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To Medina and Back

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

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more than a week after announcing that she would be honored at the university’s commencement ceremonies, Brandeis rescinded its offer owing to Hirsi Ali’s record of bluntly criticizing Islamic oppression.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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest in Commentary.

Turkey Plans an Invasion of Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making friends with ISIS, meanwhile, is impossible.

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

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

ISIS Whacks Egypt’s Chief Prosecutor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Background of a Lynching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the background, the context.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey Chooses ISIS Over the Kurds

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

Ponder the ramifications of that sentence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are not crazy to fear this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We seem to be reaching the end of a road.

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

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

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

Linkage

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Will Greece Tilt Toward Moscow?

Geoff Dyer in the Financial Times wonders if Greece will tilt toward Russia if it defaults on its debts and is bailed out by Vladimir Putin.

As Washington tries to maintain a united western front in support of sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, a Greek default could provide Moscow an opportunity to sow new divisions among America’s European allies.

“You can easily see how geopolitically this would be a gift to Russia,” says Sebastian Mallaby at the Council on Foreign Relations. “You do not want Europe to have to deal with a Greece that is a member of Nato but which all of a sudden hates the west and is cosying up to Russia.”

Greece has been on the verge of bankruptcy before it even joined the European Union. A nice place to visit, I guess, but it’s barely more functional than Egypt.

The current prime minister’s party, Syriza, is a radical leftist coalition that includes not only Euroskeptics but outright communists in its ranks. One may suppose it’s better by an iota than its far-right counterpart, Golden Dawn, which includes Nazis and Hitler enthusiasts in its ranks and doesn’t flinch from putting an updated swastika on its flag, but that isn’t saying much.

Political derangement is, alas, par for the course down there. A fascistic military dictatorship seized power in 1967. Georgios Papadopoulos’ Regime of the Colonels made Vladimir Putin look like an anarchist in comparison and didn’t let up until the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974.

Most Greeks threw their support behind Slobodan Milosevic during the Yugoslavian genocide, and the current government recently threatened to seize German assets.

Will they fall in with Vladimir Putin? Probably not. But it wouldn’t be much out of character.

Guest-Blogging at Instapundit

Glenn Reynolds is off scuba diving and he’s asked a whole gaggle of us to fill in for him at Instapundit while he’s gone.

As usual, I’m covering the world affairs beat over there.

You can follow my posts at the source if you want. I’ll also cross-post them here for your convenience.

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YES, REALLY. Iranian-backed Shia militias are sharing a base with American soldiers in Iraq.

 

OUR ONLY REAL FRIENDS OVER THERE: Syria’s Kurds are advancing deeper into ISIS-held territory.

 

TOURISM IN CUBA. Graham Flanagan went to Cuba as a tourist and produced a short video for Business Insider about the four problems Americans will face when they go down there. There’s no Internet, the tap water isn’t safe to drink, few people speak English, and credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere, not even at banks.

He still had a great time, but I found the place soul-crushing. Unlike him, I went to Cuba as a journalist and was duty-bound to leave the tourist bubble and see what Castro’s socialist paradise is really like.

If you want to go down there and have fun like he did, knock yourself out. If you want an educational experience, however, you’ll need to wander out of that bubble. Just be prepared. It isn’t pretty.

 

TURKEY’S CREEPJOB PRIME MINISTER is furious about Kurdish gains against ISIS in Syria.

He’s not on board with ISIS ideologically, but he’s more freaked out by Kurdish indepenence right now than anything else since roughly 25 percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish. From his point of view, ISIS is the lesser of evils. President Obama says he expects “deeper cooperation” from Turkey, but even he must know at this late date that we are not going to get it.

 

IS THIS SUPPOSED TO BE SOME KIND OF A JOKE? Beijing insists that its controversial expansion into the South China Sea is simply to acquire better weather forecasts.

 

CHINA’S DOG MEAT FESTIVAL is raising hackles inside and outside of China.

“There are all sorts of cultural norms about what you can eat, you eat turkey, so why are you trying to force us to not eat dog meat?” shouted one dog meat supporter.

“It’s healthy, just like raising pigs or chickens, it’s fine,” said Teng Jianyi, as he tucked into a dog dish with some friends.

These things really are relative. Some in India are appalled that the rest of us eat cows. So how about a compromise? We won’t tell you to stop eating dogs if you won’t tell us to stop being horrified that you eat dogs.

