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Turkey Goes Off the Rails

Last year was a gruesome one for Turkey, and this year is getting off to the worst possible start.

On the very first day of the new year, not six months after a botched military coup and an almost Stalinist-style purge of the army, the courts, the academy and the bureaucracy by its authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ISIS declared open war.

A terrorist crossed the border from Syria and shot his way into Istanbul’s posh Reina nightclub and murdered at least 39 people with an automatic rifle. He stalked and killed the wounded on the floor, then lined up and shot some of the initial survivors execution-style in the head.

Unlike most ISIS killers, this one escaped.

The Turkish government says it has identified the man but they haven’t released his name yet, nor have they caught him.

Journalist and Turkey expert Claire Berlinski lived in Istanbul for years and wrote this about Reina.  “I’d never go to Reina on my own. Too expensive, music too loud. But if you’d visited me when I was living in Istanbul, and if I knew you were on an expense account, I might have taken you there. It would be high on my list of places — top five, say — to take visitors who were only in the city for a day or two and who needed to be dazzled.”

That’s one of the reasons Reina was targeted. Every single person who visits places like that is an enemy of the Islamic State. Take a look at this video shot inside Reina four years ago. No such establishments exist in the ISIS capital of Raqqa, I assure you.

“Reina’s one of those places,” Berlinski continues, “where you’d sit with friends from out of town and, dazzled by the Bosphorus and its skyline, think, ‘This city makes every other city seem like a village.’ You’d watch your friends’ faces with pleasure because no one ever forgets the first time they see that skyline. Seeing someone see that for the first time is a delight of Istanbul in itself.”

I have never visited Reina, alas, but I can attest to the fact that Istanbul makes almost every other city on earth (aside from New York and possibly Tokyo) feel like a village. Claire is right. Even Paris feels like a delightful large village compared with Istanbul.

An enormous cosmopolitan megacity like Istanbul could never be ruled by the likes of ISIS unless it was first bombed out and mostly evacuated of its 14 million inhabitants. It isn’t as secular and hedonistic as Amsterdam, but it’s a lot closer to Amsterdam culturally than it is to Riyadh. I’ve been there three times, and each time I thought to myself I could live there.

That, however, was before the Syrian war, the rise of ISIS, and the widescale internal repression from President Erdogan.  

The attack at Reina in Istanbul is a hinge moment in Turkey for a couple of reasons. It’s not the first time ISIS has struck the country, but it is the first time ISIS has admitted it openly. A press release says the hit was personally ordered by “the prince of the believers,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Second, most previous ISIS massacres in Turkey targeted Kurds and leftists associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (or PKK), whose allies in the People’s Protection Units (or YPG) are fighting ISIS in Syria. Those attacks could be plausibly described as a spillover of the Syrian war.

The attack at Reina cannot. This time, wealthy secular ethnic Turks in the capital were the targets. Massacring party-goers at a nightclub is categorically identical to the mass murder at the Bataclan theater in Paris in 2015.  

ISIS hates bourgeois Turks for the same reason it hates Americans, the French, the Israelis and pretty much everyone else. They spell it out so plainly in their magazine Dabiq that there can be no excuse for misunderstanding it.

“We hate you because your secular, liberal societies permit the very things that Allah has prohibited while banning many of the things He has permitted, a matter that doesn’t concern you because you separate between religion and state, thereby granting supreme authority to your whims and desires via the legislators you vote into power.”

In other words, they hate us for our freedoms. That isn’t a Republican talking point. It’s an ISIS talking point.

Turkey isn’t as free as the West, but it’s a libertarian’s utopia compared with totalitarian Raqqa in Syria. Next to just about anywhere in the Arab world, Istanbul looks like Europe. It feels like Europe. The Western half of the city is actually in Europe, or at least on it.  

“Even if you were to stop fighting us,” ISIS continues in Dabiq, “your best-case scenario in a state of war would be that we would suspend our attacks against you – if we deemed it necessary – in order to focus on the closer and more immediate threats, before eventually resuming our campaigns against you. Apart from the option of a temporary truce, this is the only likely scenario that would bring you fleeting respite from our attacks. So in the end, you cannot bring an indefinite halt to our war against you. At most, you could only delay it temporarily.”

Erdogan used to think he could keep Turkey off ISIS’ hit list with an implicit non-aggression pact. He thought that if he postured against Syria’s criminal Assad regime, bombed the Kurds and left ISIS alone that ISIS would leave him and Turkey alone.

It didn’t work out. Not for long anyway.

“The Islamic State has now formally ended its separate peace with Turkey,” Graeme Wood writes in The Atlantic. “Turkey has, up till now, been unique among victims in never having its victimhood acknowledged by its assailant. Whatever value this fiction held, it has now ended.”

Erdogan should have read Dabiq magazine.

Why is this happening now instead of later? Because Turkey is finally bombing ISIS positions in Syria. Erdogan’s bizarre and stupid ambivalence toward ISIS was never going to last. He has always viewed Kurdish insurgents as the greater of evils—the Turkish state has been at war with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party for decades while ISIS is the spry newcomer in the region—but ISIS is at war with the entire human race, and Turks are part of that race. And Turkey shares a long border with Syria. There was never any chance that ISIS could forever resist lashing out at the decadent nature of the Turkish society that’s right on its doorstep.

