Quantcast

In Cuba, Neither Bread Nor Freedom

I’ve only visited Cuba once, in late 2013, so it’s hard to say for sure what kinds of changes Raul Castro has brought to the island since he took the wheel from his brother Fidel, but it appeared at that time that little had changed. Aside from a refurbished old quarter, Cuba looked like it was described in the 1980s or even the 1950s--though surely the urban decay is much more advanced now than it was in the 1950s.

James Bloodworth has been more than once, though, and says hardly anything has changed in the last five years. Here he is in The Daily Beast:

Perusing the drab shop fronts in Havana, resplendent with fly-blown posters of Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and other “heroes of the revolution,” I alighted on the self-evident problem with communism: Communist economies produce not what the worker needs but what a government bureaucrat has decided to make available for purchase. 

The last time I visited Cuba, in 2010, the country was supposedly on the cusp of great change (at least if you were listening to the regime’s apologists in the Western media). Yet five years later and the “reforming” Cuba of Raul Castro looks almost identical to the country ruled despotically for almost half a century by his older brother. The Soviet-style shortages persist, listless youth continue to mope everywhere on street corners and the octopus-like tentacles of the state still reach into every corner of Cuban life.  

[…]

Yet despite the increasingly cordial relationship between Raul Castro and Obama, the supposed changes in Cuba are almost entirely cosmetic. Indeed, on the streets of Havana the only discernible sign of transformation is the increasingly visible presence of a small but newly minted petit-bourgeoisie, tolerated by the Castro regime because (for the moment at least) it is unwilling to challenge the Stalinist center. Apart from this (though you wouldn’t know it from listening to White House press conferences) Cuba remains, as the revolutionary-turned-dissident Carlos Franqui once put it, “a world where the people are forced to work and to endure permanent rationing and scarcity, where they have neither rights nor freedoms.”    

Dissidents are still sent to jail, but they don’t spend as much time there. Instead they are released earlier and sent home to live under total surveillance. It’s an improvement, I guess, but the nature of the regime hasn’t changed an iota. It’s not going to change as part of American-Cuban normalization, either.

The US normalized relations with Vietnam despite the lack of political freedom there, and it normalized relations with China back when Mao was still in charge. Nothing bad happened to the United States because of it, and nothing bad will happen to the United States as a result of normalizing relations with Cuba.

One could make the argument that everyday Cubans will benefit if the economy improves—it’s better to have bread without freedom than to have neither—but I’m not convinced that Raul Castro is ready to embark on a Vietnam- or China-style liberalization of the economy. Not if virtually nothing has changed while he has been in charge, and he has been in charge now for seven years—enough time to transform the economy drastically the way the Vietnamese have if he wanted to.

Bloodworth isn’t convinced either.

Havana is “opening up” because it wants hard currency and access to markets; the only ideology underpinning the Cuban revolution these days is self-preservation and replication, and for that the regime needs an injection of cash. This means that, as in the past, the Castro regime appears to be visibly loosening the screws; however, it is doing so with a wrench firmly in hand, ready to tighten them again once the economic storm has passed.

One thing that will change as a result of normalization, however, is that the government will no longer be able to blame the United States for the scarcity brought about by its own ecnomic imbecility. 

Iran is not Iowa

Leon Wieseltier, unhappy with the Iranian nuclear deal for most of the usual reasons, zeroes in on the Obama administration’s failure to appreciate the chasm that separates the regime from its people.

It is true that in the years prior to the Khomeini revolution the United States tolerated vicious abuses of human rights in Iran; but then our enmity toward the ayatollahs’ autocracy may be regarded as a moral correction. (A correction is an admirable kind of hypocrisy.) The adversarial relationship between America and the regime in Tehran has been based on the fact that we are proper adversaries. We should be adversaries. What democrat, what pluralist, what liberal, what conservative, what believer, what non-believer, would want this Iran for a friend?

When one speaks about an unfree country, one may refer either to its people or to its regime. One cannot refer at once to both, because they are not on the same side. Obama likes to think, when he speaks of Iran, that he speaks of its people, but in practice he has extended his hand to its regime. With his talk about reintegrating Iran into the international community, about the Islamic Republic becoming “a very successful regional power” and so on, he has legitimated a regime that was more and more lacking in legitimacy. (There was something grotesque about the chumminess, the jolly camaraderie, of the American negotiators and the Iranian negotiators. Why is Mohammad Javad Zarif laughing?) The text of the agreement states that the signatories will submit a resolution to the UN Security Council “expressing its desire to build a new relationship with Iran.” Not a relationship with a new Iran, but a new relationship with this Iran, as it is presently—that is to say, theocratically, oppressively, xenophobically, aggressively, anti-Semitically, misogynistically, homophobically—constituted. When the president speaks about the people of Iran, he reveals a bizarre refusal to recognize the character of life in a dictatorship. In his recent Nowruz message, for example, he exhorted the “people of Iran … to speak up for the future [they] seek.” To speak up! Does he think Iran is Iowa? The last time the people of Iran spoke up to their government, they left their blood on the streets.

Ho Chi Minh's Nightmare

Six months ago I wrote a long essay about Hanoi for City Journal. The magazine is quarterly, and the story got bumped from the Spring issue since it's not time-sensitive, but it's in the Summer issue. Here's the first part:

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Hanoi, capital of a now-unified, Communist Vietnam, was a bombed-out disasterscape. Residents lived under an egalitarian reign of terror. The grim ideologues who ran the country forbade citizens to socialize with or even speak to the few foreign visitors. People queued up in long lines past government stores with bare shelves to exchange ration coupons for meager handfuls of rice. The only traffic on the street was the occasional bicycle.