The "Snap Back" Delusion

“Snap back.” That's the term used by officials in Washington to describe an automatic re-imposition of multilateral sanctions on Iran if it violates a deal with the United States to scale backs its nuclear weapons program.

“We will retain the ability to snap back multilateral sanctions architecture back in place, without Russian or Chinese support,” Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said earlier this week to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

She says she can't explain how this would work, exactly, but Russia and China aren't the only potential obstacles we need to worry about.

The World National Oil Companies Congress conducted a full-day briefing in London this week about the massive amounts of money that can be made in Iran after sanctions are lifted.

“The fact that the whole sanctions structure is weakened is true,” Ellham Hassanzadeh said to Sohrab Ahmari at the Wall Street Journal. “Everybody’s just ready that once it really crumbles to go back to the country and put down the money.”

Chevron was there. Siemens was there. Big companies from Australia and Singapore were there, along with so many other.

And they're all ready to “put down the money.”

What's going to happen if, a year or so later, Iran says to hell with it and starts cheating? Sanctions can only “snap back” into place if the nations imposing the sanctions are willing to admit that Iran has been cheating and are willing to act accordingly. Is that really going to happen after gigantic companies from all over the world have invested hundreds of millions—perhaps even billions—of dollars?

Chevron won't be in charge of what happens, nor will any other multinational corporation, but we're kidding ourselves if we think government officials won't flinch at the thought of flushing that kind of cash down the toilet.

Forget the conspiracy theories about corporations running the world. Governments run the world. But nearly all governments outside communist and quasi-communist countries like North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela take their nation's economic health into account. They have to, especially if they're democratically elected and are held accountable by their citizens and financial backers.

It's hardly a stretch to suggest that policymakers might get a little weak in the knees when it's crunch time. There's no need to be cynical about it. We're all capable of lying to ourselves, especially when our paychecks and livelihoods depend on it.

Would you acknowledge that Iran is cheating if it obligated you to set your house on fire? Your mind would innocently twist itself into all kinds of contortions before admitting that, yeah, it's time to pour a gallon gasoline onto the living room floor and drop a lit match.

The West's will is already sapped even without billions of dollars in cash on the table. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the State Department is three years behind its own Iranian sanctions implementation.

“Our analysis,” reads the report, “demonstrates that State is falling further and further behind in providing the reports and is now juggling a backlog of draft reports at different stages of that process. The imposition of sanctions no sooner than 3 or more years after the transfer occurred may diminish the credibility of the threatened sanction.”

We haven't even reached the point yet where money is on the table.

Last week a panel of United Nations monitors released a report complaining that both the US and Europe have been deliberately ignoring Iranian sanctions violations.

“The current situation with reporting,” the report says, “could reflect a general reduction of procurement activities by the Iranian side or a political decision by some member states to refrain from reporting to avoid a possible negative impact on ongoing negotiations.”

It's not just the United States that isn't reporting Iranian misbehavior to the United Nations. No country is reporting Iranian misbehavior to the United Nations, not even misbehavior that's unfolding, as Sangwon Yoon put it in Bloomberg, in plain sight.

“There's a direct correlation between this administration not wanting to sanction anyone or any violation and their lack of reporting on those violations,” said US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “And it's sending a signal to the international community that the United States is not serious about any of our sanctions, that if you talk to the right folks at certain agencies and get a pass.”

Is any of this going to change after the sanctions are lifted? No one can know for sure, but the real question is, why would it?

Al Qaeda's Bogus Apology

The Nusra Front accused members of the Druze minority of blasphemy in Syria's Idlib Province and massacred twenty innocent people, prompting a ludicrous headline in the Christian Science Monitor.

Syrian Druze massacre: Can jihadists salvage their image?

What image? They're terrorists. They're the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. And they're identified right there in the headline as jihadists.

Some of us seem to be forgetting what jihadists are. How about we let them define themselves in their own words? “Jihad,” Abu Bakr Naji wrote in Al Qaeda's handbook, The Management of Savagery, “is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [people], and massacring.”

This isnot a description of Al Qaeda's behavior in New York City and Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001. This is a description of Al Qaeda's behavior in the Middle East and its treatment of Middle Easterners.

Apparently, though, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda thinks it does have an image to bolster. So the leaders apologized and sent a delegation to the village of Qalb Lawzah to smooth everything over.

