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Iran’s Hostage Victory

During Sunday’s Democratic primary debate, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that it’s time to bring Iran in from the cold. “I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran,” he said.

If Iran had a representative government, if it wasn’t ruled by Ayatollah Khamenei, his dark theocratic Guardian Council and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the United States and Iran would restore normal relations almost as a matter of course.

Iran would, in all likelihood, take its proper place as one of America’s premier allies in the Middle East alongside the Kurds and the Israelis. The extreme and often fantastical anti-Americanism so endemic in the Arab world is far weaker among the Persians, Azeris and Kurds who make up the Iranian nation.

Iran right now is like Poland under the Warsaw Pact—a would-be friendly nation occupied and ruled by a hostile regime. Good and proper relations will have to wait until the government is overthrown or reformed out of all recognition like Vietnam's current communist-in-name-only government.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton takes a harder line than Sanders, naturally. “We’ve had one good day over 36 years, and I think we need more good days before we move more rapidly toward any kind of normalization.”

She was referring to the release of three American citizens—journalist Jason Rezaian, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini and former Marine Amir Hekmati—whom the Iranians held hostage until a couple of days ago.

It’s not at all clear that their release counts as a good day. It’s terrific for the freed prisoners, obviously, and it’s almost as terrific for their friends, family and colleagues, but the ransom was insanely steep.

First the United States had to release seven Iranian criminals who were convicted of sanctions violations in a properly functioning judicial system. Second, Washington had to scrub the names of 14 Iranians from an Interpol watch list. And third, the United States is kicking 100 billion dollars in frozen assets back to the Iranian government.

A fair swap would have been three innocent prisoners for three innocent prisoners, but the United States doesn’t randomly grab foreign nationals off the streets to use as bargaining chips, so that was never an option.

If the Iranian government had released innocent people because they’re innocent like it’s supposed to—then we could say we had a good day. But that’s not what happened. That’s not even close to what happened.

It could have been worse, though. Secretary of State John Kerry said he thought he’d secured these peoples’ release months ago, but the deal fell apart because the Iranian government wanted the United States to release convicted murderers.

That demand shouldn’t surprise anyone. Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah convinced the Israelis to release convicted murderers like the notorious Samir Kuntar in exchange for  the bodies of kidnapped soldiers who weren’t even alive anymore, who had in fact been mutilated by Hezbollah.

That’s how Iran and its proxies roll, but the US doesn’t cave like the Israelis.

And at least the US got something out of the deal. At least our people are still among the living when they come home. Jason Rezaian is one of my colleagues. I don’t know him personally, but it will be good to have him back all the same. He holds dual Iranian-American citizenship, but he was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and was the Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post when the Iranians grabbed him 18 months ago on trumped up espionage charges.

It was instantly obvious to almost everybody that he wasn’t snatched because he’s some kind of a spy. He was simply the latest hostage taken by the government that made a name for itself on the world stage by taking hostages. No doubt he’ll write some very interesting articles, and perhaps even a book, when he gets settled in and recovers.

Anthony Bourdain interviewed him in Tehran shortly before he and his wife were dispatched to Evin Prison. (She was later released.)

“I miss certain things about home,” he said. “I miss my buddies. I miss burritos.” He laughed and added, “I miss having certain beverages with my buddies and burritos in certain types of establishments.”

He missed booze and bars, in other words, both of which have been banned in Iran since the 1979 revolution. (Contrary to popular belief, Iran is one of only a small minority of Muslim countries that actually ban alcohol.)

“I love (Iran) and I hate it, but it’s home,” he said. “It’s become home.”

It’s not home for him anymore. That’s for damn sure. He’s on his way back to his real home in America where he was born.

Iran committed three criminal acts against American citizens and paid no price. We put kidnappers in prison for a very long time in this country, but the Iranian government was rewarded.

What’s to stop that government from doing it again?

Nothing.

Why should the Iranian government stop? Kidnapping and ransoming hostages works. And the regime is already gearing up to do it again.

In October of last year they grabbed Siamak Namazi, one of the founders of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). He’s still being held hostage despite the prisoner swap.

NIAC lobbied hard for the nuclear deal signed earlier by Washington and Tehran. Its principle founder and president Trita Parsi has been fighting even longer—since 1997—to have sanctions against Iran lifted.

One of those guys is Iran’s current hostage. Not some CIA spook. Not a wannabe revolutionary. Not even a crusading journalist. No. The regime’s current hostage is a man who worked for years to normalize relations with Iran.

Bernie Sanders wants to pick up where Namazi left off. He’ll fare no better.

North Africa Exports Rape Culture to Germany

Last week, roughly 200 women in Cologne, Germany, reported that they were sexually assaulted on New Year’s Eve in a public square by a mob of more than a thousand Arab men.

That number exploded this week. More than 600 women now claim they were assaulted, molested, robbed and even raped, and reports are coming in not only from Cologne but also from elsewhere in Germany and even elsewhere in Europe.

Europeans and especially Germans are furious, of course, not only at the perps but also at German Chancellor Angela Merkel for accepting a million refugees from Syria. That’s a staggering number. It’s as if the United States had accepted four million refugees all in one go, which is roughly the population of my home state of Oregon.

At least the United States has a long history of successfully integrating immigrants, including Arab immigrants. According to data from Cornell University, two-thirds of American Muslims earn more than 50,000 dollars a year, and a fourth earn more than 100,000 dollars a year. That’s hardly the profile of a failed immigrant group.

Europe, though, has a much harder time with this sort of thing, and Germany is in an uproar. Protests are breaking out everywhere, with demonstrators yelling “deport them” and carrying signs that say “Rapefugees not welcome” in English.

The culprits are mostly Arabs, and Merkel’s refugee policy is predictably collapsing as a result, but the rapefest in Cologne was not imported from Syria. It mostly comes from North Africa.

Women have fewer rights in the Middle East and North Africa than anywhere else in the world with the single exception of Afghanistan, and they’re abused far more often over there than anywhere in the West, but they aren’t routinely assaulted by hundreds of men in unruly mobs all at once anywhere except Egypt.

Many years ago in Cairo I struck up a conversation with an Australian woman at a restaurant who was traveling around on break from her job at the Ministry of Defense.

“This is the absolute worst place for a woman to travel alone,” she said. “Men harass me constantly. They hiss, stare, and make kissy noises.”

I told her what one of my Syrian friends once said to my wife, that if she ever goes there she should carry a spare shoe in her purse. If any man gives her trouble and she whacks him with the bottom of the shoe, a mob will chase him down and kick his ass.

The Australian woman laughed. “Syria is wonderful, though. I mean, it’s much more oppressive than Egypt. But it’s also more modern. No man ever bothered me there. No men bothered me in Lebanon, either. I was surprised. Lebanese and Syrian men are more respectful even than European men.”

I can’t know from personal experience what it’s like to walk around as a woman in the Middle East or North Africa, but I’ve spent more than a decade of my life on and off in that part of the world and have had conversations with more than a thousand people, men and women alike. Women are unanimous here: Harassment in North Africa ranges from annoying to unspeakable while it’s virtually non-existent in Lebanon and Syria. I don’t know why. That’s just how it is.

“The worst part is that Egyptian men won’t back down when I tell them to leave me alone,” the Australian woman in Cairo added.

The Cologne police department says most of the offenders come from North Africa rather than Syria, which is exactly what we should expect.

“In a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights,” Mona Eltahawy writes in her book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. “More than 80 percent of Egyptian women said they’d experienced sexual harassment, and more than 60 percent of men admitted to harassing women. A 2013 UN survey reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women experience street sexual harassment. Men grope and sexually assault us, and yet we are blamed for it because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong thing.”

Sexual assault in public is so pervasive in Egypt that the authorities ban men from some cars on the subway so women can get to work in the morning without being mauled.

Foreign women get it in Egypt, too, most infamously when CBS reporter Lara Logan was brutally assaulted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the night the Egyptian army removed Hosni Mubarak from power. An enormous mob surrounded her, stripped her naked, sexually assaulted her and damn near killed her.

