The Iraq of Latin America

Mexico is more like Iraq than any other country in the Western Hemisphere with the possible exception of Haiti. A bewilderingly multifaceted armed conflict has been raging since 2007 between more than a dozen militarized drug cartels, the federal government and a smorgasbord of citizen’s militias.

The Mexican mafia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Soviet Proxy during the Cold War that remains on the list of international terrorist organizations, back some of the cartels, and according to the Tucson Police Department, even Hezbollah has gotten involved.

The cartels are bribing and corrupting so many government officials that the state fights them only occasionally and only in certain places, leaving citizens at the mercy of murderous criminal enterprises that don’t flinch at even ISIS levels of brutality.

A few years ago, for instance, goons from one of the cartels in the resort city of Acapulco demanded elementary school teachers cough up fifty percent of their salaries or the schools would be attacked. They left a sack of five severed heads out front on the sidewalk to show they weren’t screwing around.

The Mexican Drug War has killed more than 100,000 people in the last eight years. Think about that. That’s twice as many as the number of American killed during the Vietnam War. The conflict even occasionally spills over the border into the United States.

No one could cover all this in a single article or even a feature-length film. In a book, perhaps, but it would be as mind-bogglingly complex as Jason Stearn’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters about the impossibly tortured great war in the Congo.

Matthew Heineman covers a piece of it, though, in his searing new documentary Cartel Land, produced by Katherine Bigelow of Zero Dark Thirty fame. He embeds with militia leaders in both Mexico and the United States—Dr. Jose Mireles in the state of Michoacan, and Tim Foley in Arizona—and follows them on patrol and into battle.

Dr. Mireles leads the local Grupo de Autodefensa, a citizen’s militia that rose up to fight the Knight’s Templar cartel, a ghastly mafia/terrorist hybrid, after it took over the small city of Tepalcatepec an hour or so south of Guadalajara.

“What would you do?” Dr. Mireles says when asked why a medical doctor is moonlighting as a militia commander. “Wait for when they come to you? Or defend yourself?”

Heineman even manages to interview some of the cartel members. “We are the meth cooks,” a masked man says on screen. “We know we do harm. But what are we going to do? We come from poverty.”

Foley, meanwhile, leads the Arizona Border Recon, a vigilante group that hunts drug smugglers and human traffickers on the American side of the border. “It’s the cartels,” he says on the safer side of the line in America. “They’re the ones terrorizing their own country, and now they’re starting to do it over here.”

Cartel Land is a mostly political tale in America’s back yard punctuated with heart-stopping scenes of battle we associate more with war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq than where millions of us like to go on vacation. Most of it focuses on Michoacan’s autodefensas, a militia movement that starts out surprisingly civic-minded considering the fact that it’s…a militia. “When the government can’t provide basic security for its people,” Dr. Mireles says, “we take up arms.”

The story on the American side is, by contrast, a bit on the dull side. Heineman seems to know it, too, so most of the screen time is down there in Mexico. The American “militia” isn’t really even a militia, at least not in the Mexican sense of the word, and certainly not in the Iraqi sense of the word. The only thing Foley’s crew really has in common with Mireles’ autodefensas is that the drug cartels are the enemy.

The Arizona Border Recon is filling an American Border Patrol gap rather than liberating conquered cities. They’re not fighting pitched battles. They’re just wandering around in the no-man’s land of the desert and making occasional citizen’s arrests.

Dr. José Mireles, on the other hand, actually liberates cities. That’s how bad it is in some parts of Mexico. The government sits on its ass while entire cities need to be liberated from armies of killers.

The first time we see the Mexican government, the army rolls into town and disarms not the cartel members but the citizen autodefensas. Furious residents chase the army away and ensure the militia gets its guns back.

In another town, though, the autodefensas are met with an icy chill. A huge throng of concerned citizens gathers in the town square and insists that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force, that unaccountable militiamen could all too easily become the very monsters they’re fighting against.

It’s an interesting moment, and it’s initially not obvious who we should side with. So many state officials have been bought off by cartel money that the government won’t do its job. The government at times even facilitates the cartels. The concerned citizens are surely right on general principle, but Mexico is a place where foxes guard the henhouse. What are regular people supposed to do? Just sit there and take it?

The autodefensas, however, lose their moral authority over time. Dr. José Mireles is shoved aside by his bodyguard, a fat man with a beard known as “Papa Smurf,” who lacks Mireles’ civic-minded decency. “We can’t become the criminals we are fighting against,” Dr. Mireles warns Papa Smurf, but to no avail. Under new leadership, the autodefensas begin running roughshod over people.

Papa Smurf initially hated the cartels for the same reasons as everyone else, but he likes power a little too much. It’s an old story. It predates even antiquity.

Mireles flees and Papa Smurf agrees to transform the autodefensas into a deputized wing of the state security apparatus. That’s exactly what should have happened, in theory. In a better world, in a better Mexico, militias would be either disarmed or integrated into the government. The state really does need a monopoly on the use of force. We’ve all seen what happens in countries elsewhere in the world—Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo—where military power is dispersed among various factions.

There’s a moment of hope, then, when the autodefensas become part of the government The problem is that nothing else changes beforehand. The state is as corrupted by cartel money as ever. And now the autodefensas—led by a Papa Smurf drunk on his own newfound power—have become a part of that corrupt state.

Cartel Land ends on a note that’s positively Middle Eastern in its bleakness. The cartel-government hybrid swallows the citizens’ movement as if it’s the Borg. The deputized autodefensas are now working with rather than against the cartels while Dr. Mireles languishes in prison on weapons charges.

It’s clear as glass by the end that Mexico is no more prepared to emerge from its quagmire of crookedness, crime, armed conflict and poverty than it was when I was a kid. Yet somehow, despite it all, the enormous tourism industry is still flourishing.

You can still go down there on holiday if you want, but don’t watch Cartel Land on the plane, and don’t take the kids.

The Clarion Call of ISIS

British Muslims are losing the war against ISIS. So says Sunny Hundal in a new essay in Quartz magazine.

“For the vast majority of Muslims who disdain its ideology,” he writes, “the challenge that [ISIS] presents to them is deadlier and far more difficult because they are caught in a pincer movement: with public and government suspicion on one side, and a seductive and supposedly empowering ideology on the other.”

According to the FBI, around 200 American Muslims have left the United States to join ISIS. And according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 600-700 British Muslims have left the United Kingdom just this year alone. The grand total of British Muslims running off to join ISIS is well over 1,000.

