief prosecutor Hisham Barakat with a car bomb in Cairo, massacred hundreds of fellow Muslims at a mosque just a couple of months ago, and even briefly seized control of the small town of Sheikh Zuwaid barely a dozen miles from Egypt’s border with Gaza and Israel. They’ve used Russian-made missiles to shoot down helicopters, blow up tanks and sink patrol boats and have left a bloody trail of civilian dead from the Sinai to Alexandria and Cairo.

In a less stupid world than the one we actually live in, the military alliance between Egypt and Israel would be neither controversial nor secret. Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and ISIS and its affiliates are Egypt’s and Israel’s common enemies.

To describe that peace as a cold one, however, is putting things mildly. Egypt is one of the most virulently anti-Semitic countries in the world, much more so than even most Arab countries, especially compared with those that are farthest away like Morocco and Oman. Egypt’s “mainstream” state-run media is awash with the kind of insanity you’ll only find in the West on Alex Jones’ radio show, including accusations that Israel exports the AIDS virus all over the world, corrupts Egyptian youth with aphrodisiac bubble gum, and economically enslaves the planet the way Jews supposedly did in the run-up to the Holocaust.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is quite right to partner with Israel in the Sinai, but he’s committing one of the same long-term mistakes that Mubarak did for so many decades by refusing to order the media to tone down the hysteria. I’m all for press freedom, of course—especially here in the West—but Egypt has never had a free press and almost certainly won’t any time soon, so if the government must control the editorial line, at the very least it ought to use that power for good at least occasionally.

Egyptians are suffering from their own bigoted attitudes far more than the Israelis are nowadays anyway. Peoples and governments gripped by paranoid conspiracy theories (bigoted or otherwise) are incapable of solving their problems, partly because they aren’t diagnosing what ails them correctly but also because they waste time, energy and resources jousting with ghosts, at times with debilitating and bloody results. History is replete with examples, from the Salem Witch Trials to Nazi Germany. To frame it another way, imagine visiting a doctor with respiratory symptoms and he puts you on chemotherapy for a cancer you don’t have instead of a course of antibiotics that would easily cure the pneumonia you do have. You’ll just lay there in bed, half dead from terrible side effects, and get sicker.

No one should expect Egypt’s state messengers and propagandists to tout the Israelis as friends and allies, but they might want to consider cooling their jets for a while and cover their neighbors realistically. Contrary to popular belief, the state of Israel poses no threat whatsoever to Egypt. The Israelis will never, ever, randomly wake up one morning and decide to invade Egypt just for the heck of it. ISIS, however, has already chewed two Arab countries to pieces.

No, the Syrian Kurds are not Terrorists

On January 20, Turkey invaded the Kurdish region of northwestern Syria to destroy what it calls a terrorist army. No, it is not fighting ISIS. It is, quite the contrary, fighting the American-backed militia that effectively destroyed ISIS and helped liberate the city of Raqqa last October.

According to Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are a terrorist organization backed by the United States. That sentence right there ought to be enough to make you doubt what Erdogan is selling right now, but perhaps you aren’t sure. Few in the West know much about the YPG. Most Americans have not even heard of it. And if all a person knows about it is that it’s an armed group in Syria, of all places, that a NATO ally calls a terrorist organization, well…Syria is full of terrorists, isn’t it?

Syria is indeed full of terrorists, but the YPG is one of the few armed factions in the war that adheres to moral Western warfighting norms. It’s also one of the precious few factions that’s genuinely pro-Western.

The YPG is backed by the Pentagon and 2,000 American soldiers as part of Washington’s plan to effectively control 28 percent of Syrian territory so that ISIS cannot come back. It’s mostly made up of ethnic Kurds, although there are Arab, Assyrian Christian and foreign fighters mixed into the ranks, including women in the Women’s Protection Units. They are the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, founded in 2003.

Their ideology isn’t Islamist. It’s leftist. They champion, in their own words, “social equality, justice and the freedom of belief” along with “pluralism and the freedom of political parties.” They hope to implement “a democratic solution that includes the recognition of cultural, national and political rights, and develops and enhances their peaceful struggle to be able to govern themselves in a multicultural, democratic society.” They describe themselves as libertarian socialists, a minority faction within the worldwide socialist movement that rejects one-party rule and authoritarian state control of the economy.

They also ascribe to what they call Communalism, a set of ideas put forth by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of Turkey’s Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). It is here that the YPG gets itself into trouble with Turkey.

Ocalan founded the PKK in 1978 as a Kurdish nationalist separatist movement and a Marxist-Leninist insurgency. Like nearly all communist guerrilla armies—from Peru’s Shining Path to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—it was inherently prone to terrorism. While primarily striking Turkish soldiers and police officers, the group has also committed a number of attacks against civilian targets, including a car bomb in Ankara last March that killed dozens and wounded more than 100 and a suicide attack in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2010.

The so-called Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) take credit for some of the worst attacks against Turkey. Experts disagree about whether or not the TAK is linked to the PKK, but at the very least it’s a breakaway faction and is far more linked to the PKK than the YPG in Syria is.

In 1999, Ocalan was arrested in Kenya by Turkish intelligence officers, swiftly dispatched to Turkey and sentenced to death. He’s still alive, though, because Turkey abolished the death penalty, hoping that would boost its chances of being admitted to the European Union. Today Ocalan languishes on Imrali, a penal island in the Sea of Marmara.

While in prison, Ocalan watered down his communist ideology into the so-called libertarian socialism that it is now. And it is this ideology, not the old school quasi-Stalinist one of the PKK’s past, that the YPG adheres to today.

