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ISIS Exterminating Minorities in Iraq

Kurdish members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority in Sinjar are being massacred by ISIS if they refuse to convert to Islam. They’re ancient fire-worshipers with roots in Zoroastrianism and they long predate the Koran.

More than 300 of them so far have been murdered for their religion alone.  

Killings of this sort on a large scale are called genocide.

Islam is a proselytizing religion, but converting these people at gunpoint and executing those who refuse will not fly with the Kurds who are Muslims, and not just because the Yezidis are their fellow Kurds.

The Yezidi religion is part of the Kurdish identity. Iraqi Kurdistan’s flag eschews the crescent moon so common on the flags of Islamic countries and opts for fire imagery from the Yezidi religion instead. Many years ago I interviewed the president of Duhok University in Iraq Kurdistan and he seemed to speak for the majority when he professed his affection for these people and their ancient religion. “I am a Muslim,” he told me. “But I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.”

Sinjar is a Kurdish town, but it’s in Nineveh province outside the Kurdish autonomous region. The armed Kurdish Peshmerga forces operating there ran out of ammunition and had little choice but to retreat in the wake of the ISIS assault. Tens of thousands of civilians fled the area and are stranded atop a remote mountain without food, water, or shelter.

Eight years ago I visited the Yezidi “Mecca” in Lalish, Iraq, inside the Kurdish autonomous region a ways south of Duhok. This is where the Yezidis believe the universe was born. Eternal flames burn forever in little shrines. Baba Sheik, their leader, showed me around and took me into their temple.

“All people in the world should be brothers,” he said. “You are welcome here for the rest of your life.”

Baba Sheik wanted to include Muslims in his proclamation of universal brotherhood, but he didn’t entirely trust them. The Yezidis have been persecuted relentlessly in the past and he knew perfectly well that they could be persecuted again, especially considering the precarious state of Iraq. And he was right. Ruthless persecution—this time by ISIS—is on.

I asked my Muslim translator and guide Birzo Abdulkadir if he was offended by Baba Sheik’s comments and he said, “Of course not. Kurds don’t get upset about religion. We aren’t like Arabs. We believe in arguments based on reason, not emotion. If people don’t agree with me about something, I’m not going to get mad at them. We will just have different opinions.”

The Kurds do, however, get mad, so to speak, at the likes of ISIS. And they’re gearing up for a counterattack. Another front in the great Middle East war is about to be opened.

A Closer Look at Gaza’s Civilian Casualties

Hamas wants you to think the Israelis are either killing people at random in Gaza or they’re so inept that can’t hit what they aim at. If either of these narratives strikes you as plausible, by all means, believe whatever you want, but Time magazine parses the fatality statistics and reveals that the number of civilian casualties is not nearly as high as reported.

Analyses of the casualties listed in the daily reports published by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza-based organization operating under Hamas rule, indicate that young males ages 17 to 30 make up a large portion of the fatalities, and a particularly noticeable spike occurs between males ages 21 to 27, a pattern consistent with the age distribution typically found among combatants and military conscripts. Palestinian sources attempt to conceal this discrepancy with their public message by labeling most of these young men as civilians.

[…]

Scrutiny of Palestinian figures in the current conflict reveals a spike in fatalities among males ages 21 to 27 and an over-representation from ages 17 to 30. Data gleaned from the daily reports of the PCHR show that from July 8, the start of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” through July 26, 404 out of 915 fatalities tallied from daily reports in which the ages were identified occurred among males ages 17 to 30, comprising 44% of all fatalities among a group representing about 10% of Gazans.

Expanding the age range from 17 to 39 and including those identified as combatants whose ages were not given increases that number to 551 fatalities, or 57% of all fatalities, even though this group represents less than one-sixth of Gazans. By contrast, adult female fatalities were less than 10% of total fatalities for a group that comprises a quarter of the total population.

Children, here defined as those under age 17, represented 194 of fatalities, 20% of the total. Any child fatality is a tragedy, but it is important to note that children make up over half the population of Gaza.

We’ll have a better handle on this when the war is over and some time has passed. As Time also notes in the article, Hamas eventually acknowledged that Israel more or less correctly identified the number of combatants killed in the last war and that previous claims about overwhelming civilian casualties had been fabricated.

Welcome to Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh would be appalled if he could see Vietnam now.

Well, perhaps not appalled—he was less doctrinaire than the likes of Vladimir Lenin and Fidel Castro, and even hard-line ideologues can become more flexible over time—but he certainly wouldn’t recognize it.

The Doi Moi market reforms that began in 1986 (a mere eleven years after the fall of Saigon and national unification under the Communist Party) and a general slackening of state micromanagement have transformed the country out of all recognition.

Theodore Dalrymple visited in the late 1980s when much of the old system was still in place but was on its way out. “Only a fortnight ago,” he wrote in his book The Wilder Shores of Marx, “there was no conveyor belt for luggage at the airport, a deficiency that had been rectified [in the meantime.] It now took only an hour to retrieve luggage instead of three.”

Didn’t take an hour for me to get mine. The entire airport procedure from beginning to end was easier than entering Canada or returning home from abroad. Friendly officials stamped me in promptly and let me bypass Customs entirely. My suitcase was waiting for me on the conveyor belt. Barely ten minutes after stepping off the plane I was already out on the sidewalk.

I did not have a journalist visa, nor did I apply for media credentials from the government. Local reporters and fixers tell me the process is a spectacularly expensive bureaucratic nightmare and that the authorities would dispatch minders to baby-sit me, so I blew it off and stuck with a tourist visa. Nobody cared. I booked interviews with government officials and even they didn’t care.

Vietnam makes a good first impression, which pleased me as a human being but challenged me as a journalist. Writing about war zones and other disaster areas is relatively straightforward. Countries on the mend are a bit tougher, and Vietnam has been on the mend for a while now.

A sign on a bridge leading from the airport into the city reads, in English, “Hanoi: City of Peace” and includes the image of a white dove. If you’re American and older than me and can remember when Hanoi was an enemy capital, don’t doubt the sincerity of that message. The Vietnam War—which the Vietnamese call the American War—has been over for almost forty years now. The Vietnamese never wanted to fight Americans anyway. I have no memory of the war and am too young to have known the country in the 1970s, but nevertheless it’s as obvious as the sky that Vietnam has changed more drastically in the meantime than any country I’ve ever visited beyond Eastern Europe.

Outside the airport I saw more construction and infrastructure projects during the first five minutes of my ride into Hanoi than I saw on my entire weeks-long trip to Cuba last year. A forest of cranes punctuated the skyline. The country is charging ahead like a bull hopped up on adrenaline, and it’s startlingly prosperous.

I’ve seen a lot of poverty in the world—especially in Egypt and Latin America—so perhaps I’m a little desensitized. The country might look a little bit poor, I guess, to someone who has never left the US or Europe, but I don’t even know about that. Average homes in Hanoi are larger than mine. Restaurants, cafes, bars, electronics stores, shopping malls, and luxury stores proliferate. Most of the city looks brand-new. If there are slums tucked away somewhere, I didn’t see any. Vietnam’s per capita income is shockingly low, but so is the cost of living, so a statistical comparison with the US or Europe is pointless.

“Nothing had been repaired in years,” reporter David Lamb wrote of Hanoi in the 1970s. “The old French colonial buildings appeared in danger of collapse. Everything was in a state of poverty and decay.”

Much of Havana and Cairo still look that way now, but there’s little visible evidence that Hanoi ever suffered through such a phase. Take heart! Ruined cities can be repaired.

Some parts of Hanoi are a bit messy, but aside from the outdated rat’s nest of electrical wires, its messes are the kind you make in your house when you’re in the middle of a remodeling project. Parts of the Old Quarter still look a little decayed, but even there the decay is like a holdover from the past that’s being blotted out with one high-end boutique store after another.

The ruling Communist Party knows better than just about anyone that communist economics are a disaster. Vietnam’s economy has been growing at light speed for a while now. I knew that in advance, and yet it still stunned me. The city trembles with industriousness and entrepreneurship. Small and large businesses are everywhere. Half the residents seem to be in business for themselves. Anything and everything you can possibly imagine is for sale, though it’s not all high-end yet. I saw a Louis Vuitton outlet next to a bootleg CD store, an elegant Western-style café next to low-end bar with hard chairs and no air-conditioning, a Body Shop next to a used clothing store with cast-off second-hand T-shirts from the West, and an art gallery next to a store selling old pots and pans.

Market economies are uneven, no doubt, but they sure as hell beat the alternative. I could hardly believe it, but when I was a kid the Vietnamese stood in long lines on the street to exchange ration coupons for handfuls of rice. Today the country is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice.

Japan and South Korea: watch out. If the economy keeps growing and the political system breaks open, Vietnam will be a country to reckon with.

*

Hanoi assaults all five senses.

The streets smell of fried food, incense, barbecue, mold and exhaust, sometimes all at once. The sounds of growling motorbike engines and banging construction are endless, and they’re punctuated by vehicle-mounted loudspeakers announcing God-knows-what all day.

And the climate: God, it is horrendous during the summer. Up to a hundred degrees Fahrenheit with 108 percent humidity and cloud cover, rain, and at times even fog. Summer is the monsoon season. Hanoi gets as much rain in one monsoon month as Portland, Oregon, gets in six. The gloomy sky looks like that of Seattle or London in January, but the air feels like Miami during a heat wave in August.

Hanoi looked to my eyes like someone had put China and France into a blender and pressed puree. (To Vietnamese eyes, of course, it just looks like Hanoi.) Parts of the city look oddly European—and I'm not referring here to the French Quarter which looks European for the obvious reasons.

Houses in the newer parts of town (which is to say, most of it) have Victorian characteristics—steep roofs, tall vertical windows, wedding-cake moldings, and balcony spindles. They’re taller and narrower than Victorian houses, though. Taxes are levied by how much street space each structure takes up, so most houses and places of private businesses build up and back as much as possible rather than sideways. 

Nearly all have slanted roofs, not to let snow slide off as in northern climates—I doubt Hanoi has ever known snow—but simply because pitched roofs like nice. They provide a certain elegance to each individual home and to the cityscape.

The city as a whole is not elegant, but it could be if it were twice as rich and four times more orderly. The former may be just a matter of time, but I'm not so sure about the latter. People are the way they are and orderly doesn't seem to be Vietnam’s style. The place is emphatically not German or Austrian. It has a frenetic energy that seems inherent and uncorkable. That a single political party managed to herd everyone into a totalitarian structure for even a short period beggars belief.

