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The Nusra Front's Impossible Demand

Considering the events of the last couple of weeks, you could be forgiven if you forgot that the Islamic State isn’t the only terrorist group fighting in Syria. There’s also the Nusra Front.

They recently kidnapped peacekeepers from Fiji monitoring the ceasefire on the Israeli-Syrian border. (They also surrounded Filipino peacekeepers who managed to escape.)

The Associated Press reports that they won’t release the hostages unless the United Nations takes them off its list of terrorist organizations.

I’d say someone should tell these guys that if they don’t want to be called terrorists they shouldn’t do terroristy things like taking hostages, but they are the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, so fat chance of that ever happening.

Don't Cooperate with Assad

The US is considering air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq and the Syrian government says any unilateral action that isn’t coordinated with Damascus will be seen as an act of aggression.

President Bashar al-Assad would be perfectly content, however, to have the United States fighting on its side. That’s what he wanted from the very beginning. He hoped Americans would forget or simply not care that he is the Arab world’s largest state sponsor of international terrorism and has even cooperated with ISIS under its previous name to kill Americans in Iraq.

He might pull it off. Nicholas Blanford, a brilliant analyst of Levantine politics, explains why that would be dangerous in the Christian Science Monitor.

One of the grim ironies of the Syrian civil war is that IS has flourished in Syria in part due to the manipulations of the Assad regime itself. As initially peaceful protests turned into sectarian war in the latter half of 2011, Assad appears to have understood that secular moderate rebel factions posed a greater long-term threat to his survival than bands of wild-eyed Islamist extremists. Moderate rebel groups were more likely to win the logistical backing of the US and other Western countries that could provide sufficient leverage to oust Assad.

On the other hand, if the rebel ranks were dominated by Al Qaeda-style Islamist groups, the West would balk at providing support and could eventually even side with Damascus.

In a cynical but skillfully exploited strategy, hundreds of Islamic militants were released from Syrian prisons in the first few months of the then generally peaceful uprising.

Some of those militants became leading figures in groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which today is Al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and one of the most effective anti-Assad factions. IS was originally an Iraq-based group that began extending its influence into Syria in 2012, drawing ever-expanding numbers of recruits and earning a reputation for brutality. Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel factions, ISIS has been more interested in acquiring territory and funds to build its self-declared caliphate than in tackling the Syrian Army. And the Assad regime, until recently at least, was generally content to leave IS alone, especially as the extremist group’s attacks against moderate rebel rivals turned it into a tacit ally of Damascus.

With IS, analysts say, the Assad regime has quietly nurtured the perfect enemy – one that prefers to battle Assad’s more moderate opponents but whose brutal behavior has alarmed the international community and spurred calls in the West to bite the bullet and consider resuming cooperation with Damascus.

“In a very disciplined way, Bashar al-Assad is trying to maneuver the US into collaborating with him against ISIS in eastern Syria, even as he stands aside while ISIS tries to finish off the nationalist Syrian opposition in western Syria,” says Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former State Department adviser on Syrian affairs. “This appearance of collaboration [between Damascus and Washington] will, in Assad's view, facilitate his eventual return to polite society while promoting tension between Washington and its Gulf partners.”

[…]

A European ambassador in Beirut who is in regular contact with a broad array of opposition groups in Syria, including ISIS, warns that any Western coordination with the Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawites, a splinter sect of Shiite Islam, would further inflame Sunni sentiment across the region and further afield, deepening the sectarian dynamics of the conflict and rallying more recruits for IS.

If the West joins forces with the Assad regime to fight ISIS, it will be perceived as “Crusaders fighting with Alawite infidels against Sunnis.… It couldn’t be worse,” the ambassador says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The experienced diplomat says that IS can be defeated if Sunnis in Syria and Iraq are brought into an alliance against the extremist group. Recalling a recent phone conversation with a member of IS in northern Syria, the ambassador quoted the militant as acknowledging “the more it becomes a Sunni-Shiite war, the faster we will grow.”

The Worst Fate Possible for a Journalist

Last year when Libya still looked like it might be okay I planned my second visit. It would have been my first since the overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi.

An American journalist who lived in Benghazi emailed me and said we should meet for coffee once I arrived. I liked the idea, partly because he could show me around and introduce me to people, but mostly because I would not be alone in a strange and potentially dangerous city. No one, not even war correspondents, enjoys being alone in such places.

Then several governments, including our own, ordered its citizens out. Westerners headed for the exits and European airlines stopped flying to Tripoli. I had no choice but to cancel my trip. Nothing much bad was happening at the time, but several foreign intelligence agencies, including the CIA, concluded that something horrible was likely to happen and that people like me had to clear out of the way.

I didn’t know what, exactly, they were worried about, which only made my own anxiety worse. What I dreaded more than anything was being kidnapped. I’ve risked getting shot and blown up in a number of different war zones, but I will not go to a place where I stand a serious chance of being grabbed by terrorists. I decided long ago I would let would-be kidnappers shoot me in the street before I’d get in a car with them even at gunpoint.

So I cancelled my trip to Libya and went to Lebanon instead. Knowing I had a colleague and a friend-to-be waiting in Benghazi wasn’t enough. There is safety in numbers, sure, but we journalists can only do so much to protect each other. He seemed disappointed, but he too ended up leaving Libya and went to, of all places, Syria.

His name is Steven Sotloff. And he was kidnapped last August by ISIS. Last weekend ISIS executed our colleague James Foley on camera and said Sotloff is next. Sotloff appears in the video too and personally witnessed Foley’s beheading.

I never met him, but now I can’t stop thinking about him and worrying about him. Sometimes it makes me physically sick. We were going to meet in Benghazi. I’m sure we would have become friends. We have friends in common already and, believe me, hanging out with colleagues in dangerous places is a bonding experience. He published a few articles in this very magazine because I introduced him by email to the editors and the publisher.

