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.

The War Arrives in Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

An Uncertain Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, everything does depend on that point.

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

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

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

Most Americans Skeptical of Iran Nuclear Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Iran Delusion

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing.

Iran is Not a Bulwark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US Bombs Raqqa

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

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

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

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

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

There are only two ways to eradicate ISIS.

Someone will have to go in there and kill them.

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

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


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