Never before have I seen such terrifying and ludicrous traffic. For nearly a decade I thought nothing could beat Beirut’s aggressive bumper-car bedlam, but I was wrong. The Vietnamese are just as aggressive, but most of them are on motorbikes instead of in cars. They take up less space on the roads, so the number of moving vehicles at any given location can be several times greater.

Red lights are suggestions. Sometimes they’re obeyed. Other times traffic moves through intersections in all four directions at once. Best of luck if you are on foot. No one will stop for you. They’ll go around, but they will not stop and they will not slow down.

So when you want to cross in heavy traffic (and traffic is heavy everywhere except after midnight) you just have to steel your nerves and step into the street even as dozens of bikes roar toward you panoramically. Everybody will ride around you. Really, they will—as long as you know what you’re doing. 

If you stop, if you change speed, or—worst of all—if you change the direction you’re moving, you could get hit. But if you pick a direction and just go at a consistent moderate speed, everyone will calculate where you’ll be by the time they get there. They’ll adjust their direction ever so slightly and miss you by a couple of inches. Traffic will swarm around you like an eddy in water. It is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. The police may as well not even exist.

It’s strange how a one-party state can look and feel so anarchic, but sometimes that’s how it goes. North Korea sure as hell isn’t like that, nor is Cuba, but the Vietnamese are like cats who refuse to be herded.

They enjoy no political freedom, but the government doesn’t hassle everyone constantly. Not anymore. The place feels free even though it technically isn’t because at this point in history, the citizens and the state have at least tacitly agreed to a modus vivendi: We won’t screw with you if you won’t screw with us. Like a cease-fire during a war, it will continue working until it doesn’t.

I have a hard time believing Vietnam ever passed through a totalitarian phase, but it’s easy to believe the phase was a brief one. Communism endured in Russia from the early 20th century until nearly the end, but it wasn’t imposed on all of Vietnam until the middle of the 1970s, and it ended in all but name before it ended in Moscow. The Vietnamese are too energetic, fearless, and naturally capitalistic to be forced for long onto an anthill.

*

I crossed a bridge to an island in Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) to an ancient Buddhist pagoda. It had, like all the old temples I saw, Chinese writing on the walls and the pillars. Vietnam’s current modified Latin alphabet didn’t exist before the 17th century and wasn’t widely adopted until early in the 20th century.

The temple looked ancient and felt ancient, and it also looked and felt, to me anyway, purely Chinese. Buddhism came to Vietnam from both India and China, but the temples in the north seem to be mostly Chinese.

Buddhist visitors (as opposed to mere tourists) lit high-quality temple incense and placed the sticks in a central location just outside the entrance. Inside was a quiet place for calm and repose. I saw altars and extravagantly carved tables for offerings, including cash money. The ceiling was made of brown-stained wood held in place by fat red timbers. Intricately carved representations of distinctly Chinese-looking deities stood in the back as they must have for centuries beyond where mere mortals are allowed to tread.

Most buildings and houses in Hanoi are relatively new, so the contrast with everything else in the city was striking. Unlike the medieval walled cities of Europe and the Middle East’s maze-like medinas, Hanoi doesn’t feel ancient. The pagodas do, though, because they are. And their origins lie elsewhere, in the belly of the regional hegemon that has antagonized and periodically invaded Vietnam for thousands of years. China is but a short drive away. I could feel its presence over the horizon like a vast ocean. The Vietnamese feel it too, the way Poles, Estonians, and especially now Ukrainians feel the overwhelming and massive presence of Russia.

Back out on the sidewalk a woman sold small turtles from a white plastic bucket. “When you leave a pagoda,” a local man explained to me, “you are supposed to buy an animal and set it free.”

I like the idea, but it’s a bit circular, isn’t it? The animals must first be captured and sold before they can be freed. The poor turtles would be better off if they were never caught and placed into that bucket at all.

Vietnam’s government falsely claims the majority of its people are non-religious—some communist-era habits die harder than others—but I saw signs not only of Buddhism but also of ancestor worship everywhere. Most businesses have little altars near the front for incense and gifts for the dead. The gifts are often burned so that ancestors can receive them in the spirit world. Some of the gifts are ghost offerings. I saw fake iPhones, for instance, fake iPads and fake money—even fake credit cards. Supposedly when these things are burned they float up to the afterlife where they can be used. Lighting cash on fire, then, is a spiritual Western Union of sorts. Theoretically.

“If you think about it,” one Vietnamese person said to me, “we’re actually burning real money because we have to spend real money to purchase the fake money.”

Women wearing conical hats roam the city selling fruit, fried pastries, and other items to passersby. They congregate around pagodas and tourist sites. I stopped an elderly vendor and asked for a small portion of what looked like Vietnam’s version of donuts. The woman smiled and placed a handful in a plastic bag and said “200,000 dong.”

That’s ten dollars. For a fistful of fried bread.

I laughed. 

“Come on,” I said.

Vietnam is not an expensive country. I don’t know what she would have charged a local person, but surely much less than ten dollars. She thought I was rich and therefore wouldn’t mind paying so much, but I’m nowhere near rich, at least not by Western standards. (Only a lucky few writers ever get rich.)

“200,000 dong,” she said again.

“I’ll give you 20,000,” I said. That’s about one dollar and probably more than the locals would pay.

“200,000,” she said again.

Seriously? She wasn’t even going to come down to 180,000?

“Forget it,” I said and walked away.

That night I paid six dollars for an entire meal plus a bottle of beer, so I knew the lady on the street tried to drastically overcharge me. I swore not to buy anything that didn’t have a price tag on it somewhere.

My waitress that evening correctly sensed that I had just arrived (newcomers are obvious everywhere) and gave me some advice.

“The street sellers,” she said, and pointed outside the window with her eyes, “are not good. If you’re a foreigner they’ll charge you ten times what everyone else pays.”

Indeed. It took me no time at all to figure that out. I appreciated, though, that she was looking out for me. She didn’t know me, but she was looking out for me. And she helped me out with the language—which is a pain and a half. The Vietnamese language uses six different vocal tones, and if you’re not used to tonal languages you can easily screw up saying even hello and thank you. A single syllable sound like “Ha” can be made into six different words depending on which tone you use and which markings you put above or below the letters in writing.

The Vietnamese use a modified version of the Latin alphabet, but it’s harder to casually learn a few words and read them that it first appears. You must pay attention to the tone markings, not just the letters, if you want to even begin making sense of it. and , for instance, are not the same word. They look similar and to my tone-deaf ears they sound exactly the same, but they’re different words.

I thanked the waitress for helping me out as best she could with the language, and especially for warning me about scammers prowling the streets, but no one else ever tried to egregiously overcharge me, at least not to my knowledge. Even the taxi drivers used the meter without my having to ask, which is unheard of almost everywhere I’ve ever been. Even European taxi drivers have tried and sometimes succeeded in ripping me off.

Before I left home I read all kinds of horror stories on the Internet about scam artists and hasslers of every conceivable variety in Vietnam, but I hardly ran into any of them. I don’t know if it’s because I got lucky, because I’ve learned how to not look like a sucker, or because the problem is much less severe than it used to be. I don’t know but I suspect it’s the latter. Everything else is changing at rocket ship speed, so why not the hassling?

After dinner I returned to my room in the busting Old Quarter, flicked off the lights, and heard the honking and growling of motorbikes as a bat flew past my window.

*

I awoke early and jetlagged the next morning and set out at six to find some relief from the hideous climate. The air outside was 82 degrees Fahrenheit and humid. Hardly ideal, but it certainly beat the 99 degrees of the previous day. At least I could walk around for a few minutes before my shirt soaked through with sweat.

How miserable it must have been fighting a war in this country. They say war is interminable boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. I’ve been to war zones myself and can attest to the truth of that statement. But war in the sticky and sweltering jungles must have been interminable misery punctuated by terror.

I was advised to check out Le Mat on the outskirts of the city. There you will find the Snake Village where you can pull up a bar stool and order some snake wine. The bartender will kill a cobra, pour its blood into rice wine, and drop the snake’s still-beating heart into the shot glass.

If you don’t want to drink blood, you can have it with bile instead.

I refused. Why make my stomach churn and possibly heave just so I can write about it? The description of the drink itself is enough. I went to Iraq seven times during the war, but drinking snake wine is over the line. I don’t care whether or not that makes sense. 

What I wanted was coffee. I was jet-lagged in a bad way, and if I didn’t have caffeine I’d need a nap. And if I succumbed to that nap I’d sleep for eight hours, miss most of the day, and be up all night when everything’s closed. So I headed back toward Hoan Kiem Lake during early business hours, and when a young woman on the sidewalk beckoned me over and told me about a café upstairs, I eagerly agreed to let her show me the way.

She led me inside a building that looked like a parking garage, though nobody parked there. Empty boxes, a discarded broom, and other detritus were strewn about. There was a café upstairs? Really? I felt a twinge of uncertainty. What kind of café would be above this? The building looked derelict.

I resisted the twinge of uncertainty. The young woman seemed friendly enough and she wore a shirt with a café logo on it. I followed her into the elevator. We rode up to the fourth floor, then she pointed toward a rickety-looking stairway leading up a gloomy fifth floor. The way was unlit, the walls filthy, the air hot and still. I saw no other people and heard no sounds but the traffic outside. I had a hard time believing the kind of café I wanted to hang out in was up there.

If I were anywhere in the West I would have turned around and gone back to the street, but my instincts are different abroad. I ascended the stairs, feeling curious about what I’d find though doubtful that I would like it.

I reached the top of the sweltering stairway, pushed open a glass door, and found myself in a café worthy of South Beach in Miami tucked into an air-conditioned aerie. The place was packed with comfortable sofas and chairs and stylishly dressed Vietnamese with laptops and iPads drinking from cups of Italian-style espresso. The entire south wall was made of glass from floor to ceiling and revealed a 180-degree view of the lake and the skyline below.

Almost everyone in the café was staring at a personal electronic device.

Who during the Vietnam War on either side of the conflict could have imagined that such a bourgeois place would ever appear in Hanoi while the Communist Party still ruled? Ho Chi Minh sure as hell didn't expect this. Nor would he have wanted it. Fidel Castro would hate it. Of that I assure you. Pol Pot would have wanted to murder everyone in there.

The world is becoming more and more alike everywhere. Outside of basket case countries like North Korea, Syria, and Iraq, we all seem to be heading in the same direction toward the same destination. And with everyone looking at the little screens in their hands all the time, even while sitting with friends, I have to wonder: where exactly, as a species, are we going?