Apparently ISIS demanded 132 million dollars in ransom money from Foley’s family before killing him—an impossible amount. The government could pay it, of course, but will not. Rewarding kidnappers only encourages more kidnappings and puts even more people at risk.

Instead the US military tried to rescue Foley, Sotloff, and other so-far unnamed journalists who are supposedly being held. The operation didn’t work out. The victims were at another location.

Washington can’t pay ransoms, but it could and probably should offer a large cash reward for intelligence that leads to a successful rescue. Kidnappers might try to collect the reward money themselves, which would make it a ransom by other means, but there’s an easy way around that—kill all the kidnappers. Do not arrest them and send them to Guantanamo. Kill them.

I have no doubt Washington is looking for Sotloff and the others right now. They’ll send men if they think they know where he is. They’ve already tried at least once. We can only hope they’ll succeed before it’s too late.

In the meantime, to all of my colleagues: for God’s sake, stay the hell out of Syria.

Vice News Embeds With the Islamic State

I’ve just returned from a very brief summer vacation in a remote part of the Pacific Northwest without cell phone coverage or Internet access, so I’m a bit behind on what’s happening in the world. While I’m catching up, take a look at Vice magazine’s five-part documentary on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

I don’t know how they did it, but they somehow got permission to embed a team of reporters with IS in both Syria and Iraq. There is no chance I would ever trust these people with my life and my safety, but the team got in and out okay and what they came back with is extraordinary.

The Islamic State is a deadly serious army with delusional global ambitions. Someone will have to defeat it with force, and it won’t be one of the local armed forces. Not any time soon. I’m sorry to say this, but if you watch Vice magazine’s documentary I doubt you’ll come to any other conclusion.

Hamas Threatened Reporters in Gaza

The Foreign Press Association is protesting “in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month."

Of course this happened. Gaza is ruled by a dictatorship and a terrorist army, and this is what dictators and terrorists do. I’d flatly refuse to believe any report that said otherwise. Hezbollah pulled the same crap with me in Lebanon, and that was during peace time, not war time. I also told my readers about it and refused to be censored. And Hezbollah, at least in some ways, is less oppressive and controlling than Hamas.

Alan Johnson published a round-up of first-person reports in The Telegraph if you want to know the nuts-and-bolts of how this actually works.

Here is just one:

Israeli filmmaker Michael Grynszpan described on Facebook an exchange he had had with a Spanish journalist who had just left Gaza. “We talked about the situation there. He was very friendly. I asked him how come we never see on television channels reporting from Gaza any Hamas people, no gunmen, no rocket launcher, no policemen. We only see civilians on these reports, mostly women and children. He answered me frankly: 'It's very simple, we did see Hamas people there launching rockets, they were close to our hotel, but if ever we dare pointing our camera on them they would simply shoot at us and kill us.'”

I understand why these reporters didn’t write about this while they were in Gaza. They could have been kidnapped or killed. Perhaps their editors back home kept quiet for the same reason, to protect their employees and freelancers.

There is a solution to this conundrum, however. Don’t send reporters to places where they are intimidated into lying by omission or commission.

The Gaza war was a huge story, of course, and it had to be covered, but it could just as easily have been covered from the Israeli side of the line. Covering both sides of the story is of course preferable whenever possible, but providing balanced coverage from Israel alongside censored coverage from Gaza is a form of journalistic malpractice. Stop it. 

Who Are the Yezidis?

The Weekly Standard asked me to write a piece explaining who Iraq's Yezidis are since I spent some time with them in 2006 and 2008. Here's the first part.

Islamic State terrorists, formerly known as ISIS, have killed at least 500 members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority in and around the city of Sinjar and taken hundreds of women as slaves. Some of the victims were buried alive. Their only crime: not being Muslims.

Tens of thousands bolted from Sinjar and fled to a remote mountaintop without food, water, or shelter where many more perished. If the United States hadn’t air dropped supplies or blasted the Islamic State from the skies, the number of dead Yezidis could have mushroomed to genocidal proportions.

Even so, the Islamic State’s genocidal intentions are obvious now. Christians, Jews, Druze, Alawites, Shia Muslims, and mainstream Sunni Muslims should expect precisely the same treatment if they find themselves conquered.

If war teaches us about geography, genocide teaches us about ethnic and religious minorities who might remain obscure otherwise. I had never heard of the Yezidis myself until I went to Iraq in 2006 and interviewed the president of Duhok University in the Kurdish autonomous region. He told me to go to Lalish, the Yezidi “Mecca,” where the last of the region’s ancient fire-worshippers believe the universe was born.

The place is scorching hot during the summer like everywhere else in Iraq, but I drove there through empty snow-covered land during the winter. Lalish didn’t look or feel like the center of the universe. It looked and felt like the ends of the earth. The area is as unpopulated as the Wyoming outback, which offers the Yezidis a certain measure of protection. If their “Mecca” were in the center of Baghdad—or, worse, Fallujah—they’d be in more serious danger right now than they already are.

Read the whole thing.

Why the US is Bombing Iraq and Not Syria

Cable news reporters have spent all weekend asking one US government official after another why we’re bombing Iraq and not Syria if we’re motivated by humanitarian concerns as Washington says.

I have yet to hear a straight answer, perhaps because the administration thinks a straight answer is undiplomatic. But I’m not a diplomat, and I can explain it point-blank.

So here it is. It’s real simple. The US is bombing Iraq right now because the psychopaths of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) are attacking the Kurds.

