Quantcast

The Closing of the Conservative Mind

Donald Trump won last year’s Republican civil war and most of the losers surrendered.

A buffoonish and narcisistic reality TV star who spent his entire life as a boorish Democrat and who had nothing but contempt for the Republican Party and traditional American conservatism has managed, like a conquering warlord, to rally the vanquished around him.

There are exceptions, however, and Claire Berlinski is one of them. She and I spent the last decade covering foreign affairs in the Middle East and Europe and are alarmed by the new president’s contempt for the American-made trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific security architecture and at how whimsically American conservatives are willing to reverse their own party’s longstanding positions on everything from Vladimir Putin to NATO.

She and I spoke last week.

MJT: I want to start with a quote from retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus.

"Americans should not take the current international order for granted. It did not will itself into existence. We created it. Likewise, it is not naturally self-sustaining. We have sustained it. If we stop doing so, it will fray and, eventually, collapse.”

That is an excellent rebuttal to the Obama administration’s limp foreign policy of managed American decline overseas, and we heard a version of Petraeus’ critique from conservatives for eight years during the previous president’s term. But Petraeus said that two weeks ago while chastising the Trump administration. Donald Trump doing worse than doubling-down on Obamaism rather than reversing it as John McCain or Mitt Romney would have done. He seems to be willing to set the entire American-made international order on fire, as if everything from 1945 onward is suddenly on the table, not just NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership but even Japan’s demilitarization and NATO. He is consistently friendlier to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than he is to Europe. The Republican Party would have a stress-induced heart attack if a Democratic president were doing these things, wouldn’t it?

Claire Berlinski: Yeah, on Twitter David Frum wrote, "It’s as if a hostile foreign power has seized the US government and is by remote control steering it toward the maximum possible catastrophe.” Which it really is. I man, what more would you do?

Did you see that CNN piece about what happened at a Mar-a-Lago dinner party after they got news of the North Korean missile launch? “Trump and [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe’s evening meal quickly morphed into a strategy session, the decision-making on full view to fellow diners, who described it in detail to CNN.”

You’re there, I’m not—I can’t tell if people are slowly beginning to realize just what an insane catastrophe we’ve got ourselves into, as in, we could all die from this kind of incompetence and from his species of mental illness—or are the people who voted for him still mostly stuck in cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, minimizing reports like that as, yeah, overwrought, pearl-clutchers' Lügenpresse

I’m scared. Trouble sleeping, scared. I just don’t sense (from here) the urgency that ought to be there around the right issues. Yes, people are marching about abortion rights and racism, but this is so much bigger than abortion rights or building a wall or whatever at this point. This is about basic competence to do the job of the commander-in-chief, to keep communication secure, to read and understand a cable, to make judgments about the last vestiges of the NPT. I frankly don’t know if the guy can even read. And I don’t think he has a clue about what Petraeus said. If we say, “To hell with it,” it will go to hell, and faster than anyone imagines possible.

MJT: You’re right, there isn’t enough urgency about protecting the international order. The only people who seem to care are disaffected Never Trump conservatives and national security liberals from the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. The left, for the most part, is still stuck on identity politics and banging on about how mean and offensive Trump is. Trump is mean and offensive, so that’s fair enough as far as it goes, but if the international order falls apart while they’re making fun of him on Saturday Night Live and Twitter, so what?

The right, meanwhile, is banging on about America First, apparently oblivious to the fact that the last time we had an America First movement in the United States, Adolf Hitler became ruler of Europe. There is no Hitler on the horizon—ISIS is just as vicious but far too weak, and Vladimir Putin doesn’t even qualify as a bat boy in the league Hitler played in—but still. I can’t quite tell if American conservatives are going along with this for tribal partisan reasons or if the vast majority of my fellow citizens, left and right, don’t really care if the world burns as long as ISIS leaves us alone and we can fix health care.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that the American-built international order exists because it serves our national interests. How on earth did we get to the point where left and right alike are blowing it off? Because the Iraq War didn’t work out how we hoped? There has to be more going on than just that. Newt Gingrich suggested last year that NATO might not defend Estonia if Russia invaded, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Middle East.

Claire Berlinski: Two thoughts about that “America First” slogan. The first is that I cannot believe, or maybe I can but I just don’t want to, that people are using this slogan and thinking it’s fine. I’ve spent all week writing a response, probably never to be published, to Newt Gingrich’s column in the Washington Post, the one where he wrote that Trump’s model is Margaret Thatcher. (And he appeals to my book to make his case, which is why I’ve spent a week having a futile mental argument with him.) I was looking through the Thatcher archives to see if she’d ever referred to that slogan. I didn't find a specific reference to it, but there are thousands of documents that make it absolutely crystal clear what she would have said, if asked. This is from 1997, well after the end of the Cold War:

We dare not forget that the freedom of this cultured, enterprising people [she was in Prague] was snuffed out by each of the two monstrous, totalitarian systems of our century—intimidated, dismembered, and absorbed by Nazi Germany; subverted, betrayed, and enslaved by Communist Russia; and each time with the West standing impotently aside. These are blots on the history of the civilized world…

How quickly lessons are forgotten and deductions from events distorted! Two world wars have flowed from American disengagement from Europe. [my emphasis] By contrast, the cold war was won because America defended Western Europe’s security as its own...

I keep thinking that something really strange has happened to American collective national memory—whole things that should be there, basic memories of things we all lived through, or things our parents or our grandparents lived through, have [snap!] just gone missing. Like a person who has a stroke and loses the fifth grade. I’ve actually been spending a lot of time puzzling over this, as I guess you are, trying to figure out if this happens to every generation—does everyone sooner or later see this happening if they live long enough? Or is this kind of collective amnesia really specific to this political moment, and if so, why? Is it something to do with the Internet? The long-term effects of television? Could there be a cause that no one’s even imagined yet?*

Anyway, Margaret Thatcher is nothing like Trump, and Newt should know this perfectly well because they were contemporaries. And she would have flipped her wigif an American president had used the slogan “America First” in his inaugural address. Repeatedly. I mean, for God’s sake! You'd have to be entirely unfamiliar with the interwar period and the origins of the Second World War to be unaware where it comes from and what it means. To the point of having no real sense at all of how the world you live in came into being—you’d be like a goldfish circling ‘round and ‘round the tank, thinking, “The tank is eternal, the tank is all there is, the tank is all there has ever been, the tank is all there ever will be.” It’s so goddamned weird: The President of the United States of America and some vast number of American citizens have never read an article in some in-flight magazine about Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee opposing the war against Nazi Germany, or spoken to a Second World War vet, or seen a documentary. The place in their minds where that stuff usually goes, probably along with the whole saga of the Spirit of St. Louis and the baby kidnapping—all of that is just blank. Nothing there. 

I suppose one thing that’s made it possible for someone to use the slogan “America First” is that the generation that lived through the Second World War is dying off. But Trump isn’t that young—he’d have grown up surrounded by veterans of the war; he’d know about all of this just from osmosis, right? I just came across a speech Thatcher gave in 1999 where she said, “There are very few today who doubt the prophetic importance of Churchill’s speeches attacking the appeasement of Nazism in the thirties.” How the hell did we not only manage to find one of those very few but elect him president! 

And that’s the most charitable interpretation. The charitable interpretation is that Trump is entirely unfamiliar with the cultural and political history of the United States, with Churchill’s efforts to convince America to enter the war, with Lindbergh and the America First Committee. He really doesn’t know any of it. But how could a mind so spotlessly virginal be able to understand, no less wisely discharge, the awesome responsibilities of the office he now holds? 

Then there's the less charitable interpretation. How could he not have known by the day he was inaugurated? The media went nuts, the ADL “begged him to reconsider.” So maybe he’s using it consciously. I resist this thought because the idea of an American president who consciously models himself on a Nazi sympathizer like Charles Lindbergh is too weird and frightening to confront, so I retreat to the idea that I'm reading too much into things. But then, that inaugural speech, Jesus. It’s just impossible to avoid hearing all those Nazi associations. One heart, one home, and one glorious destiny…total allegiance…The alternative to believing all of that resonance was intentional is believing the inaugural address of the 45th President of the United States was written with no thought, care or craft. Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth, right? And whichever one it is, it’s unthinkable.

*Maybe one day researchers will pinpoint the moment in 2013 when Flight Attendant X returned from Caracas, bringing with her the highly infectious T. idiocracii virus she’d contracted from a lemur in a petting zoo …

MJT: Like you, Claire, I would like to be charitable. I have always believed that one should not ascribe to malice what can just as easily be explained by incompetence. I repeatedly used that maxim to defend the Obama administration in online discussions, and I will do the same for the Trump administration. It seems like a small thing, but it’s huge actually. Having two incompetent presidents in a row is a very different thing from having two malicious and treasonous presidents in a row. America can survive one of those scenarios, but not the other.

And I think it’s safe to say at this point that Donald Trump is staggeringly incompetent intellectually. He does not read. He learns everything he thinks he knows from television. Where did you learn about Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee? Probably not from television. I certainly didn’t. I am not a historian, but I have shelves and shelves of history books in my office. Meanwhile, the president of the United States is so incurious intellectually that he isn’t even interested in his intelligence briefings.

I got into an argument online recently with a man who calls himself a historian who says he hadn’t heard of the America First Committee until this year. I’m pretty sure he was lying, but either way something terrible indeed has happened to America’s historical memory. The best explanation I can think of is that those who lived through that period are no longer with us and not enough people read anything that isn’t on Facebook.

I don’t mean to come across like an intellectual snob. To paraphrase our City Journal colleague Anthony Daniels, a society that consisted of nothing but scholars would soon starve to death, and it wouldn’t be very interesting while it lasted. But we’re talking about the president of the United States here. I expect more from him than I expect from the man who picks up the garbage on my sidewalk each Monday.

What alarms me even more, though, to be honest, is the vast number of people who voted for him (Because Hillary) and feel some tribal partisan need to defend and Trumpsplain every half-baked thing he says. What is going to happen to the conservative half of America if they convince themselves that every conspiracy theory and "alternative fact" that comes out of his mouth is actually true? I've seen a lot of that in the Arab world and it doesn’t end well.

Claire Berlinski: Yes, this is the second-most-alarming part of the whole thing. (The first-most alarming part being the unprecedented number of massive international crises involving nuked up, stressed-out, barely-above-failed states actors, all about to come to a head even as POTUS calmly dines al fresco— “munching on crisp wedges of iceberg lettuce and blue cheese dressing”—at an unsecure Czar-a-Lago dining table, classified documents strewn hither and yon and illuminated by no-doubt compromised cell phones beaming back to the Kremlin every detail of the interchange.) What are London bookies giving the odds on a nuclear weapons exchange before the end of the administration?

And yes, the second-most-alarming thing is really fucking alarming, too. I know especially well from Ricochet that they are in their own, internally consistent cognitive world and can’t be reasoned out of it. We desperately need a compromise figure—one of true greatness—around whom the country can rally, but I can’t see one. Ben Sasse is too much of a wimp. Because this is getting too dangerous: They don’t think they’re at war with radical Islam, China, or Russia: They thing they’re at war with people like you and me. Heretics.

MJT: Welcome to my world. The left declared me a heretic fifteen years ago. It’s survivable. You will lose some friends but you will also make new ones. Some of your new friends may be temporary while others will be permanent.

At least the left is not hunting heretics at the moment, but I sense something terrible is about to happen to the Democratic Party as well. A cranky socialist from Vermont who isn’t even a Democrat almost pulled off a hostile takeover of that party. Bernie Sanders hasn’t learned a single new thing about economics or politics since the 1930s. He and most of his fans are just as ignorant about foreign policy as Donald Trump. Whatever is wrong with America and the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, he can’t possibly be the right answer.

Both the left and the right have become much more aggressive in the last year, and they are both becoming less liberal in the classical sense of that word. I fear that the United States is gearing up for a political Clash of the Titans, with two enormous politically unhinged factions battling it out against each other at the ballot box, in Congress and in the streets. It makes me tempted to relocate myself to the countryside.

