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Springtime for Morsi

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

Almost everyone got the Arab Spring wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest in Commentary.

How Trump’s General Mike Flynn Sees the World

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

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

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

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

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

No, he is not friends with Vladimir Putin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing them down whenever possible.

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

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

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

He recommends we do four things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Uncertain New Era Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Count your blessings.

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

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

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

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

American Brexit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your guess is as good as mine.

The New Socialist Realists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest in City Journal

An Open Letter to the Next Leader of the Free World

My latest long-form piece has been published in The Tower magazine. Here's the first part.

Dear President-Elect,

Congratulations on winning the election for the 45th president of the United States, but are you sure you really want this?

The world is a mess, as it usually is, and taking on this awesome responsibility right now is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that a devious trickster messed with by moving some of the stickers around.

You are not battling a Hitler or Hirohito that you can bomb into submission. Nor are you facing down a Stalinist empire that you can outspend into oblivion.

You and the citizens whom you have been elected to serve are beset instead by a constellation of problems—international terrorism, rogue states, and a renascent expansionist Russia. These persistent features of our international landscape may not be as dangerous as the Nazi rampage across Europe or the threat of all-out nuclear confrontation, but they are much more intractable. They will bedevil us throughout your presidency and beyond.

You will not be able to democratize the Middle East and drain the swamp of its political pathologies by using regime change or any other tool at your disposal. Nor will you be able to diplomatically “engage” your way to being liked by the Vladimir Putins and Ali Khameneis of the world. You can flush the terrorists of ISIS out of their nests and vaporize them with Predator drones, but they’ll pop up again in some other unstable and anarchic part of the world.

I hate to break it to you, but these are problems to be managed rather than solved. At least the Israelis, who have become masters of this art throughout the brief existence of Jewish state, can commiserate with your unenviable role.

You’re going to have to come to grips with it, though, because it’s all on you now.

The American president, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, is practically a foreign policy dictator. You can start wars without going through Congress. (Congress and the public will complain, don’t kid yourself about that, but it will be too late.) You can end wars—or at least choose to stop fighting and let them continue without you. You can order daring raids against the likes of Osama bin Laden if you think you know where they’re hiding, you can forge and unmake alliances, and you can initiate all kinds of black ops that the public is unlikely to discover as long as they don’t catastrophically fail.

You will have more power and authority on foreign policy than you will over any other area, and since what you do with this power can affect the entire human race, you’d damn well better wield it wisely.

So I’m here to give you some advice, and it’s not quite the same as what you’ll hear from Ivy Leaguers from Foggy Bottom and Langley in their jackets and ties. Unlike most of them, I’ve spent more than a decade on and off in the broken parts of the world. I’ve seen radical Islamic terrorism up close and personal, not just in Lower Manhattan, but also in Beirut and Baghdad. I’ve encountered violent Russian expansionism in person in the post-Soviet republic of Georgia. I’ve spent more time than is good for my health in post-war rubblescapes from Bosnia to Fallujah, and I’ve worked illegally as a journalist inside tyrannical police states from Raul Castro’s Cuba to Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya.

My experience spans a Republican administration and a Democratic administration, and though I haven’t seen it all, I’ve seen enough of it, and I’m here to tell you: No party or ideological faction has The Solution because The Solution doesn’t exist. Much of the world beyond our shores is a wreck, and the best you can pull off right now is damage control.

First things first. You need to get real about Russia.

No more “resets” or “bromances.” Vladimir Putin is not your friend.

He is implacably hostile to the U.S. and Europe for one simple reason. He recoils from the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, just as we would have done had the Soviet Union won the Cold War and expanded the Warsaw Pact to Brussels and Amsterdam.

So Putin pushes back anywhere and everywhere he can. The handful of countries in his backyard that haven’t yet joined the European Union and NATO but might some day—Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, and Moldova—must either bow to Russian hegemony or suffer the consequences.

Armenia and Belarus kiss Putin’s ring, but Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova do not, so Moldova’s breakaway province of Transnistria is occupied by Russian soldiers, while Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, along with Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, aren’t just occupied by the Russians but annexed.

Disputed territory conflicts prevent all of these countries from joining the European Union or NATO.

You can be excused if you didn’t see Russia’s invasion of Georgia coming back in 2008, but Russia’s invasion and bloody dismemberment of Ukraine should have been a no-brainer. I drove from Poland through Ukraine to Crimea in 2010 and predicted in my book, Where the West Ends, that it wouldn’t be long before Russia annexed the region. I said so matter-of-factly. It didn’t even occur to me that the notion would be controversial because it was obvious.

Ukraine’s disaffection with Russia dates back at least to the genocidal hunger-famine of the 1930s, when Josef Stalin deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the name of collectivization. In our post-Soviet era, it was inevitable that Ukraine would receive the Moldovan and Georgian treatment and lose Crimea—the best piece of real estate in the country, where almost everybody speaks Russian instead of Ukrainian, and where the Russian navy bases its Black Sea fleet.

Yet somehow—astonishingly—the CIA and the State Department did not see the Crimea invasion coming.

I’m hardly the only person who did see it. I was in the Georgian capital Tbilisi when Russian soldiers invaded and lopped off parts of that country, and the fact that Ukraine was most likely “next” was the talk of the town among Georgians, journalists, and stressed-out resident diplomats.

Surely you remember George Kennan, our ambassador to the Soviet Union under Harry S. Truman and the architect of our Cold War policy of “containment”? “Russia,” he famously said, “can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” Any and all of Russia’s borderland countries (the name Ukraine, by the way, means “borderland”) that aren’t under the NATO umbrella and refuse to obey like a good vassal will be invaded and butchered. The was true before the Cold War, it was true during the Cold War, and it’s still true today. It has been true for centuries. Just ask the residents of Siberia and Northeast Asia like the Buryats and the Koryaks who have been conquered so thoroughly that most people don’t even know they exist.

Would it be great if we could get along with Russia or reset relations? Of course. But it’s not going to happen because there’s not a damn thing you can to do change Russia’s national interests or its centuries-long hostility toward its neighbors. You want to know what Putin hears when you outstretch your hand and say we should be partners? He hears what Luke Skywalker heard in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader said, “Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”

Your predecessor Barack Obama said to New Yorker editor David Remnick in 2014 that he didn’t need George Kennan. But he did! He also needed a handful of advisers who’d spent at least some time in post-Soviet space while bullets whizzed past their ears.

Are you familiar with the phrase “echelons above reality?” It’s U.S. militaryspeak for the upper-level headquarters that are so far above the ground that the people who work there have no idea what’s actually happening. It’s where you and most of your advisors live. So please, I implore you, invite at least a couple of people into the Oval Office who have some mud on their boots.


Estonia Prepares for an Anti-Russian Insurgency

Estonia may look like a European country out of a children’s storybook, but it’s bracing to become another Afghanistan.

The Defense League is preparing more than 25,000 volunteers, including women and teenagers, to fight a deadly insurgency against a Russian invasion. It’s training them to make IEDs and strike Russian convoys in hit-and-run attacks, and the government is encouraging everyone to keep guns and ammunition in their houses and hidden in backyards and forests.

They are not overreacting.

“There’s no doubt,” British army Colonel Rupert Wieloch said on the BBC a couple of days ago, “that Russia is looking at Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania as potentially the same as what they did in Ukraine and Crimea.”

And they stand no chance in a conventional stand-up fight if it happens. Estonia is tiny. It’s barely 150 miles across at its widest and could be swallowed by Russia in matter of days. Only 1.3 million people live in the entire country. Its army is only 6,000 strong while hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers are dug in on the other side of the border.

Training soft European civilians to fight like Iraqi and Afghan insurgents (minus the suicide bombing and terrorism) sounds a little bit nuts, but Estonians would have no other choice but surrender if Russia invades and NATO doesn’t come to their aid.

NATO should come to their aid, and the Estonians should not have to do this. They’re in good standing with the alliance which requires every member state to assist any other member state that’s attacked. They decided some time ago, though, that the West might not have the stomach for this sort of thing anymore. 

The Obama administration has caved to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin over and over again, and earlier this year the Estonians got a loud and clear signal from even the Republican Party when its nominee Donald Trump said he might not jump to Europe’s defense if its member states “aren’t paying their bills.” Trump didn’t single out Estonia, which has sent troops to fight alongside Americans in Afghanistan, but former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich did single out Estonia as a country unworthy of full protection, despite the fact that Gingrich himself championed NATO expansion into Estonia shortly after the Cold War.

“Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg” he said on CBS News. “The Russians aren’t gonna necessarily come across the border militarily. The Russians are gonna do what they did in Ukraine. I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”

America’s bipartisan world weariness isn’t the only reason Estonia is digging in for the worst. Europe’s Baltic region was quiet before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, but it’s not anymore.

“A drive across the Baltics reveals a constant hum of military activity,” Washington Post reporter Michael Birnbaum wrote this summer. “Camouflaged convoys snake down dim roads late at night. Armored personnel carriers idle alongside fields. Belgian, British and Spanish fighter jets thunder across the skies. Before the Crimean annexation, it was rare to see a combat vehicle in the Baltics. Now they are omnipresent, amid a constant cycle of military maneuvers and rotations. The biggest military operation in Europe this year is underway in Poland, where 25,000 troops from 24 nations are engaged in combat exercises that include live fire from tanks.”

And this week, Estonia accused the Russian air force of violating its air space for the sixth time this year. Russia denies it, of course.

If Russia decides to invade Estonia, it won’t be hard for Vladimir Putin to come up with an excuse. Estonia is 25 percent Russian. All he has to do to claim the Russian minority is being mistreated and needs Moscow’s protection. Sure, it will be a ludicrous claim, but that’s exactly what he did when he invaded Ukraine, annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fomented war in the Russian-speaking Donbass region.

Katja Koort, an ethnic Russian born in Estonia, wrote about the tension between her community and the Estonian majority here in World Affairs two years ago.

Today, parts of the Russian community in Estonia remain quite isolated because many ethnic Russians have stronger links to their historic homeland than to their country of permanent residence. Considering the fact that more than three hundred thousand Russian-speaking people (including Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others) are living in Estonia, accounting for approximately a quarter of the whole country’s population, it’s no surprise that the reluctance of some of them to integrate into Estonian society has caused a number of socioeconomic and political problems, most visibly in major industrial areas of the Soviet era like Ida-Viru County, bordering Russia in the northeast, and the capital, Tallinn. More than twenty years after the restoration of Estonia’s independence, the opinion that time would automatically resolve the integration issue of non-ethnic Estonians, and that the younger generation born here would blend into Estonian society, has not been confirmed in practice.

[…]

The role of Russian media in inciting such ethnic hatred cannot be underestimated, even more so because the standards of official Russian media have sunk back to where they were during the depths of the Cold War. With a few cosmetic exceptions, Russian television news today resembles Stagnation Era propaganda: the nightly program transmits an exaggerated and biased picture of an evil and threatening Western world that now includes the Baltic states, Georgia, and Ukraine. As a counterweight, authorities present a glorified picture of Russia, on display most recently at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II is another favorite theme of Russian programming, and one particularly useful for Putin during his misadventure in Ukraine. Indeed, the victory is evidently the only achievement in recent history that not only upholds Russians’ national pride but also helps justify current military intrusions into neighboring countries that are still portrayed to the people within the Russian sphere of influence as peacekeeping missions undertaken to defend the Russian people. Ironically, Russia’s actions in Ukraine today are very much like those of Nazi Germany in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938–39. In this light, Putin’s assertion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century sounds especially ominous.

Estonia’s fears may be overblown. A Russian attack against a NATO member is a very different proposition than kicking around largely defenseless nations like Georgia and Ukraine. Putin knew perfectly well that the United States wouldn’t declare war against him when he attacked isolated countries, but he’d be risking another world war if he struck the Western alliance, especially when British, Belgian and Spanish fighter jets are traversing the skies.

Also, the dovish Obama is on his way out. Hillary Clinton might replace him, and she’s always been more hawkish than he is. If the Republicans take back the White House, I’d expect Trump to instantly reverse his opinions of Putin and NATO if Russia actually mounts an invasion of Europe.

Estonians aren’t willing to bet their country on it, however. Besides, even if Europe and the United States do come to Estonia’s aid in the event that Putin miscalculates and thinks he can get away with something he can’t, Russia will still win the first round.

“If Russian tanks and troops rolled into the Baltics tomorrow,” writes Dan De Luce in Foreign Policy, “outgunned and outnumbered NATO forces would be overrun in under three days. That’s the sobering conclusion of war games carried out by a think tank with American military officers and civilian officials.”

A report by Rand Corporation backs that up. “In a series of war games conducted between summer 2014 and spring 2015, RAND Arroyo Center examined the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The games' findings are unambiguous: As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.”

The UK’s Daily Mail sent a journalist to the Russian-Estonian border recently and quoted a Russian businessman who lives in St. Petersburg and has a weekend apartment in Tallinn. “Each time I cross here,” he said, “I think it may be the last. Suddenly things are different and people are talking of World War Three. This is the front line between East and West. I am worried, full of foreboding about what happens next.”

Frankly, I doubt Russia will actually invade Europe, but I don’t doubt it the way I doubt Russia will send fighter jets into the skies over New York and Washington. I’m plenty sure that’s not going to happen, but Estonia (and Latvia and Lithuania) isn’t New York. The fact that we're even talking about this is not a good sign. Putin might test the US and Europe with a small and plausibly deniable operation or incursion like he did in Ukraine, where he lied and said Russian troops weren’t involved. That’s how Gingrich said Putin would probably do it, and he’s right. And if the West responds with nothing but hand-wringing and talk, Estonia had better fill up its sandbags. 

Children of the Revolution

City Journal sent me to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer. More than 20,000 journalists were there, and since I covered the convention for a quarterly magazine, it’s probably safe to say that my piece was published dead-last.

I had to be sure, then, that what I wrote wouldn’t be dated before it even saw print, and I tried to write one that will be relevant for many years.

Here’s the first part.

In this year’s race for the White House, American voters nearly had to choose between a fake Republican and a fake Democrat. Billionaire real-estate developer and reality TV star Donald Trump thumped his opponents in the Republican primary after spending his entire adult life as a boorish Democrat. Bernie Sanders nearly grabbed the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton despite spending his entire Senate career as an independent socialist, well to the left of the Democratic Party.

Sanders and Trump are flip sides of the same populist coin. At a glance, they appear to be ideological opposites. Whether incidentally or on purpose, Trump appeals to the so-called alt-Right—the ragtag crew of white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, Muslim-haters, neo-Confederates and “birthers.” Sanders, meanwhile, appeals to what might be called the alt-Left—assorted Marxists, “safe-space” activists, cop-haters, anti-Zionists, anti-vaxxers, and blame-America-firsters. Look closer, though: both candidates are populist anti-elitists who claim that “the system” is “rigged.” Both promised to kick over the garbage cans in Washington. Both railed against money in politics. Both claimed that immigration depresses working-class wages. Isolationists in economics and in war, they bucked mainstream Republicanism and Clintonism. And, as Troy Campbell put it in Politico earlier this year, they are both “enabling dissenters” who have “legitimized for discussion ‘fringe beliefs’ that millions of Americans beforehand had been unsure of or too shy to fully embrace, but nonetheless felt strongly about.”

Trump mounted a successful insurgency against the Republican establishment; his rise has ignited fratricidal warfare in the GOP, and no one knows where it will end. The Democratic Party establishment had better luck battling against the Sanders insurgency, putting it down, at least for the time being. But Hillary Clinton is the standard-bearer for a status quo that huge numbers of people on both sides of the political spectrum can no longer stand. In the years ahead, Sanders’s overwhelmingly young supporters will only become more numerous and engaged. If they pull off a hostile takeover someday, the Democratic establishment can’t say that it didn’t hear the warning shots—they rang out loud and clear at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this past summer.

If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that Philadelphia was ground zero for an anti-Clinton insurgency. When I went downtown to pick up my press credentials the day before the convention, furious Sanders supporters swarmed the sidewalks, blocked streets, snarled traffic—and guaranteed overtime pay for local police officers. They chanted, “Hell, no, we won’t vote for Hillary!” They carried placards and signs. CAPITALISM HAS OUTLIVED ITS USEFULNESS, read one. I saw “Bernie 2016” T-shirts everywhere and not a single Hillary shirt. Even without the T-shirts, the Sanders activists were easy to spot. They were the ones who looked like they’d just eaten a sack of lemons. Right in front of Philadelphia’s gorgeous City Hall—it’s the largest in the United States and could fill in for the Paris City Hall in a pinch—a Sanders crowd impersonated a Donald Trump rally, chanting “Lock her up!” and carrying “Hillary for Prison” signs.