Since then, however, Hanoi has transformed itself more dramatically than almost any other city in the world. Today, the city is an explosive capitalist volcano, and Vietnam is rapidly on its way to becoming a formidable economic and military power. “Many revolutions are begun by conservatives,” Christopher Hitchens once said, paraphrasing John Maynard Keynes, “because these are people who tried to make the existing system work and they know why it does not. Which is quite a profound insight. It used to be known in Marx’s terms as revolution from above.” That’s exactly what happened in Vietnam, though the revolutionaries weren’t conservatives. They were Communists.

Hanoi had a rough twentieth century. The French invaded and made it the capital of colonial French Indochina in 1887. The Empire of Japan seized the city in 1940 and annexed Vietnam to its fascistic Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam an independent state after World War II, and his Viet Minh forces controlled a few scraps of territory, but the French returned in force in 1946 and didn’t leave until Ho’s Communist army forced them out in 1954. Hanoi then became the capital of the misnamed Democratic Republic of North Vietnam. Decades passed in squalor and brutality. Ho’s centrally planned Marxist-Leninist system ravaged the economy, and war with the United States and the American-backed government of South Vietnam—which included aerial bombardment of Hanoi itself—made the devastation complete. More than 1 million Vietnamese died.

The North Vietnamese won their civil war in 1975 and imposed the same draconian economic and political system on the South. Saigon, the South’s former capital, suffered when the North took over. “All the schools were shut down,” says Tuong Vi Lam, who vividly remembers when her side lost the war. “My aunts and uncles were in college and they had to quit. They just couldn’t get there. Property was confiscated and given to northerners. Communist propaganda was even put in our math books. We had questions like this: ‘Yesterday a soldier killed three Americans and today he killed five. How many Americans did he kill total?’ The books don’t have those kinds of questions anymore, but they did for five or ten years.”

Vietnam was finally independent and unified, but it fared no better than the Soviet Union, North Korea, or Cuba—and almost everyone knew it, including many in the Communist leadership. In the mid-1980s, a fight broke out between those who wanted to continue with the old system and those who had already benefited from quiet micro-capitalist reforms enacted in 1979 and wanted to expand them. Southerners made noise about returning to the pre-Communist system that they knew, from personal experience, worked much better. The relative economic success of other Southeast Asian nations, especially Thailand, was obvious even to the ideologues.

The advocates of change won the argument, and in 1986, the government officially abandoned Marxist-Leninist economics and announced the Doi Moi reforms, defined as an attempt to create a “socialist-oriented market economy.” Presumably, party leaders left the word “socialist” in there because they were embarrassed by Marxism’s failures and couldn’t admit that they’d been wrong. Or perhaps they feared that their remaining supporters were allergic to the word “capitalism.” No matter. Vietnam officially junked Communism a mere 11 years after imposing it on South Vietnam.

State subsidies were abolished. Private businesses were allowed to operate again. Businessmen, investors, and employees could keep their profits and wages. Farmers could sell their produce on the open market and keep the proceeds instead of giving them up to the state. The results were spectacular. It took some time for a middle class to emerge, but from 1993 to 2004, the percentage of Vietnamese living in poverty dropped from 60 percent to 20 percent. Before Doi Moi, the command economy contracted, and inflation topped out at over 700 percent; it would eventually shrink to single digits. After years of chronic rice shortages, Vietnam became the world’s second-largest exporter of rice, after Thailand. Progress hasn’t slowed. In 2013, Vietnam’s economy grew by 8.25 percent. “The number of malls, shopping districts, and restaurants is amazing compared with when I was a kid,” says motivational speaker Hoan Do. “Eighteen years ago, the entire country was broken down. There was hardly any technology, but now even poor people can go to an Internet café and log on to Facebook and YouTube.”

The South led the way. “When the Communist leadership decided in the mid-1980s to put Karl Marx and Adam Smith into an economic blender and see what came out,” reporter David Lamb wrote, “Southerners, exposed to capitalism for decades, were far more comfortable than their northern brethren in adapting to the demands of free markets.” Yet Hanoi eventually liberalized, too, and though it still lags behind Saigon (which the government renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975), it has made breathtaking economic progress.

Hanoi’s economy looks and feels entirely unregulated; the city bursts with activity. Though luxury boutiques, technology stores selling Apple products, high-fashion clothing outlets, and international food chains are easy to find, individual street-front proprietorships predominate. The state still owns or controls some of the largest companies, but the vast majority of businesses are too small to be centrally managed. On a single block, I saw the following for sale: Vietnamese flags, Ho Chi Minh T-shirts, candles, incense, bolts of cloth, used clothing from the U.S., fake money to burn in offerings to ancestors, Angry Birds toys, exotic fruit, meat skewers, iPhones, tea, jewelry, Italian shoes, French pastries, spices, herbs, motorcycle helmets, bootleg CDs, bootleg cigarettes, Japanese BBQ, carpets, funeral boxes, silk, paintings, and bootleg paperbacks with misspelled blurbs on the back.

The city is extremely business-friendly. I asked a local man who works for an American company how hard it is for foreigners to invest and go into business in Hanoi. “The Vietnamese government makes it easy,” he says. “Just present them with a business plan, tell them what you want to do, and you’re good to go.” The same goes for small businesses. All you have to do, he says, “is rent the space, pay the taxes, and that’s it.”

The United States didn’t normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam until 1995, so American companies got into the game only recently, but their presence is evident now. It’s impossible to miss the Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Burger King franchises. General Motors, Dell, Visa, General Electric, and countless others have invested here, too. The Vietnamese want more and will soon get it: Washington is poised to enact the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 Pacific Rim nations, including Vietnam. The TPP will remove outdated bureaucratic trade obstacles on both sides while enforcing labor standards, environmental protections, and intellectual property rights.