Something huge is sweeping over America and Donald Trump is just a symptom. If he has a stress-induced heart attack tomorrow and is replaced by Mike Pence I’ll breathe a sigh of relief, but we’re at the very beginning of a new era now, and removing Donald Trump from the White House would not put an end to it. Whatever this is, it seems to be happening in Europe too, and since you live in Paris, I have to ask: how are things looking on the Continent? There is no way that Brexit is the last act of the right-wing populist movements in Europe.

Claire Berlinski: Have you ever read the memorandum that Undersecretary of State Will Clayton sent back to Dean Acheson in 1947 about Europe, arguing for the Marshall Plan? “Without further prompt and substantial aid from the United States,” he wrote,

economic, social, and political disintegration will overwhelm Europe. Aside from the awful implications which this would have for the future peace and security of the world, the immediate effects on our domestic economy would be disastrous: markets for our surplus production gone, unemployment, depression, a heavily unbalanced budget on the background of a mountainous war debt. ·.. It will be necessary for the President and Secretary of State to make a strong spiritual appeal to the American people to sacrifice a little themselves, to draw in their own belts just a little in order to save Europe from starvation and chaos (not from the Russians [emphasis original]) and, at the same time, to preserve, for ourselves and our children the glorious heritage of a free America. 

“The United States,” he concluded, “must run this show.”

So that’s been the policy, since 1947—We can’t be totally straight with Americans about the nature of our security interests in Europe, but we have them. And that’s been true since and remains true now. It’s been taken as axiomatic by US defense planners that, as they put it in the 1995 National Security Strategy, “The United States has vital interests in a Europe that is democratic, undivided, stable and prosperous, open to trade and investment opportunities, and supportive of political, economic, and military cooperation with the United States in Europe and other important parts of the world.” But we never did get around to updating the messaging for Americans: We sold this as, “Let’s make sure the poor kids of Europe don’t starve,” and now, given that they’re visibly not starving, Americans don’t get why it's still important for us to run this show. Our leaders never bothered to explain to them that it was always a little more complicated (but no less important) than that. 

And lately, unsurprisingly, we’ve had a lot of Americans wondering why we do this. Perhaps we don’t have a vital interest in any of this? Would we truly notice the difference if Europe were autocratic, divided, unstable, poor, closed to trade and investment, and unsupportive of cooperation with the United States? Or in an alliance with China

(Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s intellectually healthy to ask these questions: Every so often, even our most fundamental axioms should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. But it is a kind of suicidal ideation, geopolitically speaking, to be asking this question in the White House, right now, precisely as we run the real risk of finding out.) 

So here we are, with Russia taking big bites out of Europe. Just days before Donald Trump became the ultimate guarantor of the West’s security, just days before he enters the White House, the President-elect once again expressed, unprompted, his diffidence or disdain toward NATO and the European Union. He pretty much said there’s no longer a purpose to the West’s security architecture. It’s hard to imagine how his comments would have been different had they been written by the Kremlin (and now of course many of us are wondering if they were, literally). But this is even more bizarre because James Mattis, his own nominee for Secretary of Defense recently warned that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have created “the most dangerous situation in a crisis-strewn region. And there is the potential I believe that Putin has unleashed forces that he will be personally unable to control.” So God knows what our policy is—I suppose it will depend who wins the bureaucratic shadow war. I wouldn’t bet against Mattis, but that’s another question.

(Tangentially, it’s not ridiculous to describe the EU, as Trump did, as a “vehicle” for German control. What Trump meant was unclear, but it’s true that the point of the EU, even if it is diplomatically unspeakable, is that it’s a vehicle for controlling Germany—which is and will always be an unstoppably dynamic continental power—and peacefully harnessing its energy. The pacification of Germany and its transformation into the continent’s peaceful economic engine are among the greatest achievements in American history, perhaps the greatest. So while I don’t think that’s what Trump meant, he inadvertently said something insightful.)     

So where Europe is going will depend a lot on where the US is going. Angela Merkel’s saying the right thing when she says “Europe’s future is in our hands”—I mean, what else can she say—but the US has always played a role no European power can play, because Europe (especially with Britain out) has no stable, hegemonic power center except Germany, and there are just too many bad memories for Germany to play that role. That’s why Europe has been so hapless at confronting all the things it obviously needs to confront. It can’t agree on a solid plan for the refugee crisis, a single and coherent foreign policy, a response to the Euro crisis, or (as we will soon see) a negotiating strategy with Britain. No one’s really in charge. It was designed with the assumption that the US would, in effect, be in charge. So the EU doesn’t have the authority to fix the problems that are causing the crisis of legitimacy for the EU. 

But the historically illiterate ideologues in the US who assume, because Nigel Farage told them so, that if the EU collapses, you’ll suddenly get a blooming garden of happy, sovereign, prosperous, and independent nation-states, all trading and cooperating together with ease? They’re out of their minds. Everything in European history tells us what would happen: violent competition for mastery and imperial expansion, with the smaller states swallowed up by the larger ones. I mean, do these people even realize that France was never a nation? It went right from being an empire to being part of the EU. 

Anyway, in the last decade or so there’s been a cottage industry in writing books about the mounting risks to Europe and the transatlantic alliance. I wrote one ten years ago; it was widely seen as alarmist. It isn’t seen that way any more, although the odd thing is that I think it should be seen that way, it was alarmist. I missed a lot, and failed to see a lot of strengths that are also here. As you know I just reviewed Jamie Kirchick's first book, The End of Europe, the latest entry in the specter-haunting-Europe genre, and in some chapters, it's excellent, especially when he sticks to his former RFE/RL beat and discusses the way Russia exploits ethnic tensions along Europe’s eastern periphery. Yes, Europe has a big problem assimilating immigrants; yes, we’re seeing the rise of authoritarian populist parties everywhere; yes, the whole thing’s a financial house of cards just waiting for the Italian banks to collapse; yes, they have no idea how to pay for their social welfare states, especially because Europeans don’t have babies. All of that is true. As is the usual list of problems people talk about when they talk about Europe: anti-Semitism, nationalism, high debt levels. Doomed by its own demography to financial shocks and economic sluggishness. The aging population undermines productivity and shifts consumption toward services, such as health care, and away from goods and investment. The shortage of younger workers reduces tax revenues, so immigration to bolster the workforce is the only solution, and tension about immigration inevitable. The number of European states with autocratic elements is on the rise and no one knows what to do about this. And of course, almost every day you read of another boat full of refugees capsizing in the Mediterranean. No one knows what to do about that either. 

The EU’s institutions just weren’t built to handle problems like this. The EU sets monetary policy for Eurozone states, but state capitals retain fiscal and security responsibilities, so the poorer members wind up saddled with debt and sluggish growth—and no state ultimately responsible in a buck-stops-here way for challenges like securing European borders. The banks are still unevenly capitalized and regulated. There is still no common plan to cope with migration within and into Europe.

And Donald Trump is dead wrong about Brexit. It’s a catastrophe, one that will encourage regional and separatist movements throughout Europe. There are dozens of Yugoslavias-in-prospect. I mean, again, this is an important point — these people who want to “go back” to a time when all of these countries were independent know no European history at all. These were collections of duchies and principalities and empires. There was no “France,” there was no “Italy,” there was no “Germany,” and as soon as there were, they started slaughtering each other. For years, the task of figuring out how to get Britain out of Europe in the least damaging way will preoccupy Britain and the Continent, undermining the region’s international clout and weakening transatlantic cooperation, to the extent that the US under Trump isn’t inclined to cooperate about anything. And the far-right populist parties thrive on this kind of chaos. They’re financed by the Kremlin, and sympathetic to it, or willing to accommodate it, and they've making steady electoral gains. And like our populists, they won’t be able to make anything better if they take power. They’ll just create chaos. 

There’s a risk, though, that I hadn’t appreciated in pointing out all of these problems. The risk is of evoking contempt in American readers, rather than concern; fatalism in the place of leadership. The optimism about Europe in 2000 was excessive, but the pessimism about Europe now is also, probably, excessive. The Franco-German border is completely demilitarized. Americans have become totally hysterical about Muslim migration into Europe, but the fear is completely out of proportion. There are seven hundred million Europeans here—a million Muslims won’t change things all that profoundly. The collapse of the European Union does not, inherently, need to be a humanitarian catastrophe—it depends how it’s managed. And if European demography suggests reasons for pessimism about Europe’s future, there is also a bright side: Old people don’t go to war.

I have a lot more to say about this, but short answer: I’m more worried about the US. If the US behaves like a rational superpower, all of this can be managed. But if we keep it up with this Sick-Man-of-the-Globe act, Europe will wash down the tubes with us, I fear. 

The Swamp Strikes Back

Mike Flynn is finished as President Donald Trump's national security advisor. He lied to the administration and to the public and denied telling Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that the Trump administration would roll back the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia. Flynn is admitting now that he “may have” actually said that in a phone call last month, apologized to everybody, and resigned.

How do we know Flynn did it? Because the CIA taped the call and leaked the details. (The CIA was eavesdropping on the Russians, by the way, not on Flynn. It’s what the CIA does.)

The CIA also rejected Flynn deputy Robin Townley’s security clearance, terminating the deputy’s job on the National Security Council.

“They believe this is a hit job from inside the CIA on Flynn and the people close to him,” one anonymous source told Politico. Why might that be happening? Perhaps because, as another anonymous source who is apparently close to the president says, Flynn had been waging “a jihad against the intelligence community.” Trump hasn’t played well with the intelligence community either. You may recall that he compared the CIA and the FBI to Nazi Germany before he was even inaugurated.

The swamp—permanent bipartisan Washington—doesn’t want to be drained. Not by Donald Trump. Not by anybody. And the swamp can strike back—especially the intelligence agencies.

Last November, shortly after Trump won the election, Eli Lake wrote a stirring defense of the Washington swamp for Bloomberg.

But before writing off the swamp entirely, it's worth thinking for a minute about the man we just elected president. While many Americans are no doubt elated, Trump campaigned at times like an authoritarian. He threatened his accusers with lawsuits. He banned members of the press from his events. He promised to jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He encouraged, at times, his audience to rough up protesters.

It may be that all of this banana republic bravado was for show. But if this is truly who Trump is, the country will need the permanent political and governing class to stop him. The leaks, slow-rolling and backstabbing that in normal times infuriate those who try to reform Washington will be the first line of defense.

That is exactly what’s happening now, and there is no sign that it’s going to stop.

And this is not strictly about some “jihad” Flynn and Trump have been waging against the intelligence agencies. Plenty of others in Washington outside the CIA are fighting back too over the administration’s chumminess with Russia.

“Putin’s Russia is our adversary and moral opposite,” Republican senator John McCain wrote in an op-ed for USA Today on Monday this week. “It is committed to the destruction of the post-war, rule-based, world order built on American leadership and the primacy of our political and economic values…There is no placating Putin. There is no transforming him from a gangster to a responsible statesman. Previous administrations have tried and failed not because they didn’t try hard enough, but because Putin wants no part of it.”

“It’s as if a hostile foreign power has seized the US government and is by remote control steering it toward the maximum possible catastrophe,” former Bush administration official David Frum tweeted over the weekend.

Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) says Flynn should lose his security clearance, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says “we have a National Security Advisor who cannot be trusted not to put Putin before America. National security demands that General Flynn be fired immediately.”

That’s a bit much, and neither Pelosi nor Cummings are convincing national security hawks. One could be forgiven for assuming they are simply whacking the Trump administration with whatever partisan stick is at hand.

There should be no question, however, that the Trump administration, including Mike Flynn, is far too cozy with Russia. Even before Flynn said his boss could roll back American sanctions against Moscow, he was a guest on Kremlin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today). He sat next to Vladimir Putin at RT’s anniversary celebration, and he says he wants to partner with Russia in Syria.

Flynn is not, however, naïve, and contrary to Pelosi he does not put Putin’s interests before America’s.

I read Flynn’s book in November so you don’t have to. In it, he divides the world into two camps of hostiles—radical Islamists and what he calls “the alliance,” which includes Russia, Syria, North Korea, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. He understands perfectly well that Vladimir Putin is an enemy of the United States but wants to team up with the Russians anyway to fight ISIS. It’s a defensible position, but it’s of a piece with the Trump administration’s brazenly pro-Russian position.

