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Why China Hasn’t Stopped North Korea and Probably Won’t

Senators John McCain and Al Franken are right. North Korea murdered Otto Warmbier, the 22-year old University of Virginia student sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel and shipped home last week with a fatal brain injury. It doesn’t matter whether or not the North Korean government killed Otto on purpose. Under American law, if you even accidentally kill someone during the commission of a serious crime, you will be charged with felony murder. If enslaving a tourist for a minor infraction he may not have even committed isn’t a felony, we might as well drop the word from our vocabulary and laws.

American officials met with a Chinese government delegation in Washington this week to discuss the burgeoning missile crisis on the Korean Peninsula with Warmbier’s grotesque treatment at the hands of North Korea’s Caligula added to the list of American grievances. We air those grievances to China because it’s the only country with any serious leverage over North Korea short of gunboat diplomacy.

China is North Korea’s largest trade partner—virtually its only trade partner. North Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world that China can exert a significant amount of economic pressure, but it can only work if it hurts “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-Un and his inner circle. The regime has already proven itself staggeringly indifferent to widespread human suffering inside its borders. Hundreds of thousands of people starved to death in the 1990s, and hundreds of thousands more toil away in Stalinist-style slave labor camps where 25 percent of the population dies every year.

The Chinese tend to oppose crippling sanctions, however, not because they value their trade deals with Pyongyang –they don’t—but because they think the status quo is just peachy. They don’t want a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula for obvious reasons (look at a map), but they want to maintain a strident and bellicose anti-American regime there as long as possible. If they could have their way, they’d freeze Korea’s politics in amber forever.

Sure, Pyongyang is a pain. Worse, though, from Beijing’s point of view, is Korea going the way of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with pro-Western unification following a collapse on the communist side. China is the natural hegemon in East Asia. Having a virulently anti-Western, anti-Japanese and anti-South Korean sore in the region keeps China’s competitors preoccupied and in check. Beijing has leverage over Pyongyang at the moment, but if the Kim dynasty falls, Pyongyang may not be the capital of anything any longer.

The Chinese likewise don’t want a substantial portion of North Korea’s 25 million people surging over the border if the regime collapses and isn’t replaced at once by something stable. And let’s not kid ourselves. A post-communist North Korea would barely resemble post-communist East Germany. Compared to North Korea, East Germany circa 1989 was practically Switzerland. Even post-Saddam Iraq and post-Qaddafi Libya were more advanced than North Korea is now.

And the Chinese government doesn’t give a flying fork about human rights abuses there or anywhere else. Its own human rights record is plenty dismal enough. The only reason Otto Warmbier’s death even registers is because it’s prompting the United States to ratchet up pressure on China to ratchet up its own pressure  on North Korea.

Last month, my colleague Gordon Chang showed that Beijing is still protecting its client from the United States and the rest of the world. In late May, Chinese fighter jets intercepted an American WC-135 plane in international airspace “sniffing” for radiation following a possible North Korean nuclear test. “The incident,” he wrote here at World Affairs, “is totally in keeping with China’s long history of insincerity characterized by empty, false, feigned, and betrayed promises to rein in the Kim regime.”

He also argues that the Chinese government’s deportation of asylum-seeking North Korean refugees as “economic migrants” violates the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention which it has agreed to. These people aren’t economic migrants, nor would they put the least bit of strain on China’s economy. They want the Chinese to deport them—to South Korea rather than back to the North where they will be imprisoned or executed.

Why won’t Beijing ship them to Seoul? Simple. China’s rulers want North Korea’s would-be refugees to stay right where they are. A critical mass of them could pose an existential threat to their client. Both governments understand this perfectly well. After all, on the rare occasions when Beijing is sufficiently disgruntled with Pyongyang, it does allow refugees to pass through its territory to Seoul.

While China is potentially part of the solution, it’s still part of the problem. Short of extraordinary American pressure, that’s not going to change.  

Assad Still Must Go

My latest long-form essay in The Tower magazine is live. Here's the first part.

Like it or not, the United States is getting more involved in the Syrian war despite President Donald Trump’s promise to stay out of it.

First, on April 6, after Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad again massacred civilians with chemical weapons, Trump ordered two American battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean to strike Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase with Tomahawk missiles. According to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the U.S. damaged or destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s air force in ten minutes.

Then, on May 18, American warplanes bombed a vehicle convoy belonging to a pro-government militia that encroached upon a restricted area where American and British soldiers are training local fighters to battle ISIS.

America’s Syria policy is just as incoherent now, though, as it was when Barack Obama was president. In August of 2013, the former president refused to enforce his own “red line” when Assad murdered over 1,400 people and wounded thousands more in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with chemical weapons. He meekly called for Assad’s removal but did virtually nothing to bring it about, choosing instead to lift sanctions against Assad’s staunchest ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran, in exchange for a temporary halt to its nuclear program.

The Trump administration hasn’t figured out what to do either. “Our priority,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in April, “is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said more or less the same thing at the same time. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” he said, “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

Both reversed themselves within a week. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson later said, followed by Haley who said, “It’s hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”

Since then, though, little has happened and less has changed. Like the Obama administration, the Trump foreign policy team recognizes that Assad is bad news but is unwilling to do much more than talk about it. At some point, though, we’re all going to have to come to grips with an unpleasant truth: If the invasion of Iraq proved to the American public how dangerous intervention can be, the Syrian apocalypse should have proven by now to the American public that non-intervention can be equally perilous.

Eventually, one way or another, Assad has to go.

One could make the case on humanitarian grounds. Assad, after all, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. One could also make the case on geopolitical grounds. The Syrian war, after all, triggered the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The strongest case, though, is on national security grounds. Whether or not most Americans realize it, replacing the Assad regime with just about anything but a radical Islamist terrorist state will make the U.S., Europe, the greater Middle East, and even most of the world safer places than they are now.

Destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria is our first priority. That’s not going to change. ISIS has conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks on every inhabited continent except South America, and that’s without factoring its brutal conquest of Syrian and Iraqi cities; its medieval punishments such as amputation, crucifixion and stoning; its cultural and historic erasure of ancient sites like the Roman-era city of Palmyra; and its genocidal extermination campaign against Iraq’s Yezidi minority.

The last thing the U.S. should do, though, is partner with the Assad regime. Never mind the fact that Assad is allied with Iran, America’s principal foe in the Middle East, and with Russia, America’s principal geopolitical foe. ISIS itself is a creature of Bashar al-Assad.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

What the Qatar Blockade is Really About

The blockade against Qatar, Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday this week, referring to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate, is “a very complex situation.” It certainly is. Taken at face value, it doesn’t even make any sense.