Traffic ground to a standstill. My taxi driver ranted and raved, banging on the steering wheel over and over again. He called me “sir,” but I nevertheless felt guilty for being one of tens of thousands of outsiders who had effectively colonized his city and made it nearly impossible for him to do his job. “I’ve been a Democrat my entire life,” he said, “but this year I’m voting for Trump.”

At first glance, it appeared that nearly everybody in Philadelphia hated Clinton, until I saw that the city center was packed with DNC volunteers. They, too, were easy to spot. All wore the same light-blue T-shirts reading “Democratic National Convention” on the front and “Ask Me” on the back. I chatted with some of them, partly because I needed directions and also because I wondered what they thought of the protesters. They made no secret of their contempt for “the Bernie people,” as they called them.

Sanders activists weren’t the only ones taking to the streets that week, hoping for coverage from the journalist hordes. Even more extreme leftist demonstrators gathered as close as they could to the delegates. They screamed, “Go home, F*** Hillary,” and burned American and Israeli flags. Some shouted “Long live the Intifada!,” referring to the wave of Palestinian suicide-bombers who exploded themselves on Israeli buses and in Israeli cafés in the early 2000s.

Philadelphia native Erica Mines led a protest march against police brutality, yelling, “Hillary Clinton has blood on her hands.” One of the signs in her rally read, “Hillary, Delete Yourself.” “Hillary, you’re not welcome here,” read another. “I need all white people to move to the back!” Mines thundered. “This is a black and brown resistance march! If you are for this march and you are here to support, you will take your appropriate place in the back!”

Those whose favored candidates lose a primary election often feel bitter toward the winner, but the Sanders supporters were furious at the entire Democratic Party for allegedly stealing the nomination. Just two days earlier, WikiLeaks had dumped a trove of e-mails onto the Internet, probably acquired from hackers backed by Russian intelligence, that proved that party elites had had it in for Sanders all along. Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had just resigned her position, and at another rally downtown, Sanders supporters chanted, “Debbie is done!”

Sanders and his supporters had a right to be angry, but it doesn’t matter what the establishment wants if the voters want something else. Just look at the GOP. The Republican establishment went after Trump with hammer and tongs, but primary voters put him over the top, and their second choice, Ted Cruz, is another antiestablishment crusader. Establishment pols can’t force voters to do what voters don’t want to do.

The Democratic establishment didn’t have to fight as hard as their Republican counterparts. If Sanders had been ahead during the primary season instead of perpetually lagging behind, the Democratic establishment almost certainly would have blasted him with both barrels, but a Sanders win never looked likely. He won small, overwhelmingly white, states; but Clinton won larger, racially diverse, states in one landslide after another, not because the system was rigged but because Sanders came across to most nonwhite voters as an alternative novelty candidate. The establishment could hold its collective breath and ride out the storm.

The 2016 Democratic National Convention actually sprawled across two main venues: downtown, at the Philadelphia Convention Center, the place for untelevised (and unscripted) meetings and panel discussions between delegates and other party officials; and, a few miles south, the Wells Fargo Center arena in the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, where party big shots delivered speeches in front of the television cameras.

On the first day, I headed for the Convention Center for the morning meetings before the televised portion from the Wells Fargo Center kicked off in the late afternoon. On my way inside, a man on the corner handed me a pamphlet for the Communist Party. Everyone who went in got one. The DNC couldn’t keep Communists away from the perimeter any more than it could keep the angry Bernie legions away.

I tossed the Communist propaganda into the garbage and sighed, relieved that I could put the heat, the anger, the yelling, and the political whack jobs behind me. No one could set foot in the convention center without credentials, and the air inside the building was 30 degrees cooler and 50 percent less humid. Still, 100 percent of the T-shirts inside the Convention Center had Bernie Sanders’s name on them. Had I been whisked into an alternate universe where Hillary Clinton lost the primary? Were the halls of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland the previous week filled with people wearing Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio T-shirts? Not a chance.

After a few minutes, I figured it out. Clinton supporters didn’t wear T-shirts. They dressed professionally. Some sported a small Hillary button next to an American flag pin, but they otherwise looked like managers and corporate executives. Sanders supporters looked like hipsters who’d just spent the night on somebody else’s couch, and they appeared to be, on average, about 20 years younger than everyone else.

The data support my observations. Young primary voters overwhelmingly pulled the lever for Sanders, while older voters went overwhelmingly for Clinton. In New York, for instance, Sanders beat Clinton among voters under 30 by a whopping 53 points, yet Clinton still carried the state by 16 points.

Those aren’t the only political data that set young millennials apart from their elders. According to an exhaustive report by political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in the Journal of Democracy, young people today are considerably more authoritarian and antidemocratic by attitude and temperament than any other generational cohort, especially baby boomers. Only 30 percent think that it’s “essential” to live in a country with a democratic system of government, and a terrifying 24 percent actually think that a democratic system of government is a bad thing. Only 32 percent of millennials think that it’s “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.” According to a Pew Research Center report, 40 percent of millennials want the government to ban “offensive” speech.

“The decline in support for democracy,” Foa and Mounk write, “is not just a story of the young being more critical than the old; it is, in the language of survey research, owed to a ‘cohort’ effect rather than an ‘age’ effect.” In other words, millennials are likely to carry these ideas and attitudes with them for the rest of their lives. Their contempt for free speech is a stunning reversal of the Free Speech Movement on university campuses in the 1960s led by young boomers who fought hard to topple institutional censorship. Many of today’s young adults, by contrast, want to impose institutional censorship—not just on college campuses but across the nation.

I slipped into a Small Business Council meeting, attended by perhaps 150 people along with a handful participating in a panel. I saw plenty of Hillary buttons and small American flag pins. Nobody wore a Bernie T-shirt. In fact, no one in that room wore any kind of T-shirt. This was a room full of professionals, not unemployed college kids. It had the look and feel of a Rotary Club meeting.

By contrast with the unglamorous and somewhat dreary discussions going on at the Convention Center, the program at the Wells Fargo Center was a pep rally and commercial for TV. The arena is far removed from the city center, in a gigantic ocean of parking lots near two other stadiums. Federal and local authorities set up a perimeter a mile and a half away, manned by police officers who ensured that everyone who passed that point had the proper credentials. Protesters and would-be assassins could not get any closer without being arrested—or shot.

Those of us with credentials had to walk for a half-hour through blazing sunshine, without shade. Temperatures pushed 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. The air was as heavy and hostile as Baghdad’s. My clothes stuck to my skin. I could smell the tar bubbling on the asphalt. I envied, for once, the Sanders delegates in their soft shoes and T-shirts.

Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and heavily armed Secret Service agents manned metal detectors. Black jeeps with the words “Counter Terrorism” stenciled on the sides roamed inside the perimeter. Helicopters flew overhead. Snipers took up positions on the stadium roofs. I haven’t seen so much security anywhere in the world except on military bases in Iraq.

Read the rest in City Journal.

 

The Battle for Mosul is On

A coalition of Iraqi government forces, Christian militiamen, and Kurdish soldiers in home-made post-apocalyptic battle tanks are now on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and with air support from the US and Britain, they are poised to retake it from ISIS.

Mosul is the last Iraqi city still under ISIS control. Washington and Baghdad saved it for last because, with a normal population of more than two million people, it will likely prove the most difficult battle.

The number of ISIS fighters inside the city is estimated at less than 10,000, but they’ll be fighting guerrilla-style with booby traps, car bombs, IEDs and suicide bombers. ISIS has also dug in deep underground with a vast network of Vietcong- and Hezbollah-style tunnel networks. Rooting them out of there is going to be a nightmare.

The cities of Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi were purged with the help of Iranian-backed Shia militias. This time, Assyrian Christians and Kurds are backing up the Iraqis instead.

The Kurds are the best fighters in the region after the Israelis, and they are by far our most reliable allies. They are consistently on the right side of every conflict, against both secular tyrants like Saddam Hussein and all manner of religious totalitarians like Al Qaeda and ISIS.

And they are truly formidable fighters. Attacking Kurdish territory is as brain-dead as attempting an invasion of Texas. At the height of his power, Saddam Hussein had the fourth-largest army in the world, yet Kurdish fighters, thanks to a British and American no-fly zone, fought and won against Baghdad in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War with nothing but small arms.

They’re making their own tanks now, if “tank” is the right word for contraptions that appear air-lifted out of Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead. You can tell just by looking at them that they’re not as fireproof as an M1 Abrams, a Merkava, or a Russian T-4 Armata, but they don’t have to be. The Kurds are fighting terrorists, not the Wehrmacht.