Last year on “CBS This Morning,” Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich said “[NATO] countries ought to worry about our commitment. They ought to worry about commitment under any circumstances. Every president has been saying that the NATO countries do not pay their fair share…If Russia were to invade Estonia, I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg.”

Unlike some countries in Europe, Estonia does “pay its fair share” of the NATO expense burden, which requires member states to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Estonia spends 2.16 percent while the US spends 3.61 percent. If Gingrich or his boss were to leave the responsible Estonians out to dry in the face of a Russian invasion, NATO would disintegrate overnight and Europe would face its greatest crisis since World War II.

Last summer, Trump said he may be willing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and lift American sanctions against Moscow. If the United States were to recognize Crimea as Russian, we would join a dubious club of rogue states that includes North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela but not a single Western democracy.

Putin, Trump says, is “very smart.” “I think in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A.” “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.” He effectively told NBC’s Matt Lauer that Putin was no worse than Barack Obama. “Do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?” he said when Lauer rattled off a list of Putin’s crimes.

Earlier this month on Fox News, Bill O’Reilly asked the president if he respects Putin. “I do respect him,” Trump said.

“Why?!” O’Reilly said, visibly shocked. “Putin’s a killer.”

“There are a lot of killers,” Trump said, sounding like a leftist who has read Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and little else. “You think our country’s so innocent?”

Trump has been defending and even fawning over Vladimir Putin for a year now with remarkable consistency.

Little Estonia, meanwhile, is digging in and preparing to fight an anti-Russian insurgency by itself.

In 2013, Vladimir Putin gave our new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Russia’s Order of Friendship award. That prize may not be as meaningful as some critics fear, but Tillerson’s experience up until now has been strictly limited to his time at the helm of ExxonMobil, a job he was selected for in part because of his close relationship with Russia.  

And let’s not forget that Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort spent years working for Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian pawn Viktor Yanukovych until he was toppled in the 2014 revolution, and that Trump’s former foreign policy advisor Carter Page has close ties to the Kremlin and Russian gas giant Gazprom.

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

So with all that as prologue, news that Flynn discussed lifting the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia and lied about it is, shall we say, a tad more sensitive than if he’d lied about something relatively innocuous like discussing a new NAFTA agreement with Canada.

Neither the intelligence agencies nor journalists nor the Democratic Party nor the Republican members of Congress who aren’t on the Trump Train are going to put up with this.

We Are Still Living With Eisenhower’s Biggest Mistake

The Tower magazine just published my latest long-form piece. Here's the first part.

American presidents make the same foreign policy mistakes over and over again. Intervening when they should not. Sitting on the sidelines when it’s the worst possible choice. Treating friends and allies like dirt while trusting duplicitous hostiles. If, as Karl Marx said, history repeats itself first as tragedy and a second time as farce, what are we supposed to say when history repeats itself decade after decade ad infinitum?

Historians are tasked with delivering us from George Santayana’s curse, where those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but historians can only save those who take the time to study the historical record, and even then it only works if the historical record is accurate.

Thank goodness, then, for Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Doran’s valiant attempt to save us from ignorance and bad history in his bracing new book, Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East. He expertly walks us through the Suez Crisis of 1956 and its ghastly aftermath when Republican President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower learned the hard way that Israel, not Egypt or any other Arab state, should be the foundation of America’s security architecture in the Middle East.

When Eisenhower began his first term in 1953, the Cold War was just six years old. Not every country had chosen a side yet. The Middle East and North Africa were for the most part non-aligned, and Eisenhower hoped to bring the Arab world into the American camp.

Great Britain and France were still the predominant Western powers in the region, yet a nationalist anti-colonial wind was blowing—especially in Egypt, where the self-styled Free Officers, led by Mohammed Naguib and the charismatic young Gamal Abdel Nasser, had overthrown King Farouk the previous year. At the time, Nasser and other nationalists in the Arab world seemed to be the vanguard for an entire region, and if Eisenhower wanted the Arabs to stand with Washington against Moscow, he’d have to get on their good side.

Ike was in a tough spot, though, since America’s traditional allies were still colonial powers. Britain and France had drawn most of the Middle East’s borders after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the waning days of World War I, and they’d installed and continued to maintain several governments in that part of the world. In Egypt’s case, Britain garrisoned troops in the Suez Canal, and both British and French investors owned the Suez Canal Company, which kept almost all the profits from ships transiting to and from the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Hostility to the new state of Israel was also rampant from Baghdad to Rabat, especially in Israel’s borderland countries like Egypt.

So Ike and his foreign policy team felt compelled to distance themselves from Britain, France, and Israel to prevent the Arab states from aligning themselves with the Soviet Union. Nasser was fast becoming a leader in region-wide Arab politics, and he wanted what remained of the British Empire out of Egypt entirely. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—both natural anti-imperialists—decided to act as an honest broker, as they put it, between Cairo, London, Paris, and Jerusalem.

The U.S. hosted talks between the British and the Egyptians over the status of Britain’s military base in the canal zone, and the Americans effectively took Egypt’s side and strong-armed Britain into signing an agreement mandating a withdraw of all of its soldiers within 20 months. With one victory under his belt, Nasser went after the next. He nationalized the Suez Canal Company, even though it wasn’t supposed to be under Egyptian control until 1968 per the treaty, and he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

On October 29, 1956, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt simultaneously and left Eisenhower holding the bag. Ike thought military action was the worst possible response, but at the same time he hoped for a quick Western victory, and he was exasperated with British delays and incompetence. Even so, he reluctantly took Egypt’s side and imposed crippling economic sanctions that effectively deprived Europe of imported energy. “Those who began this operation,” he told his aides, “should be left to work out their own oil problems—to boil in their own oil, so to speak.”

Britain had no choice but to withdraw, followed by France and Israel.

Ike didn’t feel comfortable doing any of this. Britain and France were American allies, after all, even though they behaved recklessly. He simply felt that he had little choice. “How could we possibly support Britain and France,” he said, “if in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”

Nasser had conned Eisenhower, however, and he had done it masterfully.

One of Nasser’s deceptions should be familiar to anyone who has followed the painful ins and outs of botched Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Over and over again, Nasser used a strategy Doran calls “dangle and delay.” He repeatedly dangled the tantalizing idea of peace between Egypt and Israel in front of Eisenhower’s eyes, only to delay moving forward for one bogus reason after another. He never planned to make peace with Israel or even to engage in serious talks.

Nasser did, however, participate in theatrical arms negotiations with Washington that he knew would never go anywhere.

Eisenhower wanted to equip the Egyptian army. Nasser wasn’t stupid, though. He knew that Ike would attach strings to the deal. Egypt’s soldiers would need to be trained by Americans, and they’d be reliant on Americans for spare and replacement parts. Nasser really wanted to be armed by and tied to the Soviet Union, but had to pretend otherwise lest Eisenhower side with Britain, France, and Israel. So Nasser slowly sabotaged talks with the United States in such a way that made Washington seem unreasonable. That way, when he turned to the Soviet Union for weapons, he could half-plausibly say he had no choice.

Nasser did such a good job pretending to be pro-American that he convinced the United States to give him a world-class broadcasting network that allowed him to speak to the entire Arab world over the radio. Washington expected him to use his radio addresses to rally the Arab world behind America against the Russians. Instead, he used it to blast the United States with virulently anti-American propaganda and to undermine the West’s Arab allies. “Nasser,” Doran writes, “was the first revolutionary leader in the postwar Middle East to exploit the technology in order to call over the heads of the monarchs to the man on the street. Suddenly the Hashemite monarchy [in Iraq and Jordan] found itself sitting atop volcanoes.”

Nasser strode the Arab world like a colossus after his American-made victory in the Suez Crisis, and he became more brazenly anti-American as he gathered strength. Conning Ike was no longer possible, but Nasser didn’t need the United States anymore anyway.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.


The Real Problem with Trump’s Executive Order

President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” isn’t a Muslim ban. The now-infamous executive order he signed last week bans non-citizens from entering the United States regardless of religion if they come from one of seven Muslim-majority nations. Those affected include Christians, Jews, atheists, pre-Islamic Yazidis, Kurds and the brave souls who risked their lives and no doubt saved American lives while working with and for the United States military.

The travel ban initially even included permanent residents of the United States who weren’t allowed to come home and wouldn’t be allowed to return home if they left.

One of the first people detained at a port of entry was a Yazidi woman whose husband worked for the United States military and already lives here. Yazidis are the victims of ISIS genocide. Blocking her entry and separating her from her husband was the immigration equivalent of the TSA strip-searching nuns at the airport.

Vian Dakhil, an Iraqi Yazidi politician who gave a famous speech in parliament about ISIS’ genocide of her people, will not be able to visit Washington next week to pick up her Lantos human rights prize. Decent people everywhere find this outrageous and stupid and cruel.

A friend of mine moved to the United States last month from Iraqi Kurdistan. He got in just under the wire. His wife needs to return to Erbil for a month to finish her master’s degree, and he sent me an email telling me she can’t go if she wants to come back to her husband, her children and her new home in America. “Things are going well here,” he said when I asked how he’s doing, “but Mr. President is giving me a hard time.”

I hired this man on one of my trips to Iraq. He was my fixer, my translator and my driver. He took me into the war zone in Kirkuk outside the Kurdish autonomous area. I trusted him with my life. He is no terrorist. That’s for damn sure. The United States government also knows he isn’t a terrorist. They vetted him for two years.

I visited Iraq seven times and wrote a book about it. I know better than the president does how mind-bogglingly dysfunctional and dangerous that country is. Taking a closer look at immigrants and refugees from Iraq will never elicit a complaint from me.

But not a single terrorist from Trump’s seven countries—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen—has ever killed anyone on American soil. Every terrorist who has ever killed anyone inside the United States came from someplace else, and none of those countries are on the travel ban list.

The 9/11 hijackers were from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The Boston Marathon bombers came from Russia, one of the few foreign countries our new president is so far unwilling to criticize.

“Shoe bomber” Richard Reid was born in Britain.

The male shooter in San Bernardino was born in the United States. His wife is from Pakistan.

Omar Mateen, the Florida nightclub shooter, was also born in the United States.

If we’d had Donald Trump’s policy on the books without interruption for the past 100 years, not a single American life would have been saved.

*

The radical left is doing what it does best—hyperventilating about a rising Nazi regime in America. As if the United States and its allies killed millions of Germans in the 1940s because a clown like Donald Trump saddled up in Berlin.

Even so, it’s clear now that the White House was far more interested in imposing the most draconian ban possible than in protecting American citizens.

One should never assume malevolence as a motive when incompetence explains a botched outcome just as convincingly, but we know now that much of what happened with the rollout was deliberate. The Department of Homeland Security assumed that the travel ban would not apply to Green Card holders, but the White House overruled DHS and said that the travel ban does indeed apply to permanent residents of the United States.

Aides to the chairmen of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the House Homeland Security Committee say the Trump administration refused to consult with them or even give them a heads-up about the executive order. It doesn’t take a political rocket scientist to figure out why. They would have watered it down.

During his campaign against Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump said he wants to ban every Muslim on earth from coming here. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.” Those are his words. He posted them on his website. That declaration is still on his website as of the time of this writing. It has been there for a year now and will almost certainly be there tomorrow.

“When [Trump] first announced it,” former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said in an interview a couple of days ago on Fox News, “he said, ‘Muslim ban.’ He called me up. He said, ‘Put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally.’”

That is why thousands of protesters are streaming into airports all over the country, and that is why so many of them are calling Trump’s executive order a Muslim ban even though it is not. What the president wants is as obvious as a skyscraper to everyone who isn’t plugging their ears.

Trump didn’t want to hear from any experienced professional who might convince him to water down his executive order. Rudy Giuliani's team had already gone far enough.

With the apparent exception of General James Mattis, Trump’s terrific pick for Secretary of Defense, Trump wants to hear from as few experienced people as possible who might moderate his positions. How else to explain his appointment of Steve Bannon—publisher of the incendiary Breitbart website that recently included a “Black Crime” section—to the National Security Council while giving the boot to the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? “Who needs to hear from intelligence or military professionals,” Max Boot sarcastically writes in Foreign Policy, “when you can hear from the publisher of Breitbart?”