It started late last month when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain severed diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar. They said it’s because of the latter’s funding of Islamic extremism, but that doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

The Saudis have spent billions of petrodollars funding mosques all over the world to promote their extreme Sunni Wahhabi sect. Cutting off the Qataris for financing extremism is like prosecuting an apparatchik for “corruption” in a crooked police state where everyone is corrupt. Something else is going on.

The trigger was a fake news story planted by Russian hackers with a fake quote by Qatar’s ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. A story appeared on the state-run Qatar News Agency quoting Al Thani saying nice things about Israel and Iran while criticizing President Donald Trump. The emir supposedly made these remarks in a speech at a military ceremony, but he did not deliver a speech at that ceremony, let alone a speech that included those words. The incident was entirely fabricated. It seemed legit, though, since it appeared on a news site controlled by his government.

“Intelligence gathered by the US security agencies indicates that Russian hackers were behind the intrusion first reported by the Qatari government two weeks ago,” CNN reported on June 7. Russia, as always, is using cyberwarfare to open up rifts within the Western alliance and between the West and its Middle Eastern allies, once again to smashing success. This Qatar News Agency story, unlike press reports critical of the White House, is actual fake news. Real fake news, if you will. Weaponized propaganda by a hostile power.

Even so, there’s a lot more going on than a single fake news story. A single fake news story wouldn’t blow up the Gulf if Qatar’s neighbors weren’t already nearing the breaking point.

Here’s the real story: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE think Qatar is too soft on Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re fed up with relentlessly negative press coverage from Qatar’s state-run media organ Al Jazeera.

They aren’t wrong. Qatar really is soft on Iran. For starters, the two countries share the world’s largest liquefied natural gas field—which just so happens to threaten the Gulf’s petro economy—so they’re forced to get along to a certain extent. More importantly, though, Qatar, like many small and weak states throughout history that lack a powerful and reliable patron, is taking great pains to foster good relations with everyone in the neighborhood. Small and weak states that double down on the losing side in a regional conflict tend to get smashed, and Iran, like it or not, is a force to be reckoned with.

We know Al Jazeera is part of the problem because the Saudis and the others have been grousing about it for years and because almost immediately after the fake news story hit the Internet, the Saudis blocked Al Jazeera. That network is emphatically not CNN. It’s a state-run media enterprise that at times savagely criticizes Middle Eastern governments yet, for reasons that ought to be obvious, always spares Qatar’s government. Since the emir exerts considerable pressure over the channel’s coverage, it’s generally safe to assume that what Al Jazeera anchors and reporters say is the government line.

The Saudis are pulling a fast one here when they say this is about Qatar’s supposed funding of Islamic extremism. They figured that angle would get President Donald Trump on their side, and it worked.  

“During my recent trip to the Middle East,” the president tweeted, “I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!” “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he said in another tweet. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

Others in the administration can’t be fooled quite so easily. They know this is bad news for the United States, partly, though not entirely, because Qatar hosts an enormous military base from which the US is fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. “We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockade on Qatar,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday.

The US military is also contradicting the president and continues to praise Qatar as if Trump’s tweetstorm never happened.  “We continue to be grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support for our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis said at a news briefing. When a reporter asked about how that squares with what the White House has been saying, Davis said, “I can’t help you with that.”

The United States has plenty of reasons to be disgruntled with Qatar, and they just so happen to be the same reasons the Saudis and the others are disgruntled with Qatar. This diplomatic spat has been a long time coming. We’ll have to wait and see if the emir will change his behavior. One way or another, though, the Qataris need to come back in from the cold. Otherwise, for the sake of survival, they will probably draw themselves into the Russian-Iranian orbit. It’s what small and weak states do when they have no other options.  

Why the Rise of Corbyn's Labour Party Should Worry the West

My latest piece, published in The Atlantic, is live. Here's the first part.

In the days since British Prime Minister Theresa May’s disastrous snap election, the Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have been taking in the sheer surprise of their upset near-victory: gaining 30 seats after being down some 20 points in the polls only weeks ago. While May’s Conservatives won the most seats in the election—an election the prime minister expected would give her a mandate to negotiate the U.K.’s exit from the EU—they fell short of an outright majority.

May is no doubt competent, but she campaigned so disastrously that her astronomical lead evaporated in less than two weeks. Like Hillary Clinton in America last November, she offered the same microwaved establishment gruel that nearly everyone on both ends of the spectrum has been gagging on for years. Corbyn, by contrast, was, like Donald Trump, the underdog populist from beyond the Westminster bubble, known for jousting with the political class in both parties.

If the election had been decided based on enthusiasm rather than votes, Corbyn would have cleaned up. The British left’s grievances with the centrist wing of the Labour party are nearly identical to progressive complaints about the Clinton wing of the Democratic party. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Labour distanced itself from those floundering at the bottom of the economy, fixating instead  on the upper-middle and managerial classes. Corbyn, a Labour MP for 23 years before becoming the leader of the party in 2015, embodied those grievances, promising in plain English to kick over the rubbish bins in London. He shares qualities with Bernie Sanders, who praised the him last weekend during a three-day speaking tour in the U.K. Also like Sanders, Corbyn is a star among the young: More than two-thirds of voters younger than 25 told pollsters they wanted Corbyn to move into 10 Downing Street. The party’s stirring online manifesto, #WeDemand, has been shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook alone. Corbyn could have called it “Make Britain Fair Again” if it wouldn’t have all but plagiarized Donald Trump’s slogan. If he had been a little more mainstream, last Thursday would have been his.

But Corbyn, in some disturbing ways, is more like Trump than he and his supporters care to admit. The Western world, so far, seems incapable of nominating an anti-establishment populist without resurrecting ghoulish attitudes once considered extinct, like a zombified Tyrannosaurus Rex bubbling up out of the tar pits. Corbyn’s problems represent more than just the rough edges of a career back bencher suddenly thrust onto the dais—there’s an unrefined quality to his world view, a blinkered embrace of far-left positions over the years that make him seem divorced from reality. If left-wing populists don’t jettison their hoarier positions, they risk wreaking as much havoc as their right-wing populist counterparts—if they ever win outright, of course.

Corbyn isn’t an anodyne Danish-style socialist; at times, he seems willing to go all-in, Venezuela-style. He’s so far to the left that he makes Sanders look like Dick Cheney. “Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared,” he tweeted in 2013. “He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world.” Venezuela, for the record, is currently suffering chronic shortages of everything from food to toilet paper, a mass civil insurrection and murderous police brutality. Last November, Corbyn hailed Cuba’s dead communist dictator Fidel Castro as “a champion of social justice.”