ISIS is doomed. Fewer than 10,000 terrorists are currently facing off against almost 100,000 Kurdish and Iraqi fighters. They aren’t fighting “imperialists” this time, but indigenous Muslims and Christians, many of whom, especially on the Kurdish side, would be willing to fight with kitchen knives if they had to.

A Kurdish general says he expects the fighting to last roughly two months, which seems about right since taking back smaller Iraqi cities took a couple of weeks. However long it takes, ISIS is going to lose Mosul, just like it lost Tikrit and Fallujah.

“They will come back with a new name and they'll be more extreme and more barbaric,” Kurdish Lieutenant-Colonel Fariq Hama Faraj told the Military Times. “If you look to the history of these organizations we see that each one is more extreme than the last.”

That has been true so far, but it’s hard to imagine a nastier terrorist army than ISIS. The only thing limiting ISIS’ barbarism is its dearth of technology. Does anyone doubt for a moment that it would use nuclear weapons if it had them? If it had a superpower’s arsenal, mushroom clouds would have already risen over Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus, Tel Aviv, Brussels, Paris and Washington.

Even if ISIS were forced out of every last stronghold in both Syria and Iraq, it would still exist in some form, for sure, but the whole point of denying it territory, especially urban territory, is so it can’t amass military strength like a conventional state.

A lot of ISIS fighters are going to die, but they are part of a global organization and the survivors will fly away and land somewhere else like exploding mold spores. Some will hunker down elsewhere in Iraq. Some may head to Libya, others to Egypt’s increasingly anarchic Sinai peninsula.

Most will probably crawl back to Syria where they came from. ISIS is still going gangbusters there, especially in and around its “capital” in Raqqa. Contrary to popular belief—and propaganda out of the Kremlin—neither the Assad regime nor Vladimir Putin’s Russia are fighting ISIS. Their only concern is keeping the Arab Socialist Baath Party propped up in its rump state in Damascus and along the Mediterranean. ISIS still has a free hand to do whatever it wants out in the desert.

Some fleeing ISIS fighters will probably make a beeline for Europe and the United States. It won’t be easy for them to get here. The State Department has a notoriously difficult time vetting refugees, but more ISIS members than ever are now known to foreign intelligence agencies. Syrian rebels, for instance, have handed vast amounts of intelligence on ISIS’ network of foreign fighters to the US while other troves of information, much of it also about foreign fighters, including American citizens, have been obtained directly by the US military.

It won’t be easy for these people to get here when they run out of Mosul, but you can bet your bottom dollar that at least some of them are going to try.

Slow Blogging This Week

Two weeks ago, my mother-in-law died of liver and kidney failure.

My wife and I have just returned home from Southern California where we scattered her mother’s ashes at sea off the coast of Ventura. She is doing okay, but her father is having a much harder time. Her parents were married for 49 years.

There’s plenty going on in the world right now, but it’s going to take me a couple of days to catch up and get back in the swing of things. Thanks for being patient.

What Just Happened in Colombia?

By a razor-thin margin of less than half a percentage point, Colombian voters narrowly rejected a proposed peace plan that would have formally ended the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere.

Almost everyone thought the referendum would pass, that it was a mere formality after years of painstaking negotiations in Cuba, but no.

The UK’s Independent calls the vote “Farcxit.” Indeed, the peso crashed hard against the dollar for the same reason the British pound fell after Brexit—international markets hate uncertainty, especially where war and peace are concerned.

“If Colombians were dinosaurs,” one supporter of the peace deal said on social media, “we would vote for the meteorite.”

For more than five decades, the Soviet- and narco-backed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has waged a brutal insurgency against the Colombian government and its people. When Soviet largesse dried up at the end of the Cold War, the guerrillas turned to kidnapping and drug trafficking to fund their insurgency, and they’ve used just about every terrorist tactic short of suicide-bombings since the very beginning. More than 220,000 people have been killed since the war started in 1964, and more than seven million have been displaced.

So why did a slim majority of the population vote “no” in a national referendum to end the war once and for all?

Because the peace deal was too nice to the FARC.

Amnesty was part of the package, of course. All the FARC leaders could have stayed out of prison if they confessed and made reparations. Worse, the peace treaty would have given the FARC ten seats in Congress—five in the Senate and five in the House—for ten years.

Plenty of wars end with amnesty for the losing side, including the American Civil War. Confederate soldiers, officers and political leaders surrendered partly because they lost on the battlefield but also because they knew they’d be citizens with equal rights rather than corpses, prisoners or subjects. President Andrew Johnson, who followed Abraham Lincoln in the White House, issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon to all but a few who had participated in the rebellion against Washington. The war would have lasted longer and ended even more bitterly otherwise.

Giving the FARC ten seats in Congress, however, would have rewarded them for their violence. Colombia is a democratic country. The only people who deserve seats in the Congress are those with enough popular support to win a proper election.

The FARC is and has always been communist. Communists prefer bullets and barbed wire to ballots. Every communist nation in the history of the world has been a police state. All communist rulers murdered their way into power and murdered and jailed opponents to stay in power. Rewarding the FARC’s kidnapping and bloodshed with an unearned share of an otherwise functioning democracy would have been a travesty far worse than amnesty.

Former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe led the political opposition to this treaty, which should surprise no one. He’s the man who turned the conflict around during his presidency between 2002 and 2010. He did it by clearing and holding guerilla-occupied territory, ramping up the police and army presence in dangerous areas, improving the government’s human rights record, assisting internally displaced people and convincing murderous right-wing militias to disarm. Call him Colombia’s David Petraeus. He knows how the beat the guerrillas and is confident that they can be whipped even harder if need be.

If I lived in Colombia, I probably would have voted for the peace deal with extreme reservations. At the same time, I’d probably be relieved that it failed by a miniscule margin because it will force the FARC to accept harsher—and much fairer—terms.

Make no mistake. The FARC is willing to negotiate because the government spent a good solid decade kicking its ass. It has been losing and losing badly for a long time and has absolutely no chance of a miltary or political victory, ever.

Even without a final peace treaty, violence in Colombia has dropped so sharply during the last couple of years that the country is becoming a must-visit tourist destination. The city of Medellín, once among the most violent and hellish on earth, has won a number of international awards for its urban dynamism, including the City of Year Award from the Urban Land Institute, the Lee Kwan Yew World City Prize, and another for urban design from Harvard University.  

We’ll know the Syrian civil war is well and truly over, whether or not it says so on paper, if Aleppo ever wins these kinds of prizes.

The Colombian vote was so close that the results were in range of a rounding error. Just 50.24 percent voted no. Another treaty with just slightly harsher terms should at least narrowly pass, and it might even pass by a lot.

So the FARC leaders are spectacularly unlikely to ramp up the violence again. They’ll go back to Havana and swallow that pill if the alternative is more fighting that they can’t possibly win and that could easily lead to their death, imprisonment or permanent exile.

I could be wrong, of course, but if they’re willing to risk that by setting the country on fire again, I’ll eat my hat. Colombians are used to war. Most of them have never known anything else. If it takes a little more fighting to end this thing properly, they’ll do it. And they’ll win. 

Trump Botches Iraq

Donald Trump hit Hillary Clinton hard on foreign policy during the first presidential debate Monday night.

“Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS,” he said. “Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out -- what, they shouldn't have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed.”

Bernie Sanders has made a similar argument. Lots of people on both the left and the right have made similar arguments. Democrats love to blame ISIS on George W. Bush for invading Iraq, while Republican partisans blame ISIS on Obama and Clinton for withdrawing from Iraq prematurely.

They’re all wrong for one simple reason.

ISIS is a product of the Syrian war, not the Iraq war.

The Syrian civil war started in 2011, eight years after the United States invaded Iraq and three years after President Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that included a deadline for all American troops to leave the country. All combat forces were out in 2010. Only a small “transitional force” remained until 2011.

Whether or not invading was a good idea, leaving almost certainly was, and in any case, it was inevitable. The war was over. Americans didn’t want to be there anymore. Iraqis didn’t want us hanging around either. Public opinion in both countries mandated withdrawal.

I visited Iraq seven times as a foreign correspondent. On my final trip, in 2008, I was bored. It was a hard country to write about then because it was more or less stable. The various militias and terrorist organizations had been routed. If the Iraqis had their act together, they’d be in fine shape by now after eight years of peace.

An entirely separate chain of events led to the rise of ISIS. It started in Tunisia when a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi in the remote town of Sidi Bouzid doused himself with gasoline and lit a match to protest the crooked authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Non-violent protests swept across the country like a human tsunami. After a short and furious month, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. Tunisia has enjoyed several free and fair elections in the meantime and is currently governed by a secular center-left government.