Compared to just 200 Americans.

The number of Muslims in each country is almost identical at roughly 2.7 million apiece. So British Muslims at least five times more likely to join ISIS than American Muslims.

Why? For at least three reasons. As Hundal notes, two ideas have been bouncing around in the British Muslim community for years—that Muslims should travel abroad to defend their fellow Muslims when necessary and to strive for a caliphate—an Islamic government—if and whenever possible.

American Muslims don’t find these ideas quite so compelling, and I suspect that’s for reason number three: The United States is a nation of immigrants. A foreign-born person can become American in a way that he or she simply can’t become English or Scottish or Welsh or French or German or anything else except maybe Canadian. National identities in the United States and Canada are based far less on ethnicity and religion than in the old world, where national identities have much longer histories that stretch back hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years.

Assimilating into mainstream American culture isn’t easy, but there’s a well-worn path trod by nearly every family in this country. The process itself is part of our identity.

Both British and American Muslims are more likely to join ISIS than Al Qaeda. Which isn’t the least bit surprising. Al Qaeda does nothing but kill people. Its record is naught but destruction.

But ISIS has actually built something. It’s appalling, of course. The Islamic state is a blood-soaked totalitarian prison. But so was the Soviet Union, and it, too, inspired huge numbers of people all over the world to take up arms and violently create knock-offs, from Cuba and Vietnam to South Yemen and even Somalia and Ethiopia.

We should never underestimate the appeal of a utopian fantasy in the human psyche even if it is drenched in blood.

Some people who find these utopias stirring deny that they’re drenched in blood. Others make excuses. (You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.) Still others are attracted to these ideas and places because they’re drenched in blood. Jihadi John, the Kuwait-British man who beheaded a string of jumpsuit-clad journalists and aid workers on camera, is clearly some kind of psychopath. So are the ISIS fighters who serially rape their captured “war brides.” So is Lisa Borch, the 15-year old Danish girl who fell in love with an Islamist extremist and stabbed her mother to death with a kitchen knife.

There’s an upside to the exodus, I suppose. Britain and the United States are better off without these people. If they didn’t run off to Syria, they’d be living down the street. We’d have fewer Jihadi Johns and more Lisa Borchs.

Syria sure as hell isn’t better off with these people as “immigrants,” but they’ll eventually die there when the Islamic State, like every other monstrous utopian entity, either destroys itself from within or is destroyed from without by fed-up outsiders.

When it finally happens, whether it’s next year or two decades from now, the British and American Muslim communities will be, on average, a little more politically moderate and sane than they are now. 

Russia Moves Into Syria

Russia is shipping massive quantities of offensive weapons, materiel and soldiers to Syria.

The massive Condor flights carrying all kinds of supplies now arrive twice a day through Iran and Iraq into Bassel Al-Assad International Airport outside the port city of Latakia. The cargo is for Russian soldiers, not Syrian government forces, but is seen as a build-up to aid Bashar Assad's embattled regime. 

The defense official, briefed on the latest satellite photos of the Syrian coastline, said: "This is the largest deployment of Russian forces outside the former Soviet Union since the collapse of the USSR." 

The only thing surprising about this is that it took so long.  

Syria has been a Russian client state since the 1970s. The reason for its original alliance with Soviet Russia is obvious enough. The Arab Socialist Baath Party was a natural ally of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Syria’s take on secularism and socialism isn't as severe as Soviet Russia’s, but Syria was ideologically much closer to Russia than to, say, Sweden. That was for damn sure.

And Russia wanted proxies and influence wherever it could get them even if the ideological overlap was just partial. It still does. All great powers and aspiring great powers and used-to-be great powers are interested in proxies and influence wherever they can get them.

Russia has what is sometimes referred to as its only Mediterranean naval base in Syria’s medium-sized city of Tartus, but it’s not much more than a gas station and repair shop. Russia’s big warships won’t even fit there. It’s not particularly important. What matters far more to Russia is its influence in the world, which is still drastically down from the great and terrible days of the Soviet Union.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, of course, wants all the help he can get at this late date. He has been getting it from Iran and Hezbollah all along, and from Russia at least diplomatically. He’d certainly take help from the United States at this point. He wanted help from the United States at the very beginning. That’s why he characterized the upheaval in Syria as a war against terrorism long before a single ISIS or Nusra fighter fired a shot, back when it was just him against unarmed protesters demanding some kind of political reform.

Assad might even take help from the Israelis at this point. Not that the Israelis would lift a finger to assist Hezbollah’s co-patron and co-armorer. That won’t happen under any circumstances.

So here comes daddy Russia, riding to the rescue of its old totalitarian client.

Maybe the Russians will go ahead and smash ISIS. Maybe they’ll do the dirty work that has the West so fatigued. Maybe they’ll do everybody a favor.

The result won’t be pretty, however. Soviet Russia did everybody a favor when it smashed through the eastern front of Hitler’s Nazi regime, but Poland sure paid the price. As did a lot of other countries in Europe.

The Wall Street Journal isn’t happy about this at all.

For 70 years American Presidents from both parties have sought to thwart Russian influence in the Middle East. Harry Truman forced the Red Army to withdraw from northern Iran in 1946. Richard Nixon raised a nuclear alert to deter Moscow from resupplying its Arab clients during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Even Jimmy Carter threatened military force to protect the Persian Gulf after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

America wasn’t quite as burned out then.

We’re all tired of trying to fix a part of the world that refused to be fixed, but nature abhors a vacuum.

Beirut Chokes on Its Own Filth

Since the time of antiquity, almost every place in the Middle East has suffered from way too much government, but Lebanon is an intriguing exception. It’s the one country in the region that doesn’t have nearly enough.

Its government is so weak and dysfunctional that it can no longer carry out the most basic functions. Months have now passed since municipal workers have removed trash from garbage cans and dumpsters in Beirut. Mountains of garbage the size of buildings are piled up everywhere. The city—which looks like a fascinating and sometimes beautiful hybrid of Miami, Paris, Baghdad, and Tel Aviv—reeks like the worst slum in the world.

Surely by now the place is a biohazard.

Anti-government protestors and even rioters have taken to the streets with the message, “You Stink.” People from every political sect and every conceivable political party from the communists and Hezbollah to right-wing Christians and anti-sectarian liberals have banded together to demand the government take out the garbage—not just the trash on the streets, but the entire political class.