So things went as planned, but not really. Trump’s disapproval rating shot up 6 points in four days. It’s already above 50 percent. By contrast, Barack Obama’s disapproval rating early in his term was just 12 percent.

Everyone from the far-left to the Trump’s Republican critics are angry. “In the future,” said Michael McCaul, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, “such policy changes should be better coordinated with the agencies implementing them and with Congress to ensure we get it right—and don’t undermine our nation’s credibility while trying to restore it.”

“It would have been smarter to coordinate with us,” Virginia Representative Dave Brat said in an interview with The Atlantic. “They could have done a better job announcing how the complexities were going to work in advance.” Brat, by the way, isn’t a Democrat or a Never Trump conservative. He is a right-wing populist and one of the president’s political allies. At least for now, anyway.

The White House is responding to all this in the time-honored tradition of politics. With lies.

“Ha! That’s my formal response,” said an anonymous Republican Congressman to The Atlantic about White House Spokesman Sean Spicer’s claim that House and Senate Republicans wrote Donald Trump’s immigrant and refugee policy. “There was precisely zero coordination with us on the drafting of this executive order.”

Spicer also argued with a straight face that the travel ban had to be rushed through at once because terrorists would swarm into the country if they had a couple weeks notice. It takes more than a year and often up to two years to be vetted as an immigrant or a refugee. Everyone left stranded and everyone who remains banned have already been vetted. They aren’t illegal immigrants. Unlike Mexican border-hoppers, these people got in line and followed the rules.

“My policy,” Trump says, “is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months.”

No, it's not. And that statement can’t be aimed at his base. If Donald Trump’s refugee policy is no different from Barack Obama’s, what was the point of electing him in the first place? The Obama administration slowed down the refugee process for six months in 2011 for entirely sensible reasons, but it never imposed a full travel ban, especially not for permanent residents who already live here.

That’s why nobody protested at the time. To be sure, plenty on the left are partisan hacks—like every other president in American history, both Obama and Trump have their claques of clapping seals who think their guy is right about everything—but no one with a lick of sense ever thought Barack Obama wanted to ban Muslims from the entering the United States.

The president said on Twitter that only 109 people were detained and held for questioning and blamed the chaos on a Delta airlines computer crash.

Sean Spicer said the same thing and more. “Remember we’re talking about a universe of 109 people,” he said. “There were 325,000 people that came into this country over a 24-hour period from another country; 109 of them were stopped for additional screening…I think it’s a shame that people were inconvenienced, obviously. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about a couple hours. I’m sorry that some folks may have had to wait a little while.”

Give us a break. That doesn’t take into account the 348 people in airports all over the world who weren’t allowed to get on planes in the first place, nor does it take into account those, like the Yazidi human rights activist who isn’t welcome here anymore, who were authorized to come here and can’t now. It certainly doesn’t take into account the massive diplomatic and political fallout worldwide or the fact that it feeds into the insane ISIS narrative that the West and the Muslim world are engaged in a clash of civilizations.

American diplomats in Baghdad are warning us—to no avail whatsoever—that our delicate military and political ties are in jeopardy right in the middle of the war against ISIS. You don’t have to take their word for it. Listen to Iraqi General Talib al Kenani in his interview with CBS News. “I’m a four-star general, and I’m banned from entering the U.S.? I have been fighting terrorism for 13 years and winning. Now my kids are now asking if I’m a terrorist? There are many American troops here in Iraq. After this ban how are we supposed to deal with each other? We thought we were partners with our American friends, and now we realize that we’re just considered terrorists.”

The very people we need to keep on our side in the Middle East feel like we hate them, and they aren’t imagining things. The president’s most strident supporters clearly do hate them. The mood in America has grown so alarmingly vicious and reactionary lately that I had to close my comment section for the first time in fifteen years. I will not even consider turning it back on until Donald Trump is out of the White House. The volume of nastiness and hostility is so overwhelming that the entire world is hearing it now that it has a champion in the White House. It’s going to blow back in our faces in ways that we haven’t even figured out yet.  

“It’s a very dangerous thing,” writes Hoover Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes, “to have a White House that can’t with the remotest pretense of competence and governance put together a major policy document on a crucial set of national security issues without inducing an avalanche of litigation and wide diplomatic fallout.”

Former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus is urging the administration to wind down the travel ban as quickly as possible. "Americans should not take the current international order for granted,” he said. “It did not will itself into existence. We created it. Likewise, it is not naturally self-sustaining. We have sustained it. If we stop doing so, it will fray and, eventually, collapse.”

The Trump administration deliberately crafted an executive order to inflict the maximum amount of pain possible, waited for everyone from the radical left to the moderate right to explode, then walked the worst parts of it back and lied about it on television. That isn’t governing. It’s tin-pot theatrics hatched by the former publisher of Breitbart who told journalist and historian Ron Radosh that he wants “to destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down.” It’s precisely the kind of thing more than 100 conservative foreign policy professionals had in mind last year when they signed a letter saying they refused to work for a Trump administration.

So what’s the real problem with the president’s executive order? The real problem is that President Donald J. Trump has proven himself to be a man who will replace foreign policy, national security, domestic tranquility and America’s reputation with manipulative axe-grinding political drama. “But Hillary” will cut it no more. She is irrelevant now.

Those of us who hoped against the longest of odds that he would grow up and pivot can’t anymore. We know him now as a president and not just a candidate. The gravity of the job is not inspiring him to rise to the majesty of his office. He’s not just boasting about grabbing women by the pussy and yukking it up at sports arenas before howling mobs demanding he throw his political opponent in prison. He’s actually governing now, and he is doing so as a chaos engine.

The Trump era in American history will be every bit as aggressively ugly and stupid as the majority of American voters feared it would be.

The United States Slams the Door on Cuban Refugees

One of Barack Obama’s last acts as president was a total jerk move, and Donald Trump approves of it.

Our outgoing president ended two long-standing policies that helped Cuban refugees flee the oppressive Castro regime and find safe harbor and the opportunity to live free and productive lives in the United States.

First, the “wet feet, dry feet” policy, a modified version of the Cuban Adjustment Act passed in 1966, granted political asylum to Cuban citizens who managed to reach American soil. Obama killed it with a stroke of his pen. Any would-be Cuban refugee who arrives on American shores will now be deported back to Castro’s police state.

Obama also ended the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, passed in 2006 during the Bush Administration, which allowed Cuban doctors to defect to the United States through any American Embassy in the world.

The Castro regime hated these policies. Granting asylum to Cubans lucky enough to reach the United States undermined the legitimacy of the dictatorship and put the lie to its propaganda. Any government that drives its own citizens into the ocean to escape has failed catastrophically.

Cuban doctors could defect even more easily. They didn’t have to come all the way to the United States to find shelter. Just reaching one of our embassies was enough, and it happened routinely because Havana exported doctors all over the world to countries that desperately needed medical help. At a glance, Cuba’s overseas doctor program seems like a wonderful thing that only a mean and cold-hearted grouch would ever complain about, but look closer.

Cuba has a dire shortage of medical supplies and personnel at home. When I visited a couple of years ago, I had to bring my own anti-biotics, my own bandages, my own gauze, my own iodine, and other basic medical supplies in case I needed them while I was there because they are not available on the island.

Doctors are hardly available in Cuba anymore either because the government has exported so many of them. A brave soul risked imprisonment a couple of years ago and protested by hanging a sign from his crumbling balcony that read, “Do I have to go to Venezuela for my headache?” Cuban citizens may not have to pay for their healthcare, but they’re languishing in a medical hell.

Cuba doesn’t export doctors because it wants to help sick people in poor countries. It exports doctors because it needs money. Foreign governments pay millions of dollars for Cuban medical services, but nearly 100 percent of it goes not to the doctors who do the actual work but instead to the regime in Havana. The word exploited isn’t strong enough to describe how these people are treated. The Castro regime is basically selling slaves.

And don’t assume for a moment that the Castros have been using the money they “earn” from exploiting these doctors for the welfare of Cuba’s people. The government-imposed Maximum Wage is still only 20 dollars a month, yet ten years ago Fidel Castro’s net worth was estimated at 900 million dollars. For all we know, he was richer than Donald Trump by the time he died, and he got that money not by building anything but by ruling Cuba as if it were a 17th century plantation.

So until now, the United States did virtually everything it could to give Cuba’s suffering people a way out. It’s who we are and it’s what we do.

At least it was who we were and what we did before Barack Obama and Donald Trump. 

Yes, Obama deep-sixed these policies, not Trump, but Trump won’t reverse anything. Last year in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, our new president said America’s Cuban refugee policies are unfair. “I don’t think that’s fair. I mean why would that be a fair thing? I don’t think it would be fair. You know we have a system now for bringing people into the country, and what we should be doing is we should be bringing people who are terrific people who have terrific records of achievement, accomplishment.... You have people that have been in the system for years [waiting to immigrate to America], and it’s very unfair when people who just walk across the border, and you have other people that do it legally.”

So that’s it, then. Obama slammed the door on Cuban refugees, and Trump is not going to open it. That hardly counts as a bipartisan consensus, but it certainly fits with America First.  

The New Arab-Israeli Alliance

I wrote the following essay for the summer issue of World Affairs. It hasn't been available online until now, but it's just as relevant now as it was when I wrote it.

During the early years of the Obama administration, conventional wisdom in Washington held that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict trumped everything else in the Middle East, that no problem could be resolved until that one was out of the way. “Without doubt,” former president Jimmy Carter said, “the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.” The reason, said his former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, now a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, is because, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world.”

Similar views were expressed across the political spectrum, from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel and General David Petraeus.

“If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process,” Obama said in 2008, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region. If we’ve gotten an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, maybe at the same time peeling Syria out of the Iranian orbit, that makes it easier to isolate Iran so that they have a tougher time developing a nuclear weapon.”

This has long been a dubious theory and events in the meantime have proven it. The main drivers of chaos in the Middle East are conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, between Arabs and Persians, and between secularists and Islamists. This has been true for decades, but with civil war in Syria, the rise of The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), anarchy in Libya, a region-wide proxy war in Yemen, and an Iran unshackled by sanctions, it is obvious now even to casual observers. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been reduced almost to an asterisk.

The effect of all this is something no one would have predicted a couple of decades ago and only the most astute predicted even a couple of years ago—the Sunni Arab world, unofficially led by Saudi Arabia, is quietly forging a de facto alliance with Israel against Iran.

The Sunni Arab world, unofficially led by Saudi Arabia, is quietly forging a de facto alliance with Israel against Iran.

Read the whole thing.


America’s Moment of Truth About Russia

Donald Trump finally acknowledged that Russia most likely hacked the Democratic National Committee and turned over stolen files to WikiLeaks. “I think it was Russia,” he said for the first time at a press conference earlier this week, though he angrily denied that Russian shenanigans swayed last year’s election. He’s right on both counts.

Until this week, though, the president-elect seemed to trust Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and WikiLeaks founder and fugitive Julian Assange more he trusted than the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. One can only imagine what Republicans would have said if Trump were a Democrat. The Ann Coulter wing would have cried treason—and worse.

“The GOP nominated the most pro-Russian U.S. presidential candidate since Henry Wallace,” Jamie Kirchick writes in the Washington Post, “whose 1948 bid on the Progressive Party ticket was largely run by communists.” Indeed. Yet Trump has flipped both parties on their heads, not just the Republicans. Every Democrat from the east coast to the west is now talking about Vladimir Putin as if he’s the worst person on earth, yet they jeered when the previous Republican Party nominee for president Mitt Romney said Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Barack Obama said during a presidential debate in 2012.

It’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of Republican primary voters did not choose Trump because they’re pro-Russia. They’re fed up with the bipartisan political class. They’re sick of illegal immigration. They are tired of being told what they can say and even think. Many appreciate his stance against trade. Working class folks in the Rust Belt feel relieved that somebody is finally paying attention to them. Virtually none of these people clicked “like” on Vladimir Putin’s Facebook page.