Tunisia is the one Arab Spring success story, and ousting Ben Ali triggered copy-cat revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria. All failed in their own way, though no revolution has failed as spectacularly as Syria’s.

What began as a non-violent protest movement for reform against Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party transformed over time into an armed insurrection. Relatively moderate forces fought both alongside and against Islamist factions like the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Foreign fighters poured into the country from all over the world, and three years into the bloodshed and mayhem, in 2014, ISIS declared its “caliphate” in the Syrian city of Raqqa in the wake of the withdrawal of Assad’s armed forces.

That’s how it started, and the Syrian civil war is emphatically not a product of the Iraq war. Follow the international chain of causation backwards and you won’t end up in Baghdad, but in Tunisia. ISIS—or something that looks and sounds a lot like it—would have sprung up in Syria even if Iraq were an Arab version of Switzerland.

To be sure, ISIS is the reconstituted and rebranded version of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which reared its ugly head in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein, so in that sense it does appear, at a glance anyway, that ISIS is the product of the Iraq war rather than the Syrian war, but here’s the thing: Al Qaeda in Iraq effectively ceased to exist for years after losing to the American and Iraqi armed forces in the mid-to-late 2000s. It lost every scrap of territory and its entire leadership was erased.

If ISIS didn’t exist, and if Al Qaeda in Iraq never existed, the Nusra Front, which is the Syrian franchise of Al Qaeda, would be recruiting all the foreign fighters, and the Nusra Front has never even set foot in Iraq.

Donald Trump (along with Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson and so many others) talks about Iraq as if the Middle East would be fine if the Baath Party were left in place in Baghdad. It’s a frankly ludicrous proposition. The Baath Party is still in place next-door in Syria, and how’s that working out?

These kinds of governments can only keep a lid on things until they can’t.

Trump is partly right in one sense, at least. If Presidents Bush and Obama had acted differently, and if Iraq were somehow—miraculously—stable, ISIS would not have been able to invade and conquer the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi from Raqqa. ISIS (or something like it) would still exist, but might be confined to Syria.

How much of an improvement would that be? By focusing all its attention on Syria instead of spreading itself thin across two separate countries, ISIS could very well  control twice as much territory in Syria and might even have overthrown the Assad regime by now. (We could speculate all day, but nobody can possibly know.)

Anyway, ISIS is spreading all over the world from Syria, not just into Iraq. It has roughly 20,000 fighters. The overwhelming majority aren’t from either Syria or Iraq. It’s a genuinely international terrorist army, forged in the vacuum left behind by the cleansing of Assad’s army in the Syrian Desert.

At least it’s not spreading everywhere. ISIS controls no territory in Tunisia. It controls no territory in Morocco or Jordan or Algeria. ISIS and organizations like it can only conquer and hold ground in failed states and other anarchic places, of which there are legion.

We’d have a deadly serious ISIS problem on our hands even if Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had been running the White House for the past sixteen years and never went anywhere near Iraq. The problem would have a different shape and different details, sure, but let’s not kid ourselves here. There is no policy recipe that any American president can come up with that will prevent failing Middle Eastern countries from failing. Nor is there any conceivable policy prescription that can stop ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar entities from recruiting the disaffected, the radical, the extreme, and the psychopathic.

America’s available foreign policy options are so narrow at this point that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would likely make similar decisions about tackling ISIS next year. They’d both use the Air Force and drone strikes, and they’d both assist local ground forces like the Kurdish Peshmerga. They’d both work with Vladimir Putin’s Russia whether they want to or not, they’d both have to deal with the increasingly deranged Turkish president whether they like it or not, and neither are remotely likely to mount a full scale invasion of Iraq or Syria or anywhere else.

It’s not America’s fault that that part of the world is a mess. It’s the fault of the people who live there. When we aren’t busy taking partisan shots at whichever political party we love to hate most, we all know it’s true, so please, for once, let’s stop blaming America and Americans for what the Middle East does to itself. 

The United States has made plenty of mistakes over there, no question about it, and only a stubborn fool refuses to learn anything from them, but Iraq is so dysfunctional that it would still be in catastrophic shape even the United States did everything right. And if Iraq had its act together, it wouldn’t matter how many mistakes Americans made—Iraq would be fine.

From Kosovo to Oman

After a brutal firefight Monday morning, police officers in Linden, New Jersey, shot and arrested Ahmad Khan Rahami for detonating improvised explosive devices in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and along the Jersey Shore two days earlier.

The media and political response was predictable. Willful naifs wondered aloud what on earth might have motivated Mr. Rahami. Suspect's Motive Unclear In New York, New Jersey Bombings, reads an embarrassing NPR headline.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s surrogates say it proves only he can save us by cracking down mercillessly on immigration from the Middle East and North Africa.

A lot of us find this exasperating. A person has to be willfully obtuse at this point to not see that Rahami was motivated by radical Islam. It is also obvious to some of us (but clearly not all of us) that Rahami is an extreme outlier in the American Muslim community.

As many as a million Muslims live in the New York City area. If Rahami were even remotely mainstream, Manhattan would look like Aleppo.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of Muslims all over the world and interacted with thousands. I would not be alive if a large percentage of them were even remotely like Ahmad Khan Rahami. At the same time, we wouldn’t have to go through this polarized ritual on a regular basis if radical Islamist terrorism wasn’t a deadly serious problem.

Most Westerners only see or hear about Muslims after the likes of Rahami, Rizwan Farook, Omar Mateen, the Tsarnaev brothers, Major Nidal Hasan, Mohammad Atta, Osama bin Laden and other ISIS- and Al Qaeda-affiliated psychopaths murder innocents by the dozens, hundreds or even thousands. Hardly anyone else—least of all moderate Muslims—gets any coverage or attention whatsoever, and some of those who do, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, are falsely described as moderate when they’re not.

So I asked Gökhan Balaban, an authentic moderate Muslim I know via email correspondence, if he’d like to have a public conversation with me about all this.

His parents immigrated to the US from Turkey and he was born and raised in New Jersey. He has lived and worked in Kosovo on a State Department grant, spent some time with the Peace Corps in Bulgaria and today lives and works as a teacher in the Sultanate of Oman.

MJT: Let’s start with the argument that never ends.

In the United States, we’ve got Barack Obama on one side who is allergic to even using the words “radical Islam,” and Donald Trump on the other who has threatened to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

Trump climbed down from his extreme position a while back and now only wants to ban immigrants and refugees from countries with a history of terrorism like Syria and Iraq, but millions of his supporters haven’t mellowed out in the least.

What do you make of all this?

Gökhan Balaban: I don’t think Donald Trump’s inflammatory speeches and policy proposals will help promote cultural reconcilation or bolster counter-terrorism, but mocking millions of his supporters as bigoted buffoons is unfair and inaccurate. Muslims need to ask themselves why there is so much unease and suspicion all over the world about Islam.

Islamic radicalism holds back development in Muslim societies, and it perpetuates the atmosphere of apprehension, unease, and hostility that non-Muslims have towards Muslims. As long as Islamic radicalism remains a strong force, we can be sure that it will be answered with the kind of reactionary politics we’ve being seeing from Trump and the far-right in Europe.

Fundamentalists ostracize, punish, and kill people who they think are criticizing Islam or weakening the Muslim community. They’re basically saying, don’t mess with Islam because Muslims will fight back. This may be why some Muslims seem indifferent to terrorist attacks. Perhaps deep inside they see terrorism as a statement by Muslims that they are strong and that it’s unwise to stir up trouble against them.

Behind the self-assured façade of strength and unity, though, lies a deep insecurity among fundamentalists and the searing conflicts Muslims have with each other. The insecurity stems from recognition that Muslim countries are behind other parts of the world and that they’re dependent on foreigners and foreign expertise to advance. They don’t consider that perhaps Islam’s pervasive chokehold is what impedes their societies’ advancement in the first place.

Muslims have to stop blaming the West and the media for their own problems, and they should refrain from joining in the culture of victimization in America. We shouldn’t call people Islamophobes for every little thing they say or do. In some cases, Muslims set themselves too far apart from mainstream American society and should strive more to assimilate.

On the other hand, there are plenty of Muslims like myself who turn to Islam for the same reasons people turn to other religions. My wife likes to remind me that we practice our religion for the well-being of our personal spiritual lives and that of our family and that I don’t need to be concerned about every broader social, theological or political isssue that involves Muslims.