There’s also Corbyn’s embrace of a virtual planet-wide rogue’s gallery of dictators and terrorists. “It will be my pleasure and my honor to host an event in parliament,” he said two years ago,“where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. ... I also invited friends from Hamas to speak as well.” Moments later, never-minding Palestinian suicide-bombings and rocket attacks against Jewish civilians, he insisted that Hamas is dedicated to “long term peace and social justice” and that Britain’s labeling of it as a terrorist organization is “a big, big historical mistake.” He reportedly praised Muammar Qaddafi’s “achievements” right at the moment NATO was debating whether or not to intervene on behalf of Libya’s civilian population in Benghazi, an intervention he opposed along with every other military action the U.K. has participated in since World War II. And while he has insisted that former prime minister and fellow Labour Party member Tony Blair should stand trial for war crimes, he was part of a movement in parliament opposing the U.K.’s decision to strike against Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic—an actual genocidaire— denying that the butcher of Belgrade attempted yet another round of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999.

Corbyn also appeared on Iran’s hysterical state-run propaganda channel Press TV as a paid guest, even after the U.K. suspended its broadcasting license. When U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, Corbyn went on the channel to complain that there was “no attempt whatsoever that I can see to arrest him and put him on trial, to go through that process” and that “this was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy.”

Read the rest in The Atlantic.

Trump's Trip a Disaster for Transatlantic Relations

Donald Trump manufactures enemies and unfriends allies like it’s his job.

His first trip abroad to the Middle East and Europe could have been a success, could have given him at least a temporary reprieve here at home as his poll numbers continue to slide. He skated through okay in the Middle East, as I wrote last week, one of the toughest places in the entire world to get good reviews. For the European leg of his trip, all he had to do was reassure our friends that the Transatlantic alliance is as robust as ever while refraining from doing or saying anything stupid. He botched it, though, in the one part of the world after Canada and Australia that’s supposed to be easy.

In his speech at the NATO headquarters, rather than calming nerves and reaffirming the mutual defense commitment in Article 5 where an attack on one member state is considered an attack against all, he hectored Europeans for not paying their fair share of defense expenditures.

It’s true that most NATO members don’t spend the suggested two percent of GDP on defense, but 22 of them pledged to increase spending over time until they reach or exceed that two percent threshold. They did this years ago, when Barack Obama was president.

Somebody should have told him.

He rudely shoved Montenegro’s Prime Minister Dusko Markovic on camera like a schoolyard bully. (The video must be seen to be believed.) In Sicily, while other heads of state walked to a plaza for a group photo, Trump refused to walk with them and waited for a golf cart driver to give him a ride, suggesting that Hillary Clinton may have more stamina after all.

“The Germans are bad, very bad,” he reportedly said at a European Union meeting in Brussels. “See the millions of cars they are selling in the U.S.? Terrible. We will stop this.”

His staff quibbled with the report, but this week he trolled Germany using similar language on his Twitter account. “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany,” he tweeted on Tuesday, “plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.”

Goodness.

First of all, the United States does not have a trade deficit with Germany. The United States trades with the European Union as a bloc, not with individual nations in particular.

Second, trade deficits, as Adam Smith Institute scholar Tim Worstall explains in Forbes, don’t matter in the slightest. “Trade deficits themselves don't matter and bilateral deficits matter even less than that. Thus the idea that the United States buys more from Germany than that country buys from the United States is simply a matter of no import at all.”

The president of the United States is badgering Germany for no reason other than the fact that he doesn’t know what’s actually happening or how the world works. (He did the same thing to Canada last month.)

“When it comes to diplomacy,” a State Department official said to the Daily Beast, “President Trump is a drunk tourist.” And “President Trump,” writes Kori Schake in The American Interest, “acts as though boorish behavior has no consequences, as though other countries have no choice but to comply with American demands.”

Other countries do have a choice, though, and apparently unlike the American president, they know it.

The new French president Emmanuel Macron went out of his way to snub him and warmly greet German Chancellor Angela Merkel instead. Merkel, for her part, went farther and warned her constituents that Transatlanticism is on the decline now. The days when Europe can count on others are "over to a certain extent,” she said at a rally in Munich. “This is what I have experienced in the last few days."

“Trump must have said some outrageous things behind closed doors for the cautious Markel to make this statement,” former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted on Sunday.

Donald Trump is his own worst enemy. He picks one unnecessary fight after another, not just with his Democratic opposition, which is par for the course in domestic politics, but also with members of his own party, American intelligence agencies, journalists, former American presidents, and our closest friends and allies.

Every one of his self-made enemies is capable of fighting back—the intelligence agencies with leaks, journalists with negative press coverage, members of Congress with investigations and (perhaps later) with articles of impeachment. There’s no telling what European heads of state are going to do, but we’ll find out soon enough.

A lot of us on this side of the Atlantic have been concerned about Europe’s own populist demagogues—Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Nigel Farage in Britain and Norbert Hofer in Austria. Rather than putting these folks in the saddle, Europeans might instead elect a batch of leaders that, with the exception of Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, are more aggressively anti-American than anyone on the continent since World War II.

Barely four months into his presidency, Donald Trump is flitting from one self-made crisis to another. When a real crisis hits—one that isn’t of his own making and one that none of us can see coming—America First could curdle into America Alone.  

The Geopolitical Education of Donald Trump

On Sunday, President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the leaders of dozens of Muslim-majority countries in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, written by bombastic travel ban architect Stephen Miller. Most of the world cringed in advance. As it turned out, Trump’s speech marks a radical departure from the crude, obnoxious and flat-out hysterical rhetoric we’re all accustomed to hearing from him and (some of) his aides on the subject.

“To the leaders and citizens of every country assembled here today,” he said, “I want you to know that the United States is eager to form closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce…We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

“It was frankly the kind of speech President Obama could have given,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said, and he’s right.

Those who stressed about this beforehand weren’t wrong to worry. Thanks to the president of the United States, our relations with Mexico are worse than at any time since Pancho Villa. He screamed at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after he’d been in office for barely a week. He even said Canada is behaving disgracefully as recently as a month ago.

The travel ban alienated our friends and allies in Iraq back in January (can you believe that was only four months ago?), and he said plenty of unhinged things about Muslims in general and Saudi Arabia in particular when he ran for president. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” he said last year to cheers at one of his campaign rallies, “until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” 

He lied—or at best fabricated a false memory—about “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks. “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” he said, again at a campaign rally. “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”

“Who blew up the World Trade Center?” he asked on Fox News. “It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents.”

“Islam hates us,” he said to CNN’s Anderson Cooper a little more than a year ago, as if “Islam” is some kind of a monolith. Obviously lots of Muslims hate us, but plenty don’t, and many of them are our friends. Practically everyone with even an ounce of experience in that part of the world can attest to the fact that a huge range of opinions toward the West exists in the Middle East. It’s as obvious and basic as the fact that lunch follows breakfast. That Trump apparently didn’t know this and spoke about the entire region as if everyone is our enemy alarmed diplomats, foreign policy professionals and foreign correspondents across the entire political spectrum.