Trump is an anomaly. If any other Republican had won the primary and the general election, we would not be having the conversation that never seems to end about Russia. Can you imagine Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio getting defensive on Putin’s behalf? It wouldn’t happen. The Republican Party has been more hawkish on Russia than the Democratic Party for 100 years. Donald Trump is the only Republican that Putin would prefer over a Democrat, and he’s the only Republican who would even briefly take Russia’s side against the FBI and the CIA.  

I doubt Trump even looks at it that way. Mostly he’s just being defensive. He feels like the legitimacy of his election is being called into question, but no one with much sense thinks he won because of anything Russia did. He won because he flipped Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania from the Democratic column to the Republicans for parochial reasons that are almost unique to those states. Under what theory would Russia’s DNC hack and the exposure by WikiLeaks affect votes in a handful of Rust Belt states but nowhere else?

So let’s get two things clear. Donald Trump did not hack the DNC. Vladimir Putin did. Trump is entirely innocent of that crime. Nor did he win the election because of that crime.

But no mainstream critic of WikiLeaks and the Kremlin is saying Trump did it or that he won because of it. That’s certainly not what the FBI and the CIA have been saying, nor is it what critical Republican senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are arguing.

Trump did not need to be so prickly and defensive, and he still doesn’t seem to grasp that Putin isn’t his friend. “If Putin likes me, that’s an asset,” he said. No. It is not. Putin wants what’s good for Russia, not what’s good for the United States. Putin doesn’t “like” Trump anyway. He certainly doesn’t like Trump in the same way Trump’s base does.  

The president-elect seems to find it a shame that we can’t get along with a white Christian country with its capital in Europe at a time when we’re both facing threats from radical Islamists. It is exasperating, but everyone needs understand something. Yes, Russia is Christian and white, and the smaller part of that country is on the European continent, but it does not belong to the West. Russians have defined themselves against the West for longer than any of them have been alive. When they say “the West,” they are referring to us, not to themselves. In the Russian mind, the West is a hostile Other.  

Our next president won’t be any more successful resetting America’s relations with Russia than the last two presidents were, and it won’t be his fault. “Russia does not aspire to be like us,” writes Russia expert Molly McKew in Politico, “or to make itself stronger than we are. Rather, its leaders want the West — and specifically NATO and America — to become weaker and more fractured until we are as broken as they perceive themselves to be. No reset can be successful, regardless the personality driving it, because Putin’s Russia requires the United States of America as its enemy.”

Russian propaganda has been among the most effective in the world for at least a century. The communists used it (along with money, advisors and guns) to export their deranged revolution to Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, and to this day some their tropes still poison the minds of far-leftists all over the world.

The Kremlin’s propaganda in the 21st century is less brazen and obvious. It’s more insidious because it’s less overtly ideological. Russia sometimes uses it to promote the positions of right-wing populists like France’s Marine Le Pen in Europe. Some of it, meanwhile, is aimed at the Western left. The very same intelligence report that details Russia’s hacking of the DNC reveals that the Kremlin broadcasts bogus anti-fracking propaganda in the United States for a reason that ought to be obvious—American fracking hurts Russia’s oil and gas industry, the only industry in the entire country that’s healthy. Some Russian propaganda, like many of the fake news stories that circulated last year, doesn’t even appear on the surface to come from Russia at all.

The purpose of the Kremlin’s disinformation is not to export Putinism to the rest of the planet. Its purpose, instead, is “to erode our values,” McKew writes, “our democracy and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.”

At some point, Vladimir Putin is going to stab Donald Trump in the front. He’s a scorpion, and that’s what scorpions do. He doesn’t have much of a choice. He’ll have to stab Trump in the front or reverse Russia’s national interests. He’d have to pitch his entire worldview over the side, a worldview that was nurtured in the Soviet Union and hardened in the KGB’s Directorate S. Which do you think is more likely?

American politics is supposed to stop at the water’s edge. It seems an almost quaint notion nowadays, but we need to find our way back. Donald Trump and his Republican allies should always unite behind the Democratic Party against a hostile foreign actor like Vladimir Putin for one simple reaon. Because the Democratic Party is ours. Likewise, even the most strident anti-Trump progressives need to rally behind the incoming president when the choice is between an enemy and one of ours.

Russia is using an ancient strategy against the United States—divide and conquer, or at least divide and disrupt.

Resist.

Turkey Goes Off the Rails

Last year was a gruesome one for Turkey, and this year is getting off to the worst possible start.

On the very first day of the new year, not six months after a botched military coup and an almost Stalinist-style purge of the army, the courts, the academy and the bureaucracy by its authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ISIS declared open war.

A terrorist crossed the border from Syria and shot his way into Istanbul’s posh Reina nightclub and murdered at least 39 people with an automatic rifle. He stalked and killed the wounded on the floor, then lined up and shot some of the initial survivors execution-style in the head.

Unlike most ISIS killers, this one escaped.

The Turkish government says it has identified the man but they haven’t released his name yet, nor have they caught him.

Journalist and Turkey expert Claire Berlinski lived in Istanbul for years and wrote this about Reina.  “I’d never go to Reina on my own. Too expensive, music too loud. But if you’d visited me when I was living in Istanbul, and if I knew you were on an expense account, I might have taken you there. It would be high on my list of places — top five, say — to take visitors who were only in the city for a day or two and who needed to be dazzled.”

That’s one of the reasons Reina was targeted. Every single person who visits places like that is an enemy of the Islamic State. Take a look at this video shot inside Reina four years ago. No such establishments exist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa, I assure you.

“Reina’s one of those places,” Berlinski continues, “where you’d sit with friends from out of town and, dazzled by the Bosphorus and its skyline, think, ‘This city makes every other city seem like a village.’ You’d watch your friends’ faces with pleasure because no one ever forgets the first time they see that skyline. Seeing someone see that for the first time is a delight of Istanbul in itself.”

I have never visited Reina, alas, but I can attest to the fact that Istanbul makes almost every other city on earth (aside from New York and possibly Tokyo) feel like a village. Claire is right. Even Paris feels like a delightful large village compared with Istanbul.

An enormous cosmopolitan megacity like Istanbul could never be ruled by the likes of ISIS unless it was first bombed out and mostly evacuated of its 14 million inhabitants. It isn’t as secular and hedonistic as Amsterdam, but it’s a lot closer to Amsterdam culturally than it is to Riyadh. I’ve been there three times, and each time I thought to myself I could live there.

That, however, was before the Syrian war, the rise of ISIS, and the widescale internal repression from President Erdogan.  

The attack at Reina in Istanbul is a hinge moment in Turkey for a couple of reasons. It’s not the first time ISIS has struck the country, but it is the first time ISIS has admitted it openly. A press release says the hit was personally ordered by “the prince of the believers,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Second, most previous ISIS massacres in Turkey targeted Kurds and leftists associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK), whose allies in the People’s Protection Units (or YPG) are fighting ISIS in Syria. Those attacks could be plausibly described as a spillover of the Syrian war.

The attack at Reina cannot. This time, wealthy secular ethnic Turks in the capital were the targets. Massacring party-goers at a nightclub is categorically identical to the mass murder at the Bataclan theater in Paris in 2015.  

ISIS hates bourgeois Turks for the same reason it hates Americans, the French, the Israelis and pretty much everyone else. They spell it out so plainly in their magazine Dabiq that there can be no excuse for misunderstanding it.

“We hate you because your secular, liberal societies permit the very things that Allah has prohibited while banning many of the things He has permitted, a matter that doesn’t concern you because you separate between religion and state, thereby granting supreme authority to your whims and desires via the legislators you vote into power.”

In other words, they hate us for our freedoms. That isn’t a Republican talking point. It’s an ISIS talking point.

Turkey isn’t as free as the West, but it’s a libertarian’s utopia compared with totalitarian Raqqa in Syria. Next to just about anywhere in the Arab world, Istanbul looks like Europe. It feels like Europe. The Western half of the city is actually in Europe, or at least on it.  

“Even if you were to stop fighting us,” ISIS continues in Dabiq, “your best-case scenario in a state of war would be that we would suspend our attacks against you – if we deemed it necessary – in order to focus on the closer and more immediate threats, before eventually resuming our campaigns against you. Apart from the option of a temporary truce, this is the only likely scenario that would bring you fleeting respite from our attacks. So in the end, you cannot bring an indefinite halt to our war against you. At most, you could only delay it temporarily.”

Erdogan used to think he could keep Turkey off ISIS’ hit list with an implicit non-aggression pact. He thought that if he postured against Syria’s criminal Assad regime, bombed the Kurds and left ISIS alone that ISIS would leave him and Turkey alone.

It didn’t work out. Not for long anyway.

“The Islamic State has now formally ended its separate peace with Turkey,” Graeme Wood writes in The Atlantic. “Turkey has, up till now, been unique among victims in never having its victimhood acknowledged by its assailant. Whatever value this fiction held, it has now ended.”

Erdogan should have read Dabiq magazine.

Why is this happening now instead of later? Because Turkey is finally bombing ISIS positions in Syria. Erdogan’s bizarre and stupid ambivalence toward ISIS was never going to last. He has always viewed Kurdish insurgents as the greater of evils—the Turkish state has been at war with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party for decades while ISIS is the spry newcomer in the region—but ISIS is at war with the entire human race, and Turks are part of that race. And Turkey shares a long border with Syria. There was never any chance that ISIS could forever resist lashing out at the decadent nature of the Turkish society that’s right on its doorstep.

Erdogan is an Islamist, sure, but he’s hardly an ISIS-style Islamist. Turkey is awash in liquor, stylish women, bikinis on beaches and all the other trappings of a Western liberal society. Roughly half the Turkish population is secular, and plenty of religious folks take a mild approach to their faith.

Nothing in Turkey is going to end well, not its war against ISIS, not its war against the Kurds, and not the government’s war against its opponents. Within a matter of weeks after the coup attempt last summer, Erdogan fired 21,000 private school teachers and 9,000 police officers. He suspended almost 3,000 judges and arrested more than 10,000 soldiers. He canned more than 21,000 officials from the Ministry of Education and ousted 1,500 university deans. He closed more than 100 media outlets and suspended more than 1,500 officials in the Ministry of Finance.

And he blames the botched coup on a reclusive exile who lives in the Pennsylvania mountains and, by extension, the United States government for refusing to extradite him for a kangaroo trial. Erdogan blames the United States for assassinating the Russian ambassador to Turkey last month even though a Turkish policeman pulled the trigger while screaming “Don’t forget Aleppo!” Pro-government newspapers are even blaming the United States for the New Years Day ISIS attack.

A normal country comes together after being assaulted from the outside. US President George W. Bush’s approval ratings climbed to a staggering 90 percent shortly after September 11, 2011. Nothing like that is happening in Turkey.

The entire country seems to be turning into a distorted funhouse mirror version of itself. “With each passing day,” Tim Arango writes in The New York Times, “public life descends deeper into what many Turks concede is a mix of darkness and seeming absurdity, with growing fears of violence and expressions of xenophobia set next to repressions on civic life.” He quotes Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Turkey is so deeply polarized around the powerful persona of Erdogan that, instead of asking why terror attacks are happening and how they can be stopped, the pro- and anti-Erdogan blocks in the country are blaming each other.”

Turkey’s government should respond by championing the values of civilization against totalitarianism and barbarism, but no. Instead, its president is championing Erdoganism, Islamism, and Neo-Ottomanism. He believes everything, even ISIS, is part of a sinister plot by the West. And he’s embracing the leader of the unfree world, Vladimir Putin.

Conspiracy theorists never govern well. Their analyses are cartoonishly flawed, so it follows that their solutions will be as well. When they inevitably fail, they continue to blame the wrong people, become more paranoid than they were before, and triple-down after doubling down. Erdogan has been trapped in this spiral for more than a decade. After a few more ISIS massacres in Turkey’s largest city, he may go completely over the edge—if it isn’t already over it.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned after spending more than a decade on and off in that part of the world it is this: there is virtually no limit to how far a Middle Eastern country (or any country, for that matter) can fall. Much of Iraq is a hellscape. Syria has gnawed itself down to rubble. Afghanistan imploded its way to the stone age.