There are sometimes considerable cultural differences between American Muslims and other citizens in the US, but it hardly is cause for alarm, and the difference is more about being religious versus being non-religious, rather than about being Muslim or non-Muslim. All you have to do is go to my home state of New Jersey and see how religious communities like the Orthodox Jews live, which is quite different from how my secular Jewish friends live, simply because of differences in religiosity.

MJT: You lived in Kosovo, and you live in Oman now, so you must have seen quite the range of Islam in practice. I spent a month in Kosovo and can hardly imagine a more liberal Islamic country. The Persian Gulf is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Gökhan Balaban: Kosovo’s Albanians do an exceptional job blending many cultural elements together: Western, Albanian, and Muslim. They’ve created a partly conservative and partly liberal cocktail that I find well-balanced and worthy of emulation.

There are people who keep up with their daily prayers and go dancing at nightclubs, though their behavior at these clubs is more conservative than what you see in the clubs of Western Europe. In Western Europe, it’s common to see people who’ve met for the first time dancing with one another. In Kosovo, people only dance with the friends and family members they go to the clubs with.

Kosovo’s Islam inspired me to study the Qur’an and learn how to perform the Islamic form of prayer called salah. Unfortunately, Kosovo, like too many other countries, has been plagued by Islamic radicalism. Countries like Saudi Arabia are going to great lengths to make Islam in Kosovo more fundamentalist. Among European countries, it has sent the highest per capita ISIS members to fight in the Middle East.

What makes up the social conservatism and religious piety in Oman is a reflection of what the society truly values and wants to uphold. Omanis see Islam as a primary source from which societal norms should be based. There are considerable numbers of men congregating and praying in mosques for the five daily prayers. Even so, Oman is the most relaxed and liberal of the Gulf countries, especially from the perspective of expatriates like myself.

There is a liberal and secular contingent in Arab countries, but it faces strong opposition from staunch Muslims and other authoritarian-minded folks. I often hear the latter ilk deride freedom, human rights and democracy as if these ideas were a sham or undesirable because they clash with their own beliefs, yet some of the anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiment may have less to do with the values people hold and more to do with historical conflicts between Arabs and the West.

In the US we often hear that the terrorists hate us because we are free. Terrorists also hate the fact that many Muslims around the world love America because it is free. Many Muslims are happy to leave their strict societies and breathe the free air of the West, and it infuriates the fundamentalists.

There isn’t an incompatibility between being a pious Muslim and valuing democracy and liberalism. Just like other Americans, plenty of Muslims devoutly practice their religion and proudly support the freedom and rights the US stands for.

Still, some Muslims are so blind that even when they benefit from living in a Western country they will continue berating what they view as the degenerate nature of Western culture. Don’t expect a word of praise from these people about what the West has achieved. If you were to tell one of these characters that the Enlightenment enabled Western societies to advance—partly because of its critique of religion—and that perhaps Islamic societies may benefit from an Enlightenment-like movement, they’re the types of people who, rather than open-mindedly absorbing new information, will go on YouTube to find an Islamic lecture that derides the Enlightenment.

Most of these hard-headed Muslims are relatively benign and ignored by Muslims like me. We need to remember that the majority of Muslims move to the West for the same reasons as other immigrants—for freedom and prosperity. 

Muslim Americans contribute a lot to American society thanks to our strong family values and emphasis on education and hard work. Unfortunately, I suspect that some of the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment comes from people who are resentful that they are not as successful as some minority groups.

Strong families create strong communities and successful individuals, but many Americans suffer from familial dysfunction. A year or so ago, The Economist published a really informative essay about how children born out of wedlock are becoming an entrenched feature of some communities in American society. Single mothers are working and caring for their children and distancing themselves from their children’s fathers who do not provide. Muslims, along with some other immigrant groups, avoid family problems like these because a tight-knit and stable family life is a strong part of our culture.

On the other hand, there are obstacles to assimilation that some Muslims face when they start a life in a Western society. I personally know a Syrian who has done an exceptional job of integrating into Europe after escaping the war in Syria, but an article in a recent issue of The Economist cites a Syrian-German man who immigrated to Germany in the 1960s. He recently spoke with 10 young Syrian refugees living there. The man said that just two of the young refugees speak German and are integrating well. The others told him, “Allah gave us Germany as a refuge, not the Germans”. What a mindset! Being accepted in Germany as a German is difficult even for people who master the language and who are well integrated, but why make your road to integration all the more difficult by not even showing gratitude to the people who have welcomed you to their land? Stubborn pride and unconstructive posturing is an unfortunate reality when cultures mix.

MJT: You zeroed in on something that’s extremely important. Terrorists hate the fact that many Muslims love the West because it is free. They view that as a threat to their religion and culture, don’t they?

I don’t think political liberalism is a threat to Islam per se, but it is a threat to fundamentalist Islam, or Wahhabist Islam or Salafism or whatever we want to call it. If enough Middle Easterners yearned to live like people in America and France, Middle Eastern Islam would become like Albanian Islam.

This whole business looks to a lot of Westerners like a war of Islam against the West, but it looks more to me like it’s primarily a civil war within Islam. ISIS spends 99 percent of its energy attacking and killing people over there, not over here.

Are we more or less on the same page here?

Gökhan Balaban: Nearly 33,000 people were killed by Islamic terrorists in 2014, and the majority of the victims were Muslims. The fundamentalists believe that their fellow Muslims in their own societies are not true Muslims, that their societies are not Islamic enough, that they’re too Western.

The fact that some Muslim societies suffer from horrendous political and economic crises also has led people in these societies to seek change, and a significant portion of the rebellions in failed Arab countries derive their legitimacy from Islamic foundations. ISIS justifies its barbarism by cloaking it within the religion that the societies of Arab countries value and practice. A lot of people lured to groups like ISIS are disaffected youth. When countries suffer from armed conflict, or political/economic instability to the extent that Arab countries are experiencing, some segments of those societies will be especially vulnerable to recruitment into groups like ISIS.

Part of the reason why the Sultanate of Oman doesn’t suffer from this problem is because the government has been modernizing the country since the 1970s and offers its citizens decent chances to prosper. There’s a stable functioning government here. The civil society is more conservative and religious compared with most Muslim countries, and I actually think that’s one reason Oman is a peaceful place. We don’t have to worry that radicalism will take hold here. I think we should be more concerned with addressing the problems of failed states rather than pursuing some kind of Islamic reformation.

MJT: What do you think about the darker passages in the Qu’ran and Hadith that ISIS uses to justify mass-murder and terrorism?

Gökhan Balaban: Various groups throughout human history have justified mass murder by citing whatever source or inspiration they thought was useful. It doesn't seem fruitful to debate whether more mass murder has been committed by one group or another. People in general point to another group's actions and values as worse than their own in order to sanctify themselves and denigrate others.

Anti-religious people condemn the Crusades and other atrocities committed in the name of religion, and religious people respond by pointing to the horrors inflicted in the name of Godless communism. Which group is responsible for worse? Does it really matter? Maybe we should just acknowledge that any group of people at any time is capable of doing cruel and horrible things.

MJT: Do you personally argue with Islamic hardliners about this stuff? And if so, what do you say? Westerners almost never hear the arguments that Muslim liberals and fundamentalists have with each other. From our standpoint, it's as if that conversation takes place on the dark side of the moon.

Gökhan Balaban: I don't argue with Islamic hardliners for the same reason I don't argue with any other hardliners. It’s pointless. It’s fairly easy to tell when a person is not considering information that’s critical of their hardened views and beliefs. They claim to have found the “complete” way of life, embodied in the Islam they embrace, and strive through proselytizing to make it the complete way for others too. In this complete system, everything from how to urinate to how to appropriately laugh in public is covered. Deviation from their norm is not to be tolerated. Thankfully, I don’t encounter such people often, not even here in Oman.

MJT: Okay, fair enough, but let’s go a little deeper than that. What, in your view, is the Islamic case for liberal as opposed to fundamentalist Islam? What do you do with the darker passages in the Qu’ran? Do you ignore them? View them as outdated? Do you think the peaceful passages overrule them?

I don’t mean to give you a hard time about this. Christians and Jews have to answer the same questions.

I’m asking not only because ISIS is my problem and yours, but also because lots of non-Muslims think Islam itself—and therefore all Muslims—is potentially dangerous. It doesn’t help when people like the Turkish president says, “The term ‘moderate Islam’ is ugly and offensive. There is no moderate Islam. Islam is Islam.”