No one who can’t tell the difference between a friend and an enemy will ever win a war in the Middle East or anywhere else. I can promise you that. Trump complained endlessly that Barack Obama refused to publicly identify “radical Islamic terrorists” as our enemy. Well, we’re also not going to get anywhere if we refuse to acknowledge that Muslims from Morocco to Kurdistan and even—to a drastically lesser extent—Saudi Arabia are our allies. We especially won’t get anywhere if we treat these people so terribly that they can’t work with us anymore.

Something huge has changed in the meantime, though. Perhaps it’s partly the fact that, per Trump’s own policy, we’re now arming Kurdish Muslims to fight ISIS. The president must have realized, at some point in the recent past, that the Saudis are more vigorously opposed to the Iranian regime than we are and that they’re softening their attitude toward the Israelis. His National Security Advisor HR McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis most certainly have described the lay of the land to him by now, and he apparently listens to them more than he listens to the likes of Steve Bannon. He acknowledged in his speech that the overwhelming majority of people murdered by terrorists are Muslims—a detail that’s hard to square with the notion that every Muslim on earth is programmed as a jihadist.

Professional haters of all things Islamic like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Frank Gaffney are unteachable. You can point out to these people that Muslim-majority Albania is among the most pro-American countries in the entire world and they’ll still describe it as a jihadist menace. It’s what they do.

Donald Trump is different. He’ll never change his personality. For the rest of his days, Trump’s gonna Trump. He is, however, capable of learning new things and reversing himself.

It’s probably safe to say at this point that the president’s earlier views were the product of staggering ignorance rather than axe-grinding ideology, and it’s easier to fill an empty vessel than to replace the contents of one that is already full.

Syria’s Surreal Fake Peace Process

Staffan de Mistura has a strange job. The United Nations is paying him to organize peace talks in Geneva that he knows perfectly well aren’t going anywhere.

“Nothing substantial" will result from the talks Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said last week. They are just for show, “merely a meeting for the media.”

Of course they are. Even journalists who cover Syria for a living are hardly paying attention, and not just because the general public isn’t interested. We aren’t interested either. The only newsworthy item here is that one of the parties can admit the whole thing is a charade and yet it continues.  

Peace talks work when both sides are tired of fighting and would rather end a war than win it. That isn’t ever likely to happen in Syria. On one side is a sectarian non-Muslim Alawite regime that rightly fears it will be genocided off the face of the earth if it’s ever defeated by the likes of the Al Qaeda and the Nusra Front. On the other side is a hodgepodge of Sunni Muslim militias, most of them Islamist, and they too rightly fear they will be liquidated if the “heretical” mass-murdering totalitarian regime has its way.

What could the two sides possibly ever negotiate? Power-sharing? Impossible. A transition to free and fair elections? Neither side would ever win a proper election and they both know it.

The Assad clan is not stepping aside. Anyone who wants him out of his palace is going to have to shoot him out of his palace. The entire world by now should know enough about Al Qaeda and similar terrorist armies like ISIS and the Taliban that they don’t compromise either. None of these people resemble in any way whatsoever former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat or King Hussein of Jordan who signed peace treaties with Israel.

Syrian peace talks are no more real than Syrian elections, where Assad “won” 99.7 percent of the “vote” in the year 2000. If the Western world were as autocratic as the Middle East and Russia, the Syrians wouldn’t even bother with fake elections or fake peace talks. They’re doing this entirely to make an impression on gullible Westerners. Judging by the near-total dearth of press coverage or confidence that anything remotely productive will ever result from the theater in Geneva, they’re wasting their time. The only people in the West who are actually interested in any of this are those who are paid to show up.

Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura is going through the motions, though, and he might even be sincere. He says there can be no resolution to the Syrian war with some kind of political settlement. Actually, there can be. The war will end the way almost every other war in history has ended—when one side wins and the other side loses.

It’s also entirely possible—and inevitable in the long-run—that both sides will lose. No totalitarian army or regime in history has lasted forever. Rather than pointlessly cajoling the Middle East’s Hitlers and Stalins to lay down their weapons and make peace with each other and with their neighbors, those of us who are actually concerned about Syria, for the sake of our own well-being as well as for Syria’s, should concentrate instead on ensuring that neither side has a future.

Arming the Kurds Is Worth Angering the Turks

My lastest piece in The Tower magazine is live. Here’s the first part:

The United States government has formally announced that it’s going to arm Kurdish militias in Syria in a bid to capture the city of Raqqa from ISIS, the “capital” of the Islamic State’s “caliphate.”

It’s about time.

The YPG, or Kurdish Protection Units, is the largest faction in the Syrian Democratic Forces and the military arm of the leftist Democratic Union Party. It is loosely aligned with the PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, in Turkey, and has carved out an autonomous region in northern Syria which the Kurds call Rojava. It is, as the Pentagon put it, ““the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”

The Obama administration crafted the plan last year, and the Trump administration initially scrapped it, assuming, for reasons we can only guess at, that the White House could come up with a smarter plan. Arming the Kurds, though, has been the smart plan from day one of the Syrian conflict even though years passed before anyone in Washington figured that out. As Winston Churchill famously said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

Aside from the Israelis, the Kurds are the Middle East’s most capable fighters. The majority are Muslims (a minority are Yezidis and Christians), yet they are as allergic to radical Islam as Americans are. They are among the most staunchly pro-American people in the entire world and make perfect military allies.

If the United States wants indigenous ground forces in Syria to fight ISIS so that our own soldiers don’t have to go in there and do it, the Kurds are the only viable option. Contrary to popular belief, Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime is not fighting ISIS, nor are the Russians. Assad’s forces are fighting just about every armed group in the country except ISIS.

There are more active militias in Syria right now than just about anyone can keep track of, but most of them, alas, are Islamist, and the vast majority would rather fight Assad than ISIS. After six years of war, political moderates who haven’t already been killed have fled by the millions.

So why didn’t we arm the Kurds earlier? Actually, we did. We just didn’t want the world to know we were doing it.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

The Center Holds in France—but for How Long?

Nearly everyone but Vladimir Putin, chief Brexiter Nigel Farage, and the staff writers at Breitbart are celebrating centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron’s landslide two-to-one victory in the French presidential election against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.

In The American Interest, journalist and Paris resident Claire Berlinski compares French voters to “passengers on a long-haul flight, colicky infants on either side, [who] find themselves trapped with a flight attendant cheerfully offering them the chicken or the plate of raw monkey eyeballs dipped in Ebola.”