Vietnam even boasts its own high-technology start-ups. “The incubation and funding of tech start-ups is still a fragmented segment of our economy,” says Nguyen Pham, founder of the start-up incubator 5desire, “but we’re working on streamlining the process and modeling it rigorously after those in Silicon Valley. We organize technology events that attract world-class foreign speakers and investors. One of our notable events was Hackathon Vietnam 2014, where we partnered with Formation 8—a well-known venture capitalist firm from Silicon Valley—and with the ministry of science and technology in Vietnam. More than a thousand people attended, more than 60 percent of them developers.”

I’ve been to 15 formerly Communist countries, plus Cuba, which is still Communist. (See “The Last Communist City,” Spring 2014.) Vietnam is the only one with good cuisine. I can’t recall enjoying a single quality meal in Europe’s former Communist bloc. Marxism bulldozed restaurants along with everything else, and chefs in post-Communist Europe haven’t had much time to master their craft. Cuba’s food is still mostly terrible, though a handful of restaurants are privately owned and offer tolerable fare. The biggest problem there is a chronic shortage of quality ingredients. Yet Vietnam—still nominally Communist—somehow has outstanding food everywhere, even on the street. It must be some combination of the ingredients, the cooks, and the cuisine itself.

Prosperity never guarantees an aesthetically pleasing urban environment, but Hanoi is easy on the eyes. The city center is dominated by the charming but chaotic old quarter and the more stately and orderly French quarter, just minutes away on foot. Both neighborhoods are anchored by Hoan Kiem Lake, the city’s cultural center. Its name means “returned sword,” after the weapon that the gods supposedly gave Emperor Le Loi in the fifteenth century, which he used to drive out the invading Chinese. Hanoi sparkles with lakes—Hoan Kiem is only the most famous—and it’s studded with an even larger number of ancient Buddhist pagodas with vertical Chinese characters on the walls.

The most exquisite buildings are French and Chinese, but the simpler Vietnamese homes can also be striking. Many look as though the architects mashed Victorian, French, brownstone, and Thai architecture together, and then squeezed the final product into a vise to make it taller and narrower. (Homes and businesses get taxed by their width.) Vietnam’s Communists were wrong about almost everything, but at least they elided some of the mistakes made by their comrades elsewhere in the war against anything old. Hanoi is blessedly free of an asteroid belt of Soviet-style garbage architecture on the outskirts, the kinds that blight so many formerly Communist cities in Europe. I did see a few soul-crushing structures made of poured concrete, but for the most part, these kinds of buildings were never built, or were torn down, or have been overwhelmed by an explosion of new and better construction. Hanoi has grown exponentially since its worst days—the city’s population, under 1 million in 1979, now exceeds 7 million, making it larger than every American metropolis but New York—so perhaps the ugly stuff has just been obscured.

Read the rest in City Journal.

The War Arrives in Turkey

A suicide bomber killed 28 people in the Turkish city of Suruc, just across the Syrian border from the Kurdish city of Kobane that ISIS fought for and lost last year.

Kobane has been devastated, and the site where the blast occurred hosted a meeting of pro-Kurdish groups discussing how to rebuild the city.

No one has claimed responsibility yet, but the attack comes mere days after Turkey supposedly made its very first attempt to crack down on ISIS with a wave of mass arrests.

Maybe the Turkish government only arrested people to get Western critics off its back. And maybe the government has finally woken up to the fact that ISIS, unlike the Kurds, is a threat to the entire human race.

ISIS won’t inevitably attack any place on earth. Micronesia is probably safe. So is Belize. North Korea has other problems. But Turkey is right next to ISIS. If Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia aren’t safe, neither is Turkey.

An Uncertain Future

Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, argues that the deal with Iran is better than no deal even though he doesn’t expect Iran to stick to its side of the bargain, even though he thinks “the arbitration mechanisms will be challenging,” and even though he expects no one to be as interested in reimposing sanctions in the future as the United States will be.

It’s a tough case to make, and he admits that it’s a close call, but his upbeat argument is more worth reading than most because he acknowledges that the deal’s critics have a strong case.

More convincing, to me anyway, is Elliot Abrams’ argument that Iran got a far better deal than it had any right to expect.

Truthfully, though, this could go either way. Paul Berman, in an interesting short piece for Tablet, argues that the nuclear deal will work smashingly well if political change comes to Iran in the short or medium term and that it will be a disaster if it does not.

The deal will turn out to be a disaster because, in the short run, it will strengthen the Islamic Republic conventionally and, in the long run, will strengthen the Islamic Republic unconventionally—and, all the while, the Islamic Republic will go on treading the dead-end path of violence and rigid ideology and the dream of eradicating demonic enemies. It is hard to imagine how, under those circumstances, the deal will reduce the chances of war…

And if the deal turns out to be a good deal? This could be the case on one ground only: if the deal promotes the kind of Iranian interaction with America and the world that, as the years go by, will erode the appeal of “rigid ideology.” And the deal will turn out to be good—better than good, magnificent—if it buys sufficient time to allow the erosion to take place and the change in thinking to occur. Everything depends on this one point.

Indeed, everything does depend on that point.

Look. No one has any idea, really, what’s going to happen in Iran over the next couple of years. That country has been on the verge of revolution against the regime for some time now, and almost pulled it off after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rigged election.

Perhaps it will happen next year or the following year. Or perhaps the regime will stagger onward for decades like the Soviet Union did, long after it should have expired.

None of us knows. And because we don’t know, we can’t really know if this deal will work out or not. But if Iran doesn’t change for the better—and the regime certainly isn’t planning to change for the better—we’re going to have to start over from zero.