It's bogus.

Even if we'd never heard of Al Qaeda and had no idea that they have a long and sordid history of mass murder and brutal totalitarian rule over every scrap of land they control, we'd still know this apology is bogus and that Al Qaeda is no better than ISIS. (Let's not forget that ISIS is simply the new name for Al Qaeda in Iraq.) We'd know this because Nusra Front “emir” Abu Mohamed al-Jolani said his army would protect minorities who “leave their religion and leave (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad.”

The Druze have to leave their religion!

That kind of protection is worth less even than mafia-style “protection.” Nusra wants the Druze to erase their religion and culture or die. The likes of Tony Soprano just wanted money.

The Saudis Team Up With Israel

Saudi and Israeli diplomats jointly announced that they've held five meetings in secret since early last year in India, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

The reason? Iran. The Israelis and the Saudis have a common enemy in Tehran, and they're increasingly relying on each other now that the United States, contrary to the interests of both, might ease sanctions if a nuclear deal gets hammered out later this year.

Retired Saudi general Anwar Majed Eshki and Israeli diplomat Dore Gold shook hands in front of the cameras during their announcement at the Council on Foreign Relations—a bigger deal than it seems. Not because it suddenly means that Israel and Saudi Arabia are best friends forever—fat chance of that ever happening—but because shaking hands with or even saying hello to an Israeli is a crime in some Arab countries, even in Lebanon which is more open-minded and cosmopolitan than the lot of them.

But bigotries can fade in even the most reactionary countries over time and under the right circumstances, and it's actually happening in Saudi Arabia.

Eli Lake covered the event for Bloomberg and described the Saudi general's speech this way:

He laid out a brief history of Iran since the 1979 revolution, highlighting the regime's acts of terrorism, hostage-taking and aggression. He ended his remarks with a seven-point plan for the Middle East. Atop the list was achieving peace between Israel and the Arabs. Second came regime-change in Iran. Also on the list were greater Arab unity, the establishment of an Arab regional military force, and a call for an independent Kurdistan to be made up of territory now belonging to Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Arab unity is a castle in the sky. Never mind hopeless cases like Syria and Iraq. Not even the tiniest Arab countries like Lebanon and Bahrain can manage to unify themselves locally. An Arab regional military force wouldn't require absolute unity (see NATO), but at the very least it requires participating states to be on good terms with each other. The Arab states right now, though, are as fractious as ever. The yearning for unity in that part of the world is so strong because the lack of it is as painful as it is destructive.

But take a look at the other points Eshki made.

He says Saudi Arabia's number one priority is peace between Israelis and Arabs. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. Saudi Arabia's number one priority is peace between Israelis and Arabs. Not between Israelis and Palestinians, but between Israel and the entire Arab world.

Try not to be overly skeptical. It's true that the history between Muslims and Jews is long and unpleasant, but the history between Muslims and Christians is equally long and unpleasant, yet Saudi Arabia has normal relations with every Christian nation on earth. The only Arab countries that don't have normal relations with the United States right now are Syria and Sudan. American relations with Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan are outstanding. Jordan's relations with Israel are outstanding. Morocco also has cordial, albeit quiet and semi-secret, relations with Israel.

Officially, the Saudis don't recognize Israel's right to exist, but at least they acknowledge the reality of Israel's existence, and they're increasing recognizing that the two nations have common interests and common real enemies.

Israel is not a real enemy. It's not even a competitor. It's a country the Saudis find distasteful for real and imagined reasons.

The Israelis are not going to attack Saudi Arabia, ever. The Iranians probably won't either, but they very well may back proxies Shia militias inside the country. They've been doing it for years in Lebanon and Iraq, and now they're doing it in Syria and Yemen.

Iran is to Saudi Arabia what Russia was to the United States during the Cold War. But declaring Israel an enemy of Saudi Arabia makes no more sense than declaring Peru an enemy of the United States.

So what if the Saudis find Israel distasteful? They find the United States distasteful, too, but we can work together well enough without rancor when our interests overlap. It's strange, but true: Saudi Arabia is like a watered-down version of ISIS domestically and Britain internationally.