Morally and philosophically, the death of every innocent person on earth—from New York City to Gaza—carries the same tragic weight. Lopping off the heads of Kurdish children in Iraq is not more reprehensible than cutting off the heads of children in Homs or Aleppo, but Syria is hostile and the Kurds are our friends, and that difference matters to government officials and foreign policy makers. If it didn’t, friendships and alliances would mean nothing.

The Kurds of Iraq are our best friends in the entire Muslim world. Not even an instinctive pacifist and non-interventionist like Barack Obama can stand aside and let them get slaughtered by lunatics so extreme than even Al Qaeda disowns them. There is no alternate universe where that’s going to happen.

Iraqi Kurdistan is a friendly, civilized, high-functioning place. It’s the one part of Iraq that actually works and has a bright future ahead of it. Refusing to defend it would be like refusing to defend Poland, Taiwan, or Japan. We have no such obligation toward Syria.

That’s it. That’s the entire answer. Washington is following the first and oldest rule of foreign policy—reward your friends and punish your enemies.

ISIS Exterminating Minorities in Iraq

Kurdish members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority in Sinjar are being massacred by ISIS if they refuse to convert to Islam. They’re ancient fire-worshipers with roots in Zoroastrianism and they long predate the Koran.

More than 300 of them so far have been murdered for their religion alone.  

Killings of this sort on a large scale are called genocide.

Islam is a proselytizing religion, but converting these people at gunpoint and executing those who refuse will not fly with the Kurds who are Muslims, and not just because the Yezidis are their fellow Kurds.

The Yezidi religion is part of the Kurdish identity. Iraqi Kurdistan’s flag eschews the crescent moon so common on the flags of Islamic countries and opts for fire imagery from the Yezidi religion instead. Many years ago I interviewed the president of Duhok University in Iraq Kurdistan and he seemed to speak for the majority when he professed his affection for these people and their ancient religion. “I am a Muslim,” he told me. “But I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.”

Sinjar is a Kurdish town, but it’s in Nineveh province outside the Kurdish autonomous region. The armed Kurdish Peshmerga forces operating there ran out of ammunition and had little choice but to retreat in the wake of the ISIS assault. Tens of thousands of civilians fled the area and are stranded atop a remote mountain without food, water, or shelter.

Eight years ago I visited the Yezidi “Mecca” in Lalish, Iraq, inside the Kurdish autonomous region a ways south of Duhok. This is where the Yezidis believe the universe was born. Eternal flames burn forever in little shrines. Baba Sheik, their leader, showed me around and took me into their temple.

“All people in the world should be brothers,” he said. “You are welcome here for the rest of your life.”

Baba Sheik wanted to include Muslims in his proclamation of universal brotherhood, but he didn’t entirely trust them. The Yezidis have been persecuted relentlessly in the past and he knew perfectly well that they could be persecuted again, especially considering the precarious state of Iraq. And he was right. Ruthless persecution—this time by ISIS—is on.

I asked my Muslim translator and guide Birzo Abdulkadir if he was offended by Baba Sheik’s comments and he said, “Of course not. Kurds don’t get upset about religion. We aren’t like Arabs. We believe in arguments based on reason, not emotion. If people don’t agree with me about something, I’m not going to get mad at them. We will just have different opinions.”

The Kurds do, however, get mad, so to speak, at the likes of ISIS. And they’re gearing up for a counterattack. Another front in the great Middle East war is about to be opened.

A Closer Look at Gaza’s Civilian Casualties

Hamas wants you to think the Israelis are either killing people at random in Gaza or they’re so inept that can’t hit what they aim at. If either of these narratives strikes you as plausible, by all means, believe whatever you want, but Time magazine parses the fatality statistics and reveals that the number of civilian casualties is not nearly as high as reported.

Analyses of the casualties listed in the daily reports published by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza-based organization operating under Hamas rule, indicate that young males ages 17 to 30 make up a large portion of the fatalities, and a particularly noticeable spike occurs between males ages 21 to 27, a pattern consistent with the age distribution typically found among combatants and military conscripts. Palestinian sources attempt to conceal this discrepancy with their public message by labeling most of these young men as civilians.

[…]

Scrutiny of Palestinian figures in the current conflict reveals a spike in fatalities among males ages 21 to 27 and an over-representation from ages 17 to 30. Data gleaned from the daily reports of the PCHR show that from July 8, the start of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” through July 26, 404 out of 915 fatalities tallied from daily reports in which the ages were identified occurred among males ages 17 to 30, comprising 44% of all fatalities among a group representing about 10% of Gazans.

Expanding the age range from 17 to 39 and including those identified as combatants whose ages were not given increases that number to 551 fatalities, or 57% of all fatalities, even though this group represents less than one-sixth of Gazans. By contrast, adult female fatalities were less than 10% of total fatalities for a group that comprises a quarter of the total population.

Children, here defined as those under age 17, represented 194 of fatalities, 20% of the total. Any child fatality is a tragedy, but it is important to note that children make up over half the population of Gaza.

We’ll have a better handle on this when the war is over and some time has passed. As Time also notes in the article, Hamas eventually acknowledged that Israel more or less correctly identified the number of combatants killed in the last war and that previous claims about overwhelming civilian casualties had been fabricated.

Welcome to Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh would be appalled if he could see Vietnam now.

Well, perhaps not appalled—he was less doctrinaire than the likes of Vladimir Lenin and Fidel Castro, and even hard-line ideologues can become more flexible over time—but he certainly wouldn’t recognize it.

The Doi Moi market reforms that began in 1986 (a mere eleven years after the fall of Saigon and national unification under the Communist Party) and a general slackening of state micromanagement have transformed the country out of all recognition.

Theodore Dalrymple visited in the late 1980s when much of the old system was still in place but was on its way out. “Only a fortnight ago,” he wrote in his book The Wilder Shores of Marx, “there was no conveyor belt for luggage at the airport, a deficiency that had been rectified [in the meantime.] It now took only an hour to retrieve luggage instead of three.”