Most Americans Skeptical of Iran Nuclear Deal

Well, the United States and Iran struck a deal. I’ll be poring over the details in the next days and weeks, but in my latest essay for World Affairs I argue that there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that it will work regardless of the contents.

I’m sorry to be negative about this. Really, I am. Americans and Persians are not natural enemies. Some day, when Iran has a new government, our two nations will genuinely reconcile. But that day has not yet arrived. Iran’s current rulers are as implacably hostile as they’ve always been.

I’m hardly alone in my skepticism. Monmouth University conducted a poll of 1,001 Americans nationwide and found that only 5 percent of us trust Iran “a lot” to stick to the deal. 58 percent don’t trust Iran at all. Democrats are divided. 45 percent only trust Iran “a little,” and another 45 percent likewise trust Iran “not at all.”

Only a third of us trust the Iranian rulers even a little, but that’s still a large enough percentage that I can safely say we’re divided on this question.

The Israelis, however, are not divided. Neither, for that matter, are the Sunni Arabs, who are as skeptical and alarmed as the Israelis.

Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, lays out the Israeli position in Time magazine.

Back in 1994, American negotiators promised a “good deal” with North Korea. Its nuclear plants were supposed to be frozen and dismantled. International inspectors would “carefully monitor” North Korea’s compliance with the agreement and ensure the country’s return to the “community of nations.” The world, we were told, would be a safer place.

It wasn’t. North Korea never forfeited its nuclear plants and the inspections proved useless. The community of nations is threatened by North Korean atomic bombs and the world is anything but safe. And yet, against all logic, a very similar deal has been signed with Iran.

And Iran is not North Korea. It’s far worse. Pyonyang’s dictators never plotted terrorist attacks across five continents and in thirty cities, including Washington, D.C. Tehran’s Ayatollahs did. North Korea is not actively undermining pro-Western governments in its region or planting agents in South America. Iran is. And North Korea – unlike Iran – did not kill many hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

So why, then, are only Israelis united in opposing this deal? The answer is that we have the most to lose, at least in the short run. We know that the deal allows Iran to break out and create nuclear bombs in as little as three months, too quickly for the world to react. We know that the Ayatollahs, who have secretly constructed fortified nuclear facilities that have no peaceful purpose and have violated all of their international commitments, will break this deal in steps too small to precipitate a powerful global response. And we know that the sanctions, once lifted, cannot be swiftly revived, and that hundreds of billions of dollars Iran will soon receive will not be spent on better roads and schools. That treasure will fund the shedding of blood.

We skeptics could be wrong. No one is right about everything, and the Middle East is always surprising. Iran might actually mothball its nuclear program if its rulers think they can accomplish their objectives with other means.

But there’s no reason to trust the Iranians not to use the financial windfall from sanctions to back terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East. The deal doesn’t require them to stop, so why would they?

The Iran Delusion

My latest essay for the print edition of World Affairs is now available online.

The chattering class has spent months bickering about whether or not the United States should sign on to a nuclear deal with Iran, and everyone from the French and the Israelis to the Saudis has weighed in with “no” votes. Hardly anyone aside from the Saudis, however, seems to recognize that the Iranian government’s ultimate goal is regional hegemony and that its nuclear weapons program is simply a means to that end. 

The Middle East has five hot spots—or “shatter zones,” as Robert D. Kaplan called them in his landmark book, The Revenge of Geography—which are more prone to conflict than others, where borders are either unstable or porous, where central governments have a hard time keeping everything wired together, and where instability is endemic or chronic. 

Gaza, where Hamas wages relentless rocket wars against Israel, is one such shatter zone. The Lebanese-Israeli border, where Hezbollah does the same on a much more terrifying scale, is another. Yemen, which is finally falling apart on an epic scale, has been one for decades. Syria and Iraq have merged into a single multinational shatter zone with more armed factions than anyone but the CIA can keep track of. 

What do these shatter zones have in common? The Iranian government backs militias and terrorist armies in all of them. As Kaplan writes, “The instability Iran will cause will not come from its implosion, but from a strong, internally coherent nation that explodes outward from a natural geographic platform to shatter the region around it.”

That’s why Iran is a problem for American foreign policy makers in the first place; and that’s why trading sanctions relief for an international weapons inspection regime will have no effect on any of it whatsoever. 

*

Iran has been a regional power since the time of the Persian Empire, and its Islamic leaders have played an entirely pernicious role in the Middle East since they seized power from Mohammad Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, and held 66 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. 

In 1982, they went international. When the Israelis invaded Lebanon to dislodge Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Army, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders forged a network of terrorist and guerrilla cells among their coreligionists in Lebanon’s Shia population. 

Hezbollah, the poisoned fruit of these efforts, initially had no name. It was a hidden force that struck from the shadows. It left a hell of a mark, though, for an organization of anonymous nobodies when it blew up the American Embassy in Beirut and hit French and American peacekeeping troops—who were there at the invitation of the Lebanese government—with suicide truck bombers in 1983 that killed 368 people. 

When Hezbollah’s leaders finally sent out a birth announcement in their 1985 Open Letter, they weren’t the least bit shy about telling the world who they worked for. “We are,” they wrote, “the Party of God (Hizb Allah), the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran . . . We obey the orders of one leader, wise and just, that of our tutor and faqih [jurist] who fulfills all the necessary conditions: Ruhollah Musawi Khomeini. God save him!”

The Israelis fought a grinding counterinsurgency against Hezbollah for 18 years in southern Lebanon before withdrawing in 2000, and they fought a devastating war in 2006 along the border that killed thousands and produced more than a million refugees in both countries. Hezbollah was better armed and equipped than the Lebanese government even then, but today its missiles can reach Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and even the Dimona nuclear power plant all the way down in the southern part of the country. 