Anti-government riots are generally the result of real or perceived political repression, but the Lebanese are rebelling against a vacuum.

Lebanon was purposely designed to have weak state, not so much because the Lebanese are naturally libertarian (though many of them are, in their own Levantine way) but because the country is too diverse to cohere around a central leadership. It’s divided more or less equally between Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Christians. A smaller Druze minority makes things even more interesting and complicated.

Each of Lebanon’s three principle religious communities have different social and political values, and a weak central government allows each some measure of self-determination in its local and social affairs. A weak central state also prevents one sect from riding roughshod over the others. That’s the theory anyway. If one sect tries to seize total control, war is inevitable.

And so, for the most part, nobody tries. Not even Hezbollah has attempted to impose its rule over the entire country like its patron regime in Iran. Any attempt to Iranianize the whole society would be met with ferocious bloody resistance from just about everyone. Hezbollah knows this. So Hezbollah does not even bother. Despite Hezbollah’s fanaticism, most of Beirut remains as decadent and freewheeling as Amsterdam.

So the system works, sort of. It has so far prevented Lebanon from being taken over by someone like Saddam Hussein or Moammar Qaddafi. Syria’s Assad family ruled there for a while, but only because the Syrian army conquered the place with overwhelming force from the outside. Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party—created and maintained by Syria’s Alawite religious minority—is from somewhere else. It was an invasive species, an alien transplant, and in 2005 the Lebanese vomited it out.

So Lebanon figured out a way to free itself from the despotism endemic to the rest of the region. Hooray for the weak state. But the state is so weak that the capital is now drowning in its own filth.

How much government is just the right amount? We all have opinions, but nobody really knows. It goes without saying that Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union had far too much government while Somalia, with its bloody anarchy, has the opposite problem.

What about countries closer to the center? The United States or Canada? The United Kingdom or The Netherlands?

The Middle East’s options are more extreme. Would you rather live amidst Lebanon’s mild anarchy or Jordan’s moderate authoritarianism? Jordan isn’t experiencing much trouble with garbage collection these days, but the Jordanians can’t vote for or against the king, and there isn’t much in the way of freedom of speech.

It’s a bit of a quandary, isn’t it? “Even Syrians fleeing war pronounce themselves shocked at the lack of infrastructure in Lebanon,” Anne Barnard writes in The New York Times. “Some of them, however, express a hint of jealousy that Lebanon’s weak state allows freedoms unavailable in Syria, where protests were crushed with deadly force.”

Lebanon is obviously a better place than Syria right now despite all its problems. No one would flee the Beirut garbage dump for the killing fields of Aleppo. Lebanon, at least, isn’t a war zone. The government isn’t dropping barrel bombs on residential neighborhood, and there’s no genocidal terrorist army forcing children to execute its enemies.

But the World Economic Forum ranks Lebanon’s government as the fourth-least efficient in the entire world.

There are some advantages to that. You can live more or less like a free human being there. I know because I did it myself in 2005 and 2006. Peter Grimsditch, a British transplant who used to run Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, once told me that he’d never been anywhere in the world where he felt the power of the state bearing down on him less.

There are some serious disadvantages, though, too.

There’s the trash problem, of course.

And the fact that an Iranian-sponsored militia—Hezbollah—has managed to amass more military capacity than the national army.

And here’s a fun fact: Lebanon hasn’t had a president for more than a year. Imagine a chronically authoritarian place like Egypt having that problem.

And imagine if Barack Obama were followed in office by…nobody. Not Hillary Clinton. Not Jeb Bush. Not Donald Trump. Not Bernie Sanders.


The idea is actually appealing in some ways. Americans could probably muddle through for years with a ghost Oval Office.

But imagine if that also meant no new power plants for the next 30 years. No road repairs. No functioning water system. No trash collection. Militias rising up everywhere that start wars with Canada and Mexico.

The country might yearn for some kind of dictator after putting up with that kind of dysfunction for too many years.

Will that happen in Lebanon? I doubt it. The Lebanese wouldn’t be able to agree on which kind of dictator they’d tolerate anyway. But honestly I have no idea. It’s a strange place. There’s nowhere else in the world—certainly nowhere else in the Middle East—quite like it.

For Lebanon to resolve the root cause of most of its problems, Lebanon will have to stop being Lebanon. But that’s not going to happen any more than Syria will stop being Syria or Iraq will stop being Iraq.

ISIS Wages Cultural Genocide in Palmyra

They finally did it. The bastards destroyed Palmyra’s Temple of Bel.

We all knew it was coming in May when ISIS conquered the ancient Roman-era city an hour’s drive east of the Syrian city of Homs.

At first nothing happened. They promised they’d leave Palmyra alone, that they wouldn’t lay waste to its offensive pre-Islamicness the way they wrecked the Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud. 

I almost wrote that I was wrong after I predicted Palmyra’s destruction in City Journal, but then I thought, no, this is ISIS we’re talking about. Of course they’re going blow up the city. They’re just waiting for short attention-spanned Westerners to stop paying attention.

The West is not going to ride to the rescue. Neither will anyone else. (Well, maybe the Kurds will. They’re among the very best people in the Middle East. For so many reasons.)

But the impulse is there, isn’t it? At least a little bit? Who can witness this sort of thing and just shrug it off? Human life is more important than buildings, of course, but the Temple of Bel is not “just a building.” It isn’t a gas station. It isn’t a Wal-mart. It belongs to the heritage of mankind. Even Bashar al-Assad’s gangster regime is genuinely shocked and appalled. 

In March of 2001, the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddha statues at Bamiyan. They used dynamite. They used anti-aircraft guns. It took them weeks of dedicated effort, but they finally got the job done.

They destroyed those statues for one reason only: they were not Islamic.

One of my best friends was so aghast he told me that the United States should invade Afghanistan. I said he was nuts. We’re not going to invade a country on the other side of the planet because some primitive yahoos blew up some statues. And I was right. We did not invade of Afghanistan because some primitive yahoos blew up some statutes.

But I’ll never forget what he said next.

People who commit cultural genocide will mass-murder humans. War is inevitable.

Six months later, the United States invaded Afghanistan after the most devastating attack on American soil in history.

I was right. But so was he. 

The Taliban’s cultural genocide was just a prelude to what would come later.