“I didn't even know that they were beating me with flagpoles and sticks and things,” she later said in an interview on 60 Minutes. “Because the sexual assault was all I could feel, their hands raping me over and over and over again. They were trying to tear off chunks of my scalp…not trying to pull out my hair, holding big wads of it literally trying to tear my scalp off my skull.”

She thought they were going to kill her. They probably would have if she hadn’t been rescued by Egyptian women who themselves have suffered plenty at the rough hands of their neighbors.

The same thing happened to British journalist Natasha Smith the following year, and she wrote about it in excruciating detail on her blog.

In a split second, everything changed. Men had been groping me for a while, but suddenly, something shifted. I found myself being dragged from my male friend, groped all over, with increasing force and aggression. I screamed. I could see what was happening and I saw that I was powerless to stop it. I couldn’t believe I had got into this situation.

My friend did everything he could to hold onto me. But hundreds of men were dragging me away, kicking and screaming. I was pushed onto a small platform as the crowd surged, where I was hunched over, determined to protect my camera. But it was no use. My camera was snatched from my grasp. My rucksack was torn from my back – it was so crowded that I didn’t even feel it. The mob stumbled off the platform – I twisted my ankle.

Men began to rip off my clothes. I was stripped naked. Their insatiable appetite to hurt me heightened. These men, hundreds of them, had turned from humans to animals.

Hundreds of men pulled my limbs apart and threw me around. They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way. So many men. All I could see was leering faces, more and more faces sneering and jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions.

Germany has announced that it’s changing the law to make it far easier to swiftly deport migrant criminals. Most of those involved in Cologne are apparently not Syrian refugees, but they can still be sent back to wherever it is they come from if they are not citizens.

Those who are seeking asylum from Syria and think it’s okay to rape and molest women in Europe’s most generous host country may soon find themselves deported post-haste back to where they belong—to the war zone.

The Saudi-Iranian Eruption

Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties with Iran after a mob set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, stormed the compound and trashed its offices while Iranian security personnel stood aside.

This is hardly anything new. The Iranian government has been violently contemptuous of worldwide norms of diplomacy ever since it seized power in 1979. The Iranian hostage crisis, where Islamist revolutionaries held 52 foreign servicemen and women hostage at the American Embassy for 444 days, was just the beginning.

Four years later, Iran’s terrorist proxies in Lebanon used to a suicide truck bomb to destroy the American embassy in Beirut.

Ten years later they blew up the Israeli embassy in Argentina, also with a suicide truck bomb.

In 2012, Azerbaijan arrested 22 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah for plotting attacks on the American and Israeli embassies in Baku.

Like Iran, Azerbaijan is a Shia-majority nation, but unlike Iran, its government has normal and even warm relations with the United States and Israel. And like most of the world, Azerbaijanis understand and respect the sovereignty of foreign embassies. The Iranians don’t, so the Saudis are calling everyone home and giving the Iranians 48 hours to leave the country or else.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies since the 1979 revolution, but their hatred for each other is far older than either regime. It stretches all the way back to the time of the Persian Empire.

It’s slightly amazing that they’ve had diplomatic relations at all. They have more grievances against each other—some of them reasonable, others bigoted, sectarian and hysterical—than anyone outside the region could ever keep track of.

The Iranians didn’t torch and sack the Saudi embassy just because they woke up in the morning and felt like it, though. The Saudis kicked off the latest round when they executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Nimr lived in Saudi Arabia’s enormous Eastern Province. It’s where most of the oil fields are. It’s also—inconveniently for Riyadh—the one place where Shia Muslims make up the majority in an otherwise Sunni-dominated kingdom. Nimr had been calling for democratic elections and for the Shias to secede if their rights weren’t better respected.

He was right to complain. Saudi Arabia is the most backward and medieval society in the entire world outside ISIS- and Taliban-occupied territory. Tehran is like Amsterdam compared with Riyadh despite the Iranian government’s theocratic regulations and draconian enforcers.

During a series of protests in 2011 and 2012, Nimr called on Shia demonstrators to resist the Saudi government with words rather than violence. “The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of lead,” he said.

The Saudis called him a terrorist and cut off his head.

Unless the Saudi government knows something about him that the rest of us don’t, this is pretty outrageous.

The Iranians are almost right to be furious, but not quite. They’re furious for the wrong reasons. They’d be just as furious if the guy was really a terrorist. They’d be just as furious if he’d been dispatching squads of suicide bombers to Riyadh and Medina. The Iranian regime murdered its way into power and tortures and murders to keep itself in power. It doesn’t care about human rights any more than Kim Jong-un of North Korea. 

Tehran’s rulers are just bent out of shape because Nimr was a fellow Shia who could have been useful if the global Sunni-Shia war—which Iran does everything in its power to keep ablaze—were to engulf Saudi Arabia as it has just about everywhere else Sunnis and Shias live next to each other.

Which isn’t to say the Saudi rulers aren’t violating anyone’s human rights. Of course they are. They do so as a matter of course. Their absolute monarchy isn’t drastically different from the ISIS “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq except that Riyadh plays well with others diplomatically and pushes back hard against Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Saudis do so for entirely self-interested reasons, of course. They don’t care about human rights any more than the Iranians do. They’re the world biggest proponents of hardline Sunni fanaticism. The only reason they’re bothered by ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood is because ISIS and the Brotherhood threaten the Saudi royal family’s stranglehold on absolute power.

Americans can be excused for watching the Saudis and Iranians slug it out as if they were Hitler and Stalin beating the crap out of each other in Europe.

We have to stick with the Saudis, though, like it or not, the same way we stuck with the Soviet Union against the Nazis.

The Washington-Riyadh alliance is strictly transactional. We have common enemies and common economic interests, and that’s it. There is no warmth there, no real friendship, on either side. We rightly find the Saudis distasteful. They find us distasteful, too, because they’re a thousand years behind us. They’re a thousand years behind almost everyone in the world, including much of the Arab world.

But we have to stand by them—and not just because they have oil—because they don’t actively work against us like the Iranians do despite the negotiated nuclear “deal” between Tehran and Washington earlier this year.

So: good on the Saudis for kicking the Iranians out even though the Saudis instigated the recent unpleasantness with their usual appalling behavior.

Good Riddance to Child-Killer Samir Kuntar

The Israelis killed the infamous Lebanese terrorist and child-murderer Samir Kuntar and several other Hezbollah commanders with an air strike in Syria.

They are neither confirming nor denying that they carried out the attack, but it’s obvious that they did. No one else drops bombs from the skies on Hezbollah right now, and Kuntar committed one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in Israeli history.

On April 22, 1979, in the northern town of Nahariya, he killed policeman Eliyahu Shahar, civilian Danny Haran, and Haran's four year old daughter Einat by placing her head on a rock and smashing her skull with the butt of his rifle.

The Israelis convicted him of murder, but they released him in 2008 when Hezbollah agreed to return the bodies of captured Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

It was a bad trade.

When the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev were returned to Israel, former Chief Rabbi of the IDF Yisrael Weiss said, “If we thought the enemy was cruel to the living and the dead, we were surprised, when we opened the caskets, to discover just how cruel. And I’ll leave it at that.”

Shortly after Kuntar’s release, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as one of Hezbollah’s co-patrons, awarded him with the Syrian Order of Merit medal.

Just three months ago, in September of 2015, the United States government declared Kuntar a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224.

Perhaps letting Kuntar back into the wild seemed like a reasonable idea to Israelis at the time. Prison seemed to have changed him.

Israeli journalist Chen Kotes-Barr spent more than a year interviewing Kuntar in prison and getting to know him. I imagine she must have felt a little like Clarice Starling when she met Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs.

Lisa Goldman translated Kotes-Barr’s long story about Kuntar from Hebrew to English and published it on her blog. Here’s the first part:

For the first year, my conversations with Samir Kuntar were difficult. Our meetings, which began in February 2004, took place in the prison library – just the two of us, unaccompanied. Our conversations were open, and they lasted for hours. Samir spoke to me in Hebrew. He brought tea and biscuits, and he chain-smoked. Over the 29 years he spent in Israeli jails, I was the first and only Jewish Israeli woman he met and spoke with to face-to-face.