Riyadh did propose a peace deal with Jerusalem in 2002. They'll recognize the Jewish state if the Israelis withdraw to the 1967 borders, accept a Palestinian state, and allow the right of return to all the children of all the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. That's not going to happen, of course. Israel has no room for millions of Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of whom have never set foot inside the country. But the Saudi proposal could at least be a starting point for negotiations. Either way, the Saudis made it clear more than a decade ago that they'll be willing to recognize Israel's right to exist in the future under certain conditions. The current hostility—which is clearly not what it used to be anyway—need not be eternal.

It's not just the Saudi government that's coming around. Saudi citizens are viewing the region more realistically, too. A recent poll conducted by the IDC Institute for Policy and Strategy found that only 18 percent of Saudis view Israel as their principal enemy. 22 percent said that distinction belongs to ISIS while a whopping 53 percent fingered Iran.

Much of the Middle East seems stubbornly resistant to positive change, but history is a river, not a statue. All things eventually pass.

“What we think here in Israel about the Saudis is not exactly what they are,” said the IDC's Alex Mintz. The same goes double for the Saudi view of Israelis, of course, but as retired Israeli general Shimon Shapira told Lake, “we discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers.”

When Selfies Kill

It looks like some members of ISIS are on the JV team after all.

From Gizmodo:

Many of us know the feeling of posting a regrettable pic or two online. But while your thoughtless photos might be an embarrassment, they (typically) aren’t offensive enough to merit a US Air Force strike. If you’re a terrorist, on the other hand, a wee bit more discretion is probably advised.

ISIS didn’t post dick pics, but in hindsight that might have been a better call for the Islamic State militants who instead allowed selfies taken in front of a secret headquarters to surface on their social media. The photos caught the attention of US Air Force Intelligence, who, 22 hours later, took the entire building out with three JDAM-equipped bombs.

The survivors should watch Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's sort-of true story about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

After the CIA team finds bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the character George, played by Mark Strong, says “this is a professional attempt to avoid detection. Real tradecraft.”

And he still got whacked by SEAL Team Six.

The great thing about this, aside from an ISIS headquarters getting vaporized from the skies, is that ISIS is going to be a hell of a lot more paranoid from now on. And paranoid organizations and regimes tend to shrink down and chew off their own legs.

The Second-Most Megalomaniacal Dictator on Earth

Everyone knows the world's most megalomaniacal dictator. That would be Kim Jong Un of the North Korean hermit kingdom, also known as “The Precious Leader,” son of the “The Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, is still known today as “The Great Leader" for being the man who invented inventing things.

Funny that hardly anyone has even heard of the second-most megalomaniacal dictator on earth. We're all groaningly familiar with the likes of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Russia's Vladimir Putin, and Iran's “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei because they all enjoy blowing things up in other people's countries, but not even Putin is as full of himself as Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedov.

I can't pronounce his name either.

He's the ruler of—where else?—one of the 'Stans.

Turkmenistan, to be exact, where the post-Soviet period is exactly like its Soviet period.

Berdimuhamedov just erected a 69-foot statue of himself in the center of Ashgabat, the capital. He's up there on a golden horse atop an enormous slab of marble that looks like an iceberg.

He's compensating. Two years ago he fell off a horse at an official race. The only reason we even know this is because a brave person in the audience captured it on amateur video and uploaded it to the Internet. All the other riders rode past him as he lay flat on his back in the dirt, but he was declared the winner regardless and awarded an 11 million dollar prize for his “performance.”

One of the perks of absolute rulership, I guess. Nice work if you can get it, as long as you don't suffer from common ailments like a conscience or guilt.

When the statue was unveiled, students chanted “Glory to Arkadag!”

He pretends the whole thing was somebody else’s idea. “My main goal is to serve the people and the motherland,” he said, “and so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose.”

Moammar Qaddafi used to say the same thing about his own buffoonish portraits plastered up all over Tripoli and even out in the desert.

This clown follows President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006 of heart failure. He renamed months of the year after himself and his family. He built a 60-foot statue of himself that slowly rotated so that his face was always in sunlight. Officials took it down in 2010, but rather than melting it into slag, they raised it 60 feet higher.

His face was on all the money, of course, but it was also on all the bottles of vodka.

Niyazov editedthe Qur’an so that it includes his birthday. The world's jihadists either didn't know, didn't care, or figured he wasn't a soft enough target. Not content to ban only Taliban-style long beards, he banned all facial hair, so whatever Salafists might exist in Central Asia may have rightly assumed that a guy like that won’t put up with their crap.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. He’s no cultural liberal. He banned ballet. He even banned lip-syncing, not because such activities threatened his rule, but because he didn't care for them, so why should anyone else?