Three months later, Paul Berman wrote “Terror and Liberalism,” one the most brilliant essays of his career which he later expanded into an even more brilliant book, comparing Al Qaeda’s ideology to Nazism, Communism, and General Franco’s fascism in Spain. The details of the ideologies are all strikingly different, of course, but they’re all just different flavors of modern totalitarianism with identical baseline characteristics.

The shared ideas were these: There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society. But society's health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world. The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation--an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as André Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements--a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.

Each of the twentieth-century antiliberal movements expressed this idea in its own idiosyncratic way. The people of good were described as the Aryans, the proletarians, or the people of Christ. The diabolical infestation was described as the Jews, the bourgeoisie, the kulaks, or the Masons. The bloody internal battle to root out the infestation was described as the "final solution," the "final struggle," or the "Crusade." The impending new society was sometimes pictured as a return to the ancient past and sometimes as a leap into the sci-fi future. It was the Third Reich, the New Rome, communism, the Reign of Christ the King. But the blocklike characteristics of that new society were always the same. And with those ideas firmly in place, each of the antiliberal movements marched into battle.

And each of those totalitarian movements started unspeakable wars that killed millions upon millions of people.

Here we are again, a decade and a half later, and ISIS—Al Qaeda 2.0—is doing in Syria what the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

At the moment, the West would likely tolerate ISIS going full Pol Pot and genociding Syria off the map for a while, but these people are inevitably going to screw with us.

We’re not going to invade Syria to save some old buildings even if they are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but just like in 2001, at some point down the line, war is inevitable.

How to Destroy a City in Five Minutes

You don’t need a weapon of mass destruction to ruin a city.

Well, maybe sometimes you do. You’re not getting rid of New York City without one. But some of the world’s cities are so vulnerable, so precariously perched above an abyss, that a single bloodthirsty nutjob with a rifle can bring it to its knees in a matter of minutes.

Look at Tunisia’s resort city of Sousse on the Mediterranean. Two months ago, an ISIS-inspired nutcase named Seifeddine Rezgui strolled up the beach with a Kalashnikov in his hand and murdered 38 people, most of them tourists from Britain.

The police shot him, of course. There was never going to be any other ending than that one. And before the police arrived, local Tunisians formed a protective human shield around Rezgui’s would-be foreign victims. “Kill us! Kill us, not these people!” shouted Mohamed Amine. According to survivor John Yeoman, hotel staff members charged the gunman and said, “We won’t let you through. You’ll have to go through us.”

Tunisia’s hospitality and customer service are deservedly legendary, but that was truly above and beyond. It’s how Tunisia rolls, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Tourists are not going back.

A few still wander around here and there, but the locals are calling them ghosts. Who else lives in a ghost town but ghosts?

Hotels are laying off workers. Shops are empty and many will have to be closed. The city is reeling with feelings of guilt and anxiety. Guilt because one of their own murdered guests, the gravest possible offense against the ancient Arab code of hospitality, and anxiety because—what now? How will the city survive? How will all the laid-off workers earn a living with their industry on its back? Sousse without tourists is like Hollywood without movies and Detroit without automobile manufacturing.

Even Tunisia’s agriculture economy is crashing. Prices are down by 35 percent because the resorts don’t need to feed tourists anymore.

Rezgui’s ghoulish attack was spectacularly successful, wasn’t it? A single act of violence and—boom. Just like that, it’s all over.

Tunisians can still hang out in Sousse when they have some leisure time, but why should foreigners go there on holiday when they can go to Morocco instead? And if a couple of freakjobs shoot a bunch of tourists in Morocco, that country, too, could go into a tailspin. Why go there for a Mediterranean holiday when you could go to Spain, Malta, Corsica, or Croatia? Europeans who want to go farther afield can fly down to Key West, the Azores, or Bermuda. 

When it’s stable, Tunisia is a wonderful place for Westerners. The southern half of the country is quintessentially North African while the coast is startlingly European. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say the coast is Mediterranean. With a few exceptions (Gaza, Libya, and to a lesser extent Egypt), the European and Africans sides of the Mediterranean are two halves of a coherent whole. 

Only when you move inland and away from the sea do the unique characteristics of each nation-state fully assert themselves. Coastal Morocco is a lot like Spain, partly because southern Spain is a lot like Morocco. Beirut is an Arabic-speaking version of Tel Aviv. Istanbul is a Greek city inhabited by Turks while Athens is an Ottoman city where Greeks dwell. Coastal Tunisia feels like an Arabic-speaking province of France without the clash between natives and immigrants.

A French person who holidays in Sousse will feel as eerily at home as a Californian in Cabo San Lucas.

There’s a lot to love about Sousse. It’s an Arab city to emulate. If only Egyptians and Saudis and Iraqis could see this place, I thought to myself when I first got there, they’d see what’s possible in their own countries.

And that’s precisely why the likes of ISIS want to destroy it. ISIS isn’t gunning for Mecca. It is not targeting the Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan. It wants to swallow as much as it can, of course, but it can’t tolerate anything in the Muslim world that reminds people like me of a decadent infidel nation like France.


Thousands of Tunisians have run off to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Tunisians are, in fact, overrepresented in ISIS’s ranks.

Don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not because ISIS is popular in Tunisia. It’s not because Tunisians are more Islamist than people everywhere else. The democratically-elected government is composed of a staunchly secular coalition that spans the political spectrum from the socialist left to the moderate right.

Tunisia is the one Arab Spring success story. There is no chance it will voluntarily transform itself into anything resembling a Taliban state. The only Arab country less likely to rally around the ISIS flag is Lebanon, and that’s because a third of Lebanon’s people are Christians.

So if you live in Tunisia and yearn for that sort of thing, you have to go somewhere else.

Most of Tunisia’s ISIS members come from the same town anyway, a nasty place called Kasserine that I vowed to never visit again even before it became the ISIS factory that it is now.

Some countries suffer from brain drain. Their best and brightest emigrate to gentler and more prosperous lands when they can flourish. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt—these places are all suffering from spectacular levels of brain drain.

Tunisia, meanwhile, is experiencing psychopath drain.

But some of its home-grown psychopaths are sticking around, and it’s extraordinary what just a handful can do. If they blew up their home town of Kasserine, hardly anybody would notice or care, but massacring people in Sousse is like massacring people in Miami. Americans by and large aren’t familiar with Sousse because it’s far away on a strange continent, but it’s a short hop for Europeans and Arabs and is as well-known on that side of the Atlantic as Cancun is on this side.