Whatever the answer to that question, Hanoi is no longer an impoverished totalitarian backwater. It’s a global city now. And despite the name of its government, communism is finished. 

*

The city exhausted me after a couple of days, so I took a brief break on the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin.

I did not drive there. Vietnam is so far the one country I’ve visited where driving must be left to the professionals.

The near-ubiquitous nice housing of the city continued into the countryside. Where was the poverty? Surely there must be poverty somewhere out in the country. In the mountains, perhaps, or along the Cambodian border. But while the rural areas along the highway between the capital and the coast are less cosmopolitan and fashionable, they are not destitute. At least the ones along the main highway aren’t destitute. I saw water buffaloes and women with conical hats in the fields and three-story houses with balconies. The whole scene looked bucolic, though field work in that climate has to be brutal. 

And the coast is spectacular, especially Halong Bay roughly thirty miles south of the border with China. Hundreds of islands, most of them karst towers and cones topped with a riot of vegetation, spread out in a vast panorama that goes on for miles.

“Hạ Long” means descending dragon in Vietnamese. The bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one of the natural wonders of Asia.

Boat tours are startlingly cheap, so I booked one and set out. The air temperature dropped 10 degrees the minute the captain pushed us away from the shoreline.

Every direction looked like the setting for an Asian fairy tale. The land formations are wondrous, even surreal, and they’re crawling with screaming insects that in concert sound like a huge whirring bone saw. There is no other sound on the water.

Sadly, though, there’s trash in the bay. Vietnam is not trashy in general, but I saw a heartbreaking amount of plastic bottles, beer cans, potato chip wrappers, and chunks of Styrofoam floating by in the water—along with jellyfish with heads the size of basketballs.

“How dangerous are those jellyfish?” I asked the captain. “What happens if they sting a person?”

“Pain,” he said. “No die, but great pain.”

The water is calm and refreshing, but don’t swim there at night.

Much of the trash is generated by people who live in floating villages made of clapboard houses floating on Styrofoam platforms far from the mainland. They have no electricity or modern amenities. These villages are objectively poor. None of Vietnam’s newfound prosperity has reached these people, but fewer than two hundred still live out there. The captain told me they lived in caves on the islands until the mid-1990s when the government ordered them out and told them to live in floating houses instead. But they’re polluting the water, so now the government is slowly phasing the villages out and relocating everyone to the mainland. In a few years they will be gone. Whether they’ll prosper after relocating or resent the state for moving them, I have no idea.

The coast was a pleasant diversion, but I found little grist for my writing mill there. It’s beautiful and relaxing, but it’s a place for tourists and poets, not journalists. So back to the city I went.

*

When I returned to Hanoi, I came back to familiar restaurants, cafes, narrow storefronts, traffic, and noise. The hotel staff welcomed me back. It was like a tiny homecoming of sorts, and it triggered a question I often ponder when traveling abroad.

Could I live there?

Lots of Westerners do. Even I could separate them from the tourists. Their motorbike helmets sometimes gave them away, but I could also tell by their ease of navigating the place, how they crossed the street with the confidence of a local and settled into cafes and restaurants as though they were regulars.

I found a cheap but pleasant-enough looking restaurant, ordered a beer and some seafood, and pretended in my own mind that I lived there. I wanted to know how I felt about that, partly to satisfy my own curiosity, but also because it’s an important question for me as a writer. It forces me to think seriously about how distressed a place is or isn’t, about the quality of life for the average person, and about the political system.

I wasn’t initially sure of the answer.

So I kept at it. I tried to look like I lived there by pretending I knew the waitress, drinking my beer with a bored confidence, and not fiddling with my chopsticks like an amateur. Whether or not I actually looked like a resident expat, I was starting to feel like one. The only air-conditioning in that particular restaurant was a fan blowing the hot air around and I didn’t mind. My body had recalibrated its thermostat. Full-on air-conditioning made me feel cold. I later got into a taxi that felt like a refrigerator and laughed at myself when I almost asked the driver to turn up the heat.

But could I live there, at least for a while? I had to know. Most places I’ve traveled it’s an easy question to answer, but in Vietnam it was not.

Could I live in Cairo? No. Baghdad? Hell no. Havana? No chance. Not while it’s under the boot heel of the Castros. Rabat? Perhaps. Beirut? I have already lived in Beirut and theoretically could do so again. But what about Hanoi?

Vietnam is a pleasant destination for tourists, for sure, but it’s also a one-party nominally communist state. I have viscerally detested communism since the first moment I learned about it as a child. No political system in the history of the human race has killed such a vast number of people. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were the greatest geopolitical events of my lifetime. Every cell in my body rebelled at the existential heaviness of the state in Cuba on my last long trip abroad and after a week I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I had to look it squarely in the eye in Vietnam without flinching.

Could I live there, despite it?

Yes. I believe so.

As long as I stayed out of politics.

Post-script: If you enjoyed reading this dispatch, please consider contributing with a donation. Many thanks in advance!

The Death of the Latest Middle East Peace Process

Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon have written an exhaustively detailed and compulsively readable narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed three months ago for The New Republic. We know how the story ends because it is already history, and most of us are cynical enough now that we knew how it would end before it even began, but it’s a fascinating and suspenseful read all the same because it looked for a while there like some kind of deal actually might have been struck.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas are both capable of being more flexible and reasonable than their detractors realize, and John Kerry made a genuinely serious attempt to get them to make compromises and end the conflict once and for all. He was not going through the motions just for appearances. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is less naïve about all this business than he may have been at the outset.

The Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president can’t negotiate this alone. Each has various factions that must be appeased, some of them more hard-line than others. Getting the two sides to agree on a peace deal remains extraordinarily difficult--even impossible--at the moment, but each side has softened up to an extent. Both made difficult compromises. The Palestinian Authority has come a long way since the days of Yasser Arafat, as has Netanyahu and the Israeli Likud Party. Each is less ideological than before. If you doubt it (and I certainly can’t blame you at this point) read the long The New Republic story. It’s one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read in a year. Birnbaum and Tibon put and extraordinary amount of work into this.

But the two sides are still a long ways apart, and many of the negotiators are resigning in exhaustion. Failing at yet another doomed peace process makes everybody more cynical. Nobody can know how the next attempt will play out in detail, but none of the actors at this point is optimistic.

And that’s without factoring Hamas into the equation, which rejects both negotiations and peace out of hand and vows to wage a decades- or even centuries-long war to the finish. Hamas will gleefully sacrifice a thousand Palestinian lives to kill a few dozen Israelis because its leaders truly believe that if life becomes too precarious and nerve-wracking for Jews in the Middle East that they’ll give up and quit the region forever. It’s a fantastical bloody delusion, but it’s what they believe and they are not going to stop any time soon.

I hate to be too cynical about this myself, but as I’ve said before, the Middle East is a great teacher of pessimism. A few years ago I asked Israeli writer and researcher Hillel Cohen what he expected to see in Jerusalem 50 years in the future. “Some war,” he said, shrugging. “Some peace. Some negotiations. The usual stuff.”

Hamas Chooses Guns Over Butter

The current round of fighting between Israel and Hamas will likely wind down as soon as the Israel Defense Forces are confident that the vast network of underground tunnels has been dismantled, but until then, fat chance.

Paul Alster at Fox says the IDF has so far uncovered at least 28 tunnels with more than 60 access shafts, and Ben Piven at Al Jazeera makes it clear that these tunnels are used offensively.

“Tunnels are just one weapon used by the resistance,” Abu Obeida, a Qassam spokesman, told Al Jazeera. “They can move from a defensive position to an offensive one in any situation.”

Hamas forces traveled in the tunnels to capture Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006 and bring him back to Gaza, where he was kept prisoner for five years.

One tunnel discovered by Israel last year was 66 feet deep and 1.5 miles long. The project is estimated to have cost $10 million and used 800 tons of concrete. The dangerous digging was apparently done with mechanical pedal-powered devices, rather than with noisy electrical equipment.

The citizens of Gaza would be much better off if their government—if Hamas deserves to be called such a thing—invested its money and energy into building an economy and improving the lives of its people instead of killing Israelis and bringing violent retaliation down on everyone’s head.

But Hamas is spectacularly unlikely ever to change. What Gaza needs is internally-driven regime-change from below. When everyone is at last tired of living like this they will no longer have to.

Israel is Not Going Anywhere

An Israeli journalist gave his Palestinian cameraman a tour of Tel Aviv and this is what happened:

On the Ayalon Highway, the highway leading to the big city, he first laid eyes upon the tall buildings, Tel Aviv’s towers, the branching road system, the bridges, the lights, the life. It was all so different from Gaza, which seemed light years away to him. On the way, we passed the sites Hamas terrorists struck some years before: the Dizengoff commercial center, the Dolphinarium night club, Mike’s Place bar and others. When the astonishment faded from his face, he summarized it thus: “Hamas militants are living in a delusion; they are convinced that with a group of suicide bombers (shahids, meaning martyrs) they could overpower Israel.”

After that he had an idea, somewhat comical, somewhat practical: “If we get all of Hamas’ leaders on one bus, both the political wing and the military wing, and give them a guided tour from the Erez crossing to Tel Aviv, they will get wiser, return to Gaza and will stop threatening and dreaming that they could defeat Israel.”

I don’t know about that. Never underestimate the power of human delusion. But I can certainly believe that this particular Palestinian got a real and lasting reality check. I’ve been to Israel many times myself. The notion of destroying it with anything short of nuclear weapons is ludicrous.

Going in Circles in Gaza

Now that the Israelis have mounted a ground invasion of Gaza, casualties are climbing on each side. According to NPR, 20 Israelis have been killed so far along with more than 400 Palestinians.

Hamas claims it kidnapped an Israeli soldier, but the Israelis say no one has been taken. I don’t know who to believe, but Hamas’ claim would be more credible if its commanders had a name and photograph of the person they say they've kidnapped.

The Israelis are systematically demolishing underground tunnels leading into Israel from Gaza and are not likely to agree to a cease-fire at this point until they’re satisfied that the tunnel system is broken. It’s more dangerous than Hamas’ rocket arsenal since kidnappers and murderers can use those tunnels to sneak into Israel. As I pointed out last week, a small band of serial killers on the West Bank killed more Israelis than Hamas can manage with hundred of rockets.