“I’m talking to you about reality,” Kuntar said, each time we met. “I am not trying to ingratiate myself with you.” As we slowly built up some kind of trust, we stopped talking about politics and turned to personal subjects – like prison life and his own life. “Don’t go with slogans and clichés,” he implored. “Just write the facts.” He showed me photographs of his family in Lebanon. He prepared a list of Hebrew-language books on the Arab-Israeli conflict for me.

I told him about my father, who survived Auschwitz, and about my 5 year-old son. Each time I wrap him in a towel after his bath, I told Kuntar, I think of Danny Haran and his daughter Einat. About the terror attack in Nahariya.

The girl’s death was a tragic incident, answered Kuntar. He insisted that he had not killed her. What does it matter, I told him, you shot at them. If you had not landed on the beach at Nahariya in your rubber dinghy, Einat Haran would still be alive. He never expressed any remorse.

I did not try to understand, to resolve or even to interpret. I just wanted to get to know the man. “I met the enemy,” Samir said, when I asked him how he would explain our meetings to his children. “I met the enemy and I saw that he has a face.”

Samir Kuntar’s Jewish enemy does indeed have a face, which is why Hezbollah and the Assad regime have done everything in their power to ensure that the people of Lebanon and Syria have no contact whatsoever with Israelis. It’s a bit harder to see people as a diabolical “other” after spending quality time with them.

Sending an email to Tel Aviv from Beirut or Damascus can land a person in prison. (I’ve done it hundreds of times myself, but I refuse to obey such a contemptible law, and anyway I’m not Syrian or Lebanese.) Even saying hello to an Israeli tourist on holiday in a third country like Cyprus or Greece is a crime.

Kuntar really did seem to change, and he seemed to change even before Kotes-Barr met him. Perhaps it was all a big put-on—he wouldn’t be the first person to pretend he had seen the errors of his ways in order to get out of prison—but either way he knew exactly how to tell the Israelis what they wanted to hear.

Ha’aretz interviewed him in 1995. “Theology enlists people to hate blindly,” he said, “both on the Israeli and the Arab side.

If instead of talking about the Promised Land you would find a way to introduce into the Palestinian education system – for which you are responsible – the horrors of the Holocaust, the history of Jew-hatred from the days of the Romans until the Nazi era, I have no doubt everything would be different. We never recognized Jewish suffering. We saw an entire people being thrown out, and a prosperous country thriving at its expense.

[…]

You have to accept Israel as a fact, in order to move on and not return to the cycle of losses. The message to the coming generations, especially the Palestinians, is that you have to include presenting the suffering of the Jewish people. Without this, it’s impossible to develop any empathy toward Jews.

He didn’t change, though. Or, if he did, he changed back and signed on with Hezbollah shortly after his release even though he isn’t even a Muslim. (He’s Druze.) Until the Israelis killed him this weekend, he was one of Hezbollah’s most formidable commanders and spokesmen in Syria.

He has been busy fighting Syrians lately rather than Jews. Perhaps one of these days, maybe—just maybe—the Arab world will realize that terrorists who kill Jews will turn right around and kill Arabs and that the Israelis are doing everybody a favor by zotting them from the skies.

Most Americans Now Support Using Ground Troops

The terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, earlier this month dramatically changed the American mood.

53 percent of Americans now think we should use ground troops against ISIS in Syria, Iraq or both.

I’ve been asked repeatedly over the last couple of years what I think might snap Americans out of the isolationist funk we’ve been wallowing in since the Iraq war and the economic downturn of 2008. I haven’t had the answer. I may be some kind of an “expert” on Middle Eastern affairs, but I don’t have a crystal ball that shows me the future of American politics.

I assumed a huge ISIS attack in the United States on the scale of 9/11 would change American public opinion. How could it not? Likewise, a series of smaller Paris-style attacks might do the job.

I never would have guessed that a single attack by two people who might not even have a direct connection to ISIS would swing the pendulum back to the hawkish side of the spectrum all by itself. 

Nothing has actually changed except the American mood. Using ground troops in Syria and Iraq is no better or worse an idea after San Bernardino that it was before.

The downsides are the same and at this point should be obvious. Lives will be lost, and some of them will be ours. American soldiers can’t fix what ails the Middle East. Sure, they can overthrow dictators. They can kill terrorists and push them out of territory.

But eliminating the appeal of a fascistic ideology is something else entirely. Replacing a totalitarian regime with some kind of functioning democracy in lands riven by ancient sectarian hatreds and hobbled by political and religious extremism is something else entirely.

Terrorism in the United States didn’t begin with ISIS, nor will it end with ISIS. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik would almost certainly have taken up arms if ISIS didn’t even exist. Their desire and ability to murder American citizens was unrelated to who controls the streets of Raqqa and Mosul.

The upside of using ground troops may be a little less obvious. At least it was less obvious until recently. ISIS can be defeated militarily, at least temporarily. It has happened before.

ISIS began in the mid-2000s as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Back then, AQI, like ISIS today, controlled entire Iraqi cities. It resembled a state-within-a-state, like a more deranged Sunni version of Hezbollahland in Lebanon.

American ground troops, in an alliance with the tribes of Iraq’s Anbar Province, first destroyed AQI’s “government” in Fallujah and Ramadi, then destroyed AQI is a fighting force. It was reduced to a few dozen fugitives and an idea. Nothing more.

It came back, of course, under a new name in Syria, and then it exploded back into Iraq. The victory was temporary. The utopian jihadist idea lives on, and there are plenty of lawless and anarchic places in the Middle East and North Africa were the likes of ISIS can take root and metastasize.

You could say fighting them as like playing a game of whack-a-mole where they always pop back up somewhere else. You can say fighting them is like mowing the lawn. The grass keeps on growing relentlessly.

But that leads us to a couple of questions. Do you refuse to mow your lawn because it keeps growing? What will happen if you stop mowing the lawn? Are you better off with a weekly lawn-mowing chore or a jungle in your front yard?

Fighting these guys indeed looks and feels futile, but refusing the fight them—or refusing to fight them seriously and effectively—only allows them to grow stronger.

My guess—this is an educated guess, but it’s still a guess—is that we’re going to settle into something resembling an Israeli view of this problem. We will not indulge the fantasy that we can send in the Army and the Marines and end terrorism once and for all. It’s not going to happen. Not any time soon. But that doesn’t mean we’ll never send in the Army and the Marines, that we’ll sit back and wring our hands while one nation-state after another becomes Talibanized.

Some time is likely to pass before the American government registers the American mood shift. Barack Obama isn’t going to mount a ground invasion of Syria. Republican presidential candidates have likewise been falling all over themselves promising not to mount a ground invasion of anywhere.

It won’t last. It can't. The American public won’t let it. Neither will ISIS. As Michael Walzer once wrote, paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Samantha, Powerless: Obama’s Problem from Hell in Syria

My latest piece of longform journalism has been published in The Tower magazine. Here’s the first part.

It’s hard to imagine a greater foreign policy failure than the American response to the conflict in Syria, which has mushroomed into one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War.

What started as a series of peaceful demonstrations for democratic and civil society reform in 2011 has since degenerated into a brutal multi-front conflict involving the Assad regime in Damascus, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a smorgasbord of mostly Islamist rebel groups including al-Qaeda, secular left-wing Kurdish militias, and, of course, ISIS—the most psychopathic army of killers on the planet.

Rather than live up to his earlier and undeserved reputation as a “reformer,” President Bashar al-Assad has proven himself the most violent dictator in the Middle East since Saddam Hussein.

ISIS, meanwhile, rather than living up to U.S. President Barack Obama’s description as al-Qaeda’s “JV team,” has evolved from a ragtag terrorist organization to a full-blown genocidal army massacring its way through Syria, Iraq and beyond.

The American response so far is only a tad more robust than the sound of chirping crickets.

Perhaps no one is as chagrined at all this as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. She began her career as a war correspondent in Bosnia during the near-apocalyptic civil war there, and she was so shocked and appalled at what she saw—first the mass-murder and ethnic cleansing waged by Serb genocidaires in the heart of Europe, and second the near-total paralysis of the Clinton administration—that she dedicated years of her life to researching and writing her first book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

Her conclusion: despite the cries of “never again” after the Holocaust, the international community, including the United States, nearly always stands aside when mass-murderers go to work.