Until September 11, 2001, no terrorist organization in the world had killed more Americans than Hezbollah. Hamas in Gaza isn’t even qualified as a batboy in the league Hezbollah plays in. 

Hezbollah is more than just an anti-Western and anti-Jewish terrorist organization. It is also a ruthless sectarian Shia militia that imposes its will at gunpoint on Lebanon’s Sunnis, Christians, and Druze. It has toppled elected governments, invaded and occupied parts of Beirut, and, according to a United Nations indictment, assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. 

Hezbollah is, for all intents and purposes, the foreign legion of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The parts of the country it
occupies—the northern Bekaa Valley, the Israeli border region, and the suburbs south of Beirut—constitute a de facto Iranian-controlled state-within-a-state inside Lebanon. 

After the United States demolished Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in 2003, Iran’s rulers duplicated their Lebanon strategy in Iraq by sponsoring a smorgasbord of sectarian Shia militias and death squads that waged war against the Iraqi government, the American military, Sunni civilians, and politically moderate Shias. 

Unlike Lebanon—which is more or less evenly divided between Christians, Sunnis, and Shias—Iraq has an outright Shia majority that feels a gravitational pull toward their fellow Shias in Iran and a revulsion for the Sunni minority that backed Hussein’s brutal totalitarianism and today tolerates the even more deranged occupation by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. 

The central government, then, is firmly aligned with Tehran. Iran’s clients don’t run a Hezbollah-style state-within-a-state in Iraq. They don’t have to. Now that Hussein is out of the way, Iraq’s Shias can dominate Baghdad with the weight of sheer demographics alone. But Iran isn’t content with merely having strong diplomatic relations with its neighbor. It still sponsors sectarian Shia militias in the center and south of the country that outperform the American-trained national army. They may one day even supplant Iraq’s national army as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has more or less supplanted the Iranian national army. Iraq’s Shia militias are already the most powerful armed force outside the Kurdish autonomous region and ISIS-held territory. 

When ISIS took complete control of the city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, in May of 2015, the Iraqi soldiers tasked with protecting it dropped their weapons and ran as they had earlier in Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah. So Iraq’s central government tasked its Iranian-backed Shia militias with taking it back. 

On the one hand, we can hardly fault Baghdad for sending in whatever competent fighting force is available when it needs to liberate a city from a psychopathic terrorist army, but the only reason ISIS gained a foothold among Iraq’s Sunnis in the first place is because the Baghdad government spent years acting like the sectarian dictatorship that it is, by treating the Sunni minority like second-class citizens, and by trumping up bogus charges against Sunni officials in the capital. When ISIS promised to protect Iraq’s Sunnis from the Iranian-backed Shia rulers in Baghdad, the narrative seemed almost plausible. So ISIS, after being vomited out of Anbar Province in 2007, was allowed to come back.

Most of Iraq’s Sunnis fear and loathe ISIS. They previously fought ISIS under its former name, al-Qaeda in Iraq. But they fear and loathe the central government and its Shiite militias even more. They’d rather be oppressed by “their own” than by “the other” if they had to choose. But they have to choose because Iran has made Iraq its second national project after Lebanon. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. At least some of the tribal Sunni militias would gladly fight ISIS as they did in the past with American backing. If they did, residents of Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul would view them as liberators and protectors rather than potential oppressors, but Tehran and Baghdad will have none of it.

“All attempts to send arms and ammunition must be through the central government,” Adnan al-Assadi, a member of Parliament, told CNN back in May. “That is why we refused the American proposal to arm the tribes in Anbar. We want to make sure that the weapons would not end up in the wrong hands, especially ISIS.”

That may appear reasonable on the surface, but ISIS can seize weapons from Shia militias just as easily as it can seize weapons from Sunni militias. The real reason for the government’s reluctance ought to be obvious: Iraq’s Shias do not want to arm Iraq’s Sunnis. They’d rather have ISIS controlling huge swaths of the country than a genuinely popular Sunni movement with staying power that’s implacably hostile to the Iranian-backed project in Mesopotamia. 

Read the whole thing.

Iran is Not a Bulwark

An unnamed American diplomat told the Sunday Times in Britain that President Barack Obama “believes a peaceful Iran could be a bulwark against ISIS in the Middle East and the key to peace there.”

The Iranian people and government strongly oppose ISIS, no doubt about it. They are predominantly Shias while ISIS is the most deranged Sunni Islamist terrorist organization in the world. Its attitude toward the Shia is outright genocidal. It’s easy, then, to see why a powerful Shia bloc might act as a “bulwark.”

The problem here is that the Iranian-led Resistance Bloc—which includes the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a smorgasbord of Iraqi Shia militias—is the primary instigator of ISIS.

Look: ISIS is just Al Qaeda in Iraq with a different name and under new management. The Sunni tribes of Iraq forged an alliance with the previously hated American military in the late 2000s in order to vomit out the old version of ISIS.

The only reason it came back—aside from the fact that it grew strong enough to come back while resisting the Assad regime next-door in Syria—is because Iraq’s central Iranian-backed government scares the daylights out of Iraq’s Sunni minority with its heavy-handed Shia sectarianism.

An exhaustive public opinion survey in the Middle East conducted by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies found that support for ISIS in Iraq stands at four percent. Support for ISIS in Lebanon is as low as one percent. Support for ISIS in Jordan—where it’s strongest—stands at a mere eight percent.

So forget the ludicrous notion that ISIS has a groundswell of public support. It doesn’t.

Many of the local Sunnis are just making a deal with who they perceive as a lesser evil to to act as a bulwark—to use the unnamed diplomat’s phrase—against what they see as a greater evil, Iran and its proxies in Damascus and Baghdad. Westerners have forged similar temporary pacts in the past by siding with communists against fascists, and vice versa.