Didn’t take an hour for me to get mine. The entire airport procedure from beginning to end was easier than entering Canada or returning home from abroad. Friendly officials stamped me in promptly and let me bypass Customs entirely. My suitcase was waiting for me on the conveyor belt. Barely ten minutes after stepping off the plane I was already out on the sidewalk.

I did not have a journalist visa, nor did I apply for media credentials from the government. Local reporters and fixers tell me the process is a spectacularly expensive bureaucratic nightmare and that the authorities would dispatch minders to baby-sit me, so I blew it off and stuck with a tourist visa. Nobody cared. I booked interviews with government officials and even they didn’t care.

Vietnam makes a good first impression, which pleased me as a human being but challenged me as a journalist. Writing about war zones and other disaster areas is relatively straightforward. Countries on the mend are a bit tougher, and Vietnam has been on the mend for a while now.

A sign on a bridge leading from the airport into the city reads, in English, “Hanoi: City of Peace” and includes the image of a white dove. If you’re American and older than me and can remember when Hanoi was an enemy capital, don’t doubt the sincerity of that message. The Vietnam War—which the Vietnamese call the American War—has been over for almost forty years now. The Vietnamese never wanted to fight Americans anyway. I have no memory of the war and am too young to have known the country in the 1970s, but nevertheless it’s as obvious as the sky that Vietnam has changed more drastically in the meantime than any country I’ve ever visited beyond Eastern Europe.

Outside the airport I saw more construction and infrastructure projects during the first five minutes of my ride into Hanoi than I saw on my entire weeks-long trip to Cuba last year. A forest of cranes punctuated the skyline. The country is charging ahead like a bull hopped up on adrenaline, and it’s startlingly prosperous.

I’ve seen a lot of poverty in the world—especially in Egypt and Latin America—so perhaps I’m a little desensitized. The country might look a little bit poor, I guess, to someone who has never left the US or Europe, but I don’t even know about that. Average homes in Hanoi are larger than mine. Restaurants, cafes, bars, electronics stores, shopping malls, and luxury stores proliferate. Most of the city looks brand-new. If there are slums tucked away somewhere, I didn’t see any. Vietnam’s per capita income is shockingly low, but so is the cost of living, so a statistical comparison with the US or Europe is pointless.

“Nothing had been repaired in years,” reporter David Lamb wrote of Hanoi in the 1970s. “The old French colonial buildings appeared in danger of collapse. Everything was in a state of poverty and decay.”

Much of Havana and Cairo still look that way now, but there’s little visible evidence that Hanoi ever suffered through such a phase. Take heart! Ruined cities can be repaired.

Some parts of Hanoi are a bit messy, but aside from the outdated rat’s nest of electrical wires, its messes are the kind you make in your house when you’re in the middle of a remodeling project. Parts of the Old Quarter still look a little decayed, but even there the decay is like a holdover from the past that’s being blotted out with one high-end boutique store after another.

The ruling Communist Party knows better than just about anyone that communist economics are a disaster. Vietnam’s economy has been growing at light speed for a while now. I knew that in advance, and yet it still stunned me. The city trembles with industriousness and entrepreneurship. Small and large businesses are everywhere. Half the residents seem to be in business for themselves. Anything and everything you can possibly imagine is for sale, though it’s not all high-end yet. I saw a Louis Vuitton outlet next to a bootleg CD store, an elegant Western-style café next to low-end bar with hard chairs and no air-conditioning, a Body Shop next to a used clothing store with cast-off second-hand T-shirts from the West, and an art gallery next to a store selling old pots and pans.

Market economies are uneven, no doubt, but they sure as hell beat the alternative. I could hardly believe it, but when I was a kid the Vietnamese stood in long lines on the street to exchange ration coupons for handfuls of rice. Today the country is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice.

Japan and South Korea: watch out. If the economy keeps growing and the political system breaks open, Vietnam will be a country to reckon with.

*

Hanoi assaults all five senses.

The streets smell of fried food, incense, barbecue, mold and exhaust, sometimes all at once. The sounds of growling motorbike engines and banging construction are endless, and they’re punctuated by vehicle-mounted loudspeakers announcing God-knows-what all day.

And the climate: God, it is horrendous during the summer. Up to a hundred degrees Fahrenheit with 108 percent humidity and cloud cover, rain, and at times even fog. Summer is the monsoon season. Hanoi gets as much rain in one monsoon month as Portland, Oregon, gets in six. The gloomy sky looks like that of Seattle or London in January, but the air feels like Miami during a heat wave in August.

Hanoi looked to my eyes like someone had put China and France into a blender and pressed puree. (To Vietnamese eyes, of course, it just looks like Hanoi.) Parts of the city look oddly European—and I'm not referring here to the French Quarter which looks European for the obvious reasons.

Houses in the newer parts of town (which is to say, most of it) have Victorian characteristics—steep roofs, tall vertical windows, wedding-cake moldings, and balcony spindles. They’re taller and narrower than Victorian houses, though. Taxes are levied by how much street space each structure takes up, so most houses and places of private businesses build up and back as much as possible rather than sideways. 

Nearly all have slanted roofs, not to let snow slide off as in northern climates—I doubt Hanoi has ever known snow—but simply because pitched roofs like nice. They provide a certain elegance to each individual home and to the cityscape.

The city as a whole is not elegant, but it could be if it were twice as rich and four times more orderly. The former may be just a matter of time, but I'm not so sure about the latter. People are the way they are and orderly doesn't seem to be Vietnam’s style. The place is emphatically not German or Austrian. It has a frenetic energy that seems inherent and uncorkable. That a single political party managed to herd everyone into a totalitarian structure for even a short period beggars belief.