The PKK still behaves as a terrorist organization. Old habits from the 1970s don’t go down easily. The YPG, though, didn’t even exist until 2003. It never went through a communist or a terrorist phase, and it takes its inspiration from the milder version Ocalan promoted after he mellowed in prison.

The YPG is asking for trouble by borrowing anything at all from Abdullah Ocalan, but it has never committed an act of terrorism in Syria or anywhere else, not even at a time when terrorist attacks are as routine as weather in Syria. So while, yes, the YPG and the PKK are ideologically linked, the Turkish government has never been able to identify a single act of terrorism the YPG has ever committed, not in Turkey, not in Syria, nor anywhere else.

One can understand why the YPG gets Erdogan’s hackles up, but gunning for these people makes no more sense than bombing South Africa in the early 1990s because then-President Nelson Mandela used to be a communist, neverminding that his party, the African National Congress, did not even attempt to build a communist state after winning elections.

Whatever you think of the “libertarian socialism” of Syrian Kurdistan, it’s not even in the same time zone as the medieval totalitarianism of ISIS, the secular nationalist tyranny of Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime in Damascus or the Putin-esque rule of the neo-Ottoman Erdogan.

Turkey can call the Kurds terrorists all they want, but that will not make them so.

Time to Kick Turkey Out of NATO?

The case for evicting Turkey from NATO got stronger this week.

First, the United States announced the backing of a border security force drawn mainly from the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Rojava, the quasi-independent Kurdish region in northeastern Syria along the Turkish border. Then Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he will “strangle” that American-backed force “before it’s even born.” Russia, Iran and Syria’s Assad regime are standing with Erdogan.

The YPG, along with the multiethnic Syrian Democratic Forces which the YPG dominates, are the only armed groups indigenous to Syria that are willing and able to take on ISIS and win, and they’re the only significant armed faction in Syria’s dizzying civil war that isn’t ideologically hostile to the West. In October of last year, they finally liberated Raqqa, the “capital” of the ISIS “caliphate,” while the Russian and Syrian militaries were busy pounding rebels instead in the west.

The Turks would rather have the Assad regime—and by extension Russia, Iran and Hezbollah—rule over the Syrian Kurds whom they consider terrorists. The United States is “building an army of terror” along the southern border, Erdogan says. “Either you take off your flags on those terrorist organisations, or we will have to hand those flags over to you, Don’t force us to bury in the ground those who are with terrorists…Our operations will continue until not a single terrorist remains along our borders, let alone 30,000 of them.”

This is not how a NATO ally behaves. It’s how an enemy state behaves. There is truly no getting around this. We can argue all we want—and I have—that keeping Turkey in NATO is better than kicking Turkey out of NATO because it’s better to deal with a troublesome country inside an ostensibly friendly framework than outside one.

There are limits, though, even if those limits aren’t clearly defined. A direct Turkish attack against the United States would clearly be over the line whether a line is defined or not, as would a direct attack against another NATO member state. Attacking a non-NATO ally is more ambiguous, especially when the non-NATO ally in question isn’t even a state. (It’s not like Turkey is threatening to attack Israel, Japan or Morocco.)

None of this could have been foreseen when NATO was founded in 1949 or when Turkey was admitted in 1952. NATO was founded as a united Western front against the Soviet Union, which occupied or indirectly controlled half of Europe, including a third of Germany. Iran’s Islamic Republic, the Syrian Baath Party regime, armed Kurdish separatist movements, ISIS—none of these even existed then, and only the Kurdish movements could even have been imagined.

The world has dramatically changed, as has NATO. In 1952, Turkey was a crucial member in good standing while Estonia was part of the Soviet Union. In 2018, Estonia is a member in good standing while Turkey is behaving as a belligerent. No one should be surprised that alliances have shifted after seven decades. Alliances always shift over time. Enemies become friends and vice versa. Not even Britain has been a constant friend of the United States, and not even Russia has been a constant enemy.

Changes like these happen slowly, and the West is having a hard time processing the fact that Turkey is increasingly hostile, though it has been for some time now. It started when Ankara denied the use of its territory, including Incirlik Air Base, during the war against Saddam Hussein, mostly because Turkey didn’t want Iraqi Kurdistan to become an economic and military powerhouse. Later, Erdogan helped Iran transfer weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and implicitly sided with ISIS in Syria because he didn’t want an independent Kurdish region to rise up in Syria as it had in Iraq. More recently, he has taken American citizens hostage and purchased a missile system from the Kremlin. And how he’s threatening to destroy the only competent Western-friendly militia in all of Syria.

Last August, as Erdogan visited his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin in Moscow, NATO issued a telling statement. “Turkey is a valued ally, making substantial contributions to NATO’s joint efforts… Turkey’s NATO membership is not in question.”

Stop right there. Of course Turkey’s NATO membership is in question. Otherwise, why bother denying it? NATO isn’t denying that the United Kingdom or Canada doesn’t belong in NATO any longer. NATO is only denying that Turkey’s membership is in question, which is another way of saying it is. Anyway, you can type “Turkey out of NATO” into Google and spend a year wading through the results.  

The statement continues: “Our Alliance is committed to collective defence and founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, human rights and the rule of law.” Indeed, the alliance was founded on all of those principles, none of which increasingly authoritarian Turkey adheres to any longer.

If Turkey were not in NATO, it would not be admitted. It’s grandfathered in at this point.

It’s much easier to say no to an aspiring member that doesn’t belong than to evict a longstanding member who no longer belongs, especially when there’s no clear criteria for banishment. It’s about time, then, for NATO to have a serious discussion about what the criteria for banishment is. That alone might improve Turkey’s behavior. If it doesn’t, we’ll have other options.


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