Only four percent of Iraqis support ISIS, but that’s about 20 percent of Iraq’s Sunnis—enough for ISIS to gain a foothold if it sufficiently terrorizes the remaining 80 percent.

The president seems to get this in Syria. “The only way that the civil war will end,” Obama said, “is an inclusive political transition to a new government without Bashar Assad, a government that serves all Syrians.”

A government that serves all Syrians may be impossible at this point. Syria effectively no longer exists. There’s the Alawite-led rump state in the Damascus corridor and on the coast, a nascent Kurdish state in the north, and the so-called “Islamic State” in the east. Stitching that disaster area back together again with an inclusive government would be delightful, but getting from here to there seems awfully fantastical at this point.

At least the president understands that getting from here to there is impossible with an Iranian-backed regime in the saddle. Why he thinks it will be any easier in Iraq is a mystery.

The US Bombs Raqqa

Coalition forces (a euphemism for the American Air Force) bombed the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa from the skies on the 4th of July.

Brett McGurk, the US envoy for the coalition, says the latest attacks were “the most sustained air strikes to date” against ISIS in Syria.

That’s great and all, but the war against ISIS is still spectacularly unserious. A mere eighteen vehicles and bridges were destroyed.

ISIS has a lot more than eighteen vehicles, and there was a time not long ago when they didn’t have any. They were just a modest insurgent force hiding out in the shadows.

They gained traction because Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria would rather tolerate fanatical Salafists than the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis in Damascus, Tehran, and Baghdad. That’s the root cause, and no one is doing the first thing about it.

There are only two ways to eradicate ISIS.

Someone will have to go in there and kill them.

Or the locals need to rise up as they did in Iraq’s Anbar Province in the last days of the Iraq war and make it impossible for the “caliphate” to operate in their areas. That might happen if ISIS crucifies enough children or lashes too many people for smoking, but in all likelihood we’ll first need regime-change in Syria and Iran.

In the meantime, we’re doing the war-fighting equivalent of fighting lung cancer with cough drops.

To Medina and Back

I reviewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali's new book, Heretic, for this month's issue of Commentary magazine. Here's the first part.

In April of last year, Brandeis University offered Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree for her tireless campaigning for women’s rights in the Muslim world. But little more than a week after announcing that she would be honored at the university’s commencement ceremonies, Brandeis rescinded its offer owing to Hirsi Ali’s record of bluntly criticizing Islamic oppression. “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” read the official withdrawal statement. The sad irony of this cowardly betrayal is that Hirsi Ali would soon write a book arguing that Islam is not an irredeemable theology of hatred and violence and that the key to its integration into the modern world lies in the religion’s vast majority of peaceable adherents. That book is Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, an important work whose impact will depend on its acceptance from Western thinkers and dissemination among Muslims across the nations.

Hirsi Ali knows whereof she speaks. She was raised in a strict Muslim household in her native Somalia and continued to bear the brunt of Islamic violence in Saudi Arabia and Kenya before fleeing to the Netherlands in 1992 to escape an arranged marriage. In the West, she became an outspoken atheist in the mold of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. Though her polemical style has mellowed recently, her sense of purpose has not wavered. In Heretic, her third book, she calls for nothing short of a Muslim reformation.

While Hirsi Ali maintains that most Muslims are peaceful, she points out that the actions of the violent minority are nevertheless sanctioned by the religion itself, and she quotes the relevant verses to prove it. There is much brutality in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, of course, but worldwide movements in which Christians and Jews cite scripture to justify mass murder or crimes against humanity simply do not exist in the 21st century. These older religions have reformed or interpreted the brutality out of their traditions.

Much of the Muslim world, by contrast, rather than scrutinizing and nullifying scriptural barbarism, either embraces it or pretends it’s not there. “The majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims,” Hirsi Ali writes, “are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.”

Westerners, of course, habitually deny it as well. When Mohammed Bouyeri assassinated Hirsi Ali’s Dutch colleague and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004, he used a knife to pin to his victim’s chest a five-page letter addressed to her. “Islam will be victorious through the blood of the martyrs,” it read. And yet a number of academics, activists, and journalists ignore those blood-stained words and proclaim Islam a religion of peace and terrorism a function of “socioeconomic deprivation.” Hirsi Ali will have none of it. “We should at least discuss the possibility,” she writes, “that he means what he says.”

Read the rest in Commentary.

Turkey Plans an Invasion of Syria

Turkey is planning an invasion of Syria—not to fight ISIS, but to fight the Kurds.

“We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday. “We will continue our fight in that respect whatever the cost may be.”

He wants a buffer zone along the Turkish border 30 kilometers deep into Syria in an area that the Kurds are poised to take back from ISIS.

As always, the Turkish government fears the Kurds more than anything else. An independent Syrian Kurdistan could encourage the people of Turkish Kurdistan to break free as well. And 25 percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish.

Turkey’s only long-term solution to this problem is peace with the Kurds. They aren’t going anywhere. They will want out of Turkey, out of Syria, out of Iraq, and out of Iran as long as those countries treat them like dirt.

The good news for Turkey—if the Turks ever wise up enough to figure this out—is that the Kurds are the easiest people in the entire Middle East to make friends with.

Making friends with ISIS, meanwhile, is impossible.

What will the United States do if Turkey stomps on our only genuine and competent allies in the war against ISIS? Probably nothing. Turkey is a member of NATO, and even if it weren’t, a war against Turkey is unthinkable for so many reasons.

If Turkey actually goes through with this, though, more people than ever will insist that Turkey exits NATO at the same time Greece exits the Euro.