Never before have I seen such terrifying and ludicrous traffic. For nearly a decade I thought nothing could beat Beirut’s aggressive bumper-car bedlam, but I was wrong. The Vietnamese are just as aggressive, but most of them are on motorbikes instead of in cars. They take up less space on the roads, so the number of moving vehicles at any given location can be several times greater.

Red lights are suggestions. Sometimes they’re obeyed. Other times traffic moves through intersections in all four directions at once. Best of luck if you are on foot. No one will stop for you. They’ll go around, but they will not stop and they will not slow down.

So when you want to cross in heavy traffic (and traffic is heavy everywhere except after midnight) you just have to steel your nerves and step into the street even as dozens of bikes roar toward you panoramically. Everybody will ride around you. Really, they will—as long as you know what you’re doing. 

If you stop, if you change speed, or—worst of all—if you change the direction you’re moving, you could get hit. But if you pick a direction and just go at a consistent moderate speed, everyone will calculate where you’ll be by the time they get there. They’ll adjust their direction ever so slightly and miss you by a couple of inches. Traffic will swarm around you like an eddy in water. It is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. The police may as well not even exist.

It’s strange how a one-party state can look and feel so anarchic, but sometimes that’s how it goes. North Korea sure as hell isn’t like that, nor is Cuba, but the Vietnamese are like cats who refuse to be herded.

They enjoy no political freedom, but the government doesn’t hassle everyone constantly. Not anymore. The place feels free even though it technically isn’t because at this point in history, the citizens and the state have at least tacitly agreed to a modus vivendi: We won’t screw with you if you won’t screw with us. Like a cease-fire during a war, it will continue working until it doesn’t.

I have a hard time believing Vietnam ever passed through a totalitarian phase, but it’s easy to believe the phase was a brief one. Communism endured in Russia from the early 20th century until nearly the end, but it wasn’t imposed on all of Vietnam until the middle of the 1970s, and it ended in all but name before it ended in Moscow. The Vietnamese are too energetic, fearless, and naturally capitalistic to be forced for long onto an anthill.

*

I crossed a bridge to an island in Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) to an ancient Buddhist pagoda. It had, like all the old temples I saw, Chinese writing on the walls and the pillars. Vietnam’s current modified Latin alphabet didn’t exist before the 17th century and wasn’t widely adopted until early in the 20th century.

The temple looked ancient and felt ancient, and it also looked and felt, to me anyway, purely Chinese. Buddhism came to Vietnam from both India and China, but the temples in the north seem to be mostly Chinese.

Buddhist visitors (as opposed to mere tourists) lit high-quality temple incense and placed the sticks in a central location just outside the entrance. Inside was a quiet place for calm and repose. I saw altars and extravagantly carved tables for offerings, including cash money. The ceiling was made of brown-stained wood held in place by fat red timbers. Intricately carved representations of distinctly Chinese-looking deities stood in the back as they must have for centuries beyond where mere mortals are allowed to tread.

Most buildings and houses in Hanoi are relatively new, so the contrast with everything else in the city was striking. Unlike the medieval walled cities of Europe and the Middle East’s maze-like medinas, Hanoi doesn’t feel ancient. The pagodas do, though, because they are. And their origins lie elsewhere, in the belly of the regional hegemon that has antagonized and periodically invaded Vietnam for thousands of years. China is but a short drive away. I could feel its presence over the horizon like a vast ocean. The Vietnamese feel it too, the way Poles, Estonians, and especially now Ukrainians feel the overwhelming and massive presence of Russia.

Back out on the sidewalk a woman sold small turtles from a white plastic bucket. “When you leave a pagoda,” a local man explained to me, “you are supposed to buy an animal and set it free.”

I like the idea, but it’s a bit circular, isn’t it? The animals must first be captured and sold before they can be freed. The poor turtles would be better off if they were never caught and placed into that bucket at all.

Vietnam’s government falsely claims the majority of its people are non-religious—some communist-era habits die harder than others—but I saw signs not only of Buddhism but also of ancestor worship everywhere. Most businesses have little altars near the front for incense and gifts for the dead. The gifts are often burned so that ancestors can receive them in the spirit world. Some of the gifts are ghost offerings. I saw fake iPhones, for instance, fake iPads and fake money—even fake credit cards. Supposedly when these things are burned they float up to the afterlife where they can be used. Lighting cash on fire, then, is a spiritual Western Union of sorts. Theoretically.

“If you think about it,” one Vietnamese person said to me, “we’re actually burning real money because we have to spend real money to purchase the fake money.”

Women wearing conical hats roam the city selling fruit, fried pastries, and other items to passersby. They congregate around pagodas and tourist sites. I stopped an elderly vendor and asked for a small portion of what looked like Vietnam’s version of donuts. The woman smiled and placed a handful in a plastic bag and said “200,000 dong.”

That’s ten dollars. For a fistful of fried bread.

I laughed. 

“Come on,” I said.

Vietnam is not an expensive country. I don’t know what she would have charged a local person, but surely much less than ten dollars. She thought I was rich and therefore wouldn’t mind paying so much, but I’m nowhere near rich, at least not by Western standards. (Only a lucky few writers ever get rich.)

“200,000 dong,” she said again.

“I’ll give you 20,000,” I said. That’s about one dollar and probably more than the locals would pay.

“200,000,” she said again.

Seriously? She wasn’t even going to come down to 180,000?

“Forget it,” I said and walked away.

That night I paid six dollars for an entire meal plus a bottle of beer, so I knew the lady on the street tried to drastically overcharge me. I swore not to buy anything that didn’t have a price tag on it somewhere.

My waitress that evening correctly sensed that I had just arrived (newcomers are obvious everywhere) and gave me some advice.