I’ve visited Sousse three times, first with my wife, then with my friend and occasional traveling companion Sean LaFreniere, and again with my colleague Armin Rosen.

A few years ago, in the early days of Tunisia’s democracy, Sean and I had dinner at an old French restaurant near the beach. The place was packed, the food outstanding, the bill tiny. I looked around the restaurant and saw bottles of red wine atop almost every table. None of the women were covered. The mood was care-free and light, airy and full of laugher. We could have been in France, but I heard no language in that restaurant but Arabic.

You can find restaurants like that one in Jordan, but they’re almost all attached to hotels and nearly all the patrons are foreign. In Sousse, though, Sean and I were perhaps the only foreigners, not because tourists were afraid to visit back then but because we were there in the winter, during the off season.

I’ve been almost everywhere in that country more than once. It felt solid. Kick the walls if you want. They won’t buckle. It will not come apart like Syria, Iraq or Libya. It was obvious from the very beginning that, post-Arab Spring, Tunisia would not explode in civil war like Syria, rupture into fragments like Libya, or devolve into another police state like Egypt. It sure as hell wouldn’t go the way of Afghanistan. That was clear.

“If the Islamists want to Talibanize this place,” I said to Sean as he sipped from his glass of Johnny Walker at that delightful restaurant in Sousse, “they’ll have to kill half the population in order to do it.”

He froze after I said that. I didn’t ask what he was thinking at that moment, and I doubt he’d remember if I asked him—this was years ago—but he clearly felt a chill. I felt a chill, too. And I remember what I thought when I felt it: The bastards will probably try.

The Price of American Diplomacy in Cuba

If you watched the American Embassy’s reopening ceremony in Cuba on television, or saw some of the photographs, you may have noticed dozens of bare flagpoles in the background.

There’s a story behind that.

After the US and Cuba dissolved relations during the Cold War, the former American Embassy building became the US Interests Section.

Not a lot went on in that building since our two nations didn’t have normal relations, but even mutually hostile governments have to talk to each other once in a while, especially if they’re neighbors, so the US posted diplomatic staff there.

And in 2006, they created a gigantic electronic billboard in the windows of the building to broadcast messages to the Cuban population outside. They quoted some terrific people.

 “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent” – Abraham Lincoln

“Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff.” – Frank Zappa

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”—Universal Declaration on Human Rights

According to the Wall Street Journal, the billboard even pointed out that Forbes listed Fidel Castro as the seventh-richest head of state in the world. The guy is worth 900 million dollars while the wages of his miserable subjects are capped at twenty dollars a month.

You can imagine how well that went over down there. The whole thing enraged Castro. Remember, he and his brother Raul own all the newspapers in Cuba. You can’t buy the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or The Economist down there. Google News doesn’t exist either because private Internet access is outlawed.

If you want to read something, you’re stuck with the Granma, the Communist Party daily, or Rebel Youth, the magazine written by the elderly walking dead for the island’s young people who’ll go to prison if they rebel or even complain.

So yeah, Castro hated that billboard at what’s now the American Embassy. How dare the United States quote Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. So he erected 138 black flags in front of the building so the people of Cuba couldn’t see it.

In 2009, Barack Obama pulled the plug on it.

Let’s get one thing out of the way here. Barack Obama is not best friends forever with Fidel Castro. He does not prefer a tyrannical regime to Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. He pulled the plug because he wanted to improve relations with Cuba, and that billboard got in the way.

Fine. But it creates a bit of a quandary, doesn’t it? How does it look from the Cuban street if the United States government is all chummy with the government that kicks them in the ass every day?

Maybe it’s fine. Honestly, I don’t know. You won’t encounter much if any hostility from Cubans toward Americans if you go down there like I did. The same was true of the communist bloc in Europe during the Cold War.

Remember the 1979 revolution in Iran? Anti-Americanism was rampant there then. Why? Because the United States was all chummy with the tyrannical regime of the Shah Reza Pahlavi. Iran is still hostile more than a third of a century later.

And let’s not forget that Cuban anti-Americanism of yesteryear was the result of the United States government being all chummy with the previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

Sometimes you have to choose between having good relations with a nation’s government or good relations with a nation’s people. When dealing with awful regimes, you generally have to pick one or another.

There are exceptions. The US gets along just fine with both the government and the people of Vietnam right now despite the fact that Vietnam is still ruled by a one-party state that calls itself communist. Perhaps the same can happen in Cuba after a while. I have no idea, really.

Either way, I rather doubt the people of Cuba enjoyed having their access to Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln denied. Because they certainly aren’t getting inspiring messages from Fidel or Raul Castro.

The American Flag Flies Again Over Cuba

The American flag was raised over Cuba this weekend for the first time in 54 years at the official reopening of the US Embassy in Havana. Three of the Marines who lowered the flag as young men in 1961 ran it up the flagpole as old men.

Diplomatic relations between our two nations have been officially restored.

This is controversial in the United States, to say the least, but look: Cuba is not Iran, and it is not Syria. It certainly isn’t the Islamic State’s psychopathic “caliphate” in Raqqa.

Nothing bad is going to happen to the United States because we’re talking to Cuba again. Cuba is no longer hostile to the United States in any way that could conceivably harm us.

The Castro regime is hostile to ordinary Cubans, though, no doubt about it. It still runs the island as a jailhouse state with by far the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere.

Dissidents are routinely arrested and thrown into prison. Those who are eventually sent home live under constant total surveillance. The government stakes out their homes with intelligence agents and even video cameras.

Poverty is enforced by law. The vast majority of citizens are not permitted to earn more than twenty dollars a month unless they work in the tourist sector and get tips from foreigners. They’ll go to prison if they catch and eat a lobster. (All lobsters are strictly reserved for government-owned restaurants that cater to foreigners.) Private Internet access is illegal.

“The people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Havana at the embassy’s reopening ceremony, “where people are free to choose their leaders.”

Indeed. And we should be honest about the fact that restoring diplomatic relations will not make that happen.

But it probably won’t stymie it either. Why would it? Cubans will either revolt against the government and bring it down or they won’t. Having diplomatic relations with Tunisia didn’t prevent people from overthrowing the crooked Ben Ali a couple of years ago. Nor did diplomatic relations with South Korea and Taiwan in the early years of the Cold War prevent those countries from transitioning to democracy from military rule.