ISIS Whacks Egypt’s Chief Prosecutor

Assassins killed Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s Prosecutor General, with a massive explosion that targeted his convoy in Cairo.

ISIS’ Egyptian branch, the so-called State of Sinai, is taking credit for the hit.

Barakat is part of a gangster regime that sentences people to death for their political affiliation, so one might say that what comes around goes around, but if the alternative to Egypt’s military dictatorship is a “state” that beheads journalists and aid workers and crucifies children as ISIS does in Syria, the government is spectacularly unlikely to fall.

Egypt is an emergency room case, but it doesn’t have the kind of sectarian tensions that ISIS can exploit in Syria and Iraq or the geographic divisions and post-totalitarian meltdown it can exploit in Libya. 

General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made few friends when he toppled an elected government, but an ISIS insurgency only heightens the contradictions, as Marx put it. Who would you rather be ruled by? Soldiers or theocratic psychopaths?

If you worry that Egyptians might go with the theocratic psychopaths—they elected the Muslim Brotherhood, after all, before suffering spasms of buyer’s remorse—you might be surprised. According to a poll conducted last year, only three percent of Egyptians support them.

ISIS will continue whacking people, but that’s no way to win friends and influence people who aren’t already on side.

The Background of a Lynching

Earlier this week, on the Golan Heights, an enraged mob assaulted an ambulance and attacked two wounded men inside with rocks, clubs, and chains, killing one and seriously wounding another.

The ambulance was Israeli. The wounded men were Arab fighters from Syria. The assailants were also Arabs, though they were Druze rather than Muslims.

Several readers have emailed and asked me to explain this, so I assume others are also scratching their heads. I don’t have all the answers. What kind of person attacks an ambulance? I can easily imagine it’s someone who is steeped in some real political craziness, is emotionally unstable, and has some kind of personality disorder. But a mob mentality sometimes sets in with people who are otherwise psychologically normal. I can’t psychoanalyze these people.

I can, however, explain some of the background that might shine some light on what happened and why.

The Druze are a small and secretive religious minority that lives in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. They make up but a fraction of the population in each country and are too small to form their own state.

The Middle East is a rough part of the world, and the Druze are surrounded by potential hostiles, so they made a collective decision long ago to be loyal to and curry favor with whoever is in charge in the place where they live. It’s the only way they can guarantee their own safety.

The Druze in Israel, then, are committed Zionists. The Druze in Syria are wholly on side with Bashar al-Assad. The Lebanese Druze are constantly shifting with Lebanon’s kaleidoscopic political landscape.

The Druze on the Golan Heights—a chunk of Syria captured by the Israelis in the 1967 war and occupied ever since—divide their loyalty between Jerusalem and Damascus. If Israel were to formally annex the Golan Heights, and if Syria were to accept that annexation, they would, in all likelihood, become committed Zionists like the rest of the Druze in Israel proper. But the Golan Heights may one day be given back to Syria, so the Druze who live there retain some of their Syrian identity and don’t wish to be seen as enemies of the Assad regime. That would endanger them. The Israelis have offered these people citizenship, and some have gladly accepted it, but others think it’s neither safe nor desirable.

Druze in each country are keenly concerned with the well-being of Druze in the other countries, politics be damned.

That’s the background, the context.

So when an Israeli ambulance drove down the street carrying wounded fighters from the Free Syrian Army, some of the local Druze fingered those people as enemies. They are a potential threat to the continued existence of their Druze brethren on the other side of the border since a victory by the Free Syrian Army would lead to the downfall of Assad and the possible enthronement of Al Qaeda or ISIS, whom the Druze couldn’t curry favor with even if they wanted to without abandoning their religion and converted to Islam at gunpoint.

So some of them decided to attack the ambulance and take a perceived enemy or two off the board even as the Israelis were trying to save them.

It’s a shame in so many ways. Attacking an ambulance and killing the wounded—even if ISIS fighters were inside—can only be described as a lynching. If the act were carried out by a conventional army, it would be war crime.

That ambulance was carrying Syrians to a hospital in northern Israel where Arab and Jewish doctors and nurses work alongside each other to save wounded and sick Arabs and Jews. If the entire Middle East were like those northern Israeli hospitals, the entire Middle East would be a radically different place.

Those hospitals, unfortunately, are exceptional. Violence against “the other,” sadly, is not.

The Druze are generally good people. As minorities, they live somewhat precariously and trend toward moderation. Don’t hold this ugly incident against all of them.

Turkey Chooses ISIS Over the Kurds

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furious that the Kurds in Syria are advancing against ISIS.

Ponder the ramifications of that sentence.

Turkey is a member of NATO. On paper, at least, it’s one of America’s greatest allies. ISIS, meanwhile, is the world’s most deranged army of psychopaths. Even Al Qaeda disowns it. The Kurds, though, are America’s most reliable allies in the Middle East alongside the Israelis.

So our nominal ally thinks it’s a problem when one of our real allies makes gains against the most vicious terrorist army on the planet.

We’ve been arguing amongst ourselves here in America about which is worse, the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis or ISIS. I can make a case either way. Iran is the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, but ISIS is more barbaric than any of Iran’s proxies. ISIS is more likely to kill Americans in America, but it may not be possible to defeat them until after the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is defanged because a substantial percentage of the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs see it as the only thing standing between them and Iranian overlordship.

There’s no obvious answer. We can have a healthy, reasonable, civil debate about how to proceed.

In Turkey, however, the conversation is different. The question over there is whether ISIS or the Kurds are the lesser of evils.

Twenty five percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish, and Erdogan—like most of his ethnic Turkish countrymen—are terrified that Turkey may lose a huge swath of its territory if Syrian Kurdistan liberates itself alongside Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish Kurdistan could very well be the next domino.

They are not crazy to fear this.