“The street sellers,” she said, and pointed outside the window with her eyes, “are not good. If you’re a foreigner they’ll charge you ten times what everyone else pays.”

Indeed. It took me no time at all to figure that out. I appreciated, though, that she was looking out for me. She didn’t know me, but she was looking out for me. And she helped me out with the language—which is a pain and a half. The Vietnamese language uses six different vocal tones, and if you’re not used to tonal languages you can easily screw up saying even hello and thank you. A single syllable sound like “Ha” can be made into six different words depending on which tone you use and which markings you put above or below the letters in writing.

The Vietnamese use a modified version of the Latin alphabet, but it’s harder to casually learn a few words and read them that it first appears. You must pay attention to the tone markings, not just the letters, if you want to even begin making sense of it. and , for instance, are not the same word. They look similar and to my tone-deaf ears they sound exactly the same, but they’re different words.

I thanked the waitress for helping me out as best she could with the language, and especially for warning me about scammers prowling the streets, but no one else ever tried to egregiously overcharge me, at least not to my knowledge. Even the taxi drivers used the meter without my having to ask, which is unheard of almost everywhere I’ve ever been. Even European taxi drivers have tried and sometimes succeeded in ripping me off.

Before I left home I read all kinds of horror stories on the Internet about scam artists and hasslers of every conceivable variety in Vietnam, but I hardly ran into any of them. I don’t know if it’s because I got lucky, because I’ve learned how to not look like a sucker, or because the problem is much less severe than it used to be. I don’t know but I suspect it’s the latter. Everything else is changing at rocket ship speed, so why not the hassling?

After dinner I returned to my room in the busting Old Quarter, flicked off the lights, and heard the honking and growling of motorbikes as a bat flew past my window.

*

I awoke early and jetlagged the next morning and set out at six to find some relief from the hideous climate. The air outside was 82 degrees Fahrenheit and humid. Hardly ideal, but it certainly beat the 99 degrees of the previous day. At least I could walk around for a few minutes before my shirt soaked through with sweat.

How miserable it must have been fighting a war in this country. They say war is interminable boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. I’ve been to war zones myself and can attest to the truth of that statement. But war in the sticky and sweltering jungles must have been interminable misery punctuated by terror.

I was advised to check out Le Mat on the outskirts of the city. There you will find the Snake Village where you can pull up a bar stool and order some snake wine. The bartender will kill a cobra, pour its blood into rice wine, and drop the snake’s still-beating heart into the shot glass.

If you don’t want to drink blood, you can have it with bile instead.

I refused. Why make my stomach churn and possibly heave just so I can write about it? The description of the drink itself is enough. I went to Iraq seven times during the war, but drinking snake wine is over the line. I don’t care whether or not that makes sense. 

What I wanted was coffee. I was jet-lagged in a bad way, and if I didn’t have caffeine I’d need a nap. And if I succumbed to that nap I’d sleep for eight hours, miss most of the day, and be up all night when everything’s closed. So I headed back toward Hoan Kiem Lake during early business hours, and when a young woman on the sidewalk beckoned me over and told me about a café upstairs, I eagerly agreed to let her show me the way.

She led me inside a building that looked like a parking garage, though nobody parked there. Empty boxes, a discarded broom, and other detritus were strewn about. There was a café upstairs? Really? I felt a twinge of uncertainty. What kind of café would be above this? The building looked derelict.

I resisted the twinge of uncertainty. The young woman seemed friendly enough and she wore a shirt with a café logo on it. I followed her into the elevator. We rode up to the fourth floor, then she pointed toward a rickety-looking stairway leading up a gloomy fifth floor. The way was unlit, the walls filthy, the air hot and still. I saw no other people and heard no sounds but the traffic outside. I had a hard time believing the kind of café I wanted to hang out in was up there.

If I were anywhere in the West I would have turned around and gone back to the street, but my instincts are different abroad. I ascended the stairs, feeling curious about what I’d find though doubtful that I would like it.

I reached the top of the sweltering stairway, pushed open a glass door, and found myself in a café worthy of South Beach in Miami tucked into an air-conditioned aerie. The place was packed with comfortable sofas and chairs and stylishly dressed Vietnamese with laptops and iPads drinking from cups of Italian-style espresso. The entire south wall was made of glass from floor to ceiling and revealed a 180-degree view of the lake and the skyline below.

Almost everyone in the café was staring at a personal electronic device.

Who during the Vietnam War on either side of the conflict could have imagined that such a bourgeois place would ever appear in Hanoi while the Communist Party still ruled? Ho Chi Minh sure as hell didn't expect this. Nor would he have wanted it. Fidel Castro would hate it. Of that I assure you. Pol Pot would have wanted to murder everyone in there.

The world is becoming more and more alike everywhere. Outside of basket case countries like North Korea, Syria, and Iraq, we all seem to be heading in the same direction toward the same destination. And with everyone looking at the little screens in their hands all the time, even while sitting with friends, I have to wonder: where exactly, as a species, are we going?

Whatever the answer to that question, Hanoi is no longer an impoverished totalitarian backwater. It’s a global city now. And despite the name of its government, communism is finished. 

*

The city exhausted me after a couple of days, so I took a brief break on the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin.

I did not drive there. Vietnam is so far the one country I’ve visited where driving must be left to the professionals.

The near-ubiquitous nice housing of the city continued into the countryside. Where was the poverty? Surely there must be poverty somewhere out in the country. In the mountains, perhaps, or along the Cambodian border. But while the rural areas along the highway between the capital and the coast are less cosmopolitan and fashionable, they are not destitute. At least the ones along the main highway aren’t destitute. I saw water buffaloes and women with conical hats in the fields and three-story houses with balconies. The whole scene looked bucolic, though field work in that climate has to be brutal. 