After Power finishes her current stint as a diplomat, she’ll need to update her book with a new chapter on Syria. Only this time she’ll have to blast the very administration she works for.

*

For the better part of a century, American leaders have repeatedly failed to stop the world’s monsters from turning swaths of the globe into killing fields. It’s not a uniquely American problem, nor should policing the world be a uniquely American burden, but nevertheless the United States has, as Samantha Power notes, inverted Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy doctrine, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” to “speak loudly and look for a stick.”

The change, she argues, was deliberate and bipartisan. “Contrary to any assumption I may have harbored while I traveled around the former Yugoslavia,” she writes, “the Bush and Clinton administrations’ responses to atrocities in Bosnia were consistent with prior American responses to genocide. Early warnings of massive bloodshed proliferated. The spewing of inflammatory propaganda escalated. The massacres and deportations started. U.S. policymakers struggled to wrap their minds around the horrors. Refugee stories and press reports of atrocities became too numerous to deny. Few Americans at home pressed for intervention. A hopeful but passive and ultimately deadly American waiting game commenced. And genocide proceeded unimpeded by U.S. action and often emboldened by U.S. inaction.”

Before building her case, she tells the story of Raphael Lemkin, the architect of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Lemkin was a Jewish lawyer from Poland who came to the United States in 1941, two years after Nazi Germany invaded his native country. It was Lemkin who coined the word “genocide” in the early 1940s to describe what he called the “race murder” of Jews, but of course the Nazis hardly invented the crime. Josef Stalin’s peacetime genocide in Ukraine—the Holodomor, or hunger-famine—took place during the previous decade, and the Turkish genocide against Armenians during World War I only two decades before that.

Lemkin campaigned tirelessly in the United Nations to get the international community to agree on the definition of genocide, to recognize it as a crime, and to spell out the measures for its prevention and punishment. It finally did so through UN General Assembly Resolution 260, which went in force in 1951.

In Article 2 of the resolution, genocide is defined as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

• Killing members of the group;
• Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
• Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
• Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
• Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

After providing the historical background, Power follows with a series of case studies that expose how the United States largely failed to prevent or punish one genocide after another, from Bosnia and Cambodia to Rwanda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Her case studies of the American reception to these atrocities follow the same pattern: Warning, Recognition, Response and Aftermath.

Admirers of Power’s work were thrilled when President Barack Obama appointed her ambassador to the United Nations in 2013. Finally, they thought, we might be in for a course correction. She’s only one person in a large administration and she can’t set foreign policy all by herself, but one could presume that the president must at least partly agree with her. Otherwise, why appoint her in the first place?

But the Syrian civil war and America’s epic-sized non-response have proven the optimists wrong. The Assad regime is perilously close to crossing the genocidal line—if it hasn’t already—and ISIS has clearly already crossed it with its brutal assaults on minorities like Christians and Yezidis. Meanwhile, the United States, in keeping with the precedents patiently described by Power, dithers impotently on the sidelines.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are ideological opposites. ISIS is brutally Islamist and theocratic, while the Assad regime is avowedly secular and at least nominally “Leftist.” Nevertheless, and despite ISIS harking back to a previous millennium, they’re both totalitarian political movements in the classic 20th-century mold.

All such movements, despite their variety, share the same basic set of ideas which Paul Berman spelled out in his landmark book, Terror and Liberalism. And the potential to commit genocide is baked into every single one of them.

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

Read the whole thing in The Tower.

Don't Bother Talking to ISIS

Jonathan Powell, formerly the chief of staff of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has done the impossible. He has written an article for The Guardian that is almost entirely correctly yet utterly wrong.

Bombing ISIS is not enough—we’ll need to talk to them too.

That’s his headline.

But he’s not a fraction as naïve as you might think. He gets pretty much everything right until he asserts that we’ll have to talk to ISIS eventually.

He’s not the kind of guy who thinks wars can be ended on the Dr. Phil show. He doesn’t believe diplomacy will ever convince a genocidal terrorist army that’s massacring innocent people on three continents to join the civilized mainstream.

He recognizes that bombing ISIS is necessary.

He also realizes destroying ISIS will require boots on the ground. But whose? Kurdish militias do very well in battle, but they’re neither equipped nor willing to conquer or liberate the vast swaths of Arab territory.

And Powell realizes that Iranian-backed Shia militias like Hezbollah are out of the question for entirely different reasons. Unlike the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, Iranian militias are themselves terrorist organizations.

Sunni militias in Syria, meanwhile, are mostly unwilling to fight ISIS until they first drag Bashar al-Assad out of his palace in Damascus.

So he thinks we’ll have no choice but to talk to ISIS at some point.

What on earth would we say?

Well, he acknowledges that we have nothing to say to each other right now, but he thinks we’ll eventually think of something once everyone realizes there is no military solution.

He’s wrong.

Look. It’s true that there is no viable military solution right now. The West could in theory send tens of thousands or even hundreds of ground troops to Syria and Iraq and smash the ISIS “caliphate” in short order, but it’s not going to happen for a very simple reason:

We don’t want to.

There is virtually zero appetite in the West right now to launch any kind of a rerun of the Iraq war. 

Another 9/11-style attack could change public opinion in an instant, of course. A series of Paris-style attacks in New York City or anywhere else in America might have the same effect over time. But in the meantime, we’re in a holding pattern.

The thing about holding patterns is that they’re temporary. At some point, something is going to change even if it takes a l-o-n-g time.

Perhaps Assad will be overthrown and Sunni wrath in Syria will shift from the capital and toward the deranged “caliphate” out in the desert. Perhaps the civilian population in ISIS-held territory will finally say enough and fight the bastards themselves. Maybe Russia will say eff it and go in there whole hog.

Maybe something totally unpredictable will happen. It’s the Middle East we’re talking about, after all.

Even if the holding pattern lasts years, we still won’t be able to resolve the ISIS problem by talking to ISIS because we’ll have no more to say at that time than we have today.

ISIS is a genocidal army. It murders Yezidis, Shia Muslims, Christians, Alawites and Westerners not because of anything they’ve done but because of who they are. There is no conceivable political solution to be had with these kinds of people. They will continue to kill until they are no longer able to kill.

That’s how it always is with genocidaires.

“It is important to understand that talking to terrorists is not the same as agreeing with them,” Powell writes. “The British would never have discussed a united Ireland at the barrel of a gun against the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland. But when we sat down with the IRA, its leaders wanted to talk about legitimate subjects like power-sharing and human rights. The same will be true of Isis. No one is going to talk to them about a universal caliphate, but we can talk about Sunni grievances and a way of ending violence.”

ISIS is not the Irish Republican Army. It is not even Hezbollah. It has far more in common with the Nazis. And we didn't resolve the Nazi problem by talking.

The IRA was at least somewhat interested in human rights. Obviously ISIS is not. Nor are its leaders and fighters interested in “ending violence.”

Abu Bakr Naji, one of ISIS’s intellectual architects, made it abundantly clear what they’re interested in when he published The Management of Savagery. “Jihad,” he wrote, “is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [people], and massacring.”

That’s what ISIS wants. They're not even trying to hide it.

“I am not arguing that talking is an alternative to fighting,” Powell writes. “Unless there is military pressure the armed group will never be prepared to talk. But judging by history, fighting is unlikely to provide an answer by itself.”

History has proven over and over again that fighting can provide an answer all by itself. Not always. But sometimes. And sometimes there’s no other option.

The Nazi regime no longer exists. The Empire of Japan no longer exists. Moammar Qaddafi’s regime no longer exists. Saddam Hussein’s Arab Socialist Baath Party no longer exists. Thanks to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1977, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government no longer exists.

At some point—lord only know when—ISIS will no longer exist. And it won’t happen because anybody talked them out of existence.

Belgium Terrorizes Itself

Brussels has been in full lockdown all weekend, and it’s going to remain in full lockdown at least through Monday while the police mount raids against suspected terrorist cells planning Paris-style attacks.

“The threat is imminent, precise,” said Vice Prime Minister Didier Reynders. “We're talking about possible attacks by several individuals, heavily armed, so obviously in parallel we are looking for one and more individuals with weapons, explosives.”