By the time the Israelis finish their work, Hamas may have killed enough Israelis and fired enough of its rockets that it can save face with an empty “victory” boast despite losing so many people, despite emptying its vast arsenal with little to show for it, and despite having its tunnels collapsed. Then its leaders will agree to a cease-fire. It doesn’t matter that no one will believe Hamas won. Hamas just needs to be able to say it.

The Israelis and Palestinians won’t be an inch closer to peace after that happens, but at least the conflict will go back into the refrigerator. It will start up again at some point, though, and we’ll take another ride on the deadly and stupid merry-go-round, so savor the calm while it lasts.

Hamas is Losing and Everyone Knows it

Hamas is losing and everyone knows it.

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed so far in the current round of fighting while the number of dead Israelis amounts to a grand total of one.

That’s almost certainly the reason Hamas rejected the Egypt-proposed cease-fire agreement. So far it has accomplished practically nothing. A small band of serial killers on the West Bank managed to murder more Israelis a couple of weeks ago than Hamas can manage with its entire missile arsenal now.

It’s pathetic, really, and must be extraordinarily humiliating.

The Middle Eastern habit of declaring victory after getting your ass kicked has a long pedigree. Egypt did it after losing the 1973 Yom Kippur War. North Korea built a hysterical propaganda museum in Cairo commemorating that make-believe victory, but at least that particular fantasy is based on something. The Egyptian army did well against Israel for the first couple of days even though it lost in the end.

Hezbollah declared victory in the 2006 war despite the fact that entire swaths of its infrastructure were obliterated, but Hezbollah did inflict some serious damage and triggered a refugee crisis. Hamas couldn’t possibly base a victory boast on anything now.

The Israelis are seriously considering a ground invasion since Hamas won’t stop firing, but they’ve already proved to the population of Gaza that Hamas, even with its all its longer-range missiles, is capable of inflicting no more damage on the Zionist Entity than a lone killer armed with only a steak knife.

Year Four: The Arab Spring Proved Everyone Wrong

I wrote this essay for the print edition of World Affairs. It is now available online.

Shortly after the Arab Spring broke out at the tail end of 2010, two narratives took hold in the West. Optimists hailed a region-wide birth of democracy, as though the Middle East and North Africa were following the path blazed in Eastern Europe during the anti-communist revolutions of 1989. Pessimists fretted that the Arab world was following Iran’s example in 1979 and replacing secular tyrants with even more repressive Islamist regimes.

Both narratives turned out to be wrong, and not just because their adherents had the wrong narrative. Any narrative superimposed over this series of events was doomed to be wrong.

The Arab Spring isn’t one thing. Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are experiencing wrenching change, but unlike in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, each affected country is moving in different and sometimes opposing directions. Each has its own history, its own narrative.

Tunisia, where everything started, proved the pessimists wrong, and Egypt, which rapidly followed Tunisia, all by itself proved both the optimists and the pessimists wrong.

The mostly nonviolent removal of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from office in Tunis led to free and fair elections in 2011 that brought to power the Islamist party Ennahda, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Ennahda only won forty-one percent of the vote, with a majority voting for secular parties—hardly a mandate for radical Islam. From the very beginning, Tunisia’s liberal and secular opposition resisted Ennahda so effectively that the Islamists had to abandon their push for a religious state and grudgingly accept a secular civil state. Even that wasn’t enough for the majority; in January 2014, Ennahda, exhausted by the unrelenting onslaught from moderates, liberals, and leftists, resigned from the government. Later that same month, Tunisia adopted one of the most liberal constitutions in the entire Arab world. “With the birth of this text,” center-left President Moncef Marzouki said, “we confirm our victory over dictatorship.”

So much for Iranian-style revolution.

But the optimists were wrong everywhere else.

When Egyptians dumped Hosni Mubarak, the majority didn’t vote for secular candidates in the first elections, as the Tunisians did. The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won Egypt’s presidential election with fifty-one percent of the vote, a slim majority but a majority all the same. Meanwhile, the totalitarian Salafist party—which is more or less the political arm of al-Qaeda—won twenty-four percent of the parliamentary vote, meaning that, unlike the Tunisians, a substantial majority of Egyptians went for Islamists of one stripe or another.

Morsi’s power grabs, his incompetence, his lunatic politics—symbolized by the appointment of a governor associated with a terrorist group that murdered fifty-eight tourists near the city of Luxor in 1997—were too much for even a nation as conservative and Islamist as Egypt. Millions of people—the overwhelming majority of them fellow Muslims—took to the streets to demand his removal from power, just as they
had against Mubarak before him.

The army took care of the rest. General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Morsi in June of 2013 and immediately declared war against the Muslim Brotherhood. Millions of Egyptians celebrated Sisi’s coup as a revolutionary “correction.”

So while Egypt never became an Iran on the Nile, it did not become a democracy either. It’s right back where it started. The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed all over again. The new regime and its supporters are no more liberal and democratic than Mubarak’s or Morsi’s.

In some ways, they’re worse. Sisi’s regime reeks of Stalinism these days. In March of this year, more than five hundred Muslim Brotherhood officials were sentenced to death in one swoop. Many of those sentences were commuted to life, but the regime did it again the very next day and sentenced six hundred more.

Read the whole thing.

An Excerpt from RESURRECTION

If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of my zombie novel, here’s an excerpt that might pique your interest. Be sure to read the book before the movie comes out. The studio that purchased the film option is moving ahead and has two outstanding actors attached to it. (Nothing is official yet so I cannot tell you their names.)

Like AMC’s The Walking Dead, this is a character-driven story. There are zombies, yes, but the story is about how the characters react to the zombies and to each other.

My favorite character by far is Parker, though he is not the most likeable. At best he’s an anti-hero. We are all flawed human being, but Parker is more flawed than most. And he is punished terribly for it.

*   *   *

Parker had been married once. Met his future wife at a trendy café named Spinoza’s in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. It was the kind of place Parker always hated, not only because he didn’t fit in there but because it attracted the kinds of people he wished never colonized his neighborhood to begin with—the young, the hip, the beautiful, and the moneyed. Ballard used to be an honest and slightly gritty place for men who worked the docks, the ship locks, and who made things with their hands. It was never intended for soft people who lived in undeserved luxury and made boatloads of cash clicking away on their laptops.

The only reason he went into Spinoza’s that day at all was because he needed the bathroom. But when he saw a young woman sitting there by herself with her newspaper and a latte, he couldn’t help himself. He decided to order one too and see if he could gin up the nerve to take the empty table next to her.

There was something about her, though he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Not even after they married could he figure out what it was. She was attractive, sure, but not the most attractive he’d ever seen. She seemed friendly and approachable enough, though he had no idea why he would think that since she was just sitting there reading the paper. There was just something … gravitational about her, like she’d been engineered just for him.

He ordered awkwardly at the counter. He’d never had a latte, a cappuccino, or an Americano. He didn’t even know what they were. But he couldn’t just say “I’ll have a coffee.” They didn’t have regular coffee in those kinds of places.

The pretty woman with the newspaper sat far enough from the counter that she couldn’t hear him fumble his order, and thank heaven for that or he wouldn’t have sat next to her. She looked so peaceful and content, so at ease in the world as she flipped strands of her brown hair over her ear.

He didn’t intend to hit on her or ask her out for a date. He just wanted to enjoy the pleasure of her attention even if it only lasted a couple of seconds.

She sat by herself at a table for two. He sat next to her at another table for two and placed his drink in front of him. It looked like a dessert. He expected it to taste like one too, like a coffee meringue pie or something. Normally he drank plain old coffee, black, but the creamy and bitter whipped goodness in his mug, despite being foofy and gay, was outstanding. Wow, he thought. This exists?

“This coffee is extraordinary,” he said.

“Isn’t it?” the woman next to him said. The corners of her eyes crinkled up when she smiled over her mug.

God, Parker thought. I love this woman. He didn’t know why. He just did.

Her name was Holly and she was a regular at Spinoza’s. She had gone to school with the café owners. He told her he was new to fancy coffee and she seemed delighted to explain all the options.

They were so very different, but they were married in less than a year.

He built cabinets for a living. She worked in an office downtown as a paralegal. His friends were working class. Hers were professional. He loved the outdoors. She enjoyed fancy meals out. He drank beer. She liked red wine. Once in a while he embarrassed her when they went out with her friends, and he knew he seemed a little rough around the edges in mixed company, but she loved him and he couldn’t imagine living without her. She had a soft and gentle soul and seemed to appreciate his brusque masculine qualities—she was genetically hard-wired to do so, after all—until one day he hit her.

He didn’t mean to. Really, he didn’t. It just happened. They were arguing about money, which was a stupid because they both made plenty. He wanted a motorcycle and could afford it. She wanted to spend the money on granite kitchen counters instead.

She might have talked him into it, too, but instead she said she was tired of being a slave to his lower-class lifestyle.

He’d never hit anybody before. He looked like the type of guy who had been in a couple of fights, but he hadn’t.

He didn’t hit her too hard. It was really more like a slap. He didn’t strike her with a closed fist, didn’t break any bones, didn’t make her bleed, didn’t even leave a mark that lasted more than five minutes. But he did strike her cheek, and he’d never forget the sound or the look on her face when he did it.

Her entire life shattered in one instant.

She’d never forgive him, not in her heart, and he knew it.

He could not have been sorrier. That slap hurt him more than it hurt her. It sounded ludicrous when he said so, and she screamed that it was the most outrageous thing she ever heard, but it was true. It changed him as a person. It sentenced him to be a different kind of man for the rest of his life, the kind of man who hit women. A domestic abuser. A wife-beater. He never did it again, nor would he ever—no, really, he wouldn’t—but he would spend the rest of his days as a man who had once smacked a woman.

Eventually she could look at him again, and a little while later she could talk to him again, and eventually she even had sex with him one last time, but it ended in tears, and at that moment he knew it was over. She never slept with him again. Never even hugged him again. She left a few months later and said she was sorry but she wouldn’t be back. She cried when she left and she even said that she’d miss him, but she was true to her word. She never came back.

That was two years ago. Parker thought about her every day since. After the plague swept the world, he worried about her so hard he vomited.

What happened to her? Was she alive? Did she get bitten? Was a distorted version of her out there somewhere, diseased and warped beyond recognition? What would he do if she came at him on the street baring her teeth? Would he shoot her? Would he smash in her skull with a crowbar?

Would he smash in her face if he had to?