Lest you suspect she is exaggerating, let’s get this something out of the way: Marine Le Pen isn’t the French Donald Trump. Sure, they’re both right-wing populist change agents backed by the Kremlin, and of course that’s a significant overlap, but Trump is closer to Dwight D. Eisenhower than he is to Le Pen. For when it comes to authoritarian demagoguery, Americans are amateurs. More than just about anyone else in the world, the Europeans are pros at it.

Le Pen’s party was founded not by an abolitionist like the Republican Party but by her father Jean-Marie and his claque of Vichy nostalgists, Holocaust deniers and embittered pied noirs from French Algeria. Le Pen père famously and repeatedly stated on television that the Nazi gas chambers were a mere detail of history and has never been able to scrub the stench of neo-fascism out of his pores.  

Two years ago, Marine forced her father out of the party and tried with some success to detoxify the National Front and rebrand it as one that is anti-European and anti-immigrant rather than quasi-Nazi and anti-Semitic, but as recently as last month she reverted to form and declared that France is blameless for the round-up and deportation of Jews during World War II.

“France wasn’t responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she said, referring to events in July of 1942 when almost 5,000 French police officers, on orders of the government in Paris, arrested thousands of Jews and held them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports stadium. All, including the children, were later deported by the French authorities to Auschwitz and murdered. “If there was responsibility,” she continued, “it is with those who were in power at the time, it is not with France. France has been mistreated, in people’s minds, for years.”

These events, and France’s complicity in them, are as incontrovertible as the Holocaust itself. The French erected memorials to the victims inside and outside Paris decades ago. Until Le Pen opened her mouth, it wasn’t even controversial, certainly not among decent civilized people. But the National Front is neither decent nor civilized. Just last month, Jean-François Jalkh, who denied that the Nazis used Zyklon B gas to exterminate Jews, was promoted to replace Le Pen as the head of the party. And members of her inner circle have been caught on camera organizing neo-Nazi rallies and waving Iron Cross flags.

These people are not conservatives. They aren’t extreme conservatives or even pseudo-conservatives. They are something else entirely, something a lot of us thought had become permanently alien to Western electoral politics. Yet they beat the conservative party in the first round of elections.

Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin openly laud each other. She visited the Kremlin in March of this year and gushed that Putin “represents a new vision…A new world has emerged in the past years. This is Vladimir Putin’s world, Donald Trump’s world in the United States, Mr. Modi’s world in India…I think I am probably the one who shares with all three great nations a vision of cooperation.” As you might expect after such comments, she supports Russia’s violent annexation of the Crimea in Ukraine. “Crimea,” she lied, “has always been Russian.” She goes even farther, though, and denies that Russia even invaded Ukraine in the first place.

Le Pen admires Putin for his anti-European nationalism, which she shares. Putin, for his part, endorsed her for the plain reason that she promised to weaken his enemies in the European Union and NATO by withdrawing from both.

Donald Trump’s bizarre pro-Putin tweets and Putin’s clear preference for him over Hillary Clinton in the American election were never as brazen as the romance between Le Pen and the Kremlin. The surreal chumminess between Trump and Putin was never going to last and may be over already, but it’s probably safe to say that a friendship between Putin and the National Front will last years.

Don’t get complacent just because normal politics prevailed in the election’s second round—the mainstream center-left and center-right parties both collapsed in the first. The underlying malady that hollowed out the establishment center hasn’t yet been addressed let alone solved.

Imagine if, during the presidential election last year in the United States, neither a Democrat nor a Republican were on the ballot. That’s basically what happened in France, and the left-wing revolt is just as creepy as the right’s. Candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon forged a political alliance with the communist party and is practically a communist himself, and he got three times as many votes as the mainstream center-left party. The squishy centrist who won the second round was only the first choice of 24 percent of the country, yet a full third of French voters would rather have raw monkey eyeballs dipped in Ebola for dinner than chicken.

So, sure, the center is holding, but for how long? Macron epitomizes the French status quo and intends to double down on it at the time when the French status quo has been broadly repudiated. Far more people on both ends of the spectrum hate it than like it. If he fails to satisfy the discontented—and it may be as difficult for him as it would have been for Hillary Clinton to satisfy the Trumpkins and the Bernie bros—the outcome of the next French election probably won’t look like this one.   

Russia is Arming the Taliban

So much for Donald Trump’s Russian reset. The United States military has just confirmed that for the past eighteen months, Russia has been arming the Taliban.

“We continue to get reports of this assistance,” General John Nicholson said at a press conference alongside Secretary of Defense James Mattis. “We support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process, but anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.”

There will be no reconciliation with Russia any time soon whether or not this is true but especially not if it is. And it almost certainly is. The Russians say they are arming Al Qaeda’s ideological twins so that the Taliban can fight ISIS. It’s a dubious claim. Heavy Russian machine guns are showing up in Taliban hands far from ISIS positions. More important is that Russia isn’t even denying that it’s arming the Taliban.

The notion that Moscow is a natural ally against radical Islamist terrorists is based on a fantasy. It’s a compelling one, to be sure. On the surface, the Russians are a bit like us. Most of them are white and they are predominantly Christian. Most of Russia is in Asia, but their capital is on the European continent. Their eastward expansion to Alaska, Hawaii and—yes—California differed in so many ways from America’s westward expansion to the same places, but our expansionist history certainly overlaps more with Russia’s than with, say, Norway’s. The United States is clearly a child of the Roman Empire, as much of the architecture in Washington, DC, suggests, while Russia has long considered itself the Third Rome after the original Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. And for much of the 20th Century, the United States and Russia were the world’s twin superpowers.

Now that communism has collapsed everywhere outside North Korea, Cuba and Laos, and now that radical Islamist terrorists menace much of the world—especially Muslim lands, but also the United States and Russia—an alliance at least against that particular threat between Moscow and Washington makes perfect sense. Americans who yearn for it and who are willing to let a certain amount of Vladimir Putin’s nefarious behavior slide to bring it about are entirely reasonable.

Putin, though, isn’t interested.

Russia’s primary geopolitical orientation has been anti-American since the end of World War II. For a brief period, Russia had far too many of its own internal problems to care a whit what the US was up to, but with the rise of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, whose view of the world was shaped by the Cold War as much as Ronald Reagan’s was, the old Russia of Khrushchev and Brezhnev is back.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Just look at Putin’s behavior—he invaded and annexed parts of Georgia, he invaded and annexed parts of Ukraine, he’s backing Syria’s murderous Assad regime in Syria and only pretending to fight ISIS, and now he’s arming the Taliban.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Russia?” Trump asked during last year’s campaign. In the alternate universe where that’s actually possible, sure.

A couple of months ago I argued that Vladimir Putin will inevitably stab Donald Trump in the front because he’s a scorpion and it’s what scorpions do. As it turns out, Putin had already stabbed Trump in the front. We just hadn’t realized it yet.