I visited Cuba in 2013. The economic reforms President Raul Castro has implemented are so marginal that they’re barely even detectable. Cuba is not communist-in-name-only like China and Vietnam. It’s still startlingly old-school.

Economic activity scarcely exists. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, there’s almost nothing to buy. Cubans still live mostly on ration cards. There are no boutique shopping districts, no chain stores, no corporate billboards along the highways and certainly no big-box stores like Target.

Billboards consist entirely of hysterical state propaganda. All newspapers (which is to say, both of them) are owned and controlled by the government. Dialogue doesn’t exist in that country. The state lectures and hectors while everyone else shuts up and listens.

Much of the propaganda is cartoonishly anti-American, but let me tell you: ordinary people hardly ever talk smack about the United States. I didn’t hear a single complaint about we dreaded Yankee imperialists from a single person. On the contrary, Cubans make it abundantly clear that they admire what we have and would like it for themselves. Their attitudes are remarkably mature, and their knowledge of the United States and its political system is surprisingly undistorted considering the fact that they’ve lived in a global media blackout and been served nothing but lies from their own government for more than a half-century.

Let’s just say that they’re a lot more friendly and neighborly than Fidel Castro.

I can’t be sure about this, but I’d wager they’re more pro-American than anyone else in the hemisphere. They’re certainly more pro-American than Mexicans and they’re probably more pro-American than Canadians.

They aren’t more pro-American despite living under a communist regime. They’re more pro-American because they live under a communist regime.

Don’t be surprised. We saw this in Europe. To this day, formerly communist Europe is vastly more pro-American than Western Europe. The only exception is Serbia, partly because the United States went to war against Serbia twice during the genocidal Milosevic era, but mostly because Serbians feel a cultural and political kinship with Russia.

Cuba is not a Caribbean version of Serbia. It’s more like a Caribbean version of Poland that hasn’t yet managed to free itself. If it had a land border with the United States, the regime almost certainly would have collapsed a long time ago. Practically every Cuban on earth would now be living in Florida. The regime should thank God, Marx and Engels that nature provided it with a permanent Berlin Wall in the form of the sea.

So we have an embassy in Havana again, but all is not normal. The embargo is still firmly in place. The White House and the State Department can restore diplomatic relations on their own, but Congress decides whether or not to lift sanctions. And Congress is not in the mood.

The Cuban government, for its part, insists that diplomatic relations will not be fully normalized until after the embargo is history, which is fair enough, actually. Nations with which we have truly normal relations—Canada, Chile, India, Japan and so on—are not being sanctioned by the American government.

It goes without saying that the embargo hasn’t led to democracy in Cuba, though that was not its original purpose. Congress imposed it when Fidel Castro stole millions of dollars in American property after he seized power from Fulgencio Batista. The embargo was partly a punishment, but it was also a way to future-proof American assets from a thieving gangster regime.

The embargo stuck around after the end of the Cold War, though, because it theoretically gave the United States a bit of leverage to bring Cuba’s political system in line with the norms in our hemisphere.

It didn’t work.

So maybe it is time to just scrap it. The government is spectacularly unlikely to steal American property again. Raul Castro’s second priority after keeping himself and his party in power is enriching the island.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Lifting the embargo won’t lead to democracy either. It would help the Cuban economy, and it would give Americans another nearby tourist option, but it would not bring about a regime-change any more than trading with Vietnam and China have led to regime-change in those countries. Lifting the embargo would, however, dissolve whatever leverage Washington might otherwise have in the future.

It would be a little like a surrender on our part. But surrender to what?

Should we do it?

Writers like me are supposed to pretend we have all the answers. I’m sorry to say that I don’t.

The Forward's Dispatch from Iran

The Forward just published the very first dispatch from Iran in a Jewish newspaper that was tolerated by the Iranian government since the revolution in 1979.

The article by Larry Cohler-Esses is interesting and worth reading, but it’s also a bit on the naïve side. Reporting from police states on a journalist visa doesn’t always take nerves of steel (such countries are generally not dangerous places for foreign visitors if permission to work there has been granted), but it does require heavy doses of skepticism.

“Though I had to work with a government fixer and translator,” he writes, “I decided which people I wanted to interview and what I would ask them.”

Perhaps, but he has no way of knowing if the translations are accurate, and meanwhile I know for a fact that both the translator and the fixer reported on him to the government. They were required by law to do so. For all he and I know, they worked for the Ministry of Intelligence.

Regardless, reporters should never take what police state apparatchiks say at face value, but Cohler-Esses does so more than once.

During the course of my conversations with several senior ayatollahs and prominent political and government officials, it became clear that there is high-placed dissent to the official line against Israel. No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state. But pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies. Others, notwithstanding their ideological objection to a Jewish state, made it clear they would accept a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians if the Palestinians were to negotiate one and approve it in a referendum.

You really have to read between the lines on this stuff.

First of all, anyone and everyone in Iran who talks to an American journalist flanked by an official fixer and translator knows that every word they utter will be carefully read by the authorities. That’s as true for people inside the government as it is for people on the street. Authoritarian regimes install fear in everyone, including their own officials. Nobody wants to be purged. So who knows what they privately believe? 

Second, political figures even in free countries lie to routinely lie to reporters and say what the intended audience wants to hear. And Iran’s official line right now to Western audiences is that the government is increasingly moderate, reasonable, and flexible. (That’s probably the only reason a reporter from The Forward was given a journalist visa in the first place.)

Anyway, it makes no sense that Iran only objects to Israeli policy. Iranian leaders routinely scream Death to Israel. They also routinely scream Death to America.

Hezbollah in Lebanon likewise shouts Death to Israel and Death to America, and Hezbollah likewise says it’s just objecting to American policies, but come on. The United States government objects to plenty of Mexico’s policies, but not even Donald Trump or Pat Buchanan begins meetings by screaming Death to Mexico or appears at any Death to Mexico rallies.

The United States doesn’t even have Death to Mexico rallies.

But let’s go ahead, for the sake of discussion, and take these relatively moderate statements at face value. Some members of the Iranian government still say they want to destroy Israel.

“We believe that the State of Israel must be changed, corrected and improved,” Ayatollah Ardebili told him, “and if that is not possible, and if the nature of the state does not allow for improvement, then the state must be destroyed.”

So maybe the government really is divided on this question. It’s impossible to say for sure. For all we know, the whole Death to Israel thing is just a big put-on to gain credibility in an Arab world that has been suspicious of Persians for thousands of years.