*   *   *

If you want to read more, you have to purchase the book. It is available now as an audio book narrated by the outstanding Steven Roy Grimsley who also narrated Where the West Ends

Hamas is the New Lesser of Evils

A resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is further away than ever. Hamas is the biggest obstacle to peace between the two sides, yet Israeli Brigadier General Michael Herzog tells Colin Freeman at Britain’s Telegraph that Hamas needs to be preserved and maintained lest something even worse takes its place.

“One way in which an Israeli military operation could backfire is by shaking Hamas' control on the ground to the point that it allowed other factions, including jihadists, to come to the fore,” he said. “At least Hamas provides an address—you don't have that with the jihadi factions. They aren't dominant right now but Hamas no longer controls Gaza as firmly as it used to, and if it was seriously weakened they could take advantage. We don't want another Somalia on our doorstep.”

He could have said he doesn’t want another Iraq on his doorstep. If a group like ISIS seized power in Gaza City during the aftermath of a war, both Israelis and Palestinians would have a brand-new deadly serious problem.

So Hamas is the “lid,” and the Israelis won’t even try to get rid of it. Right now they only want to put a stop to the rocket fire. It makes sense considering what’s happening in Syria and Iraq, but think of the long-term ramifications: Hamas is indispensable even while making an end to the conflict impossible. What does that say about the prospects for peace in the near term?

If Hamas simply wanted independence for a Palestinian state, the two sides would only have to work out the details. But Hamas wants to “liberate” and “end the occupation” not of the West Bank but of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. It isn’t possible to negotiate a deal with these people. They aren’t interested in negotiating anything more than a temporary cease-fire. Hamas and the entire ideology behind it must be eliminated or at least marginalized before an end to the conflict will be in sight.

There is no reason to believe this will happen any time soon. An Arab Spring-like revolution against Hamas in Gaza would be an interesting development, but it’s not happening. Perhaps it will later, but it is not happening now.

The Israelis can and do change their government regularly with free and fair elections, but Palestinian politics are autocratic and slower to change. At least one more generational shift may be necessary. In any case, the jihadist factions will need to be vaporized first. And in the Levant, at least, they’re still ascending.

We could waste more time with another peace process to nowhere, I guess, but they sure do hurt when they fail.

Here We Go Again

The Israeli-Palestinian war is turning hot again, this time in response to the murder of three Israeli teenagers and one Palestinian boy.

Hamas is firing rockets at Israel. Israel is launching air strikes at Hamas. Maybe the Israelis will invade Gaza again and maybe they won’t. Either way, not a damn thing will be resolved by this fighting. Israel will stubbornly continue existing, as will Hamas.

A Lebanese friend of mine once asked me, “where are we going?” The “we” in that sentence referred to the people of Lebanon.

“In circles,” I said.

He smiled because he knew that I understood, that I had broken free of what Jeffrey Goldberg calls “solutionism,” an analytical error common among Americans who believe all problems are solvable.

Some problems are solvable. Lots of problems are solvable. We beat the Nazis and flew to the moon. But poverty, divorce, and the Middle East crisis are always with us. I won’t be the least bit surprised if cancer is cured before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One of the reasons I took a detour in Southeast Asia is because I needed a mental health break from a region that doesn’t get better. Vietnam is improving at the same speed Syria is disintegrating. Egypt is back where it started, Iraq has turned into a furnace again, and Gaza is still…well, it’s Gaza.

The Middle East is going in circles, but it’s not going away and it’s not going to leave us alone.

Back a Bit Early from Vietnam

A medical emergency forced me to return home from Vietnam a bit early, but I’m okay now and at least I got most of what I needed and wanted from Hanoi. I was hoping to spend a few days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to round things out, but alas that was not in the cards.

This is the first time I’ve ever had to go home early for any reason, let alone a medical reason, but I’ve been doing this for ten years now so I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.

No need to worry about me. I really am okay now, and I do have some good material to work with. Vietnam is a fascinating place and it will be great fun to write about. Just give me a bit of time to organize my notes, transcribe some interviews, etc.

On the Desert's Edge

The Moroccan American Center recently took me to Morocco and the Western Sahara. The following dispatch is the result of that trip.  

On the West Coast of Africa, directly across the Atlantic Ocean from Cuba, is the region known as the Western Sahara, one of the few remaining on earth that isn’t recognized as part of a nation-state.

It is administered by Morocco yet claimed by the Polisario, a guerrilla army hatched by Fidel Castro and Moammar Qaddafi that fought to take over from colonial Spain in 1975 and transform it into a communist state. The Polisario lost the shooting part of its war to Morocco, but the fat lady hasn’t even made her way to the dressing room yet.

You wouldn’t know by walking around that Western Sahara is the epicenter of what’s often (erroneously) compared with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor would you see any evidence that the cities, such as they are, were recently slums ruled by a police state.

You certainly wouldn’t guess, if you didn’t already know, that Western Sahara is still darkened by the long shadow of the Cold War or that the place still quietly bleeds from the unhealed wounds cut by Qaddafi and Castro, but foreign correspondents almost never go down there, and governments outside North Africa rarely give the problem more than a single passing thought every couple of years.

Western Sahara’s citizens don’t know how to suffer in ways that stir activists or make headlines, but they are suffering. Tens of thousands are to this day held in refugee camps—which are really more like concentration camps—across the border in Algeria. They’ve been living in squalor as hostages in one of the planet’s most inhospitable places almost as long as I’ve been alive.

Hardly anyone on earth has ever heard of them.

*

I flew down there from the Moroccan capital in early 2014 and could see from the air that I was about to land in a place no closer to anywhere else of significance on land than Ascension Island way out in the Atlantic. 

The city of Dakhla, my destination, is a bubble of sorts. It’s a seaside town on the edge of the Sahara Desert and closer to Africa’s tropical forests than to the Mediterranean on the continent’s north coast, yet the climate is near-perfect. The average high temperature in January is room temperature, and even in August it’s just 82 degrees Fahrenheit—the same summer high as in the mild Pacific Northwest. The cool waters of the Atlantic create a razor-thin coastal microclimate that spares Dakhla’s people from the infernal heat of the desert that broils alive anyone who dares venture far from the beach.

Few live out in the wasteland. Western Sahara is one of the world’s least-densely populated areas. It’s two-thirds the size of California, but only 800,000 people live in the whole of it, fewer than in metropolitan Omaha.

The area has virtually no resources to speak of. When Spain pulled out there was fewer than fifty miles of paved road and one schoolhouse. Dakhla was little more than an army base with a couple of stores outside the gates surrounded by ocean and sand.

It was a ghastly place until recently, filled with shantytowns typical of the poorest regions of Africa. People lived in cinderblock houses with no running water or electricity. And it was repressed.

“I went down there in 1998,” a retired diplomat said to me in Rabat, “and I counted 35 policemen in four blocks. I couldn’t go anywhere without being followed. It wasn’t possible to have even a peaceful demonstration without getting beaten up by the police.”

The Moroccan government has eased up dramatically in the meantime just as it has up north, and most of Dakhla is brand-new. A huge percentage of Sahrawis—the Berbers, Tuaregs, and Arabs of the Northwestern Sahara—were nomads well past the mid-point of the 20th century, but nearly all of them are now urban. 

Dakhla during my lifetime has mushroomed from a remote Spanish outpost into proper city of more than 85,000 people. Most have lived there for only one or two generations. Few are wealthy, but I saw none of the squalor typical of rapid urban migration in so many developing countries. Morocco has invested an enormous amount of money in the Sahara to make Dakhla livable, not just by building infrastructure and housing but by investing in parks and a new promenade on the waterfront lined with palm trees.

I’d get bored after a while if I lived there—Dakhla is provincial, small, and conservative—but I doubt I’d have many other complaints. The city is clean, friendly, and aesthetically adequate. Buildings and houses tend to be rectangular and consist of only the simplest ornamentation, but they’re painted in various desert hues and that’s enough. Everything seems to work. European tourists love the place for its outstanding kite-surfing, desert adventure tourism, and film and music festivals, and they bring a hint of cosmopolitan sensibility to the place that it would otherwise lack.

“Why did nomadism disappear now,” I asked a local man, “instead of decades earlier or decades in the future?”

“It’s the 21st century,” he said and shrugged. As good an answer as any, I suppose. Why shouldn’t the Sahrawis live in houses with televisions and Internet and drive cars to work like most of the rest of the world?

On weekends, though, families like to return to the desert. Their hearts still reside in the wildness of the Sahara.

Dakhla would be a great place for a day trip from Spain’s nearby Canary Islands if it had ferry service, but a deep sadness soaks into its bones. The war with the Polisario is frozen, but it is not over.

The Polisario was founded as a popular movement in 1973 to resist Spain’s colonization in what was then known as Spanish Sahara. Its primary sponsors were Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi and Soviet-backed Algeria.

In the fall of 1975, the Moroccan government orchestrated the Green March, a non-violent yet Godzilla-sized demonstration. Hundreds of thousands of citizens crossed the border on foot and walked several miles inside Spanish-occupied territory demanding General Franco’s forces withdraw. Spain did leave later that month, Franco died less than a week later, and the war between the Polisario and Morocco was on.

Thousands of refugees fled across the Algerian border and set up a constellation of camps, mostly outside the desert city of Tindouf, but—as expected of the proxies of Castro and Qaddafi—Polisario leaders soon turned those camps into prisons.

The conflict could have escalated into an American-Soviet proxy war, but Moscow was content to let Cuba, Libya, and Algeria handle it, and Washington figured correctly that Morocco could win on its own.

Tens of thousands of Sahrawis still live in the camps, some as willing refugees, most as hostages. If they want to go home—and most of them do—they’ll have to escape and risk imprisonment, torture, and occasionally murder.

The so-called Moroccan Wall—a ten-foot high barrier in the desert made of sand, stone, fencing, and land mines—separates Western Sahara from Polisario territory. Every single Moroccan-Algerian border crossing is closed, and the Polisario, in cahoots with the Algerians, hunts down everybody who runs.

*

Abdelatif Bendahane knows Africa better than just about anyone. He was the director of African Affairs at Morocco’s foreign ministry and works today as an unofficial advisor to the president of Burkina Faso.

He and I talked politics over coffee.

“Morocco was once an empire from Tangier to Senegal,” he said as he leaned back expansively. “The nomadic tribes in the Sahara always had good relations with the sultan in Rabat. Mauritania used to be part of the Moroccan Empire. There was no such entity as Mauritania before 1960. Today it’s independent, so some think it’s plausible that Western Sahara might also one day become independent.”