And the coast is spectacular, especially Halong Bay roughly thirty miles south of the border with China. Hundreds of islands, most of them karst towers and cones topped with a riot of vegetation, spread out in a vast panorama that goes on for miles.

“Hạ Long” means descending dragon in Vietnamese. The bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one of the natural wonders of Asia.

Boat tours are startlingly cheap, so I booked one and set out. The air temperature dropped 10 degrees the minute the captain pushed us away from the shoreline.

Every direction looked like the setting for an Asian fairy tale. The land formations are wondrous, even surreal, and they’re crawling with screaming insects that in concert sound like a huge whirring bone saw. There is no other sound on the water.

Sadly, though, there’s trash in the bay. Vietnam is not trashy in general, but I saw a heartbreaking amount of plastic bottles, beer cans, potato chip wrappers, and chunks of Styrofoam floating by in the water—along with jellyfish with heads the size of basketballs.

“How dangerous are those jellyfish?” I asked the captain. “What happens if they sting a person?”

“Pain,” he said. “No die, but great pain.”

The water is calm and refreshing, but don’t swim there at night.

Much of the trash is generated by people who live in floating villages made of clapboard houses floating on Styrofoam platforms far from the mainland. They have no electricity or modern amenities. These villages are objectively poor. None of Vietnam’s newfound prosperity has reached these people, but fewer than two hundred still live out there. The captain told me they lived in caves on the islands until the mid-1990s when the government ordered them out and told them to live in floating houses instead. But they’re polluting the water, so now the government is slowly phasing the villages out and relocating everyone to the mainland. In a few years they will be gone. Whether they’ll prosper after relocating or resent the state for moving them, I have no idea.

The coast was a pleasant diversion, but I found little grist for my writing mill there. It’s beautiful and relaxing, but it’s a place for tourists and poets, not journalists. So back to the city I went.

*

When I returned to Hanoi, I came back to familiar restaurants, cafes, narrow storefronts, traffic, and noise. The hotel staff welcomed me back. It was like a tiny homecoming of sorts, and it triggered a question I often ponder when traveling abroad.

Could I live there?

Lots of Westerners do. Even I could separate them from the tourists. Their motorbike helmets sometimes gave them away, but I could also tell by their ease of navigating the place, how they crossed the street with the confidence of a local and settled into cafes and restaurants as though they were regulars.

I found a cheap but pleasant-enough looking restaurant, ordered a beer and some seafood, and pretended in my own mind that I lived there. I wanted to know how I felt about that, partly to satisfy my own curiosity, but also because it’s an important question for me as a writer. It forces me to think seriously about how distressed a place is or isn’t, about the quality of life for the average person, and about the political system.

I wasn’t initially sure of the answer.

So I kept at it. I tried to look like I lived there by pretending I knew the waitress, drinking my beer with a bored confidence, and not fiddling with my chopsticks like an amateur. Whether or not I actually looked like a resident expat, I was starting to feel like one. The only air-conditioning in that particular restaurant was a fan blowing the hot air around and I didn’t mind. My body had recalibrated its thermostat. Full-on air-conditioning made me feel cold. I later got into a taxi that felt like a refrigerator and laughed at myself when I almost asked the driver to turn up the heat.

But could I live there, at least for a while? I had to know. Most places I’ve traveled it’s an easy question to answer, but in Vietnam it was not.

Could I live in Cairo? No. Baghdad? Hell no. Havana? No chance. Not while it’s under the boot heel of the Castros. Rabat? Perhaps. Beirut? I have already lived in Beirut and theoretically could do so again. But what about Hanoi?

Vietnam is a pleasant destination for tourists, for sure, but it’s also a one-party nominally communist state. I have viscerally detested communism since the first moment I learned about it as a child. No political system in the history of the human race has killed such a vast number of people. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were the greatest geopolitical events of my lifetime. Every cell in my body rebelled at the existential heaviness of the state in Cuba on my last long trip abroad and after a week I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I had to look it squarely in the eye in Vietnam without flinching.

Could I live there, despite it?

Yes. I believe so.

As long as I stayed out of politics.

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

The Death of the Latest Middle East Peace Process

Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon have written an exhaustively detailed and compulsively readable narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed three months ago for The New Republic. We know how the story ends because it is already history, and most of us are cynical enough now that we knew how it would end before it even began, but it’s a fascinating and suspenseful read all the same because it looked for a while there like some kind of deal actually might have been struck.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas are both capable of being more flexible and reasonable than their detractors realize, and John Kerry made a genuinely serious attempt to get them to make compromises and end the conflict once and for all. He was not going through the motions just for appearances. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is less naïve about all this business than he may have been at the outset.

The Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president can’t negotiate this alone. Each has various factions that must be appeased, some of them more hard-line than others. Getting the two sides to agree on a peace deal remains extraordinarily difficult--even impossible--at the moment, but each side has softened up to an extent. Both made difficult compromises. The Palestinian Authority has come a long way since the days of Yasser Arafat, as has Netanyahu and the Israeli Likud Party. Each is less ideological than before. If you doubt it (and I certainly can’t blame you at this point) read the long The New Republic story. It’s one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read in a year. Birnbaum and Tibon put and extraordinary amount of work into this.

But the two sides are still a long ways apart, and many of the negotiators are resigning in exhaustion. Failing at yet another doomed peace process makes everybody more cynical. Nobody can know how the next attempt will play out in detail, but none of the actors at this point is optimistic.

And that’s without factoring Hamas into the equation, which rejects both negotiations and peace out of hand and vows to wage a decades- or even centuries-long war to the finish. Hamas will gleefully sacrifice a thousand Palestinian lives to kill a few dozen Israelis because its leaders truly believe that if life becomes too precarious and nerve-wracking for Jews in the Middle East that they’ll give up and quit the region forever. It’s a fantastical bloody delusion, but it’s what they believe and they are not going to stop any time soon.