The Real North Korean Missile Crisis is Coming

North Korea makes the Middle East look like a walk.

Firing 59 Tomahawk missiles from warships in the Eastern Mediterranean at Bashar al-Assad’s Al-Shayrat airbase in Syria was not a big deal. Assad can’t strike back. Not at the United States, anyway. But that largely bloodless exercise in deterrence against the development and deployment of weapons of mass destruction will never be repeated on the Korean Peninsula.

For two decades, the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia have practiced a policy of “strategic patience” with the Kim family in Pyongyang, waiting for North Korea’s regime to settle down and moderate its behavior like communist China, Vietnam and Cuba finally did.

It didn’t work.

In 2009, the North Koreans conducted their first underground nuclear test 43 miles northeast of the port city of Kimchaek. Since then, they’ve created several more nuclear weapons—no one is really sure how many they have—and are busy at work on an intercontinental ballistic missile system that could one day wreak genocidal levels of destruction in the Western United States.

Last month, the young tyrant Kim Jong-un fired four missiles into the Sea of Japan, partly to show that he could and partly to find out how the new-on-the-job Trump administration would react. When the White House struck Syria’s Assad regime with Tomahawks, the North Koreans predictably perceived that as a message to them and threatened to test another nuclear weapon. The White House then (incorrectly) said it dispatched the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group toward the Korean Peninsula, Kim showed off mock-ups of his missiles on international television in the center of Pyongyang, and Vice President Mike Pence said “the era of strategic patience is over.” Kim is now threatening South Korea, Japan and the United States with a pre-emptive nuclear strike.

Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars says this is “the Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion.” It isn’t that bad. This looks like a real crisis, but it’s not. It’s blustery posturing masquerading as brinkmanship. A genuine crisis, however, is probably coming.

In North Korea, like everywhere else, we have only three options: diplomacy, acquiescence or war. Diplomacy, so far, has failed. The last two decades of strategic patience yielded a North Korea with nuclear weapons.

War is always horrendous, but on the Korean Peninsula it’s practically the apocalypse. Even before the Kim family went nuclear, the North Koreans placed enough artillery pieces in hardened positions along the border just 35 miles from South Korea’s capital Seoul to kill hundreds of thousands long before American and South Korean armed forces could stop him.

North Korea would lose a war, no question about it, but it would be so spectacularly destructive that intervention of any kind is impossible unless Kim starts it. And if he does start it, intervention culminating in regime-change is mandatory. He only gets to start a war once.

That’s the nightmare scenario for us as well as for him, but especially him. Neither side wants to go there.

It’s insanely not in Seoul’s interests to start a war for any reason, ever, and so far that has also been true for Washington. That calculus may change if Kim reaches the threshold where he can do to Seattle what he can do to Seoul.    

The United States has long acquiesced to the existence of a communist regime on the Korean Peninsula. If Kim is willing to quit while he’s ahead and call the status quo good enough, the US will too. It’s the best deal he’s going to get, and it’s the best deal we’re going to get.

If the diplomatic option doesn’t work—and it hasn’t worked yet—and Kim threatens to test a system with the power to incinerate the West Coast of the United States with the push of a button, it really will be the Cuban Missile Crisis all over again. This time it might not end so nicely, and the clock will likely run out while Donald Trump is still in the White House.

America First is Dead

President Donald Trump hasn’t even finished his first 100 days yet and his isolationist “America First” creed is already dead.

First, he ordered two American battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean to pound Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. According to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the strikes damaged or destroyed 20 percent of Bashar al-Assad’s air force in ten minutes.

In case you hoped or feared this might be a one-off before returning to business as usual, here’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday this week: “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

And if you hoped the United States was about to join Iran, Russia and Hezbollah in propping up the Assad regime because it’s “secular,” you’re out of luck. “It’s hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad,” Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley just said.

What a difference a week makes.

Donald Trump is hardly the first person to get the mother of all reality checks after transitioning from the campaign trail to the White House where he now gets advice and counsel from seasoned professionals rather than campaign managers, political sloganeers and sycophants. George W. Bush promised an end to nation-building abroad, then committed to nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama promised to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay. It’s still open.

The president says he changed his mind about Syria because he saw gut-wrenching pictures of children murdered with chemical weapons on television. I don’t buy it, at least not entirely, and I’m not saying he’s lying. We’ve all seen these pictures before. The Assad regime’s latest chemical attack killed roughly 100, but it killed more than 1,400 in 2013 when citizen Trump warned Obama that terrible things would happen if he did anything about it.

The images on TV didn’t change; Trump’s responsibility changed. Before winning the election last November, he wasn’t the least bit responsible for anything that happened abroad. Now he is. It’s a burden few heads of state in the world have to bear. The president of Costa Rica can’t be held remotely responsible for what happens in the Middle East, but the leader of the most powerful country in the world certainly can be, at least to a point.

Pacifists, anti-imperialists and isolationists had their way in Syria during the Obama years. We stayed out of it, and the results are worse than the Iraq War—the metastasizing of ISIS, the serial murder of almost half a million and counting, the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, and the manifestation of a Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah terrorist axis.

Smug isolationists ought to be just as chastened by events during the last decade as gung-ho interventionists.

Foreign policy is tragic and brutal. People die if you act and they die if you don’t. If you can’t handle it, don’t run for president. Because if you’re the president of the United States, you’ll have blood on your hands even if you never fire a shot.   

Last September on the campaign trail, Trump said, “I’m not running to be President of the world. I’m running to be President of the United States.” That’s true on the face of it, and no one wants him to be president of the world, but his bombastic America First sloganeering either willfully or obtusely harked back to the noxious America First Committee in 1940 which temporarily convinced the United States to stand aside while Hitler devoured Europe. A lot of people, myself included, feared we might have to re-learn the lessons of the 1930s now that nearly everyone who witnessed that period as an adult is no longer with us, but perhaps we were wrong.

Millions of people breathed a sigh of relief when the president, after telling us what he had just done and why, said “God bless America, and the entire world.” But he lost the support of the paranoid right and the far-right. White nationalist Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe himself and his followers, says Trump’s reversal is a “total betrayal” and tweeted #StandWithAssad. Paul Joseph Watson at the Alex Jones’ ludicrous conspiracy site Info Wars tweeted, “I guess Trump wasn't ‘Putin's puppet’ after all, he was just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet. I'm officially OFF the Trump train.” And here’s former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke: “I'm sure @HillaryClinton is cackling with her co-conspirators tonight. We are now fighting the war @realDonaldTrump was supposed to stop.”

You know who else is furious? The Russians, North Korea, Iran’s ayatollahs, and Hezbollah. The assholes of the world have united.