France ruled what is now Mauritania until 1960, and the French left Morocco in 1956 after 44 years of occupation, but the Spanish held onto their in-between piece of the Sahara until 1975. Morocco has no designs on Mauritania, but it chaps Rabat’s hide that its reacquisition of Western Sahara in the wake of the Spanish withdrawal hasn’t been recognized internationally, partly because the conflict is a relic of the now long-dead Cold War and also because from Morocco’s point of view the region has been liberated after a long colonial occupation.

The only reason the conflict  still simmers is because Algeria won’t let it go.

“The problem is between Morocco and Algeria,” he said, “not between Morocco and the Polisario. Without Algeria the Polisario wouldn’t exist. Algeria’s government used to be leftist and socialist. It’s not anymore, but their hegemonic ambitions are exactly the same. To this day there is no settled border between Algeria and Morocco. They want a federation with Western Sahara so they will have an Atlantic sea port. They believe this might actually happen.”

But it can’t happen unless somebody first forces out the Moroccans. And the Moroccans are no more likely to leave the Sahara than the United States will ever leave Texas. Franco’s Spain never considered Western Sahara an integral part of its territory, but Morocco does rightly or wrongly. “Imagine if Spanish-speakers in the US voted to secede,” he said. “Washington would never accept it.”

But since no country in the world recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over the area, Rabat is making a compromise offer of autonomy under the umbrella of sovereignty. The Sahrawis could run their own affairs, and unlike under Polisario rule, they could do so democratically. Morocco could hold onto territory. And the stability Western Sahara currently enjoys as an extension of Morocco’s wouldn’t be lost. 

It’s the best deal the Polisario is ever going to get.

But Algiers thinks it’s all a zero-sum game, that any gain for Morocco comes at the mathematical expense of Algeria. That’s nonsense on stilts. All countries are better off with friends and allies as neighbors rather than enemies, but the Algerian regime, warmed up Soviet holdover that it is, hasn’t figured that out yet.

There was a brief period when Western Sahara might have slipped from Morocco’s grasp had things gone a bit differently. The Polisario was once much more popular than it is now, but it’s hard to gauge how popular or not the Polisario is today because no vote has ever been held on the question.

The Polisario won’t accept a referendum on the status of Western Sahara if everyone who lives there gets to vote, and Morocco won’t accept a referendum on the Polisario’s terms because it would disenfranchise anybody who didn’t live there before 1975, including all the Sahrawis who were forced out of the territory by the Spanish occupation.

The Sahrawis hold their own local elections, however, and they vote for their own representatives in the Moroccan capital, but Polisario Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz writes letters to Ban Ki Moon asking the UN to put a stop to it. (The man really does take his opinions and style from Castro and Qaddafi.)

“The Polisario might have won the vote on their terms if it was based on their restricted voter list during the reign of Hassan II,” Bendahane said. “Western Sahara was a police state back then. Today it’s different. The Polisario would suffer a crushing defeat if everybody could vote. That’s why there has not been a vote.”

“What do the other North African countries think of all this?” I said.

“Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Mali are all with Morocco,” he said.  “Mauritania fears Algerian power and splits the difference, supporting both sides more or less equally.”

In some ways the status quo should be fine from Rabat’s point of view because Morocco will never leave the Sahara and no one will ever force out Morocco. But the Cold War with Algeria makes the creation of a functioning and stable North Africa all but impossible while the region festers with chaos and violence that even with a non-perfect storm could metastasize. 

*

Former Moroccan political prisoner Driss el-Yazami says Morocco was in bad shape during the rule of the previous king, Hassan II, and that Western Sahara under his rule was even worse. “In the 60s and 70s,” he said when I met him in his office in Rabat, “we had huge tension between leftists and the monarchy. The leftists wanted to kill the king and were armed by Algeria and Qaddafi. We had disappearances, detention centers, secret trials. Socialist newspapers were censored and I was sentenced to life in prison.”

He’s out now and is President of Morocco’s National Council for Human Rights created by the younger and more-liberal King Mohammad VI after his father died.

“In the mid-1990s political prisoners were released and we began the process of democratization,” he said. “Sometimes it goes too slow, in my opinion, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

The Polisario, though, isn’t moving in any direction. The organization has apparently junked its ideas about Marxist-Leninist economics—it’s hard to build a dictatorship of the proletariat in a refugee camp whose only industry is smuggling—but its totalitarian structure remains intact.

Dakhla native Mohammad Cherif experienced that at its worst. He spent more than a decade with the Polisario—first as a willing recruit, then as a prisoner.

Growing up under Spanish colonialism, he found the Polisario’s demands for independence compelling, and he signed on in 1977. “Their propaganda appealed to a lot of people,” he told me.

He left Dakhla in 1978. After six months of military training the Polisario sent him to Libya where he trained three more years at a military academy.

But he’d barely even finished when he was arrested in 1981 for criticizing the Polisario leadership and scurrilously accused of collaborating with Moroccan security. “They use that tactic against people whenever they have trouble in the camps.”

The guards tossed him down a hole, slammed a grate over the top, and left him there for five years.

“I had no name in the hole,” he said. “They called me by a number.”

They permitted him no contact whatsoever with the outside world. He used a bucket for a toilet and had his hands tied behind his back at all times. “They wouldn’t let me sleep,” he said. “For five years I hardly slept. The guards banged on the grate every hour at night and forced me to yell out I’m here.” Whenever they dragged him out, usually to torture and interrogate him, they put a sack over his face so he couldn’t see anything or anyone else.

Their questions rarely even made sense.

“They hanged me from the ceiling by my wrists and ankles and whipped me,” he said. “I had to make up stories just to get them to stop. They’d leave me alone for a month to let my body heal, then start again.”

Pressure from his family, some of whom were senior Polisario members in good standing, finally got him out of that hole. He asked if he could rejoin the army, but there was no chance they’d give him a gun, so they sent him instead to the Polisario Embassy in Algiers and then on to Spain’s Canary Islands where he managed to escape to the Netherlands. 

“The Polisario are not the representatives of the Sahrawi people,” he said. “They are the torturers of the Sahrawi people.”

*

For decades the Polisario has been shipping Sahrawi children to Cuba for indoctrination at the primary source. Maghlaha Dlimi was one of them, but she’s home now in Dakhla and she agreed to meet me for coffee and talk about it.

I was keenly interested in what she had to say, partly because I had just returned from Cuba myself, which ties with Qaddafi’s Libya as the most repressive country I’ve ever visited. It says a great deal about the Polisario and its ideological severity that those two countries were its principal backers when it was founded.

“They sent me to Cuba when I was ten years old,” she said. My flawed Spanish is about as good as her flawed English, so we hobbled along in both languages. “First to the Isle of Youth, then to Santa Clara, then to Camaguey. This was in the 1980s. I got there on a Russian boat from Algeria with 3,000 other kids.”

She took Spanish lessons in the camps before heading over. Children who struggled with the language went to Algeria, Syria, Libya, Russia, or Yugoslavia—all communist or communist-aligned countries.

Ostensibly she went to Cuba for school since better teachers were available than in the refugee camps, but that wasn’t really the reason.

“I had no idea until I got there,” she said, “but the real purpose was to indoctrinate me with communist ideology. We also received military training, girls as well as boys. None of us wanted to stay. We wanted a real education.”

She didn’t get one. Nor did the other Sahrawi children. Castro’s education of children from across the ocean wasn’t a charity mission. He used them as pawns in one of his grand adventures in Africa. Western Sahara was but his latest. Havana’s men, including Che Guevara, trained guerrillas in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the Congo. Cuba even sent soldiers into Angola

“The Polisario wanted to impose a communist structure on nomadic populations,” she said. “I don’t believe that has changed. The same people are the leaders today as when I was young. There are still Sahrawi children in Cuba right now.”

She wanted to study journalism and translation in school, but they wouldn’t let her. “I got good grades, but they said no. Only kids who were part of the Polisario cadre could choose what to study. They forced me to study education and teach Spanish.”

The leadership eventually sent her to Spain and she managed to escape through the Moroccan Embassy in Madrid.

Her cousins are still there, but her brothers and sisters made it out. Her oldest brother fled first, in 1997, then organized escapes for everyone else.

“It’s impossible for an entire family to get out at once,” she said. “And when one family member leaves, they keep a close eye on the rest. We don’t dare tell anyone we’re planning to leave, not even our parents. There is no family intimacy in the camps. You never know if one of your brothers or sisters will rat you out to the guards.”

*

The Polisario is the self-styled representative of the Sahrawis, but Khallihanna Amar has a much stronger case since he was elected to the local community council in Dakhla.

He too is one of the Polisario’s former prisoners.

They scooped him up the first time he tried to escape from the camps in 1995. “They interrogated me for a month,” he told me. “Over and over again they asked why I was trying to leave and where I was going.”

Surely, I said, the Polisario has an ass-covering excuse for not letting prisoners leave that makes at least some vague sense ideologically. They still refuse to admit they’re holding even a single soul hostage.

“Of course,” he said. “If you try to leave they accuse you of being a counter-revolutionary and a Moroccan agent. My father was accused of collaborating with the Mauritanian resistance and sent to a re-education camp. And for my second escape attempt I paid a smuggler to take me to the Mali-Mauritanian border. Traffickers there smuggle humanitarian aid, cigarettes, and everything else. I worked my way up the coast and walked past a minefield to the Moroccan border. The Moroccan soldiers saw me coming and grabbed me.”

Western Sahara is not a police state anymore, but not everyone who followed the conflict in the early days when it made headlines are aware of that yet. Dakhla isn’t exactly a hotspot for foreign correspondents. It’s more than 1,000 miles down the West African coast from Tangier and pinned in the middle of nowhere by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a Mars-like desert bigger than the United States on the other. It takes twenty hours to drive there from Rabat, about as long as it takes to drive from Seattle to Los Angeles. Aside from European kite-surfers, hardly anyone ever goes there.

I had to wonder, though, if I was being fooled by cosmetic relaxation that didn’t go very far. It happens. My thoughts kept returning to Cuba, not only because the Castro regime backs the Polisario but because I had recently been in Cuba myself and know all too well how many people visit on holiday and think everything’s fine when it’s not. It’s at least theoretically possible that repression in Western Sahara is simply less obvious than it used to be, as in Cuba, and therefore more insidious.

The lack of men with guns on the streets does not by itself mean it isn’t oppressive. I didn’t see men with guns in Havana, but Cuba has the worst human rights record by far in the Western Hemisphere. I was sitting across the table from a man who had been elected to the local community council in a multiparty election, though, so how bad could it be?