I asked a Moroccan scholar about that quote a couple of years ago and he gave me a great answer. “Islam is not absolute,” he said. “It is yoked to the human dimension. It is we humans who understand Islam. It is subjected to my reason, my way of understanding the world, and my analysis. Religions encounter previous cultures, previous religions, previous visions and cosmologies. It merges with all of them. No religion falls from the sky onto bare ground.”

Gökhan Balaban: I’m not an expert on the Qu’ran, nor am I an Islamic scholar, so I can’t speak with authority on it, but from my amateurish study and understanding of what some scholars say, it is an extraordinarily nuanced and complicated book that has elicited a huge range of interpretation and behavior throughout the centuries.

I’m personally drawn to a lot of the metaphysical and mystical ideas in it about the nature of the divine. Some Muslims look to the Koran for guidance on anything and everything. They see Islam as a complete way of life. Others incorporate certain aspects of Islam into a life that includes a constellation of other influences as well.

There’s a lot in the Qu’ran that isn’t relevant in my own life, so sure, I ignore those parts. And as a person who thinks that a fuller development of society should come not only from religion but also other sources like the arts and democratic liberalism, it doesn’t bother me if some Muslims think I’m not Muslim enough because I think that music and literature are integral to life and society. We all live with contradictions in our lives, and if the fact that I like punk rock and also happen to pray five times a day irks some people, so be it.

We should differentiate between reforming the Islamic religion and reforming Islamic societies to change the role of religion. Reforming Islam as a religion is a tricky and complicated endeavor, and I think the Islam analyst at the Brookings Institution, William McCants, offers several important points worth considering.

He points out that a liberal reformation of Islam as a religion has been ongoing for two centuries, but it has faced formidable opposition from groups like the Salafists and the ultraconservatives in the Persian Gulf. But even within the liberal reformation movement, I wonder to what extent its members are truly what we could call liberal. I agree with McCants when he says that liberal reformers in Islamic societies don’t believe that conservatives and liberals should compete with each other for shares in the marketplace of ideas.

Both liberal and conservative Muslims want the other locked up or legally prohibited from promoting their ideas. McCants points to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and says that liberal reformers are to willing to overlook his excesses as long as he promotes Islamic reform and suppresses Islamic activists and political parties. “This is not liberalism” McCants writes, “this is intolerance dressed up as liberalism.”

Despite differing practices and views among the various Muslim sects and schools of thought, we all agree that some foundations of the religion must never be changed, such as the obligatory five daily prayers. I’m impressed by how Muslims have preserved and cherished their scripture and their main practices for more than 1,400 years.

Political theorist Patrick Deneen at Notre Dame argues that the West is committing a kind of civilizational suicide, and in a way I agree with him. My students in Oman are overwhelmingly united and clear about who they are and what sources they should tap for guidance and purpose in their lives. They get it from a societal and individual commitment to their religion and local customs. Of course, some young Americans are grounded in a foundational set of beliefs and practices, and they come from a variety of religious backgrounds, but there are a lot of lost and aloof youth in American society too. Ask them about their purpose, what they think the meaning of life is, or who and where they get their inspiration and moral guidance from, and many have no coherent answer or are indifferent to the questions entirely.

MJT: I can't imagine that radical Islam will be a problem forever. There will always be extremists, sure, but even a couple of decades ago radical Islam wasn't such a potent force in the world. Cultures aren't static and history is always moving. If things can get worse, they can also get better. The question, though, is how. How does this end and what do you think it will take?

Gökhan Balaban: Some people assume that Islamic radicalism is a force that people in Muslim-majority countries encounter frequently, but it’s not. I’m confident that radicals won’t get far in the long run because the majority of people in the world, no matter where they live or who they are, simply don’t want anything to do with the radicals’ nonsense.

What we need to worry about is the kind of destabilization experienced in Iraq, Libya and Syria. ISIS is able to launch attacks in relatively stable Tunisia, but only in unstable countries like Libya can it build up a strong presence.

Everyone has to take responsibility for what they are accountable for. Saudi Arabia’s leadership must do something about the fact that their country exports a version of Islam that leads to militancy and terrorism around the world, and America’s leadership must be very careful about how it intervenes militarily so we avoid disasters like the one we’ve seen in Iraq.

In the meantime, there are significant differences between the Muslim world and the West that we’re just going to have to live with. One of the biggest is how secular the West has become and how religious Muslim societies have remained.

Cuba’s Walled Garden

The United States government no longer bans tourists from visiting Cuba. American commercial flights to Havana resumed this week for the first time in more than a half-century.

Most Cuban people are thrilled. Their isolation from their estranged American neighbors has finally drawn to a close. A certain kind of American tourist is also excited but wants to get down there in a hurry, enough to prompt Natalie Morales to write an op-ed with a rather blunt title: Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined.

Americans who sport Che Guevara T-shirts can rest assured that Cuba is still as oppressive and backward as ever.

A tiny percentage of Cubans have cell phones now, but text messages that contain words like “democracy,” “protest” and “human rights” are being swallowed up by the state. If you send a text with one of those words or phrases in it, your phone will say the message was sent, but it goes straight into the bit bucket. Your intended recipient will never see it. 

The Spanish-language blog 14ymedio first reported this, and Reuters reporters confirmed it by sending test messages from their own phones.

“We always thought texts were vanishing because the provider is so incompetent, then we decided to check using words that bothered the government,” Eliecer Avila, the leader of the dissident group Somos Mas, said to Reuters. “We discovered not just us, but the entire country is being censored. It just shows how insecure and paranoid the government is.”

Cuba is one of the least free countries in the entire world, and it’s among the least connected to the Internet. Most citizens have no access to the worldwide web whatsoever for a number of reasons.

First, they’re too poor to purchase the hardware. That’s not going to change any time soon. The last thing the regime wants is everyday citizens dialing up the Wall Street Journal every morning before heading down to the ration card line. That’s why, In 2009, the state sentenced USAID employee Alan Gross to fifteen years in prison for carrying computer equipment into the country and setting up broadband networks for Cuba’s Jewish community.

Those who do have laptops, smart phones and tablets only managed to acquire them because their relatives who escaped bought them in Florida. The government doesn’t mind too much since only a handful of wi-fi hotspots even exist, and using them is prohibitively expensive for just about everybody.

The Castro government is under relentless pressure from both inside and outside the country to lighten up, so it promises to boost access to the Internet by creating 35 wi-fi hotspots around the country. Stop for a second and ponder that sentence. Think about all it implies and you’ll understand why Cuba is so far behind almost every other country on earth and why, Castro propaganda to the contrary, it is not because of the US embargo.

There are more than 35 wi-fi hotspots within a one-minute walk of my house. Counting my own, there are 13 within range of my home office. (I just counted them.) All of these hotspots are private. None are provided by the government.

If I had to rely on a government hotspot, zero would be within range of my home office. God only knows how far I’d have to walk, drive or fly to find one.

I’d have to walk, drive or fly even farther if I had to rely on a government that deliberately keeps me ignorant and poor to protect its own ass. That’s what the Cuban government is doing. Why else censor text messages? Why else ban every newspaper and magazine in the world except the handful published by the local Communist Party? Why else ban commercial billboards to make room for billboards that browbeat citizens with soul-crushing slogans like “Socialism or Death”?

And why else make it virtually impossible for normal people to use the Internet in the first place?

The United States has a minimum wage. Cuba has a maximum wage, and it’s just 20 dollars a month. Cubans are required by law to be poor. Prosperity is a crime. And when I visited the island in 2013, it cost 15 dollars an hour access the Internet on a shared dial-up connection in a hotel lobby. It goes without saying that nobody who ekes out a meager existence on the state-imposed maximum wage and a ration card could afford that. Those hotspots were strictly for tourists.

The government recently dropped the price to $2.25 an hour. That sounds almost reasonable, except for two things. It’s still vastly more expensive than using the Internet in America—which is free at most public hotspots and only costs a few dozen dollars per month to use at home. Cuba’s new “low” price still costs more than ten percent of a person’s monthly salary, and that’s just to use the Internet for an hour.

The average monthly salary in the United States is a little under 4,000 dollars. How often would you use the Internet if the government required you to pay 400 dollars an hour? Probably not very often.

Even if you do manage to get onto the Internet in Cuba, you won’t get very far. Forget watching the news on CNN. Loading even a simple text-only site takes forever with Cuba’s deliberately excruciating download speeds. At the Hotel Habana Libre, I burned through 20 dollars in Internet costs just to open my inbox in Gmail. I would have spent the entire day and hundreds of dollars if I wanted to read and answer a half dozen messages.