Their job was to care about him. He even named a meteorite after himself.

Lots of books are banned in Turkmenistan, but not Niyazov's contribution to world literature, the Ruhnama. His government hails it as “The Answer to All Questions” and says it’s on par with the Bible and the Qu’ran, so no one ever needs to read anything else.

After all that, the country looks and feels pretty much like you'd expect.

CNN's Amanda Davies was there last week:

Shops are nowhere to be seen; nor adverts for international brands. Even people are hard to come by.

We'd been on Turkmenistan soil for 30 seconds when we glimpse our first Berdimuhamedov portrait. It took just 10 minutes from exiting the airport to be told: “You can't film that.”

[…]

Nobody we met would say anything against Berdimuhamedov. Then again we struggled to find anyone to say very much at all about anything.

The only other countries in the entire world more oppressive than Turkmenistan are North Korea and Eritrea. But Turkmenistan doesn't screw with its neighbors and there’s no pressure to reform from outside whatsoever, so its people will suffer indefinitely and, for the most part, anonymously.

Cuba Outside the Tourist Bubble

Most journalists who travel to Cuba write about how awesome the tourist bubble is.

Jonathan Ray, for instance, summed it up this way in The Spectator last year: “By the end, Havana had me in her spell. She was like a brash and vulgar party girl whom everyone adores and you can’t think why. Ten minutes in her company, though, and you too are smitten. My three nights passed in a flash and I long to return to discover more about this edgy but thrilling city.”

These kinds of articles are a genre unto themselves. They've appeared in our media for decades for a handful of reasons. Some reporters are lazy and incurious. Many, like the Spectator writer, don't stick around long enough to see past the mystique of the forbidden. A good number think they're poking “American propaganda” in the eye by being contrarian. A handful might even be true believers.

Others are concerned—with good reason—that publishing anything critical of the government or even everyday living conditions will get them arrested, deported and blacklisted. When the Wall Street Journal publishes pieces from Cuba, they often omit the reporter's name for that very reason.

Once in a while, though, journalists say to hell with all that and expose Cuba as the miserable place that it is.

Nick Miroff just did that for the Washington Post.

As one of Havana’s largest state-run retail hubs, the Supermercado 3ra y 70 is the communist government equivalent of a Target or Wal-Mart, created as a one-stop shopping center. It was designed, quite possibly, by sadists.

Customers with long shopping lists face no fewer than seven places to stand in line. One for butter. Another for cooking oil. A third for toothpaste. And so on.

He quotes a guy whose friend managed to visit the United States and misses two things above all: freedom and Home Depot.

Why Home Depot? For one thing, the lines are short. There may be seven or more lines at the checkout registers, but you only have to stand in one of them.

It's not about the lines, though, not really. They're just a symptom. Scarcity is the disease. And if you think Cuba's chronic shortages are because of American sanctions, think again. The guy that mentioned Home Depot? He makes a living selling screws and nails on the black market. He'll be sentenced to prison if he's caught, so Miroff left his last name out of the article.

Sentenced to prison. For selling nails and screws.

You'll also go to prison if you sell cooking oil or cheese. You'll go to prison if you're found in possession of a lobster whether or not you bought or sold it. Only tourists get to eat lobster, not because it's an endangered species but because the government sells them at state-run restaurants for foreigners and won't tolerate anyone challenging its monopoly.

Communism fails just as dismally in Cuba as it failed everywhere else, and for the same reasons. If you ban economic behavior, you won't have much of an economy.

That, along with the fact that the state-imposed Maximum Wage is a ration card plus a paltry twenty dollars a month, is why Cuba is poor.

It's one of the oddities of our time that most articles written about Cuba describe the island as an awesome place that's misunderstood. (Imagine if the bulk of written material about the Soviet Union during the Cold War described Moscow as though it were Prague circa the late 1990s.)

The army isn't out in the streets pointing guns at everyone's heads, but even lazy and incurious journalists must get at least a whiff of the island's oppression.

James Kirchick recently returned from there and opened his piece this way:

I've visited more than my fair share of dictatorships, but Cuba is the only one where travelers at the airport must pass through a metal detector upon entering, in addition to leaving, the country. Immediately after clearing customs at José Marti International Airport, visitors line up for a security check. Anyone found carrying contraband — counterrevolutionary books, say, or a spare laptop that might be given to a Cuban citizen — could find himself susceptible to deportation.