“When I came back,” he said, “I found that I still had all my social, political, and economic rights. And I got elected to the council. So no, I’m not being oppressed. No one here is oppressed. But there are young people who know nothing about the camps and who demonstrate against Morocco because the Sahara is not independent. They are like me when I was fourteen and Che Guevara was my hero. I didn’t listen to anybody back then.”

Morocco’s government isn’t like Cuba’s. It holds free and fair elections with a range of parties to choose from across the political spectrum. The Polisario runs an asteroid belt of actual police states in the camps across the border inside Algeria, which itself is smothered by a Soviet-style regime. That’s where you’ll find the Cuban analogue in North Africa, which makes perfect sense since the Polisario is partly a creature of Castro.

“Conditions in the camps are miserable,” Amar said. “People are living in tents and mud buildings built by Moroccan slave labor. Food is only available depending on what kind of relations people have with the leadership. There are constant epidemics. And they’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

Try to imagine living like that in the hottest place in the world. The climate in Dakhla is near-perfect thanks to the cool winds off the Atlantic, but go just a few miles inland and you’ll feel like you’ve stuck your face in front of an open oven on broil.

“What do people do all day in the camps?” I said.

“The Polisario gave us a schedule to occupy our time and our minds,” he said. “Men get military training. Woman are organized into committees for education, distribution of humanitarian aid, and social relations.” The disgraceful use of child soldiers in Sub-Saharan Africa is well documented, but they’re up north, too, out in the desert. “Children begin military training at age ten. They are taught how to take apart an AK-47 and put it back together blindfolded.”

Morocco’s human rights record is far from perfect. Freedom House ranks the country as “partly free” rather than “free.” But the Polisario’s patron states stomp on human faces with boots as a matter of course. It’s fine and good to be skeptical of the Moroccan government, its reforms, and its claims, but that goes double for Cuba, Algeria, and the Polisario.

“We want American guarantees to Morocco so we can fix this,” Amar said. “People here have suffered a great deal since the mid-1970s. We want peace and security and to have our families together again. What purpose has been served all these years by keeping our families hostage in those camps?”

North Africa is so close to Europe. The two continents can see each other across the Strait of Gibraltar. Yet they are politically, socially, and economically thousands of miles apart.

The entire Sahara-Sahel region is unstable. Egypt is ruled again by a military dictatorship. Libya is on the verge of total disintegration a la Somalia. Algeria is mired in a Soviet time warp. Northern Mali was recently taken over by Taliban-style terrorists so vicious they prompted the French to invade. At the time of this writing, US troops are hunting Nigeria’s Al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram across the border in Chad.

Tunisia is doing okay, but it’s small. Aside from Morocco, the entire northern half of Africa is a disaster. Most of the continent, really, is still a disaster, but North Africa matters more to the West because it’s the southern half of the Mediterranean. The region isn’t Las Vegas—what happens there doesn’t stay there and never has.

The region’s potential is obvious to everyone who has seen it at its best. Marrakech in Morocco, Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia, Ghadames in Libya—these are some of the world’s most beautiful places, and they’re inhabited by the some of the friendliest and most personally delightful people I’ve ever met.

Well into the 21st century, though, there is still more darkness than light, even in the blazing Sahara. Military dictators, Islamist mass-murderers, human traffickers, gun-runners, thuggish communist proxy militias, and kidnappers run roughshod and wild. The city of Dakhla has managed to keep it all at some distance, but it’s fragile. On most maps Western Sahara is nothing but a geographic abstraction.

That can’t possibly last.

Maybe, perhaps even during my lifetime, North Africa will realize its potential and flourish with the freedom and prosperity on the other side of the Mediterranean, but that time is not yet. Not even Morocco—the most stable and civilized state in the region by far—has managed to permanently secure its backyard yet.

“What would happen,” I said to Amar, “if the Sahara became independent and the Polisario, one way or another, became the government?”

“An instant civil war,” he said, “and an instant failed state.”

Post-script: If you enjoyed reading this dispatch and learned something, please consider contributing with a donation. Many thanks in advance!

The Consequences of Syria

The Syrian civil war is no longer the Syrian civil war. It's a regional war that started in Syria, has expanded into Lebanon and Iraq, and has drawn in the Iranians and to a lesser extent the Kurds and the Israelis.

Wars in North Africa tend to stay local, but wars in the Levant spill over and suck in the neighbors. There's no reason to believe this war has finished expanding or that an end is in sight.

Lee Smith's new short book, The Consequences of Syria, is about how we got here. Lee is a friend of mine. He and I met nine years ago in Beirut and have traveled elsewhere in the region together. We argue about the Middle East sometimes, but we agree with each other often enough that our arguments are interesting and productive.

We spoke by phone recently.

MJT: Tell us about your book.

Lee Smith: It’s a long essay commissioned by the Hoover Institution, specifically by Charles Hill, one of our country’s great statesmen and historians of grand strategy, as well as Fouad Ajami, who died Sunday at the age of 68. Not only was Ajami a great historian of the modern Middle East, he is also one of the great English language prose stylists. He wrote about the region, but like any writer his real subject was about the human condition, that is, man’s struggle with freedom. It was a huge honor that he and Mr. Hill included me in the Hoover series, “The Great Unraveling: The Remaking of the Middle East,” and I am indebted to them both, professionally and even more so personally. What an honor to get to work with them and other authors in the series, including a book by one of our mutual friends, Samuel Tadros, Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt.

My essay is an account of the Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011 as a peaceful protest movement. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired on unarmed opposition members, the uprising eventually became a rebellion as the opposition took up arms, and the conflict escalated into a full-scale civil war. That’s one aspect of the book.

The other part of the book concerns the Obama administration’s Syria policy, which has been one of neglect and mendacity. The administration has repeatedly misled the American public, the American media, and allies around the world about its intentions.

MJT: Give us an example.

Lee Smith: Look at what happened in May before the president’s speech at West Point. Various media outlets quoted unnamed sources that suggested the president was going to arm and train the rebels.

The president and his administration have been saying this for two and a half years now, most notably in June 2013 when Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said in a conference call with reporters that the administration was ramping up its military support for the rebels.

Again and again, reporters asked Rhodes if that meant the administration was going to arm the rebels. Rhodes said he couldn’t give us an exact “inventory”—a word he used at least three times—of the assistance the administration would provide. Major media—the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times, etc.—reported that the White House was indeed going to arm the rebels, but this was all attributed to anonymous sources, which means that there absolutely nothing at stake if the information proved incomplete, inaccurate or just plain false. It was only months later when we found out from interviews with various rebel commanders that no American arms had been received.

Here it’s worth saying something about the press as well. I would have hoped that after the administration pulled similar stunts over the last few years regarding Syria that editors would’ve demanded more from their reporters. For instance, “Look, these guys are using us as part of an information operation to keep their domestic opponents and foreign allies off guard. We can’t keep publishing these stories straight anymore without someone going on the record and staking their reputation to it. At the very least we have to note that this may be part of a pattern of inaccuracies we’ve already seen with this White House regarding Syria policy.”

But of course no one did anything of the sort, and the US media has a lot of egg on their face for it. This White House has been bad for the press, and the readership’s faith in our press, but it seems most journalists don’t much care.

MJT: Why would the administration mislead everyone instead of just coming out and saying Syria is a mess that we don’t want to get sucked into? That’s the popular position in the United States right now. Plenty of people on both the left and the right would applaud him for that. Why the shenanigans?

Lee Smith: That’s a very good question. Maybe it’s because the administration is worried its foreign policy will haunt it in the mid-term elections. But then again the administration and a lot of its media surrogates keep saying the American public doesn’t care about foreign policy. And yet other polls show the American public does consider foreign policy an important factor in their decision.

My belief is that we Americans do care about foreign policy, more specifically about America’s role in the world, but we have come to distrust our leadership. Not just Obama but also Republicans, and that’s why I think Rand Paul is getting so much traction. His idea, which I don’t agree with at all, is at least clear: We should stay out of other people’s conflicts.

Compare that, for instance, to the Democratic frontrunner for 2016, Hillary Clinton. She says all the right things about a strong America projecting our values in the world, but, as we saw in the recent Diane Sawyer interview, Clinton will take no responsibility at all for anything that happened at Benghazi. So it doesn’t matter if she talks tough about our foreign policy—who can possibly trust someone to lead us into the world if that person’s primary interest is covering her own tail?

MJT: The White House’s Syria policy is about Iran, isn’t it?

Lee Smith: Part of it of course is that Obama understands himself as the man whose job is to get us out of entanglements in the Middle East, not to further commit American troops and resources. Still—yes, a large part of it has to do with Iran.

As I explain in The Consequences of Syria, there’s evidence suggesting that the administration feared that helping topple Assad, an ally of Iran, might have angered the Iranians and pushed them away from the negotiating table, and getting a deal with Iran was the White House’s chief goal in the Middle East.

Look at other exampled of how the White House wanted to stay on the regime’s good side. When the Green Movement took to the streets in June 2009 to protest what was quite likely fraudulent election results, the White House was extremely slow to support it even when the regime was attacking people on the streets just as the Assad regime did a few years later.

One of the reasons the administration was slow to respond—and we know this because it was reported in the New Yorker article that first put forth the now-infamous phrase “leading from behind”—is because, as one administration official put it, the White House wanted to negotiate with the regime. Same with sanctions relief, which the White House provided to keep the Iranians at the table.

It’s hard not to conclude that the administration’s Syria policy is a sub-set of its Iran policy. Many people were baffled for a long time, including me, that the president didn’t seem to see Syria strategically, as a way to weaken Iran. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis said that toppling Bashar al-Assad would constitute the most severe blow against the Iranian regime in 25 years. A number of administration officials seemed to recognize the same thing—from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and ex-CIA director David Petraeus. Only the president seemed to not recognize that or to see Syria in a strategic framework. What we now realize is that the president does see Syria in a strategic framework. He sees that the Syrian regime is an important ally of the Iranians and doesn’t want to be seen toppling the regime for fear of angering the Iranians.

MJT: Is there any chance that the White House is going to get what it wants from the Iranians this way?

Lee Smith: If we have a powerful American presence in the Middle East it might be possible to come to some sort of accommodation with Iran. I don’t know exactly what it would look like. But it would have to be demonstrated that the United States still calls the shots in the Persian Gulf and that the United States is still the great power in the Middle East.