Unlike the others, Turkey is a magnificent country. It is a long way down, and there are no parachutes.

The Fall of Aleppo

The Syrian city of Aleppo has fallen. Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime have won.

Long known as Syria’s Stalingrad, the Battle of Aleppo has raged since July, 2012, when the Free Syrian Army opened fire on Assad’s security forces in the Salaheddine district.  

Four and a half years later, after being held by checkboard of various rebel factions, Assad’s army has retaken the city with a rogue’s gallery of international allies.

It’s just about the last place on earth you’d want to be right about now.

“Mass murder by chlorine gas,” Terry Glavin writes in Canada’s National Post. “Massacres of innocents. Bombardments by Russian jet fighters. The deliberate targeting of hospitals and clinics. The firing of mortar rounds into crowded neighbourhoods. The terror of barrel bombs dropped from Syrian army helicopters. The starvation siege that followed the city’s encirclement by Shia death squads and Assadist militias on Sept. 8.”

It’s not fashionable to care about Aleppo anymore or even anything that happens in Syria aside from the eradication of ISIS. Even so, millions of people all over the world not named Gary Johnson believe that the Assad regime and the Russians have been fighting ISIS in Aleppo, but nope. ISIS is not in Aleppo. ISIS has never been in Aleppo. ISIS is just about the only armed group in the entire country that hasn’t been fighting in Aleppo.

Aleppo is, however, the epicenter of foreign involvement in Syria. Which brings us to Hanin Ghaddar’s excellent point in the Washington Post. We should stop calling the Syrian war a “civil war.” I’ve been calling it that for years, but I take her point. Yes, various factions inside Syria are fighting each other, but the overwhelming majority of the dead are on the anti-Assad side. The governments of three different countries, plus a Lebanese terrrorist army, are fighting in Syria. The war is basically a war against all waged by the government with assistance from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Assad has managed to transform himself from a totalitarian Baathist into a what we might call a brutalitarian like Vladimir Putin when he laid waste to Grozny in Chechnya.

Here’s Ghaddar:

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Assad’s forces have killed 95 percent of Syrian victims. Additionally, Assad controls the army, including tanks, planes and barrel bombs. He has shelled areas that witnessed peaceful protests. Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. He controls the intelligence, security and military apparatus that have diligently and systematically worked since 2011 to arrest, torture and kill all nonviolent activists.

Assad also released dangerous Islamists from prison and allowed them to organize and build armed groups. He did this not by accident, but as a part of a strategy to create a civil war and radicalize what remained of the revolution. His strategy has been to shift the narrative from reform to sectarianism by emphasizing Islamic terrorism, thereby presenting himself as a partner in the global war on terror.

Assad can never be a partner in the global war on terror. He’s the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the Arab world, and his staunchest ally is the Iranian regime, which is the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the entire world.

And ultimately, this is Iran’s victory.

“Aleppo was liberated thanks to a coalition between Iran, Syria, Russia, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah,” says Iranian defense minister Seyed Yahya Rahim-Safavi. “Iran is on one side of this coalition which is approaching victory and this has shown our strength. The new American president should take heed of the powers of Iran.” [Emphasis added.]

“The Syrian army as a fighting force is largely spent,” writes Michael Weiss in the Daily Beast. “Without Russian air support and the some 6,000 to 8,000 Iranian-run paramilitaries Assad now relies on to wage war for him, Aleppo would never have been recaptured.”

An Iranian victory against ISIS would be one thing. We could plausibly shrug and take Henry Kissinger’s view of the Iran-Iraq War. It’s too bad they can’t both lose.

We could take a half step toward the point of view in Aleppo. Many of the rebels are Islamic extremists. Some of them, like the Nusra Front, are aligned with Al Qaeda, though as of two months ago they only had 1,000 fighters in all of Aleppo.

The truth is that rebels aren’t even “the rebels.” There are more factions than most of us can keep track of, and many of them are mutually hostile.

And they aren’t all Islamists. Secular leftist Kurds have been fighting in Aleppo, too, alongside non-political elements in the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, and the Syrian Democratic Forces that advocate a democratic, secular and federal Syria.

If the Assad regime were to fall instead of Aleppo, the war wouldn’t end. Everyone left standing would still have to battle it out. Lord only knows what would happen or how long that would last. It would depend in part on whether or not “the international community,” such as it is, felt motivated enough to do anything to prevent the worst factions from seizing power. In the worst-case scenario, the entire country could become a Sunni Islamist terrorist state, which is why so many people are rooting for an Assad victory even though he is a monster.

An Islamist-controlled Syria would be only one possible outcome, however, if Assad were to fall. I’ll go out on a limb and say it would be the most likely outcome. Terrorists thrive in failed states, after all, and Syria is drawing them from all over the world.

Still, millions of people in Syria have no interest whatsoever in living under a Taliban-style regime, and the only reason many of them are throwing their support behind the extremists is because they want Assad and the Iranians out of power more than anything else. Hardly any of these people would join a deranged revolution if there wasn’t a modern-day Caligula in Damascus to revolt against.

In any case, what the world is getting instead of the possibility of a Sunni Islamist regime in Syria is the certainty of a terrorist state backed by the full weight and power of the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. So don’t go popping any champagne corks.

“[President-elect Donald] Trump has made it clear he wants to join the Russian side in this war,” Weiss writes, “while he is adamantly opposed to the Iranian side. But in the world of real reality they are the same side.”

The Obama administration didn’t want to do anything that threatened Assad’s stranglehold on Syria because he didn’t want to scotch his nuclear deal with Iran. Donald Trump doesn’t want to do anything that threatens Assad’s stranglehold on Syria because he wants to team up with Russia and Assad to fight ISIS, even though Russia and Assad have had little or no interest in fighting ISIS.

Trump could very well convince Assad and Russia to go after ISIS once the rebels are defeated, however. And since fighting alongside Russia and Assad means fighting alongside Iran and Hezbollah, the latter will bolster their victory and influence in the Middle East no matter who’s president, and they will do so at America’s (and Israel’s) expense.

Trump’s Taiwan Call Wasn’t a Blunder

President-elect Donald Trump took a phone call last week and created an international incident before even being sworn into office.

He spoke with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen for ten minutes, which must seem entirely innocuous to almost everyone in America, but professional diplomats went immediately into pearl-clutching mode. And they weren’t the only ones. Several US military generals—including reliably conservative generals—made stern-faced appearances on CNN and said the call was incredibly dangerous.

Millions of Americans heard that and said, really? What on earth is the problem?

China is a bully. That’s the problem. 

Even speaking to the government of Taiwan violates Beijing’s so-called “One China Policy,” which the United States grudgingly accepted under Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

Two countries call themselves China—the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is the Republic of China. The mainland is the People’s Republic. Mainland China will not allow any country on earth to maintain diplomatic relations with both.

So when Trump spoke to Tsai, he kicked over the checkerboard.

“Uh oh,” former Bush administration White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted.  “I wasn't even allowed to refer to the gvt ‘of’ Taiwan. (I could say gvt ‘on’ Taiwan.) China will go nuts.”

China isn’t going nuts, exactly, but Beijing sure isn’t happy. The Chinese government says the episode highlights Trump’s inexperience and diplomatic bufoonery. Plenty of people in Washington said the same thing over the weekend.

Trump himself tried to blow it off as if it were one big nothing-to-see, as if he simply picked up the phone when it rang. A telemarketer could have been on the line for all he knew, but surprise. It was the woman who isn’t supposed to exist. “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency,” he tweeted.

It could have happened that way. The unusual nature of Trump’s transition gave him some plausible deniability. When Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wanted to call Trump to say congratulations, he had no idea how to contact the president-elect. Professional golfer and Trump pal Greg Norman gave Trump’s private cell phone number to Turnbull.

That was way out of the ordinary, but it happened. When Turnbull called, Trump just picked up and said, “hello.” Anyone in the world could have been on the other end of the line, including the president of Taiwan.

That’s not what happened with Tsai, though. According to her office, both sides arranged the call in advance.

It wasn’t a blunder, then. It was on purpose.

The Washington Post reports that the call “was the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Trump’s advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan that began even before he became the Republican presidential nominee, according to people involved in or briefed on the talks.”

Why are we only hearing about this days later? Perhaps the Trump team wanted the Chinese to think it was a blunder at first to give them time to slowly come to grips with the fact that there’s a new sheriff in town.

Is poking China on Taiwan a good idea?

I have no idea. It depends on what happens. As Ross Douthat put it on Twitter, “it’s all fine until there’s an actual crisis and then it won’t be fine.”

China might suck it up and move on. China also might be a gigantic pain in the ass about it.

Nobody knows. The Chinese probably don’t even know. They’ll have to hold emergency meetings and yell at each other in private first.

They might get over it. The United States trades with Taiwan. The United States sells weapons to Taiwan. In 1996, President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait when China tested missiles in nearby waters.

China’s rulers hate these things and wish we would stop, but they accept them. They’ll accept Trump’s phone call too because by itself it’s not a big deal, and in any case it’s a done deal.

They might even accept a new American policy after they spend a respectable amout of time wailing and gnashing their teeth, but they could make the world a much more difficult place for us if they don’t.

The US needs China’s help to keep nuclear-armed North Korea boxed in. China can veto UN Security Council sanctions against Iran or anyone else. China might strong-arm other East Asian countries into cooling their relations with the United States and moving closer to Beijing, especially now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which excluded China) is dead in the water.

I’d love to see the United States recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation as long as the Pacific Rim doesn’t blow up. For one thing, Taiwan is a sovereign nation whether or not Beijing and Washington say so. It has its own democratically elected government and its own institutions. It makes its own domestic, foreign and trade policies with zero input from the Chinese Communist Party. Its citizens have their own passports with "Republic of China" written across the top. Recognizing these facts is just an acknowledgement of reality. Ari Fleischer might not have been allowed to refer to the government of Taiwan, but those of us who don’t work for the government are free to recognize, talk about and write about reality.

“Reality,” science-fiction writer Phillip K. Dick once wrote, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.”

Also: come on. China is autocratic. Taiwan is democratic. China is the big China. Taiwan is the good China.

“We have had a status quo of sorts in the Taiwan Strait that has kept the peace,” says Orville Schell, the director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, “but it recently has not looked all that durable, nor was it very agreeable to most citizens of democratic Taiwan.”

It’s not very agreeable to lots of Americans either, including my wife. She used to live there.

Beijing wants to impose its rule on Taiwan like it has in Hong Kong, Tibet and East Turkestan. If any half-way moral and sensible person had their way, the reverse would happen and Taiwan would export its democratic Chinese model to its 900-pound cousin. That’s probably what will eventually happen anyway, even if China militarily conquers Taiwan in the meantime.

We all have to deal with the world as it is, but sacrificing Taiwan to the wolves is outrageous. Taiwan had a “permanent” seat on the United Nations Security Council until Richard Nixon, neverminding tens of millions of corpses, gave it to Mao Zedong. Nixon told Taiwan that the US was engaging instead with the mainland Chinese “not because we love them. But because they’re there.” Fine. It may have been necessary, but it was a nasty business. A bully got its way for four decades not because it is right but because it is bigger. Professional diplomats may have to bite their tongues but the rest of us don’t.

“Until recently,” Isaac Stone Fish writes in The Atlantic, “Taiwanese and Chinese diplomats regularly traveled the world fighting for diplomatic recognition, while China sat quietly in the UNSC seat it took from Taiwan in October 1971, using its veto largely as a cudgel against countries that recognized Taiwan. Now it doesn’t need to; the fight is over, and Taiwan lost. South Africa, the last major country to recognize Taiwan, switched over in 1998. Taiwan lost Gambia, the smallest nation in continental Africa, in March 2016, dropping the number of states that recognize it to 22, the most important of which are the Vatican and Nicaragua.”

Plenty of officials in both the Democratic and Republican parties would go along with a policy change, including many who spent the last several days wigging out about the Trump team’s unconventional methods. Whether we like it or not, though, the unconventional is about to become the new normal, not just in the United States but everywhere populist political parties take power, from the United Kingdom, Poland and Hungary to the Philippines and possibly France.