I hate to be too cynical about this myself, but as I’ve said before, the Middle East is a great teacher of pessimism. A few years ago I asked Israeli writer and researcher Hillel Cohen what he expected to see in Jerusalem 50 years in the future. “Some war,” he said, shrugging. “Some peace. Some negotiations. The usual stuff.”

Hamas Chooses Guns Over Butter

The current round of fighting between Israel and Hamas will likely wind down as soon as the Israel Defense Forces are confident that the vast network of underground tunnels has been dismantled, but until then, fat chance.

Paul Alster at Fox says the IDF has so far uncovered at least 28 tunnels with more than 60 access shafts, and Ben Piven at Al Jazeera makes it clear that these tunnels are used offensively.

“Tunnels are just one weapon used by the resistance,” Abu Obeida, a Qassam spokesman, told Al Jazeera. “They can move from a defensive position to an offensive one in any situation.”

Hamas forces traveled in the tunnels to capture Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006 and bring him back to Gaza, where he was kept prisoner for five years.

One tunnel discovered by Israel last year was 66 feet deep and 1.5 miles long. The project is estimated to have cost $10 million and used 800 tons of concrete. The dangerous digging was apparently done with mechanical pedal-powered devices, rather than with noisy electrical equipment.

The citizens of Gaza would be much better off if their government—if Hamas deserves to be called such a thing—invested its money and energy into building an economy and improving the lives of its people instead of killing Israelis and bringing violent retaliation down on everyone’s head.

But Hamas is spectacularly unlikely ever to change. What Gaza needs is internally-driven regime-change from below. When everyone is at last tired of living like this they will no longer have to.

Israel is Not Going Anywhere

An Israeli journalist gave his Palestinian cameraman a tour of Tel Aviv and this is what happened:

On the Ayalon Highway, the highway leading to the big city, he first laid eyes upon the tall buildings, Tel Aviv’s towers, the branching road system, the bridges, the lights, the life. It was all so different from Gaza, which seemed light years away to him. On the way, we passed the sites Hamas terrorists struck some years before: the Dizengoff commercial center, the Dolphinarium night club, Mike’s Place bar and others. When the astonishment faded from his face, he summarized it thus: “Hamas militants are living in a delusion; they are convinced that with a group of suicide bombers (shahids, meaning martyrs) they could overpower Israel.”

After that he had an idea, somewhat comical, somewhat practical: “If we get all of Hamas’ leaders on one bus, both the political wing and the military wing, and give them a guided tour from the Erez crossing to Tel Aviv, they will get wiser, return to Gaza and will stop threatening and dreaming that they could defeat Israel.”

I don’t know about that. Never underestimate the power of human delusion. But I can certainly believe that this particular Palestinian got a real and lasting reality check. I’ve been to Israel many times myself. The notion of destroying it with anything short of nuclear weapons is ludicrous.

Going in Circles in Gaza

Now that the Israelis have mounted a ground invasion of Gaza, casualties are climbing on each side. According to NPR, 20 Israelis have been killed so far along with more than 400 Palestinians.

Hamas claims it kidnapped an Israeli soldier, but the Israelis say no one has been taken. I don’t know who to believe, but Hamas’ claim would be more credible if its commanders had a name and photograph of the person they say they've kidnapped.

The Israelis are systematically demolishing underground tunnels leading into Israel from Gaza and are not likely to agree to a cease-fire at this point until they’re satisfied that the tunnel system is broken. It’s more dangerous than Hamas’ rocket arsenal since kidnappers and murderers can use those tunnels to sneak into Israel. As I pointed out last week, a small band of serial killers on the West Bank killed more Israelis than Hamas can manage with hundred of rockets.

By the time the Israelis finish their work, Hamas may have killed enough Israelis and fired enough of its rockets that it can save face with an empty “victory” boast despite losing so many people, despite emptying its vast arsenal with little to show for it, and despite having its tunnels collapsed. Then its leaders will agree to a cease-fire. It doesn’t matter that no one will believe Hamas won. Hamas just needs to be able to say it.

The Israelis and Palestinians won’t be an inch closer to peace after that happens, but at least the conflict will go back into the refrigerator. It will start up again at some point, though, and we’ll take another ride on the deadly and stupid merry-go-round, so savor the calm while it lasts.

Hamas is Losing and Everyone Knows it

Hamas is losing and everyone knows it.

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed so far in the current round of fighting while the number of dead Israelis amounts to a grand total of one.

That’s almost certainly the reason Hamas rejected the Egypt-proposed cease-fire agreement. So far it has accomplished practically nothing. A small band of serial killers on the West Bank managed to murder more Israelis a couple of weeks ago than Hamas can manage with its entire missile arsenal now.

It’s pathetic, really, and must be extraordinarily humiliating.

The Middle Eastern habit of declaring victory after getting your ass kicked has a long pedigree. Egypt did it after losing the 1973 Yom Kippur War. North Korea built a hysterical propaganda museum in Cairo commemorating that make-believe victory, but at least that particular fantasy is based on something. The Egyptian army did well against Israel for the first couple of days even though it lost in the end.

Hezbollah declared victory in the 2006 war despite the fact that entire swaths of its infrastructure were obliterated, but Hezbollah did inflict some serious damage and triggered a refugee crisis. Hamas couldn’t possibly base a victory boast on anything now.

The Israelis are seriously considering a ground invasion since Hamas won’t stop firing, but they’ve already proved to the population of Gaza that Hamas, even with its all its longer-range missiles, is capable of inflicting no more damage on the Zionist Entity than a lone killer armed with only a steak knife.

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