What we’re seeing instead is a United States in retreat in the Middle East. So I don’t see what the accommodation would look like. It’s not a grand bargain with Iran, but an American fire sale, with the US virtually giving away its assets. The US is retreating from the region and leaving it in Iranian hands.

This is what Obama’s twin-pillars’ policy is about. In various interviews the president has described a new regional framework, a new geopolitical equilibrium, that balances Iran against the Sunni states in the Persian Gulf. This is precisely the idea the impoverished Brits had when they were on their way out of the Persian Gulf at the end of the 1960s. The problem is that there is no way to balance them—Saudi Arabia is incapable of projecting power without American backing. For instance, Riyadh has no equivalent of the IRGC’s Quds Force, its external operations unit, responsible for Iran’s war in Syria, as well as terrorist operations. Accordingly, when the White House says it’s aiming to “balance,” what US allies hear is that the US, like the Brits nearly half a century ago, are on their way out of the region, and are leaving it in Iran’s hands.

Consider how the administration has effectively partnered with Iran and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq.

In Lebanon, for instance, American intelligence has teamed up with the Lebanese Armed Forces’ military intelligence, which is at present controlled by Hezbollah. So the United States is indirectly aligned with Hezbollah in Lebanon against Sunni fighters.

In Iraq we’ve seen the same thing. Up until the ISIS-led takeover of Mosul, the White House supported Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni policy, even though his allies include Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups with American blood on their hands.

MJT: Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria recently took over Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq along with some other cities. They're not as big a strategic threat as Iran right now, but they can certainly turn into one, can't they?

Lee Smith: Let’s be a bit more specific. What we’re seeing in cities like Mosul is a Sunni rebellion against Maliki and the Iranians. In addition to ISIS, there are also former Baath party figures, like one of Saddam’s deputies, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, as well as Sunni tribes. ISIS would appear to be playing the role of Sunni shock troops, who are dispatched to the fronts to terrorize and create havoc. Behind them are the Baathis and the tribes. It was Maliki and the Iranians, in particular Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, who made this possible.

The American-led surge of 2006-7 was a success because it got the tribes to fight, and defeat, Al Qaeda in Iraq. What Maliki and the Iranians have done is unite the tribes and ISIS through their anti-Sunni policies. And so now the administration has a dilemma. As it has argued repeatedly regarding Syria, from their perspective the big issue in the Middle East is counter-terrorism against Al Qaeda and the Sunni jihadis. There’s no doubt Al Qaeda is a problem for the United States, but it’s not a strategic threat like Iran and the Iranian resistance axis.

Compare the two: Al Qaeda and Iran’s government are both radical Islamists, but the difference is that Al Qaeda doesn’t have the strategic resources of state at its disposal like Iran and its allies, including Islamists like Hezbollah as well as the Iraqi armed groups like Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, do.

A radical Sunni who wants to establish a caliphate, yelling Allahu Akbar with a black flag in one hand and a Kalashnikov in his other hand is crazy and dangerous, but he’s not a strategic threat. How does that caliphate, assuming such a thing is even possible, affect how Americans live? Are they going to impose sharia on us? Are our female friends and relatives going to be forced to wear a veil because of what some guy in Aleppo says?

When people worry that Sunni Islamists want to create a caliphate in the Middle East they seem to forget that we already have a clerical regime in Iran. What they’re afraid might happen has already happened. And the concern coming out of Tehran isn’t sharia, but the fact that a nuclear weapons program in the hands of an expansionist regime gives them a dangerous say in the flow of energy resources through the Persian Gulf. They don’t have to actually use a bomb to destabilize the region and raise the price of energy around the world. That’s the danger—that Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf will affect how Americans, and our trading partners, live.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is an already-existing Islamist power, with an army, a navy, an air force, a ballistic missile program, a nuclear weapons program. They have a diplomatic corps as well as a terrorist apparatus. Al Qaeda doesn’t have any of that. Iran is the key strategic threat in the Middle East for American interests and American allies.

MJT: So on balance do you think we would be better off if Al Qaeda ended up controlling Syria or parts of Syria as long as bringing down Assad delivers a big enough blow to Iran.

Lee Smith: Well, I think it’s unlikely Al Qaeda winds up running all of Syria, but if they do, great. If anything comes out of there endangering American citizens, allies, or interests, then that Al Qaeda controlled Syria, presumably with its capital in Damascus, winds up paying a very steep price.

I think that American foreign policy works most efficiently when it prioritizes threats. Few people believed during World War II that Joseph Stalin was a great guy, but the immediate threat to the United States, its interests, and its allies came from the Nazis, so we aligned ourselves with the Soviet Union until Hitler was defeated, then we waged a Cold War against the Soviets for nearly half a century. That’s how American foreign policy works best.

Sarah Palin said she’s content to let Allah sort things out in Syria between Iran and Al Qaeda, but Allah doesn’t always sort things out according to American interests.

The Obama administration is prioritizing threats, but it’s prioritizing the wrong threat. It’s prioritizing a group of non-state actors over a state.

MJT: So what would you do if you were in charge of our Syria policy?

Lee Smith: The first thing I’d do is knock the Syrian air force out of commission. Make sure it can never get off the ground. Even the people worried about Al Qaeda taking over Syria shouldn’t have an objection to that. If Al Qaeda takes over Syria, do we want them to inherit an air force?

MJT: Of course not.

Lee Smith: It’s unlikely that Al Qaeda will take over Syria anyway. The jihadist groups are only part of the rebellion. But even in the worst-case scenario, if they do take the whole country and run a caliphate state from Damascus, we’ll all be glad Syria is a generation away from having a functioning air force. What’s the argument against taking the Syrian air force out of the equation? We want Assad dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas canisters on the opposition because we fear that 7-year-old girls are likely Al Qaeda recruits who will attack the West?

And it’s standard US policy to back proxies against American adversaries. The fact that we’re not backing moderate rebels to fight the Iranian bloc in Syria tells us something about how the White House views Iran. It doesn’t view Iran as a significant adversary. The White House sees only Al Qaeda as the problem.

I understand why the president sees Iran this way. He isn’t crazy, he’s just wrong.

The president has said in various profiles and interviews that while he recognizes the Iranian regime as a problem, it’s nevertheless fundamentally rational. And I think he’s right about that much.

There has been an argument in Washington for almost a decade now with one side holding that the Iranians are rational and the other side insisting that the Iranians are irrational and likely to do anything, including blow up Iran, because they’re nuts and they want to bring back the Mahdi. That’s not a conversation I’m interested in having.

One would be hard-pressed to find a regime anywhere in history that has actively sought to destroy itself. The Nazis were crazy, but did they actively seek their own end? No. Of course not. They sought to expand their power and reach, and that’s what the Iranians are doing as well.

History is nothing but the long chronicle of regimes, peoples, and nations that miscalculate their own power and that of their adversaries and thereby end up destroying themselves, but they did not deliberately seek their own end. Iran is not irrational in that way. Its leaders don’t seek their own end.

We need to base our policy on their actual behavior, for instance their expansionist policies in the Middle East, their desire to destabilize rivals in the Persian Gulf. Designing a policy based strictly on the fact that a regime is rational or irrational is mistaken.

The president has said that because the Iranian government is a state, it is susceptible to the various instruments of statecraft—diplomacy, engagement, deterrence, containment, and military action if everything else fails. That’s how the president perceives the Iranians. That’s not a crazy way to look at Iran.

The reality is, however, that the United States has never been able to deter or contain Iran. No American policy-maker has ever pushed back against the Iranians for their misbehavior. I’m not just faulting Obama here. I’m also faulting the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, and the Reagan administration which also sought a rapprochement with the clerical regime. No one has pushed back for 35 years.

So the idea that the Obama administration can handle this regime solely because it’s a nation-state goes against the entire historical record of American-Iranian relations.

MJT: What do you think Iran would do with a nuclear weapon? Why exactly should we be concerned about that?

Lee Smith: I think we have to take Iranian threats against Israel seriously and we have to take the concerns of America’s Gulf Arab allies seriously. The Arab and Israeli concerns are both to an extent existential. When Iran threatens to blow up Israel, it’s a threat that Israeli officials cannot afford to ignore.

That said, while we have to take that seriously, I don’t think it’s the real problem from an American point of view.

MJT: I agree. I doubt Iran would actually nuke Israel, but I don’t know that the way I know France won’t nuke Israel.

Lee Smith: Exactly. So you can’t ignore that if you’re the Israeli prime minister. And we can’t ignore that the Saudis might want to counter an Iranian nuclear weapon with their own nuclear weapon, perhaps purchased from Pakistan. What’s the Persian Gulf going to look like if it’s bristling with nuclear weapons?

The real problem is that an Iranian nuclear weapon would give Iran the ability to destabilize the Middle East whenever it wants. Look at what Iran is doing around the region. That’s also what my book is about—Iranian expansionism across the Middle East. That’s the real problem.

If you’re Israeli your concern is that these guys could put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile and fire it at Tel Aviv, but there’s more. The Iranians are not only on Israel’s border through Hezbollah in Lebanon. They’re on Israel’s border in Syria as well.

The Assad regime has long been allied with the Iranians, but now we’re seeing Revolutionary Guard troops in Syria. Hezbollah is now in Syria. Further, the Israeli Hezbollah specialist Shimon Shapria has a new paper out explaining how Iran is building a replica of Hezbollah on the Syrian border, on the Golan Heights. And Iran has replicated the Hezbollah model in Iraq. They dispatched Iraqi Shia militias to fight in Syria, as well as Afghani, Yemeni and Gulf Shiites as well. Shapira calls this Qassem Suleimani’s Shiite version of the Comintern. This is what I mean by Iranian expansionism and why Syria is a major concern.

American allies such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have a massive refugee problem. A lot of journalists are writing about the possible end of Sykes-Picot, that the Middle East’s borders are being eradicated, but the borders aren’t the immediate problem. What we’re seeing instead are massive population transfers. We’ve seen it before, constantly, and it’s happening again now.

The United Nations estimates there a million or so Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but mutual friends of ours in Beirut put the number at closer to two million. And that’s in a country of barely four million. How is that going to throw off the sectarian balance in Lebanon? What’s going to happen if a million Syrian refugees stay permanently in Jordan?

These are the consequences of Syria. Iranian expansionism. Destabilization of the region though transfers of population. And a test case for American power.

The administration has failed that test. Our friends are confused, angry, and perhaps destabilized while our enemies are emboldened and strengthened.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.

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