Schools are closed. Universities are closed. The trains haven’t been running all weekend, nor will they be running into the work week. Streets near Grand Place square are closed off. Armored vehicles are out in the streets. Helicopters are flying over the city. The US Embassy is advising American citizens living there to stay home.

The whole place looks and feels not only thoroughly terrorized but also like some kind of a war zone.

It’s a cliché to say the terrorists win when this sort of thing happens, but it’s a cliché because it’s true.

Why put the capital into lockdown for just a couple of days? Unless the police are damn sure they’ll capture the suspected terrorists right away, there’s no point.

And the police can’t be sure they’ll capture the suspects right away. Maybe the authorities think they know where the suspects are and are preparing to capture (or kill) them, but they can’t know in advance that they’ll succeed. Their intelligence could be off. They might hit the wrong house. The suspects could flee.

Any number of things can go wrong and often do.

If a handful terrorists are planning an imminent attack and don’t get rolled up even more imminently, all they have to do is wait until Tuesday when the city is back to “normal” to strike.

The authorities certainly aren’t wrong to raise the alert level, but locking down an entire city is ill-advised. Terrorists get a small victory even if they end up captured or killed before hurting anybody. It teaches distant terrorists who aren’t even in Europe that they can terrorize Belgium in the future any time they want just by putting fake threats into the air. And it could lull everybody who lives there into a false sense of security when the lockdown is inevitably lifted even if no danger has passed.

Look. Terrorists have been killing people in Western cities for decades. They are not going to stop any time soon. The worst attacks always take everyone by surprise. They cannot be forecast like weather. Shutting everything down every time something might happen just hands the bastards more power than they already have.

Stop it.

RIP, André Glucksmann

The great French philosopher André Glucksmann died last week in Paris. Before passing on, he asked—charged—the also great Paul Berman to write his obituary.

Most Americans aren’t familiar with Glucksmann. Sartre and Foucault overshadowed him on this side of the Atlantic. But he was a towering figure in France, and he should have been a towering figure in the United States. At the very least, he should be better known here than the competition.

Berman complied with Glucksmann’s charge to write his obituary in Tablet. The whole thing is worth reading even if you’ve never heard of the man.

André Glucksmann was a great man, and he played a great role in history. I think that, in the world of ideas, no one in modern times has played a larger and more effective role in marshalling the arguments against totalitarianisms of every sort—no one outside of the dissident circles of the old Soviet bloc, that is. Even within those circles, Glucksmann and his arguments played a mighty role. Adam Michnik has told us that, during the bad old days in communist Poland, the dissidents used to pass around Glucksmann’s writings. In communist Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel was his friend. I have seen with my own eyes that, in Ukraine and in the Republic of Georgia, Glucksmann has continued to be revered into our own moment, and the list of countries could go on. It is also true that he has always had detractors. Glucksmann was America’s most vigorous defender among the modern French intellectuals, and I think that not more than one or two university departments in the United States ever invited him to deliver a lecture. In the American universities, no one has bothered to translate his major writings. The fashion for French philosophers in the American universities has always been a fashion for the wrong philosophers. Then again, the universities in America may not be as central to the intellectual world as they imagine themselves to be.

On the New Yorker website just now, Adam Gopnik recalls whiling away afternoons with Glucksmann in Paris during his time as a magazine correspondent there, and the description makes me reflect that, if the intellectual world does have a center, Glucksmann’s apartment ought to count as one of its locales. I recognize Gopnik’s details: Glucksmann’s purposeful conversation, the combination of a sweet demeanor and a moral firmness, the habit of referring everything to the classics of literature. I can attest that conversation in that apartment could make a powerful impression. My own first knock on the door took place in 1984 because the American political philosopher Dick Howard, who had played a part in the French student revolution of 1968, had talked me into reading Glucksmann. Just then Glucksmann had scandalized the French public and the enormous French left by coming out in favor of Ronald Reagan’s anti-Soviet missiles in Europe, which seemed to me unimaginable. And I talked Mother Jones into sending me to Paris to produce an article, in which I intended to reveal Glucksmann as a deplorable case. I do not have the heart to look at that article today, but I think I did try to suggest that Glucksmann was a fool. Only, by the time the article was in print I had begun to doubt my own evaluation.

The New Yorker writer Jonathan Schell had written a plea for nuclear disarmament titled The Fate of the Earth, in which he made disarmament seem like common sense. And Glucksmann had written a response called The Force of Vertigo, which—though it took me a while to recognize my own response—impressed me. Glucksmann worried about dreamy visions of world peace. Dreamy visions seemed to him a ticket to war. He had a lot to say about the Soviet Union and its own weapons. He argued that, in the face of the Soviet Union, nuclear deterrence and common sense were one and the same. Pessimism was wisdom, in his eyes. He wanted to rally support in the West for the dissidents of the East, which was not the same as staging mass demonstrations against Ronald Reagan. His book was a tour de force of mockery, erudition, spleen, and energy, together with a habit of banging on big philosophical drums from time to time. Reading it made me bug-eyed in wonder.

Read the whole thing in Tablet.

France’s “Merciless” Response to ISIS is Anything But

After last week’s coordinated string of terrorist attacks in Paris that killed more than 100 and wounded more than 300, ISIS says France will remain on “the top of the list” of targets, that this is just “the first of the storm” against “the capital of prostitution and obscenity” and “the carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe.”

France is promising a “merciless” response, but what we’ve seen so far has been anything but.

With American help, the French air force launched just a handful of air strikes against the ISIS “capital” Raqqa in eastern Syria.

Activists on the ground say there were no civilian casualties. That’s certainly good. It’s what distinguishes Western armies from terrorist armies and gangster regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s. Western armies do their imperfect best to minimize civilian casualties, whereas murdering civilians in places like restaurants, newspaper offices and concert venues is all ISIS does.

The problem with the French response isn’t that the air strikes apparently killed no civilians. They apparently didn’t kill any ISIS members either. 

“Anybody who attacks the Republic,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said, “the Republic will fight back. It is not they who will destroy the Republic. The Republic will destroy them.”

Not with a handful of mostly theatrical pin pricks.

Destroying ISIS will take a hell of a lot more effort than that.

ISIS, of course, can’t destroy the French Republic or any other Western nation no matter how much effort it exerts short of somehow acquiring nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. ISIS can’t even destroy all of Syria or Iraq—not that they haven’t given it their best shot so far.

But ISIS doesn’t need to destroy the French Republic or any other state to inflict an extraordinary amount of damage. Just look at what one guy— Seifeddine Rezgui—did in Tunisia five months ago.

He casually strolled up to a bunch of British tourists on the beach and murdered 38 of them with a Kalashnikov.

The police shot and killed him, of course, and dozens of local Tunisians tried to stop him and even volunteered as human shields, but the damage was already done. Tunisia’s tourist economy went the way of the dinosaurs.

You can book rooms at five-star resorts now for as little as 30 dollars, and the resorts are still mostly empty.

Tourism is one of Tunisia’s largest industries. At least it was before Rezgui had his way with the place.

Tunisia, though, is considerably more fragile than France. It will take a lot more than one man with a gun or a suicide vest to break the French tourism industry. France has been hit a couple of times this year already, and the recent attack was actually a series of coordinated attacks, but because they all took place at the same time, they look and feel like a single large one.

It was the same on 9/11 in the United States. Four separate airplanes were hijacked simultaneously. We had casualties in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. But the four attacks were basically a single event.  

Imagine how much more devastating it would have been if those four hijackings were spread out in time. Imagine if a commercial airliner had been crashed into a different city every week for a month. Or once a month for four months.

And imagine if ISIS decides to attack France that way in the future. Rather than targeting five or six civilian targets simultaneously, they could hit a new one every day for a week. Or a new one every week for a month.

That would cause some serious economic mayhem in France or anywhere else. ISIS might do to France what it did to Tunisia. I certainly don’t intend to give them any ideas by mentioning this in public, but figuring it out on their own is no more difficult than reinventing the wheel.

The current French approach—ramping up the air strikes by an iota or two—will have no effect on ISIS’ terrorist capabilities whatsoever.