He spent much of his time interviewing dissidents—a risky move, for both reporter and dissident—but he also sprinkled his essay with the sort of fun facts most journalists who visit the island don't feel like communicating to the rest of us.

Few visitors bother to visit an actual Cuban home, and so you won't hear them coo about the "classic" 1950s-era refrigerators — that is, if the house is lucky enough to have one. Aside from a few carefully well-preserved plazas outside the main tourist hotels, Havana is much dirtier and more run down than I imagined. Walking down its narrow streets, I was reminded of bombed-out sections of Beirut, heaps of rubble and trash strewn about the decaying buildings. Steps from a billboard splayed with Castro's visage and some revolutionary verbiage, a woman picked through garbage. At a pharmacy, I watched a man purchase Band-Aids — individually, not by the package.

"Sometimes when you have money you want to go to the market and buy meat and there's nothing there," Berta Soler told me. "If you're able to find it, it's bad quality. We wake up every day thinking, 'What am I going to eat today?' and go to sleep thinking 'What am I going to eat tomorrow?'" I dined at a variety of Cuban establishments, from the restaurant of a moderately priced tourist hotel to a relatively upmarket café to a canteen in a small, extremely poor provincial city. Across the board, the quality of food was horrendous, and never before have I been more eager to consume airplane cuisine.

Cuba's current president Raul Castro is a little less severe than his brother, and he's reforming Fidel's imbecilic economic system one tiny rule at a time. At the current rate of change, Havana will be the Prague of the Western Hemisphere sometime around the year 2200.

In the meantime, more American tourists than ever are visiting the island now that diplomatic relations are beginning to normalize. Hopefully, some of the more curious among them will wander outside the tourist bubble for at least a couple of hours and get a glimpse of what actually existing communism looks like while it's still with us.

A Brilliant Answer to a Ludicrous Question

My Canadian pal Terry Glavin brilliantly answers a ludicrous question. “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion of Iraq?”

It seems like a reasonable question, but it's not. We don't have the benefit of hindsight in advance. If we did, my goodness. The entire world would be radically different. The entire world would be so radically different that of course we should have invaded Iraq in 2003.

Here's Glavin:

To be blessed with such magical powers of clairvoyance would have been to know which decisions not to make, from the small ones – don’t send a column of Humvees down that road, it’s mined with IEDs – to the big ones – hey, let’s not put the 320th Military Police Battalion in charge of that prison at Abu Ghraib. Even the really big mistakes could have been foreseen and avoided. The whole “De-Baathification” project and the disbanding the Iraqi military? Let’s skip that. It’ll just come back to haunt us all in the worst possible way.

We could play this game all day. Why not ask the same question about Syria? Or the wars on drugs and poverty. The decision to build public housing blocks in Cabrini-Green. Staying out of World War II until after the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Putting New Orleans below sea level. Building a house where “we now know” an F-5 tornado would touch down five years later. Electing George W. Bush president. Electing Barack Obama president. Picking Sarah Palin as a running mate. Buying a lottery ticket that “we now know” was a bust.

In real life, we make decisions with the information we have at the time.

Here's Glavin again:

In the orthodox view, “what we know now” is that everybody was wrong back then and the cost was 162,000 dead Iraqis and roughly $900 billion. The lessons we take from this? We trade the fundamental human rights of the Iranian people for the shambles of a nuclear deal with the ayatollahs. We confront the Islamic State’s rampaging barbarism with a small, mostly air-power coalition that has no intention of victory. We allow Bashar Assad, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force and Hezbollah to wage war on the Syrian people.

Total cost to date: Afghanistan survives by the skin of its teeth. Libya no longer exists. Iraq is a failed state in all but name. Khomeinist Iran has never been so confidently ambitious. In Syria alone: more than 225,000 dead, nearly 10 million homeless, three million refugees, and a reconstruction bill the World Bank last year pegged at $200 billion and counting.

All that, too, is “what we know now.” So what lessons have we learned?

Well, at least two things are perfectly clear. Horrible things happen when we go to war, and horrible things happen when we give peace a chance.

Foreign policy is hard. When it's crunch time, hundreds of thousands of people will die no matter what decision you make.

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