The entire world is going to have to get used to it. 

Springtime for Morsi

I reviewed Eric Trager's book, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days for Commentary magazine.

Almost everyone got the Arab Spring wrong.

At a casual glance, the Middle East and North Africa appeared to be sprouting political liberals like daisies at the tail end of 2010, when a nonviolent revolution in Tunisia spread to Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Tunisia’s autocratic Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell in a matter of weeks, followed a month later by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Rebellions then broke out in Libya against the tyrannical Muammar Qaddafi and in Syria against Bashar al-Assad.

Tunisia came through fairly well. It is now governed by a secular democratically elected government. But elsewhere, the Arab Spring failed spectacularly. Syria is ground zero for ISIS, and it’s suffering its fifth year of catastrophic civil war. Libya is disintegrating into a terrorist war zone. Egyptians first elected a theocratic Muslim Brotherhood government, then cheered when the army toppled their first and only elected president—the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi—and replaced their fledgling psuedo-democracy with yet another military dictatorship.

The Arab Spring failed for different reasons in each place, but in no country were expectations so violently dashed as in Egypt.

With Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, academic and journalist Eric Trager has written the definitive account of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise and collapse, beginning with the revolt against Mubarak, the elections that brought the Brotherhood to power, Morsi’s inept and ill-fated reign, and its decimation at the hands of the army.

“What looked like a democratizing ‘Arab Spring’ to many foreign observers,” Trager writes, “was in fact a deeply uncertain ‘Arab Fall’ for many Egyptians, in which the political climate grew colder and colder as time wore on.”

How did so many journalists, diplomats, academics, and analysts get Egypt so wrong? It was partly the result of hope and naiveté. But the Muslim Brotherhood also waged a brilliantly effective campaign of deception at home and abroad, hoping to convince as many people as possible that it was a politically moderate organization with a broad and diverse base of support. It wanted to earn the trust of Egyptians who weren’t yearning for an Islamist theocracy, and it feared a hostile reaction from the West, so it mounted a full-court press in the Egyptian, European, and American media. The Washington Post even published an op-ed from one of its leaders, Abdel Moneim Abouel, who wrote that the Brotherhood “embraced diversity and democratic values.”

Its media-savvy spokesmen touted this line at every opportunity to every journalist and diplomat who would listen, but the Brotherhood’s decades-old motto revealed what they truly believed. “Allah is our objective,” it reads, “the Prophet is our leader, the Qur’an is our constitution, jihad is our way, and death for the sake of God is our highest aspiration.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood was never a moderate organization or a democratic one in any sense of that word,” Trager writes. “It is a rigidly purpose-driven vanguard that seeks total control over its members so that it can mobilize them for empowering [founder] Hassan al-Banna’s deeply politicized interpretation of Islam as an ‘all-embracing concept.’ It accepts electoral institutions as a mechanism for winning power, but its ultimate goal is theocratic: It seeks to establish an Islamic state and ultimately establish a global Islamic state that will challenge the West.”

Trager saw what others did not in part because the Brotherhood blacklisted him and forced him to seek access beyond its smooth media handlers. “My goal was to interview the Brotherhood’s lesser-known leaders at every level, the individuals who attended the same meetings as their more prominent colleagues but who were less media-trained and therefore less guarded in sharing information,” he writes. “These folks, as it turned out, hadn’t received that blacklist memo.”

Read the rest in Commentary.

How Trump’s General Mike Flynn Sees the World

General Mike Flynn will be President-elect Donald Trump’s national security advisor, and if the only things you know about the man come from the mainstream media, you have no idea who he really is or what he really thinks, which means you have no idea what he’s likely to do when he starts his new job.

Yes, he had dinner with Vladimir Putin, and no, he’s not politically correct or even diplomatic. Yes, he was fired from his job as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency because he does not play well with others. And yes somebody should tell him to retire his Twitter feed, or at the very least stop tweeting bombastic insults, fake news and conspiracy theories

All human beings are greater than the sum of their screwups, and if you want to know what he has been doing for the past several decades and what he wants to do next, skip the news reports and read his book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, co-written with Michael Ledeen.

It has been on bookshelves since July of this year. It’s short—only 208 pages—so you can read it in one day or even one sitting.

First, let’s get a big question out of the way right at the start.

No, he is not friends with Vladimir Putin.

He did sit next to Putin at the 10th anniversary dinner of Kremlin propaganda station RT (Russia Today) and he appeared as a guest on RT as well. He also, like Trump, thinks the United States should team up with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria.

But he’s not Putin’s pal. That comes across as loud and clear as a gunshot in his book.

Flynn divides the world into two sets of enemies. First, there are the radical Islamists, whom he sees as America’s principal foes. Then there is a constellation of hostile anti-democratic regimes that he calls “the alliance” that includes both Islamists and non-Islamists that collaborate against the West because we’re their common enemy. The alliance includes Russia, Syria, North Korea, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Flynn puts Vladimir Putin and his Syrian client Bashar al-Assad squarely in the hostiles camp. There’s no point wasting much angst on Nicaragua and Bolivia right now, but he’s quite right to declare the Russian and Syrian governments enemies of the United States. Assad is the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the entire Arab world, and he’s Iran’s staunchest Arab ally. And since Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the entire world, that makes Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis the greatest state-level geopolitical threat to the West.

“This alliance surprises a lot of people,” Flynn writes. “On the surface, it seems incoherent. How, they ask, can a Communist regime like North Korea embrace a radical Islamist regime like Iran? What about Russia’s Vladimir Putin? He is certainly no jihadi; indeed, Russia has a good deal to fear from radical Islamists to its south, and the Russians have been very heavy-handed with radical Islamists in places like Chechnya. Yet the Russian air force and Iranian foot soldiers are fighting side by side in Syria. Somehow, Russian antipathy toward radical Islam does not prevent the Kremlin from constructing all the Iranian nuclear power plants.”

It’s not so hard to understand. Forging ideologically incoherent alliances is normal in wartime. Americans have done it too. We armed Afghanistan’s Mujahadeen to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s despite the fact that many of them were radical Islamists. We forged an alliance not just with a Communist state but with Josef Stalin himself against Nazi Germany. We also armed and trained right-wing military dictatorships in Latin America when they faced communist insurrections backed by Moscow.

We can only go so far with this sort of thing, though, before ideological incoherence collapses into strategic incoherence. Forging an alliance with Syria and Iran, for instance, in the war against ISIS would be preposterous. Expecting state sponsors of international terrorism to act as an American firewall against international terrorists makes as much sense as placing arsonists in charge of the fire department.

Mike Flynn is many things, but he isn’t stupid. He knows this, which is why he says we should partner with Russia—but not the Iranians or the Assad regime—against ISIS in Syria.

In one of his debates with Hillary Clinton last month, Donald Trump said Russia and Assad are fighting ISIS in Syria, but it’s not true. Russia is fighting in western Syria to prop up the Assad regime against rebel fighters while ISIS territory is in eastern Syria well outside Russia’s theater of operations. 

Trump apparently doesn’t know this, but Flynn does because he explains it in his book.

Teaming up with Russia to fight ISIS will require a dramatic transformation of both American and Russian foreign policies—another Russian “reset,” if you will. Vladimir Putin is a scorpion by nature. I don’t expect Trump’s Russian reset to work any better than Obama’s Russian reset or George W. Bush’s old college try, but I guess we’ll find out.

There’s a bit of incoherence in Flynn’s book. He blasts the Obama administration for reaching out to anti-American tyrannies in Syria, Iran and Cuba, but he advocates doing exactly the same thing with Russia right now despite the fact that Russia is neck-deep in the Syrian-Iranian axis. At times I couldn’t quite tell if Flynn is a foreign policy “realist” who’s willing to work with despicable tyrants as long as it suits us, or if he’s a neoconservative who thinks we should always ally ourselves with democracies against dictatorships.

Perhaps the book contradicts itself once in a while because the neoconservative Michael Ledeen co-wrote it.  Maybe the differing worldviews of the two authors come through in different passages on different pages. Or perhaps Flynn is just ideologically flexible. It’s hard to say. Mostly he comes across as a Jacksonian who wishes to wage total war against his enemies.

He wrote a chapter on how to win such a war against radical Islamist terrorists, but first he describes what winning means—destroying terrorist armies, discrediting their ideology, forging new global alliances and “bringing a direct challenge to the regimes that support our enemies, weakening them at a minimum, bringing them down whenever possible.”

Bringing them down whenever possible.

Did I mention that Flynn isn’t a pacifist or isolationist?

“I know [our enemies],” he writes, “and they scare me, a guy who doesn’t scare often or easily. They scare me even though we have defeated them every time we fought seriously. We defeated Al Qaeda and the Iranians in Iraq, and the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, they kept fighting and we went away. Let’s face it: right now, we’re losing, and I’m talking about a very big war, not just Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” [Emphasis added.]

In Flynn’s view, the war against terrorism is enormous. He makes Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld seem cautious and even timid. He says we know how to win this kind of war because we did it during World War II and the Cold War.

He recommends we do four things.

“First, we have to energize every element of national power in a cohesive synchronized manner—similar to the effort during World War II or the Cold War—to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle…Second, we must engage the violent Islamists wherever they are, drive them from their safe havens, and kill them or capture them…Third, we must decisively confront the state and nonstate supporters of this violent Islamist ideology and compel them to end their support to our enemies or be prepared to remove their capacity to do so…Fourth, we must wage ideological war against radical Islam and its supporters.”

No one has a clue what’s going to happen after the Obama administration gives way to the Trump administration. Trump has already mellowed out in one policy area after another, and in any case, Flynn’s book isn’t Trump’s policy. It’s Flynn’s policy.

What you just read above, though, is more or less what Trump is likely to hear from his national security advisor. It is almost certainly what Trump has already heard from the man who will become his national security advisor.

“Most Americans mistakenly believe that peace is the normal condition of mankind,” Flynn writes, “while war is some weird aberration. Actually, it’s the other way around. Most of human history has to do with war, and preparations for the next one. But we Americans do not prepare for the next war, are invariably surprised when it erupts, and since we did not take prudent steps when it would have been relatively simple to prevail, usually end up fighting on our enemies’ more difficult and costly terms.”

Or to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.

Donald Trump’s national security advisor is much more eager to fight a huge war than George W. Bush or Barack Obama. If you voted for Trump because you want less war instead of more, you’re probably out of luck.

An Uncertain New Era Begins

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States feels to some like the end of the world. It’s not. It’s the beginning of a new era. And it’s time to take some deep yoga breaths. Uncertainty always triggers anxiety, but it’s important for the anxious not to catastrophize.

“Catastrophizing relies on an overestimation of the odds of a bad outcome as well as an underestimation of your ability to cope with it should it befall you.” Those are some serious words of wisdom right there, not just for politics, but for life in general. They were written by Dr. Edmund Bourne in his book, Coping With Anxiety.

Nobody really has a clue what’s going to happen next, including Donald Trump and his team. The polling and forecasting industry has been gut-punched. Even the GOP thought he would lose. I wouldn’t dare predict anything specific in public right now. The odds that I’d be wrong approach 100 percent. I’m not even making any private predictions in my own head. Radical uncertainty makes a lot of people uneasy, but look on the bright side. At least the next couple of years will be interesting. 

The first step to calming down at least a little is understanding what actually happened and why. Trump supporters chose him over Hillary Clinton and his Republican establishment opponents because they’re fed-up with business-as-usual and the Washington “swamp.” Who isn’t fed up with Washington at this point? If Trump had been less divisive and more even-tempered, he probably would have won in a landslide.

And let’s dispense, please, with the notion that everybody who voted for Trump is a deplorable racist. Some of them are. No question about it. But a black man named Tim Scott was just elected senator in a state-wide race in South Carolina, and he’s a Republican. The majority of voters in South Carolina voted for Donald Trump and a black man on the same ballot.

Virtually nobody voted for Trump because they want the apocalypse. They took a gamble on an outsider because they want things to get better. Aside from the worst people on the fringes like white supremacist David Duke, they aren’t yearning for a political nightmare. If everyday voters find themselves in a political nightmare anyway, they will vote very differently next time. They’ll start by bringing reinforcements two years from now and will give Trump his walking papers in four years.