It’s no secret that the Cuban government wants to adopt the Chinese model for the transition from old school communism, where technological and market reforms are strictly controlled by the state and only permitted when the state feels confident enough that the reform in question won’t threaten its power.

I suppose it’s better than no change at all. Living in a walled garden beats rotting away in a dungeon or being worked to death in a slave labor camp. China is a much better place now under authoritarian one-party state capitalism than it was under Mao’s totalitarian communism, so if Cuba does evolve along those lines, life will no doubt be a whole lot better for the average person. Perhaps in time Cuba will end up hewing closer to the Vietnamese model, which is a more relaxed and lenient version of the Chinese model. Who knows? Either way, Cuba is decades behind both and has a long road ahead of it.

Cuban citizens, of course, yearn for the Czech model where communism collapsed in spectacular fashion and was replaced all at once with political liberalism and a market economy. It’s what those of us in the free world should hope to see down there, too.

If you want to visit Cuba before it changes, fine. Go. I did. It’s interesting. Just understand that change is a good thing, and the more change the better. Doubt it? Ask yourself if anyone but a political psychopath thinks abolishing communism destroyed Prague.

To Ban or Not to Ban the Burkini

France is all over the news this month, first because several coastal towns banned “burkinis” on Mediterranean beaches, and again this week when its supreme court, the Conseil d’Etat, overturned one of the bans.

Burkini is a loosely defined word describing what basically amounts to a cross between an all-enveloping burka and a bikini which ultra conservative Muslim women wear to the beach and in the water so they don’t show any skin.

American commentators overwhelmingly oppose the French ban. There is no chance our own Supreme Court would fail to overturn legislation that forbids wearing anything in particular, even T-shirts bearing a Nazi swastika or the face of Osama bin Laden.

Even so, Peter Beinart in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz laments what he calls “the American Jewish silence” about an “outrageous assault on religious liberty.” “The ‘burkini ban’ can’t possibly be justified by national security,” he writes. “It’s a purely ideological effort to define French secularism in a way that forces conservative Muslim women either to violate their religious beliefs or vacate public space.”

He’s right, but that’s not the whole story.

Before we get to the rest of it, let’s get something out of the way: None of the severe clothing worn by some conservative Muslim women is mandated by the Islamic religion. Women are just told to dress modestly. That’s it. And “modestly” is an entirely relative concept.

The only places in the entire world where it’s the cultural norm for women to wear a full burka, which covers the face and even the eyes, are certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lots of women on the Arabian Peninsula wear a veiling niqab which conceals their face but at least leaves one or two eyes uncovered, but almost everywhere else in the world, Muslim women simply cover their hair with a scarf, or hijab, and leave it at that. 

Headscarves have been mandated by law in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Before that, Iranian women dressed like Western women. Don’t believe it? Take a look at these photographs from old Iranian magazines. Iranian women back then could have worn headscarves if they wanted to, but most didn’t want to. That’s why the reactionary clerical regime forces them to wear headscarves. Otherwise, most women wouldn’t.

In Tunisia, maybe half the women cover their hair. Only one percent at the most cover their face, and everyone on the street stares at that tiny minority as if they’re aliens. Whenever I’m in Tunisia and see a woman dressed like that, I assume she’s not even from there, that she’s visiting from Saudi Arabia. Morocco is a bit more conservative than Tunisia, but not much.

In Lebanon, no women cover their faces, and not even Saudi women on holiday bother to put on a headscarf. Kurdish women likewise never cover their faces. Maybe half cover their hair and call it a day. I don’t recall ever seeing a woman in Turkey with her face covered, but perhaps I saw one or two and just don’t remember.

The point is, burkas and burkinis aren’t even normal by Muslim standards let alone French standards where women can go topless on beaches without causing a stir. Showing up there, of all places, in a burkini is perceived by huge numbers of French people as a fat middle finger. It’s the offensive cultural inverse of going topless on a beach in Iran.

France isn’t Iran. It’s not the kind of place that’s supposed to tell people what they can wear and what they cannot, which is why the court struck down the burkini ban.

The ban isn’t racist, though, nor is it bigoted, and American journalists should resist the temptation to write about France as though it has been taken over by a bunch of Islamophobic Orcs. Rather, the French are pushing back against extremists who are menacing all of French society, including most of France’s Muslim citizens.

“The burkini,” Benjamin Haddad writes in The American Interest, “which was seemingly absent from beaches before this year, is seen as a mere episode in a broader pattern of every-day incidents in which republican principles are challenged by a radical minority constantly testing and pushing the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable. It is not a religious issue, but the symbol of a broader political struggle. The censure (and worse) of moderate Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan, the requests of community leaders for gender-segregated hours in public swimming pools, the pressure on women not to accept the care of male physicians even in cases of emergency, the refusal of children to listen in biology class or to learn about the Holocaust: These incidents don’t make international headlines but are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. In June, a young Muslim waitress was attacked in the name of Islam in downtown Nice for serving alcohol during Ramadan.”

All this, alas, is lost on most of the American commentariat. Here’s Paul Berman in Tablet:

The assumption is that France wants to regulate Islamic attire because the French are fundamentally biased against their Muslim minority. The French are frightened of the “Other.” They are unrepentant in their imperialist and colonialist hatreds for the peoples of North Africa. They are, in short, hopelessly racist. Worse: The French left is just as bad as the French right in these regards, and the Socialist Party, as exemplified lately by the prime minister, Manuel Valls, is especially bad.

And yet, the American interpretation acknowledges a complicating point, which is this: The French, who are hopelessly racist, do not appear to believe they are hopelessly racist. On the contrary, they have talked themselves into the belief that, in setting out to regulate Islamic attire, they are acting in exceptionally high-minded ways—indeed, are acting in accordance with a principle so grand and lofty that French people alone are capable of understanding it.

Berman effectively rebuts this simplistic thinking. I’ll go out on a bit of a limb here and add the following: the United States is one of the least racist countries in the world, and France is one of the least racist countries in Europe. (Critics can let me know when any European nation elects a head of state with African heritage, and also, at the same time, explain why the supposedly Muslim-hating France has more Muslim citizens per capita than anywhere else in Western Europe.)

Some French people are bigots, for sure, but most of them are revolting against extreme Islamic dress codes for the exact same reasons Tunisia’s government led by Habib Bourguiba, and the Turkish government led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, also did so in their time—not because they hate Muslims, but because they wish to protect moderate Muslims, and the society at large, from the radicals.

As Berman notes, this controversy didn’t start with Muslim immigration to France. It started with the rise of the Islamists.

If Islamic fundamentalists were like the Amish in America—if they were ludicrously conservative compared with everyone else but peaceably keeping to themselves—hardly anybody would care what they wore. The problem is that Islamic extremists routinely bully the moderates and at times lash out with psychopathic mass violence against everyone. Live-and-let-live can’t be a one-way street, at least not for long.

Here’s Berman again:

The veil has been brought into the schools as a maneuver by a radical movement to impose its dress code. The veil is a proselytizing device, intended to intimidate the Muslim schoolgirls and to claim a zone of Islamist power within the school. And the dress code is the beginning of something larger, which is the Islamist campaign to impose a dangerous new political program on the public school curriculum in France. This is the campaign that has led students in the suburban immigrant schools to make a series of new demands—the demand that Rousseau and certain other writers no longer be taught; the demand that France’s national curriculum on WWII, with its emphasis on lessons of the Holocaust, be abandoned; the demand that France’s curricular interpretation of Middle Eastern history no longer be taught; the demand that co-ed gym classes no longer be held, and so forth. The wearing of veils in the schools, then—this is the beginning of a larger campaign to impose an Islamist worldview on the Muslim immigrants, and to force the rest of society to step aside and allow the Islamists to have their way. From this standpoint, opposition to the veil is a defense of the schools, and it is a defense of freedom and civilization in France, and it is not an anti-immigrant policy.

Governments are in a tough spot here. They have no choice, really, but to compromise liberal-libertarian values no matter what they do.

Banning any kind of clothing is precisely the kind of heavy state action expressly prohibited by the United States Constitution, and for good reason. Thomas Jefferson and the rest of our Founding Fathers were rightly appalled by governments that micromanaged the daily lives of citizens, especially on religious grounds. Yet banning severe Islamic dress codes liberates moderate Muslims from the bullying and at times violent pressure from extremists who will only stand down when they’re forced to stand down.

The way forward, for many of us anyway, is not obvious.

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