Which is not to say that a stronger approach would necessarily do the job either. Not even a full-blown invasion followed by the total destruction of the “caliphate” in both Syria and Iraq would reduce the terrorist threat in France or anywhere else to zero.

But it could certainly make a difference.

The United States spent years fighting ISIS under its previous name in Iraq and suffered no casualties at home from the organization while doing so. ISIS—which was called Al Qaeda in Iraq back then—was far too busy trying to stay alive on its home turf. And it eventually lost in Iraq and existed basically nowhere until the Syrian civil war provided a “safe space” for it to regroup and rebuild.

You want to fight ISIS? Don’t permit it to have a safe space anywhere on this planet.

Why the War in Kurdistan Matters

John Robert Gallagher voluntarily moved from Calgary, Alberta, to Syrian Kurdistan to fight against ISIS alongside the People’s Protection Units.

A suicide bomber killed him last week.

On May 6 of this year he wrote an essay on his Facebook page explaining why he went over there. Canada’s National Post republished it last week with a disclaimer that some may find it objectionable, and I’m republishing also. His mother wants as many people to read it as possible.

Why the War in Kurdistan Matters

by John Robert Gallagher

First, let me get the obvious out of the way: I do not expect anyone to agree that it is a wise course of action to volunteer to fight against ISIS. Would-be terrorists from all over the world, including Canada, (including some I probably went to school with,) are flooding into the Middle East by the thousands. They’ve got the numbers and the weapons to win this war, so to go stand on the other side of the battlefield is objectively insane.

I also respect the viewpoint that the last thing any westerners ought to do is get involved in another Middle Eastern conflict. We’ve already done tremendous damage to the region; the rise of ISIS is a direct result of foreign policy blunders by the last two Presidents (at least!). If you think that for the good of the region we should all sit this one out, I can understand that. But I can’t agree.

The cause of a free and independent Kurdistan is important enough to be worth fighting for all on its own. The Kurdish people are the largest ethnicity in the world without a country of their own, and have suffered enormously under the boot-heel of regional powers. Now they are under threat from another genocidal foe, yet they have not given themselves over to the joint manias of religious fanaticism and suicide murder. This should be enough reason for the West to give them whatever support they need in such a time of crisis. But there is an even better reason.

For decades now, we have been at war. This war has been unacknowledged by our leaders, but enthusiastically proclaimed by our enemies. This war has produced casualties on every continent, in nearly every nation on earth. It has had periods of intense fighting, followed by long stretches of rearming and regrouping, but it has never ended. It is not even close to being won. Someday historians will look back and marvel at how much effort we put into deceiving ourselves about the nature of this conflict, and wonder how we convinced ourselves that it was not even taking place. This war may have started in 1979, or earlier; 2001 increased the intensity of the conflict; the withdrawal from Iraq kicked off the latest phase. Like the American Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War, this war is about ideas as much as it is about armies. Slavery, fascism, and communism were all bad ideas which required costly sacrifice before they were finally destroyed. In our time, we have a new bad idea: Theocracy.

We live in a society that’s grown around a very basic philosophical principle: That the world around us can be understood using our senses and our minds. From this simple insight comes the moral revelation that all human beings are equal in this capacity, and therefore equal in dignity. This radical idea was the turning point in human history, before which all civilizations had been dominated by the idea that class hierarchies and racism were perfectly justified according to the revealed wisdom of ancient texts, and sanctified by holy men with a special relationship to some ‘divine’ power. We began to see justice as something which could be measured by its effects on living people, not as superstition.

This idea has been under threat ever since its inception, because it’s the most powerful force for human emancipation that has ever been, and so it is a deadly threat to the privileged. It is also a threat to those who fear a world where human beings must be the judges of our own actions. Some prefer to subordinate their own morality to a doctrine they know they can never fully understand; this is more agreeable than facing the thought that we are alone in this world. This terror at our own freedom, and hatred for the mind that makes its realization inescapable, has given birth to movements that promise to give us back our comforting delusions. Communism and fascism were both answers to the problem of human freedom. These ideas were defeated. But always in the background the germ of these ideas was aggressively breeding. Theocracy isn’t just as dangerous as fascism; it’s the model of fascism, and all totalitarianisms. Communism said ‘instead of god, the Party.’ Fascism said, ‘instead of god, the Nation!’ Theocracy simply says ‘God.’

There is nothing uniquely Islamic about this trend, except that it just so happens that the most violent proponents of theocracy today happen to be Muslim. In the 1500’s, it was the Christians. By hard fighting and a brave defense of our principles, the forces of secularism managed to wrestle control of European society away from the theocrats, and we have been fighting the regressive movements that have tried to take their place ever since. The Muslim world has been dominated by theocratic politics for decades now, and that war has overflowed to engulf the rest of the world.

We are all on the front lines of this conflict, whether we know it or not. We can measure the causalities not only in the body counts of deadly terror attacks, ‘mass demonstrations,’ embassy assaults and assassinated artists; we can also measure it in the terror produced among cartoonists, satirists, publishers and booksellers, news media and educators who are being prevented from doing their necessary work of maintaining the machinery of the enlightenment. Not only have we all been threatened; in many ways we are all already casualties of this war.

The stance of pacifists and the appeasement left on this issue is not tolerance, but ironically, what it claims to oppose: fearmongering, and even ‘Islamophobia,’ since it betrays their utter terror of offending the sensibilities of immigrant communities and the so-called ‘community leaders’ who are presumed to give them their marching orders. Their pre-emptive apologism for barbarity betrays a deep contempt for the character of immigrant Muslims, since it presumes that they enjoy their mental oppression and prefer the moral stagnation of sharia law and the hadith to the pleasures of an open, cosmopolitan, secular society.

I have met plenty of self-described Muslims who have never even read the Qur’an, don’t care what it has to say about the role of women or the punishment for blasphemy, who don’t know or care how Muhammad treated prisoners of war, or how he dealt with dissenting poets in Mecca. That’s fine. I personally wish they would learn a bit about those last points and take more responsibility for the company they keep, but the point is that they are not an active part of the problem. Yet elements of our government are perfectly willing to accept that thuggishness is something we must automatically and un-judgmentally expect from Muslims, that it is US who must accommodate ourselves to THEM. What we need here is more historical education, not cultural sensitivity.

The war that is ongoing in the Middle East is a war against theocracy. In many ways it is a civil war, and I believe more depends on its outcome than anyone in power is prepared to face. But it is also a distant front in a civil war within Western society, since we are sending troops to fight on both sides. And here the stakes may be even greater. Our war is not just about theocracy; it is between those who still believe in the enlightenment, that self-determination is the most basic and most crucial of all human rights, that the first duty of every man in society is to defend the mechanisms by which we make ourselves free; and those who ultimately lack the capacity to believe in anything. These people have been corrupted by the masochistic fables circulated by leftists and identity politicians that tell us Western society is inherently racist, inherently sexist, and inherently imperialist, when it is Western society which pioneered the ideas that racism, sexism, and imperialism might be a problem in the first place.

Because of our beliefs, we live in the most racially inclusive, sexually liberated, and anti-imperialist society which has ever existed in human history, and to teach young people anything different is a criminal act of intellectual violence. And the crisis we face today is the direct result of this ‘progressive’ thinking: we are now under threat by those who take advantage of the masochism and apathy fostered by the left to recruit people who will take a violently affirmative ideology over nihilistic pessimism, even or especially if that means committing atrocities that would make the average ‘imperialist’ vomit. Those who contribute to this environment of moral decay and vulnerability are the useful idiots of jihad and fellow travelers of theocracy, and it is the duty of thinking persons to oppose their influence by every means at our disposal.

I was raised in a fundamentalist religious environment. If today I have any intellectual or spiritual existence worth fighting for, it is because it was impossible for the religious forces in my life to have their way and shield me from the assaults of reason and conscience. They could teach me that evolution was a lie, but they couldn’t prevent me from reading about it or prohibit the public schools from teaching it. They could tell me blasphemy was a sin, but they couldn’t prevent me from sneaking Monty Python and South Park. The mechanisms of society, in other words, gave me the tools by which I could make myself free. They saved my life. Who safeguards the social machinery now? Only an overbred political elite and intelligentsia who burble about the urgent need to never give offense. This is not only a disgraceful failure; it is a national emergency.