But they’re reacting by treating as ISIS the lesser of evils. If ISIS can keep the Kurds down, Turkey’s territorial integrity is more secure.

“ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all,” a former ISIS communications technician told Newsweek, “because there was full cooperation with the Turks and they reassured us that nothing will happen…ISIS saw the Turkish army as its ally especially when it came to attacking the Kurds in Syria. The Kurds were the common enemy for both ISIS and Turkey.”

President Barack Obama recently complained that Turkey could be doing “more” to stop the influx of “militants” into Syria. Turkey certainly could! Turkey has a long border with Syria, but it’s sealed. I’ve driven alongside it. In some areas, there are minefields everywhere.

Turkey has a world-class army—the second-largest in NATO—and could obliterate ISIS from the face of the earth if it wanted. If Syria’s Kurds can make headway into ISIS-held territory with just a ragtag militia, Turkey could liberate the Syrian population from Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and ISIS simultaneously.

We should not expect Turkey to do this, but Erdogan won’t even shore up that border.

“You should understand something,” a Turkish smuggler said to Jamie Dettmer at the Daily Beast. “It isn’t hard to cross into the caliphate [ISIS-held territory], but go further west or east into Kurdish territory, then it gets much harder to evade the Turkish military and cross the border. Even the birds can’t come from there; and our birds can’t go there.”

Turkey is not Iraq. It is 1,000 years ahead of Iraq. It is a serious and capable nation, the opposite of incompetent. It’s not an accident or a coincidence that ISIS can replenish its ranks over the Turkish border while the Kurds can’t. If Erdogan can stop Kurds from the crossing that border, he can stop ISIS from crossing that border. Refusing to do so is a choice.

He is not a state sponsor of terrorism. He is not championing ISIS, nor is he on side with them ideologically. He is not their patron or armorer. But he is letting one of our worst enemies grow stronger while stomping on one of our greatest allies.  

We seem to be reaching the end of a road.

NATO was formed as an anti-Russian bulwark during the Cold War, and ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union many have wondered if the alliance has outlived its usefulness. That question has been put to bed to an extent with Russian malfeasance in Georgia and Ukraine, but it’s becoming clearer by the year that Turkey’s membership in NATO is a vestige of an era that expired a long time ago.

Diplomats and heads of state are often to last to notice tectonic geopolitical shifts. They’ve spent years, even decades, forming relationships with their foreign counterparts. Institutions are cumbersome, bureaucratic, slow. They cruise on inertia. They have invested so much for so long. But we are where we are.

When the White House, Congress, the State Department, and our genuine allies in Europe are finally willing to face this—and they will be—Turkey should expect to be treated accordingly.

Linkage

I posted the following over on Instapundit today while filling in for Glenn Reynolds while he’s on vacation.

*

BABY KILLERS: ISIS crucifies two children for eating during Ramadan when they were supposed to be fasting.

I lived in Beirut during Ramadan. Restaurants were a little less busy, but plenty of people were eating. And I lived on the Muslim side of the city.

 

WHAT THE FUSS IS ALL ABOUT. You may have heard that Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, is stirring up megacontroversies with his new book, Ally, about the relationship between the Jewish state and America, and for his comments on President Barack Obama.

I know him personally and have read his first two books, Six Days of War, and Power, Faith and Fantasy. He appears in my own book, The Road to Fatima Gate. I can vouch for him as a brilliant historian and an eminently reasonable person. He’s precisely the kind of individual you’d want as a diplomat.

But don’t take my word for it. Read what he has to say for yourself, starting with his essay in Foreign Policy magazine.

Understanding Obama’s worldview was crucial to my job as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Right after entering office in June 2009, I devoted months to studying the new president, poring over his speeches, interviews, press releases, and memoirs, and meeting with many of his friends and supporters. The purpose of this self-taught course — Obama 101, I called it — was to get to the point where the president could no longer surprise me. And over the next four years I rarely was, especially on Muslim and Middle Eastern issues.

One need not wallow in silly conspiracy theories like Obama being a secret Muslim (Oren certainly doesn’t) to write something that’s critical, reasonable, and accurate. We all have our flaws and our blind spots. That includes every president we’ve ever had, even the current one.

 

FASTER, PLEASE. Syrian Kurds are closing in on the ISIS capital in Raqqa. They were initially concerned with just reclaiming and holding onto their territory, but offense is often the best defense, and it looks like they’re up to the job. If we want to back proxies over there, forget whatever’s left of the Free Syrian Army. The Kurds are it.

 

A MAYORAL CAMPAIGN OF HATE. George Galloway, the loudmouth former member of Britain’s parliament who declared the town of Bradford an “Israel-free zone,” is running for mayor of London.

 

A NEW REFERENDUM IN MOSCOW. Muscovites may soon vote in their first referendum since the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the issues they’ll be deciding is whether or not they should re-install a statue of the monstrous idealogue Iron Felix who founded the Cheka, the secret police that later became the KGB.

Here’s to hoping it goes down in a landslide, but if they think that sort of thing is a good idea, they deserve what they’re going to get. They'll be giving Vladimir Putin permission to crank up the whole operation all over again. (Not that he needs their permission.)

 

FRANCO STILL DEAD, IRAN STILL A STATE SPONSOR OF TERRORISM. The State Department released a report accurately describing Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The White House has yet to fully address why an Iranian government, when it receives the estimated $150 billion windfall from unfrozen assets that’s to follow sanctions relief plus the benefits of reopened trade, will not significantly increase its terror-sponsorship in the short term.

That is a bit of a hitch. Any “deal” that Washington and Tehran might theoretically cobble together won’t even begin to address this. The Iranian regime wouldn’t even sign it, let alone honor it.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Michael J. Totten's blog