If the truly worst case scenario materializes—if Trump tries to govern like an outright dictator—Congress can and will remove him from power. The thing about worst-case scenarios, though, is that they rarely actually happen. They are the worst out of a range of possibilities. If worst-case scenarios were always the most likely to come true, we’d be living in a hellscape like The Walking Dead.

Sure, there is plenty to worry about. Donald Trump is a reality TV star with no government or military experience whatsoever. He has rattled nerves and induced near-panic attacks with the proposal on his website for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” his promise to deport eleven million people, peddling one conspiracy theory after another, acting like an Internet troll on Twitter and floating alt-right enabler Steve Bannon as his top advisor. American allies from Europe to East Asia are breathing into paper bags right now after he trash-talked NATO, threatened to pull out of trade deals, and said he wants to renegotiate defense agreements in the Pacific Rim.

But Trump has moderated his tone and his policy proposals substantially. The worst-case scenario is off the table already, and he hasn’t even started yet.

Outgoing President Barack Obama reassured Americans and the world at a press conference on Monday that President-elect Trump is committed to NATO. “He’s going to be the next president,” he added, “and regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office. This office has a way of waking you up.”

According to Trump surrogate and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Muslim ban has evaporated. Trump himself says he will keep the good parts of Obamacare so that people with pre-existing conditions can still get health insurance. He also says he wants to deport two-to-three million people rather than eleven million. For a sense of perspective, the Obama administration deported two million.

He ran the most bombastic political campaign most of us have ever seen, but his tone has been much better, and more presidential, since the campaign ended, and he looked straight into the camera and told his most cretinous supporters who have been acting like bigoted bullies to stop it.

Trump has been yelling “Drain the swamp!” on the campaign trail, and even some Democratic voters who would rather chew off their own legs than vote for him felt a private thrill when he said that. Almost everybody hates the Washington swamp, including lots of people who live there. Of all American institutions, Congress has the lowest approval rating, less than 10 percent, and the military has the highest at 73 percent. In the Middle East and Latin America, numbers like these would portend a military coup. But we don’t live in the Middle East or Latin America. We live here. So instead of a military coup, we got Donald Trump.

Count your blessings.

You know what else, though? The swamp has a role. The swamp is bipartisan, but it acts as a conservative anchor. It prevents a political revolution from hurtling the country off the rails into an abyss. As President Obama put it at his press conference this week, “The federal government and our democracy is not a speedboat. It’s an ocean liner.” So if the next four years turn out to be as terrible as many fear, the swamp might actually save us.

Donald Trump isn’t actually going to drain it. He is not going to purge tens of thousands of people like Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did earlier this year after a botched military coup. He will not replace everybody in government with his real estate and casino friends. I am confident of that much, at least. That would be preposterous even by the standards of the last 15 months. He is hiring one establishment pol after another because, with a handful of exceptions, there’s no one else he can hire.

“Modern governing is immensely complicated,” Eli Lake writes in Bloomberg. “There is an old chestnut that says politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This year that's an understatement. Donald Trump campaigned in tweets and he will govern in risk assessments and annotated omnibus appropriations bills.”

The United States—and the world—has been through much worse than anything Donald Trump is going to throw at us. The incoming era may indeed turn out to be terrible, but if we all sat down and wrote out four or eight years of specific predictions, every single one of us would be wrong. And if we’re wrong about almost everything, that includes most of the scary stuff.

American Brexit

Global markets plunged after learning that Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States.

Few saw it coming, and the polling industry will have to spend some time in the wilderness for a while, but the market response shouldn’t shock anyone. It’s exactly what happened after the Brexit vote, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

“They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!” Trump said on Twitter in August. “Brexist times five,” he said at rallies last month.

It’s not hard to understand why British voters gave a middle finger to the establishment in Brussels, nor is it hard to understand why Americans are furious at the political establishment on this side of the Atlantic. There are almost as many reasons for both as there are voters.

Much of the world is in a panic, though, because what happens in America doesn’t stay in America. The United States is the world’s only superpower, and Donald Trump has threatened not only to kick over the garbage cans in Washington, but to kick over the entire global order that has been built since we won World War II. In addition to his promises to overturn American trade agreements, he has cozied up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, called NATO “obsolete” and threatened to retract the security umbrella that protects our allies as far away as Japan and South Korea.

It’s one thing to rail against the American establishment and another thing entirely to rail against the parts of the international establishment built and maintained by America. The most powerful person on earth can’t do that sort of thing without provoking an overwhelming reaction.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister, said the election is a “huge shock” and fears it will be the end of “Pax Americana.”

Sweden’s foreign minister said that after first Brexit and now Trump, “Looks like this will be the year of the double disaster of the West.”

“After Brexit and this election, everything from now on is possible,” French Ambassador to the US Geraud Araud wrote on Twitter. “A world is collapsing before our eyes. Vertigo.”

“The West is no longer,” said a Finnish diplomat I know who wants to remain anonymous. “The times of darkness have dawned. Watch the spineless jump to the bandwagons of fascism, watch rules and rights crumble, as crude power will now have impunity. Forget checks and balances, the rules have just changed. It is back to small-state nationalism and basic survival. The Molotov-Ribbentrop era is back.” He is no hysterical leftist, by the way. He’s a conservative.

Norbert Roettgen, another European conservative on Germany’s foreign affairs committee, spoke in a more moderate yet still worried tone. “We're realizing now that we have no idea what this American president will do if the voice of anger enters office and the voice of anger becomes the most powerful man in the world. Geopolitically we are in a very uncertain situation.”

Earlier this year, Britain actually considered refusing to grant Trump a visa.

The reaction in Asia is more muted, but South Koreans are also quite nervous. Government news agency Yonhap said the “stunning victory of Donald Trump casts deep uncertainty over US policy on the Korean Peninsula and beyond as he has campaigned on pledges to overhaul the relations with allies and renegotiate trade deals under his ‘America First' policy.’” The Korea Times says the US-Korean trade agreement is in “unprecedented jeopardy.”

The Japanese have remained politely neutral, but their stock market is crashing, forcing the government to convene an emergency meeting. The Mexican peso is also crashing, and hard. It is now at its lowest level ever against the dollar.

Those are the reactions among American friends and allies. The Kremlin in Moscow, meanwhile, is euphoric.

“It turns out that the United Russia [Vladimir Putin’s party] has won the elections in the United States!” said Omsk governor Viktor Nazarov.

“Tonight we can use the slogan with Mr. Trump; Yes We Did,” said Boris Chernyshev, a member of the Russian parliament’s ultranationalist faction.

“I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in the window, if I can find a flag,” said Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Putin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today).

Putin himself is pleased, of course, and says that the United States and Russia can now restore full diplomatic relations.

Fierce Putin critic Garry Kasparov, meanwhile, is despondent. He wrote a book a while back called Winter is Coming, and last night he tweeted “Winter is here.”

Europe’s far-right is also popping champagne corks. “Their world is falling apart,” said senior French National Front figure Florian Philippot. “Today the United States, tomorrow France!” The National Front’s founder, Jean Marie Le Pen, repeatedly referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a mere “point of detail of the history of the Second World War” and said the Nazi occupation of France “was not particularly inhumane, even if there were a few blunders.”

We can only imagine the paranoia sweeping the Middle East now since Trump has repeatedly said the United States should have “taken the oil” in Iraq. Perhaps he has done us a favor, though, by pointing out to the conspiracy theorists of the world that we did not, in fact, steal Iraq’s oil like they thought we did.

I honestly don’t know what to make of all this. Is the world overreacting? Is Trump serious about NATO and Russia and Iraq and Korea? How much of all that was just campaign bluster? Will he change his mind on a couple of things after he starts getting top secret briefings from our intelligence agencies? Will his advisors steer him in a more mainstream direction?

Your guess is as good as mine.

The New Socialist Realists

I reviewed Sohrab Ahmari’s book, The New Philistines, for City Journal. Here’s the first part.

The general public hates modern art. In an online poll, The Escapist magazine asked if modern art even qualifies as art in the first place. Only one person in five said that it does. At Debate.org, when asked if modern art is real art, 70 percent said no, it’s not. The collapse in artistic standards has been obvious for a while. In 2005, ABC News ran an experiment showing that even most artists and art critics can’t tell the difference between modern art and finger paintings by four-year-olds. Worse, however—and the general public has been dismissing modern art for so long now that most people aren’t even aware of this—the contemporary art world is crippling itself with axe-grinding identity politics.

This is the subject of Sohrab Ahmari’s short, barn-burning polemic, The New Philistines (just published in the U.K. and available now in the U.S. on Kindle, and in April 2017 in hardcover). Ahmari, a London-based Wall Street Journal editorial writer, takes the reader on a tour through London’s dismal art scene, where beauty is out and racial, gender, and sexual identitarianism are in; where form and aesthetics are pitched over the side and replaced with trashy attempts to shock the audience out of some imagined complacency. “Universalist, legible art still brings throngs of reverent, beauty-starved people to the museums, galleries, theaters and cinemas,” he writes. “It is why museum retrospectives of the great masters—from Greek sculpture to high modernism—usually sell out. Meanwhile, the contemporary art world of the identitarians is a desert scattered with tumbleweeds.”

Ahmari was inspired to write The New Philistines after attending a spectacularly unpleasant performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at William Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. The theater’s new director, Emma Rice, detests the original Shakespeare. The Bard’s plays, she says, are “tedious” and “inaccessible.” Perhaps, with such a dim view of the source material and its creator, she should have taken a different job, but instead she chose to make Shakespeare more “relevant.” “Relevance meant rewriting the play,” Ahmari writes, “and not just rewriting, but bad rewriting.” For instance, “Away, you Ethiope,” was changed to, “Get away from me, you ugly bitch.” Rice knew that plenty of Shakespeare purists would find her coarse edits appalling, so she had an actor walk on stage in a spacesuit and say, “Why this obsession with text?” She also placed identity politics front and center. She mandated, for instance, that 50 percent of the cast be female regardless of the gender of the characters. “It’s the next step for feminism,” she said, “and it’s the next stage for society to smash down the last pillars that are against us.”

Ahmari was aghast, and he wasn’t alone. The Globe announced last week that Rice would depart after just one season at the helm.

Ahmari decided to investigate the London art world to find out how pervasive this sort of thing actually is and found that the entire scene has become obsessed with identity politics at the expense of everything else, especially beauty and form. “The hostile takeover of a beloved institution was by no means a one-off event,” he writes. “It was an expression of one of the deepest cultural trends of our time. Identity politics now pervade every medium and mode of art, from architecture to dance to film to painting to theater to video, from the highest avant-garde to the lowest schlock.” His first stop was a multimedia installation at Gasworks by London-based Sidsel Meineche Hansen. She created an exhibition that, in her words, “foregrounds the body and its industrial complex” in a “technological variant of institutional critique,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. On a screen looped animated images of a female humanoid named EVA 3.0 stroking a strap-on penis made out of lasers and flames on a wooden bondage and sadomasochism rack.

Ahmari moved on to a film festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts near Trafalgar Square. One of the selected films, YOU ARE BORING, is about what it’s like to be “looked at” within “queer representational politics.” Another, Party for Freedom, is about the supposed “increasingly phobic natures of Western societies (homo-, islamo-, xeno-, to name a few),” ignoring the fact that with legal same-sex marriage sweeping both Europe and North America, one can safely say the West has never been less homophobic. The institute also hosted an exhibit by American artist Martine Syms that explored photography “as a colonial tool.”

During a panel discussion, Ahmari asked two filmmakers if they ever thought about creating projects with nonpolitical content or considered aesthetics. They looked at him like he’d wandered in from another dimension and told him, in so many words, no. He wanted to pull his hair out. “It is almost inconceivable,” he writes, “that so many filmmakers could think of nothing—nothing, nothing, nothing—but the politics of representation, ‘performativity,’ gender, race, queer theory, etc. There must be other subjects, in the world outside or in their inner lives, which belong on the silver (or digital) screen.”

Read the rest in City Journal

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Michael J. Totten's blog