Meanwhile, Trump gained support for the first time from the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton proposed striking Assad’s airfields mere hours before the missiles began flying. Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Bill Nelson and even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi signed on, though they want to be consulted before anything else serious happens.

We are all watching, in real time, the political education of Donald Trump and the political realignment that logically follows. One of the things he’s bound to learn is that the fulcrum of political power lies in the center of American politics, not on the fringes, that when he gains support from the moderate left at the expense of the far-right, his poll numbers go up instead of down. Over the past week, his RealClearPolitics job approval poll average blipped up from 39 percent to 41 percent.

The likelihood that he can be a successful president by catering strictly to his populist and far-right base while alienating everyone else is virtually zero. But if, during the course of his political education, he sees the value in saying thank you and goodbye to talk radio rage-a-holics and builds a coalition that includes the center-left and the center-right—not just on foreign policy but also on infrastructure, health care, and everything else—anything’s possible.

Why Europe is Falling Apart

My newest long-form piece was published in The Tower magazine over the weekend. Here’s the first part.

Europe as we have known it for over five decades has been a stable and prosperous place at peace with itself, famous for its museums, cafes, classical architecture, and graceful retirement from history. But today, it’s under assault. The greatest refugee crisis since World War II is overwhelming the continent, while Jews flee by the thousands. Populist parties so outrageous that they make their American counterparts seem like milquetoast centrists are winning or almost winning one election after another. One of them—Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz—has already transformed Hungary into an authoritarian state. Russian President Vladimir Putin is swaggering like a conquering warlord and winning applause for his exploits as far west as Great Britain. The European Union has already begun to unravel and could be replaced down the road by God only knows what as an aloof United Kingdom decides to go it alone while Europe circles the drain.

Journalist and author James Kirchick lived and worked in Europe for six years, and in his bracing first book, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, he dives deep into the continent’s turmoil. The cumulative effect is sobering and alarming, but also perversely comforting if misery truly loves company. The book makes it clear that America’s political crisis is part of a larger crisis of democratic liberalism and institutional legitimacy that stretches from Seattle to Athens, and Kirchick does his American readers an invaluable service by informing them, in a can’t-put-it-down style, that they aren’t going through this alone.

Connecting Europe’s seemingly disparate troubles is a continent-wide cratering of the political center and collapsing confidence in the liberal European idea. “In the wake of World War II,” Kirchick writes, “when Europe was divided, both the political left and right valued very highly what the West had and the East coveted: an environment of political and economic freedom, religious openness (even if it often shaded into religious indifference), and peace.” Western Europeans were far more dependent upon the military power of the Pax Americana than they liked to admit, but it paid off for all of us when the Soviet Union finally imploded, calcified communist police states withered away, and Europe’s eastern half rejoined the West.

But a unified liberal Europe only lasted a generation, and the Russian bear is no longer hibernating.

The former Soviet republic of Georgia is a European-like nation located on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains. This places it technically in Asia, which, while hardly excusing Russia’s invasion in 2008, makes it a slightly different affair than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the first territorial aggression against a sovereign European state since World War II. Both of these Russian adventures are more ominous than the Russian-backed uprising in far-away Kyrgyzstan in 2010—an event most Europeans and Americans are not even aware of—because what triggered the wars in Georgia and Ukraine could one day ignite one or more violent conflicts inside the European Union itself.

In each case, Moscow concocted bogus threats against ethnic Russians and other minorities as pretexts for war, and the Kremlin has spent years laying the groundwork for more of the same in Eastern Europe, especially in the Baltic states where ethnic Russians live as large minorities, making up, for example, as much as 25 percent of Estonia’s population.

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

Kirchick points out the obvious implications. “If the ‘Russian nation,’ a unitary entity, had been wrongly ‘divided by borders,’” he writes, “then presumably it is the Russian government’s duty to reassemble it.” Adolf Hitler used precisely that reasoning when he invaded Czechoslovakia, as did Slobodan Milosevic when he and his fellow Serbian nationalists waged genocidal campaigns against Croatians, Bosnians, and Kosovar Albanians after the crackup of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.

Putin insists he isn’t just mouthing off when he says this sort of thing either. Just a few months after annexing Crimea, he vowed to use “the entire range of available means” to “protect” the Russkiy Mir, the ethnic Russian world outside the country’s borders, and the Kremlin is grooming Russian citizens—schoolchildren especially—for future conquests. A government-endorsed education manual describes its former communist empire as “an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society,” while mourning the loss of its vassals in Central and Eastern Europe. “The Soviet Union lost its security belt,” the manual states, “which a few years later would become a zone of foreign influence, with NATO bases an hour away from St. Petersburg.”

Putin’s state indoctrination has had a measurable effect. Today, 61 percent of Russians agree that “there are parts of neighboring countries that really belong to us.” Only 22 percent thought so in 1991.

While all this is happening, the West is losing the will to defend itself. When asked in 2015 if NATO should assist a member state invaded by Russia, a majority of French, German, and Italian respondents said no.

If that weren’t bad enough, regimes resembling Putin’s are rising inside the European Union itself.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have effectively transformed the country into a one-party state. Orbán rewrote the constitution to empower the executive branch of government against the others and transformed the parliament into a tin-pot rubber stamp committee. He persecutes civil society organizations, is empowering a class of loyal oligarchs just as Putin did, and ruthlessly cracks down on independent journalists critical of his rule.

You don’t have to take Kirchick’s word for it. Just listen to Orbán himself. “The new state that we are constructing in Hungary,” he said in 2014, “is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” Hungary, he boasted, is “breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West and are keeping ourselves independent from them.” He cites China and Russia as models and insists that his supporters are transcending “the liberal state and the era of liberal democracy.”

Maps outlining the engorged borders of “Greater Hungary” that existed during the Austro-Hungarian Empire are now ubiquitous on postcards, T-shirts, bumper stickers, political posters, and flags. In the closing days of World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. Many Hungarians on the periphery moved “home” to the rump state, but more than three million ethnic Hungarians currently find themselves outside the borders of their ”homeland” in Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovakia.

Reacquiring this lost territory motivated Kingdom of Hungary Regent Miklós Horthy to join Hitler and Mussolini’s Axis during World War II. This attempt to achieve a “Greater Hungary” didn’t pan out, but Orbán and Fidesz are ramping up for another try. In 2010, Orbán declared June 4, the anniversary of the Trianon signing, a “Day of National Cohesion” to lament “the unjust and unfair dismemberment of the Hungarian nation by foreign powers,” which, if Orbán is to be believed, is responsible for Hungary’s current political, economic, and psychological problems.

“No other European country has consecrated irredentism with a state holiday,” Kirchick writes. “On the contrary, it is precisely such jingoistic fervor and imperial nostalgia that the European project was created to overcome….If Hungary applied for EU membership today, it probably wouldn’t be admitted.”