What I can say with some confidence, however, is that we shouldn’t trust a damn thing anyone in that government says to foreign journalists on the record. We can only trust what they say when they’re being secretly wiretapped, and those conversations rarely if ever get leaked to the press.

Cohler-Esses had some interesting conversations with ordinary Iranians, though. And it’s worth keeping in mind that the Middle East is a place where what’s not said is just as important as the things that are said.

None of the regular people he interviewed expressed the slightest interest in war against the United States or Israel, which should surprise nobody who has followed Iranian public opinion during the last decade or so.

Government dissemblers aside, people in that part of the world almost never conceal feelings of hostility toward Israel. Toward the United States, sometimes, but toward Israel, never. Most Egyptians will proudly tell you they hate Israel and why, but whenever I asked Iraqis what they thought about the Jewish state, most scratched their heads and wondered why I was asking irrelevant questions. Plenty of Lebanese hate Israel and don’t feel the slightest compunction about shouting it from the rooftops, though plenty of others have more…complicated feelings about the so-called Zionist Entity, and some are semi-secret supporters. Tunisians for the most part can’t stand Israel and will gladly tell you about it all day, though in less lurid terms than their Egyptian counterparts.

Hysterical anti-Israel talk has been largely absent on the streets of Iran for some time. The eliminationist warmongering comes almost exclusively from the government, the state-owned media, and the state-managed rallies.

Most Iranians want to live in a normal country that has normal relations with everyone else, but they have no way of making that happen. Publicly criticizing the government has been allowed for a while now, but actually doing something about it is punished severely.

He describes “a dynamic push-and-pull between a theocratic government and its often reluctant and resisting people,” but his own reporting contradicts that somewhat. He himself describes the brutal suppression of dissidents that we have all been grimly aware of since even before the stomped-on Green Revolution in 2009. And he spoke to a woman who was detained by the police simply for showing emotion at the tomb of Cyrus the Great. The guards thought she  “might be associated with some kind of political movement.”

What kind of political movement? Who knows? But the revolutionary regime that seized power in 1979 has been hostile to pre-Islamic Persian history since Day One. Revering the Cyrus the Great, then, might suggest to dogmatic paranoiacs that she’s a supporter of the overthrown monarchy—or any other conceivable movement in Iran that opposes the government. 

And he makes it clear that Jewish life in Iran is sub-awesome.

The Iranian Jewish community, whose members are today free to stay in the country or emigrate, currently numbers anywhere from 9,000 to 20,000, depending on whom you talk to, and down from 80,000 to 100,000 before the revolution. These Jews — along with Christians and Zoroastrians — are tolerated and protected under Iranian law, but subject to a number of discriminatory laws and practices that limit their opportunities for work in senior government posts and in other ways. But they do not limit their opportunities in business.

The Jews, who felt free to complain to me openly about these areas of discrimination, as they do to the government, are basically well-protected second-class citizens.

He mentions that Ayatollah Khamenei’s power trumps that of the elected government, which is true as far as it goes, but he neglects to mention that the government is not really elected. Khamenei hand-picks everyone who gets to run for president.

How democratic would the United States be if Dick Cheney or Barack Obama were president for life and got to hand-pick everyone who ran for office beneath him?

In Iran today, freedom of the press remains a dream. But freedom of tongue has been set loose. I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of Iranians to offer sharp, even withering criticisms of their government on the record, sometimes even happy to be filmed doing so.

That’s also believable and has been happening for some time now. Egypt in the final days of Hosni Mubarak was the same kind of place. So is Cuba today under Raul Castro. I didn’t hear a single Cuban complain about Castro or Che Guevara by name when I visited two years ago, but I heard criticism of “the government” in the abstract from every single person I spoke to on the island.

Not every police state is like North Korea or Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Most of the Iranians he interviewed seem happy about the nuclear deal with the United States because they want sanctions relief, but they’re also skeptical that it will do them much good.

Asked about prospects for the international nuclear agreement, which is coming under angry fire in Iran no less than in the United States, Qaderi told me: “I think it will be implemented. But there will be no improvement for the Iranian people. Our main concern now is freedom!


In Shiraz, in south-central Iran, Hassan Sha’aeri, a locksmith who appeared to be in his 60s with a shop on Zand Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, told me: “Generally speaking, people are in favor of the agreement. But I personally don’t think it will make any special change in the lives of people. The power holders will not allow it to benefit the people.”

So Cohler-Esses’ naiveté is balanced out to an extent with this sort of reporting. It’s also countered by an accurate analysis of who’s really in charge.

He ably dissects what he calls the Deep State—Khamenei and the instruments of power he controls directly, such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps. It’s the Deep State that executes dissidents, throws demonstrators into prison, and backs Iranian terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Iraq. And the Iranian people, try as they might, have no leverage to stop it, not even when they “elect” a relative moderate.

Let’s hope he doesn’t want to go back there any time soon. The regime might view him and his newspaper as useful, but his work is critical enough—he stresses that freedom of the press is non-existent and that Iran executes more people per capita than almost anywhere else in the world—that the government will probably never let him back in. 

A Wave of Attacks Across Turkey

Turkey is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting countries in the Middle East, and not in a good way.

A terrorist organization called the People’s Defense Unit detonated a car bomb at a police station in Istanbul. The Kurdish PKK blew up an armored police vehicle and shot and killed a soldier flying in a military helicopter.

And the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party–Front (DHKP-C) attacked the US consulate in Istanbul.

None of these organizations are affiliated with ISIS. They aren’t even Islamist. They are all radical leftists.

The People’s Defense Unit is a brand-new organization, but the DHKP-C has been around for decades. They’re hardcore Maoists of the old school variety and would be a laughing stock if they didn’t kill people. They splintered off from the Revolutionary Way in 1978, which had splintered off from the Turkish People’s Liberation Party-Front, which had splintered off the Revolutionary Youth Federation.

So yes, the United States was just attacked by communists. In 2015.

And lest you confuse this organization with the quasi-communist Kurdish PKK—which is somewhat pro-American now since we’re sort of helping their allies in Syria—the DHKP-C is not a Kurdish movement and has nothing to do with the Kurdish struggles against the governments of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Turkey. This crowd thinks the Turkish state is an arm of “American imperialism” in the region and would therefore like to annihilate it.

It’s still 1978 as far as they are concerned—not that the Turkish state was an arm of “American imperialism” back then either.