Like theocracy today, fascism used to be an international movement, with fascist parties in every western country. Then World War II happened. Nazi Germany became the standard-bearer of fascism, and when it was crushed, the movement wasn’t just destroyed, it was discredited for all time. Ironically, the rise of ISIS gives us the same chance now. We have the ability to eradicate jihadism in our lifetime. The terrorists’ own playbook sees the taking and holding of territory as a necessary step to discredit Western democracy and prove that the Caliphate is a real political possibility in the 21st century. We have to prove that it is not. And like we did with Nazi Germany, we must crush it with overwhelming, unrelenting force. We have to take it while the mass graves are still fresh, while there are still survivors to give testimony to the atrocities they’ve witnessed, while the murderers are still around to be put on trial. Only by destroying ISIS without mercy can we discredit the idea, and force the would-be jihadis and fellow-travelers to give up their insane dreams of a new Mecca and join the modern world.

I’m prepared to give my life in the cause of averting the disaster we are stumbling towards as a civilization. A free Kurdistan would be good enough cause for any internationalist, but we are fortunate enough to be able to risk our necks for something more important and more righteous than anything we’ve faced in generations. With some fortitude and guts, we can purge the sickness that’s poisoning our society, and come together to defeat this ultimate evil. I’ve been fighting this battle in one way or another for my entire life. I hope for success. The rest is in the hands of the gods.

Iran’s Bogus Posturing on Police Brutality

The Iranian government invited twenty American writers and activists to a conference against police brutality and racism last week. Keynote speaker Ahmad Salek vowed that Israel would be destroyed within 25 years and compared American police officers to ISIS.

The Iranian government hunts down gay people and hangs them from cranes. It sends the Basij militia into the streets to attack peaceful protesters with clubs, chains, knives and axes. It routinely and as a matter of policy tortures liberal activists and intellectuals in Evin Prison.

These people think black lives matter? Really?

And that American police officers are like ISIS? Really?

And the keynote speaker at a supposed anti-racism conference vows to destroy the world’s only Jewish state within a generation. Really?

This doesn’t even rise to the level of hypocrisy.

It’s the same kind of ludicrous nonsense that the Soviet Union pulled when it pretended to support the American civil rights movement in the 1960s.

It wasn’t easy for a totalitarian regime to promote itself as a defender of human rights. Moscow ruled a continent-spanning slave empire that murdered tens of millions of people. But that didn’t stop it from trying. The Kremlin wasn’t even remotely embarrassed by its own record—deliberately starving millions of Ukrainians to death, for example, or ethnically cleansing every single last Tatar from Crimea and deporting them to Uzbekistan. And let’s not forget the millions who perished in slave labor camps in Kolyma and Siberia.

A regime that brutal didn’t give a flying fork about segregated lunch counters and schools in Alabama. It couldn’t possibly. The whole thing was just a cynical ploy to appear on the right side of history in the eyes of people who had no idea what was going on in the world. 

Any kind of civil rights movement in the Soviet Union would have been ruthlessly smashed. Obviously. There would have been nothing left of it in no time at all. Most people would never even hear about it.

Here we are in 2015 and Iran is doing the exact same thing.

Partly the regime is hoping to sucker enough activists and writers in America to change public opinion here so Tehran has even more of a free hand internationally than it already has.

But most of its objectives are local. The government trotted these American activists out in front of school children and on television to tell Iranians how horrendous things supposedly are back home.

The activists meant well, I’m sure. They had no idea they were being used as tools in a propaganda scheme by a repressive and violent regime in precisely the same way North Korea recently exploited Dennis Rodman a few years ago.

Someone really ought to sit down and explain it to them.

What Just Happened in Syria?

Last week, after the White House announced its support for Syrian rebels was finished, the United States said it dropped 50 tons of ammunition from the air into Syria, ostensibly for unnamed Arab groups fighting ISIS. That, supposedly, was the last assistance those people were going to get.

A few days later, various anti-ISIS Syrian Arabs issued a collective, huh?

What happened to that ammo that supposedly fell out of the sky?

Nobody seemed to get any ammo.

All became clear the next day when Eli Lake and Josh Rogin reported in Bloomberg that, according to various officials, the aid was never intended for Syrian Arabs. That 50 tons of ammo actually went to the Kurds.

Turkey publicly summoned the US ambassador to complain.

“Turkey cannot accept any kind of cooperation with terror organizations that have declared war against Turkey,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.

That ammunition went to no kind of terrorist organization. It went to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the only half-way sane militia in all of Syria that’s capable of taking on ISIS and winning.

The YPG is allegedly linked to the quasi-Marxist Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, over the border in Turkey which is listed by the United States government, among others, as a terrorist organization. But the PKK and the YPG are different organizations. They have different goals, different ideas, different leaders, and different enemies. They aren’t even in the same country. And the extent of their linkage is hotly disputed.

The Pentagon later said that, no, that ammunition did in fact go to Syrian Arab fighters and that, to the best of its knowledge, none of it was shared with anyone else.

The officials who told Lake and Rogin that it went to the Kurds are anonymous sources. They spoke unofficially and off the record. But this isn’t a case of one person said “this” and another said “that.” Lake and Rogin have American, Kurdish and Syrian Arab sources who back up that claim.

The Pentagon is almost certainly lying so it won’t infuriate Turkey.

Look. Running guns and ammo under the radar to legitimate proxies in a fight against a terrorist army is entirely reasonable behavior on the part of the United States government. We’ve been doing that sort of thing for decades. Pretty much everyone else in the Middle East does it, too, but they almost always run guns and ammo to terrorist organizations rather than to groups fighting terrorist organizations.

Regardless, it’s high time we come out and say exactly what we’re doing and why. Everyone already knows we’re backing the Kurds against ISIS, and everyone already knows the Turks would rather see an ISIS victory than a Kurdish victory. None of this is even remotely a secret. It’s all right out in the open. Official denials aren’t fooling anybody.

Besides, pretending we’re not doing what we clearly are doing just makes it look like the Turkish government’s complaint is legitimate.

It’s not.

Turkey says arming Syrian Kurds is unacceptable. Well. You know what’s unacceptable from everyone else’s point of view? Telling the rest of the world that we all have to suffer the plague of ISIS because an independent Syrian Kurdistan is inconvenient to Turkey.

The Trouble with Turkey: Erdogan, ISIS, and the Kurds

My latest essay for the print edition of World Affairs is now online. Here’s the first half.

Turkey, a key member of NATO, has so far chosen to sit out the war against ISIS. Instead, it is at war with Kurdish militias in Syria, the only ground forces so far that have managed to take on ISIS and win. 

Turkey fears and loathes Kurdish independence anywhere in the world more than it fears and loathes anything else. Kurdish independence in Syria, from Ankara’s point of view, could at a minimum escalate a three-decades-long conflict and at worst threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity. 

Kurds make up between 15 and 25 percent of Turkey’s population, but no one knows for sure because the government outlaws ethnic classification. Most live in the southeast near the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Many would like to secede and form an independent state of their own.

They could conceivably do it with enough help from the outside. They have a model in the Kurds in Iraq, who liberated themselves from Saddam Hussein after the first Persian Gulf War and have been independent in all but name ever since. The civil war in Syria has allowed the Kurds there to carve out a space of their own between ISIS and the Assad regime, which is what worries the Turks. 

Turkey is a powerful state, but so was Saddam Hussein’s government. So was Bashar al-Assad’s before the rebellion broke out a few years ago.

ISIS is still the JV squad as far as Turkey is concerned, to use President Obama’s unfortunate formulation, but Kurdish armed forces have been trying to rip apart the country for decades and therefore Ankara has called in the varsity to deal with them.

*

Turkish nationalists insist everyone in their country is a Turk whether they like it and admit it or not. The Kurds, according to them, are not a separate people. Rather, they are “mountain Turks who lost their language.” But Turkish nationalism, like Arab nationalism, scarcely existed until the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which expired at the end of World War I. And the truth is that Turkey, as the rump state of that multi-ethnic empire, is a mélange of different identities. With its Kurdish, Arab, Zaza, and Alevi minorities, it’s no more homogeneous than the rump state of the Soviet empire with the Tatars, Ingush, Sakha, Chechens, and other large numbers of non-Russian peoples on its periphery. 