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

In Assad’s Syria, the Lesser of Two Evils is Still Evil

I finished my latest piece for The Tower magazine mere hours before the White House ordered a battery of missile strikes against Syria’s Assad regime. Here’s the first part.

Last week, the Trump administration replaced Barack Obama’s spineless and counterproductive Syria policy with an even more spineless and counterproductive policy of its own.

For five years, the Obama administration impotently called for the removal of Syria’s blood-soaked tyrant Bashar al-Assad, but UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said Washington wouldn’t even go that far. “Our priority,” she said, “is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson basically said the same thing at the same time in Ankara, and did so while repeating almost verbatim the talking points of Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” he said, “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

Then the Trump administration did an abrupt about-face this week after the regime’s chemical weapons attack in Idlib province and suggested that regime-change may in fact be Washington’s policy going forward. “Assad’s role in the future,” Tillerson said, “is uncertain clearly and with the acts that he has taken, it will seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”

After blowing up hospitals and schools and butchering hundreds of thousands with chemical weapons and barrel bombs, there is no chance Assad could win a free and fair election in Syria, but his allies in Tehran and Moscow need never fear a free and fair election as long as he is in power. Assad is the kind of ruler who “wins” elections with 97.6 percent of the “vote.”

His regime has killed almost 500,000 people and displaced millions, triggering the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, but at least he doesn’t massacre cartoonists in Paris or nightclub-goers in Florida. He’s a monster, but he’s not ISIS. In that sense, at least from the standpoint of faraway Washington, he’s the lesser of two evils.

But we need to get a couple of things straight here. Bashar al-Assad is not fighting ISIS in Syria. Not really. Nor are the Russians. Assad and the Russians are fighting every rebel army in the country except ISIS. Look at a map of the country. ISIS’s territory is centered on its “capital” in Raqqa in the northeast, but Assad and Russia’s theater of operations is in the west and along the coast. Only the United States has bombed ISIS in Syria, and only Kurdish militias have seriously resisted ISIS on the ground.

Assad did, however, facilitate ISIS’s rise in Syria and Iraq. Thousands of Americans and Iraqis are dead thanks to his sponsorship of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq—the precursor to ISIS—during the Iraqi insurgency.

This is hardly a secret. “We in Syria intelligence opened all the doors for [the jihadists] to go to Iraq,” Mahmud al-Naser, an intelligence officer who defected to the United States, told the Daily Beast.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

Why Vladimir Putin Covets Montenegro

“Probe with bayonets,” Soviet ruler Vladimir Lenin famously said. “If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, stop.”

Like his late predecessor, Russian President Vladimir Putin will advance until he meets steel. Until this week he met mush in, of all places, the United States government thanks to Republican Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky who used an arcane senate rule to block a vote on the accession of tiny Montenegro—the former Yugoslav republic on the Adriatic between Albania and Croatia—from joining NATO.

“He knows the vote will be 99 to 1,” a disgruntled Republican senator anonymously complained to Politico.

Rather that spit-balling from under his desk, Senator John McCain stood and lobbed a rhetorical hand grenade, and he did it on television: “I repeat again, the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”

That was two weeks ago. This week, Paul finally relented and on Tuesday, the Senate ratified Montenegro’s membership in NATO by a vote of 97 to 2—not quite 99 to 1, but close.

Rand Paul isn’t working for Vladimir Putin. He hates war and therefore thinks it makes sense to hate NATO. “Most Americans can’t find Montenegro on a map,” he said in a speech. “Are you willing to send your kids there to fight?”

They say war teaches Americans geography, but Americans don’t need to find Montenegro as long as it is in NATO. NATO expansion doesn’t precipitate wars; it prevents them before they can even get started. Paul apparently hasn’t noticed, but—so far anyway—Vladimir Putin’s Russia only invades and dismembers nations on its periphery, such as Georgia and Ukraine, that haven’t joined the alliance. Those who hate war should want more countries under the West’s security umbrella, not fewer.

Montenegro should be safe enough inside NATO, but until its membership is official, it is exposed. Last fall, Russian intelligence agents ginned up a plot to assassinate the prime minister and install a pro-Russian political party in parliament. They didn’t do it because they randomly woke up one morning and felt like it. They did it because Montenegro applied for NATO membership, and Putin wants Montenegro for himself.

It’s a spectacular piece of real estate, by far one of the most gorgeous countries I have ever visited, with storybook coastal villages, mountains as steep as the Alps, and ancient Mediterranean forests that ceased to exist almost everywhere else in the region thousands of years ago. Russians love to go there on holiday. Americans will too, once they discover it, but that’s not the reason Vladimir Putin covets it.

Where Rand Paul sees a backwater, Vladimir Putin sees a Mediterranean beachhead. In Newsweek, Montenegro’s former Ambassador to NATO Vesko Garcevic points to a Moscow Defense Brief article by Aleksey Nikolsky who notes that in 2013 that the Kremlin made “a request” to “discuss the terms of allowing Russian warships temporary moorage at the ports of Bar and Kotor for refueling, maintenance and other necessities.”

Montenegro told Russia to pound sand.

“In the Balkans there were no states founded on rule of law, democracy, freedom,” Prime Minister Marković told Sohrab Ahmari at the Wall Street Journal in January. “We want to escape from this vicious circle that has been going on for so many centuries, and move toward NATO.”

If the Assad regime falls in Syria, Russia may lose its only Mediterranean port. And since Montenegro is gearing up to join NATO, Russia could be stuck without a backup forever because it’s the only place along the entire northern shore of that sea that doesn’t already belong to the West.

“They are ready to admit even the North Pole to NATO just for the sake of encircling Russia,” Russian Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov said in 2015. Moscow doesn’t get it, though. If Russia were a friendly country like Canada, the West would treat it like Canada. The reason the West doesn’t—and won’t—is because Russia invades and butchers its neighbors and annexes sovereign territory at gunpoint.

What will the West gain when Montenegro’s membership in NATO becomes official? Not much. Barely half a million people live there. The Boise, Idaho, metropolitan area is more populated than that. With roughly 2,000 soldiers, its miniscule army will hardly boost NATO’s military capacity by an iota.

Vladimir Putin wants it and needs it much more than we do, badly enough to assassinate an elected head of state and instigate a regime-change. That’s precisely why he shouldn’t have it.  

For years now, the Kremlin has been violently expanding its power, its influence and even its territory in Europe and Asia. Every time Putin racks up a victory and gets away with it, he grows more confident that he can take more. That’s how it goes with expansionist dictators everywhere. So if you don’t want to go to war against Russia—and only an insane person would—the fewer wins in Putin’s column, the better.

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