Five days ago the English language edition of the Daily Sabah reported that 335 people were arrested across Turkey in raids against ISIS, the PKK, and the DHKP-C. Today’s attacks, presumably then, were retaliatory.

So Turkey is now at war with leftists and totalitarian Islamists simultaneously. A few years back, a Hurriyet Daily News editorial bluntly stated that “the ‘No problems with neighbors’ foreign policy strategy of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu unfortunately evolved in the past year into a ‘No friends’ reality.” It’s even worse for Turkey today.

The Turks would be well-advised to make a no-bullshit effort to close the Kurdish file and wrap up that problem once and for all so it join the rest of the world against ISIS, but the government would rather double down and set the country on fire. It will be interesting to watch. From a distance.

Hard to believe that Turkey was once a serious candidate for European Union admission. Its largest city is mostly in Europe and much of the country feels quasi-European the way that Russia does, but it’s a crossroads nation that has all the problems of the Mediterranean region, all the problems of the Balkan Pensinula, and all the problems of the Middle East simultaneously.

Turkey’s Parallel War

Fighting between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is heating up again after a two-year hiatus. In late July, the PKK murdered two Turkish policemen in their homes, and Turkish warplanes bombed PKK positions across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds is officially off.

Which means Turkey is less likely than ever to help the rest of the world cope with ISIS.

It has been obvious for a while now that Turkey implicitly sides with ISIS against Syria’s Kurds since the Kurdish militias there are on side with the PKK. Less understood is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also hammering the Kurds for purely domestic political reasons.

He’s doing everything he can to transform Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system to an “enhanced” presidential system, and if he pulls it off he’ll wield most of the power. Think of him as a wannabe elected Roman dictator or Hugo Chavez shorn of the Marxism.

“Erdoğan is accustomed to winning,” Claire Berlinski writes in Politico. “Since the 2002 general election that brought his AKP to power, he has defeated rival after rival, imprisoned military officer after military officer, prosecuted journalist after journalist, tear-gassed protest after protest; and — most importantly — won election after election.”

Recently, though, he hit an obstacle—the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a united coalition of Kurdish nationalists that spans the political spectrum from the radical left to the socially conservative right. They united and won enough seats to derail Erdogan’s plans, handing his AKP its first parliamentary loss in thirteen years.

Plenty of Kurds voted for Erdogan in past elections, but one of the reasons the HDP won this time is because they know as well as the rest of us that Erdogan is implicitly siding with ISIS in Syria.

HDP party co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş is a reasonable and moderate man. He eschews the violence waged against the Turkish state by the PKK. No matter. Erdogan has him in the crosshairs, not because he’s a terrorist but because he won’t sign off on an “enhanced” presidency.

Berlinski lived in Istanbul for years and has forgotten more about the ins-and-outs of Turkey's Byzantine politics than most of the rest of us put together will ever know.

By Turkish law, if no coalition is formed before August 23, snap elections must be held — a “re-run,” as Erdoğan has termed it. So he has until then to correct the Peoples’ Will. As the Turkish economist Emre Deliveli has pointed out, data from 2007-2015 shows, quite strikingly, that support for the AKP rises after episodes of political violence.

So if you look at it from Erdoğan’s perspective — it’s all about the Palace — Demirtaş has to go. The easiest way to ensure that is to fracture the Kurdish vote: make sure Kurds grasp they must choose between Demirtaş and chaos. Smear the HDP with charges that they and the PKK are one. Whip up nationalist rage (it is not hard to do, in Turkey). That may help recoup the 2.5 to 3 percent of the vote the AKP lost to the nationalist MHP on June 7 as well.

After the election, Burhan Kuzu, one of Erdogan’s advisors, said “Yes, the election is over. The people have decided. I said ‘Either peace or chaos,’ and the people have elected chaos. May it bring happiness.”

Erdogan’s party, as Berlinski notes, is now delivering chaos.

The Kurds voted for a party that eschews violence, but they’re not getting peace, not in Syria and not in Turkey.

The Turkish-Kurdish civil war has lasted more than three decades. More than 40,000 people have already been killed. If this spins out of control again—and it easily could—NATO member Turkey will become even more hostile to our only ally in Syria capable of taking on ISIS.

Wherever this is heading, it will not bring happiness.

Turkey's Big Con

The Turkish government is finally allowing the United States to use Incirlik Air Base, just 70 miles from the Syrian border, to launch air strikes over ISIS-held territory—but only if American air power is not used to support Kurdish militias.

The United States, at this late date, is not really interested in helping anyone in Syria aside from the Kurds. All other factions fighting ISIS and the bankrupt Assad regime are Sunni Arab Islamists.

The Kurds are the only American option. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will only allow American planes taking off from Incirlik to provide air cover for the so-called Army of Conquest, an Islamist movement backed by the Turks and the Qataris.

Most Americans have never even heard of the Army of Conquest, and even fewer would like it. It’s an umbrella organization that includes the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. It’s preferable to ISIS, yes, but using American air power to cover an Al Qaeda advance is never going to happen. The US has already bombed Al Qaeda positions in Syria and almost certainly will again.

Turkey just can’t stand to see an autonomous Kurdish region take shape along its border in Northern Syria. It’s understandable up to a point. The Syrian Kurdish militias are aligned with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a former Soviet proxy that has waged a thirty years-long war against the Turkish state.

Turkey could make peace with the Kurds. They’re the easiest people in the entire Middle East to make friends with. Americans and even Israelis have pulled it off practically by default. But Erdogan, like every other Turkish leader before him, just can’t face up to the fact that they’ve been treating the Kurds—who make up as much as 25 percent of Turkey’s population—like second-class citizens or worse since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the modern republic in the ashes of World War I. He can’t face up to the fact that Ankara is as much to blame for this long-simmering conflict as the quasi-Marxist PKK.

If every reasonable Kurdish grievance were finally addressed, support for the PKK would evaporate for the same reason support for similar organizations evaporated almost everywhere else in the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Erdogan isn’t interested in anything aside from digging his heels in, even if it means an Islamist organization with Al Qaeda among its ranks takes control of northern Syria.

You might think Turkey, by opening Incirlik Air Base, is finally coming around on the war against ISIS, but only if you squint and squint hard. 

In Cuba, Neither Bread Nor Freedom

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Bloodworth isn’t convinced either.

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

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

Iran is not Iowa

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

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

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

Ho Chi Minh's Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest in City Journal.


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