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern republic in the ashes of World War I, Turkish nationalists attempted to unite everybody under a single identity for the sake of national unity and to prevent any more territorial loss, but the Kurds refused to join up because the Western powers had promised them a state of their own. To this day, they remain the largest stateless people on earth. Many feel far more kinship with their fellow Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria than with their nominal countrymen in Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire was loosely confederated, with a space for the Kurds, but modern Turkey was founded as a strong Western-style republic with a powerful center, and the Kurds were forcibly conquered, colonized, and integrated. 

The government’s response to Kurdish nationalism was tantamount to attempted cultural genocide. Ethnic Kurds were forcibly relocated from the eastern parts of the country, while European Turks were moved to the Kurdish region in the farthest reaches of Anatolia. Even speaking the Kurdish language was forbidden in schools, government offices, and in public places until 1991. Simply saying “I am a Kurd” in Kurdish was a crime, and it’s still considered scandalous in official settings. In 2009, a Kurdish politician created a huge controversy by speaking just a few words of Kurdish in the nation’s Parliament building.

Despite the fervor of this repression, Turkey’s problem with its Kurdish minority is more political than ethnic. As Erik Meyersson at the Stockholm School of Economics put it, “It is less an inherent dislike for Kurds that drives state repression of this minority than the state’s fear for the institutional consequences and loss of centralized power.”

Beginning in 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK—initially backed by the Soviet Union—has waged an on-again, off-again guerrilla and terrorist war against the Turkish state that has killed more than 45,000 people, according to government figures. That’s almost as many as Americans killed during the Vietnam War. 

Most of the dead are Kurdish. The Turkish military dished out unspeakable punishment in the east of the country. Nine years ago, I drove from Istanbul to northern Iraq and was shocked to discover that Iraqi Kurdistan is a vastly more prosperous and pleasant place than bombed-out and repressed Turkish Kurdistan. Turkey was once seen as a semi-plausible candidate for the European Union, yet the Kurdish parts of Iraq—one of the most dysfunctional and broken countries on earth—were and are doing much better than the Kurdish region of Turkey.

From mid-2013 to mid-2015, the Turkish state and the PKK enjoyed a period of relative calm under a cease-fire, but in late July the army bombed PKK positions in northern Iraq, and the PKK in Turkey declared the cease-fire void. A wave of attacks against police stations swept over the country in August. An enduring peace between the two sides now seems as elusive as ever. 

The Turkish establishment has been alarmed by the existence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq since the day it was founded and has repeatedly threatened to invade if it declares independence from Baghdad. (That may be the only reason the Iraqi Kurds haven’t yet done it.) And it’s doubly alarmed now that the Kurds of Syria have cobbled together their own autonomous region, which they call Rojava, while the Arabs of Syria fight a devastating civil war with each other. And the Turkish establishment is triply alarmed because the Kurdish militias in Syria—the YPG, or People’s Protection Units—are aligned with the PKK. 

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—like most of his ethnic Turkish countrymen—is terrified that an independent Syrian Kurdistan will help Turkish Kurdistan wage a revolutionary war against Ankara. Fairly or not, Erdogan sees Rojava much the way the Israelis see Hezbollah-occupied southern Lebanon. 

Ideally the Syrian Kurds wouldn’t side with the PKK. The PKK has committed crimes in Turkey and is a willing belligerent in a long and terrible war. The Turks are not imagining this or making it up, and there is no shortage of Kurds elsewhere in the region who share Erdogan’s dim view of the PKK and its allies.

“They are very fanatic in their nationalism,” Abdullah Mohtadi told me in Iraqi Kurdistan years ago. He’s the head of the Komala Party, a formerly Communist left-liberal Iranian Kurdish group living in exile in Iraq. “They are very undemocratic in nature. They have no principles, no friendship, no contracts, no values. In the name of the Kurdish movement, they eliminate everybody.”

The United States, though, is backing the Syrian Kurds. We have to. They’re the only ground force capable of fighting ISIS and winning. The only other options in Syria are the repulsive Assad regime, Hezbollah, Sunni Islamists that will inevitably turn on the United States, the al-Qaeda–linked Nusra Front, and a handful of relatively moderate but irrelevant Sunni groups that have already effectively lost. 

The Kurds are all that’s left. 

And the Kurds are the most pro-American people in the entire Middle East. They’re more pro-American than the Israelis. Ideologically, yes, the PKK-aligned groups are a bit iffy. They were once Soviet proxies and they’re at war with a member of NATO. But the Turks share at least half of the blame for that conflict. Nowhere in the region will Kurdish people accept cultural genocide lying down. Surely they would have accepted help from the United States had it been offered during the Cold War, but it wasn’t, so they took largesse and ideology from the Russians instead. 

For what it’s worth, though, the PKK is not what it used to be. The Soviet Union is dead, and a lot of the ideological Marxism its leaders once mouthed has been diluted over time to standard-issue leftism with a culturally conservative twist. The Kurds of Turkey and Syria are not struggling for the collectivization of agriculture. They are not interested in liquidating landlords or “the kulaks.” They certainly aren’t interested in imposing a police state in Ankara. First and foremost, they’re fighting against the fascists of ISIS, and second for Kurdish independence, a secular system of government, and equality between men and women. They detest the Islamic religion as much as far-right “Islamophobes” in America. Compared with just about everyone else in the region, they’re liberals. 

Not in any alternate universe would the United States oppose these people right now. The Kurds of Iran and Iraq are more politically palatable, but you fight a proxy war with the proxies you have, and Americans will never find a better proxy in Syria against ISIS than the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.

 Read the whole thing.

Obama Dumps Syria's Rebels

The White House has officially scrapped its policy of training Syrian rebels now that Vladimir Putin is killing them.

Normally we might call this a surrender, but at this point, abandoning the rebel training would be the right call even if Vladimir Putin decided to help us instead of obstruct us.

Three years ago I wrote in this magazine that it was in America’s interests to see Bashar al-Assad overthrown.

The Arab Socialist Baath Party regime, beginning with its founder Hafez al-Assad and continuing through the rule of his son Bashar, is the deadliest state sponsor of terrorism in the Arab Middle East. It assisted the bloodthirsty insurgency in Iraq that killed American soldiers by the thousands and murdered Iraqi civilians by the tens of thousands. It has used both terrorism and conventional military power to place Lebanon under its boot since the mid-1970s. It made Syria into the logistics hub for Hezbollah, the best-equipped and most lethal non-state armed force in the world. It has waged a terrorist war against Israel and the peace process for decades, not only from Lebanon, but also from the West Bank and Gaza. And it is Iran’s sole Arab ally and its bridge to the Mediterranean.

That was in the early days of this conflict. Before ISIS took over a huge swath of the country. When the Free Syrian Army could have been molded into at least a semi-moderate force.

Arming and training a rebel army to fight the Assad regime and Hezbollah would have been extremely risky, obviously. It could have gone wrong in any number of ways.

But ISIS, the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and other Islamist totalitarians are so thick on the ground now that arming and training a rebel army is not even risky. It’s guaranteed to fail or blow back in our faces. Our brief opportunity to maybe stave off a local apocalypse is long past.

The battlefield in Syria has already been shaped, and there is no longer any room for even a semi-moderate force outside the Kurdish region.

Nearly all the political moderates in Syria have fled the country or are hiding under their beds. The US can have no leverage in the Arab parts of the country. All we can do at this point is back the Kurds.

In case there was any doubt left, Putin made it absolutely clear yesterday that Russia is intervening strictly in order to bolster Assad’s regime, which puts him clearly on side with the Iranian-Hezbollah axis.

Maybe he’ll get rid of ISIS while he’s at it, but so far that isn’t his plan. ISIS and Assad for the most part haven’t been fighting each other anyway—they’re both too busy fighting everyone else. Which all but guarantees that everyone else, with the possible exception of the Kurds, is going to lose.

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