Erdogan is an Islamist, sure, but he’s hardly an ISIS-style Islamist. Turkey is awash in liquor, stylish women, bikinis on beaches and all the other trappings of a Western liberal society. Roughly half the Turkish population is secular, and plenty of religious folks take a mild approach to their faith.

Nothing in Turkey is going to end well, not its war against ISIS, not its war against the Kurds, and not the government’s war against its opponents. Within a matter of weeks after the coup attempt last summer, Erdogan fired 21,000 private school teachers and 9,000 police officers. He suspended almost 3,000 judges and arrested more than 10,000 soldiers. He canned more than 21,000 officials from the Ministry of Education and ousted 1,500 university deans. He closed more than 100 media outlets and suspended more than 1,500 officials in the Ministry of Finance.

And he blames the botched coup on a reclusive exile who lives in the Pennsylvania mountains and, by extension, the United States government for refusing to extradite him for a kangaroo trial. Erdogan blames the United States for assassinating the Russian ambassador to Turkey last month even though a Turkish policeman pulled the trigger while screaming “Don’t forget Aleppo!” Pro-government newspapers are even blaming the United States for the New Years Day ISIS attack.

A normal country comes together after being assaulted from the outside. US President George W. Bush’s approval ratings climbed to a staggering 90 percent shortly after September 11, 2011. Nothing like that is happening in Turkey.

The entire country seems to be turning into a distorted funhouse mirror version of itself. “With each passing day,” Tim Arango writes in The New York Times, “public life descends deeper into what many Turks concede is a mix of darkness and seeming absurdity, with growing fears of violence and expressions of xenophobia set next to repressions on civic life.” He quotes Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Turkey is so deeply polarized around the powerful persona of Erdogan that, instead of asking why terror attacks are happening and how they can be stopped, the pro- and anti-Erdogan blocks in the country are blaming each other.”

Turkey’s government should respond by championing the values of civilization against totalitarianism and barbarism, but no. Instead, its president is championing Erdoganism, Islamism, and Neo-Ottomanism. He believes everything, even ISIS, is part of a sinister plot by the West. And he’s embracing the leader of the unfree world, Vladimir Putin.

Conspiracy theorists never govern well. Their analyses are cartoonishly flawed, so it follows that their solutions will be as well. When they inevitably fail, they continue to blame the wrong people, become more paranoid than they were before, and triple-down after doubling down. Erdogan has been trapped in this spiral for more than a decade. After a few more ISIS massacres in Turkey’s largest city, he may go completely over the edge—if it isn’t already over it.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned after spending more than a decade on and off in that part of the world it is this: there is virtually no limit to how far a Middle Eastern country (or any country, for that matter) can fall. Much of Iraq is a hellscape. Syria has gnawed itself down to rubble. Afghanistan imploded its way to the stone age.

Unlike the others, Turkey is a magnificent country. It is a long way down, and there are no parachutes.

The Fall of Aleppo

The Syrian city of Aleppo has fallen. Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime have won.

Long known as Syria’s Stalingrad, the Battle of Aleppo has raged since July, 2012, when the Free Syrian Army opened fire on Assad’s security forces in the Salaheddine district.  

Four and a half years later, after being held by checkboard of various rebel factions, Assad’s army has retaken the city with a rogue’s gallery of international allies.

It’s just about the last place on earth you’d want to be right about now.

“Mass murder by chlorine gas,” Terry Glavin writes in Canada’s National Post. “Massacres of innocents. Bombardments by Russian jet fighters. The deliberate targeting of hospitals and clinics. The firing of mortar rounds into crowded neighbourhoods. The terror of barrel bombs dropped from Syrian army helicopters. The starvation siege that followed the city’s encirclement by Shia death squads and Assadist militias on Sept. 8.”

It’s not fashionable to care about Aleppo anymore or even anything that happens in Syria aside from the eradication of ISIS. Even so, millions of people all over the world not named Gary Johnson believe that the Assad regime and the Russians have been fighting ISIS in Aleppo, but nope. ISIS is not in Aleppo. ISIS has never been in Aleppo. ISIS is just about the only armed group in the entire country that hasn’t been fighting in Aleppo.

Aleppo is, however, the epicenter of foreign involvement in Syria. Which brings us to Hanin Ghaddar’s excellent point in the Washington Post. We should stop calling the Syrian war a “civil war.” I’ve been calling it that for years, but I take her point. Yes, various factions inside Syria are fighting each other, but the overwhelming majority of the dead are on the anti-Assad side. The governments of three different countries, plus a Lebanese terrrorist army, are fighting in Syria. The war is basically a war against all waged by the government with assistance from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Assad has managed to transform himself from a totalitarian Baathist into a what we might call a brutalitarian like Vladimir Putin when he laid waste to Grozny in Chechnya.

Here’s Ghaddar:

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Assad’s forces have killed 95 percent of Syrian victims. Additionally, Assad controls the army, including tanks, planes and barrel bombs. He has shelled areas that witnessed peaceful protests. Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. He controls the intelligence, security and military apparatus that have diligently and systematically worked since 2011 to arrest, torture and kill all nonviolent activists.

Assad also released dangerous Islamists from prison and allowed them to organize and build armed groups. He did this not by accident, but as a part of a strategy to create a civil war and radicalize what remained of the revolution. His strategy has been to shift the narrative from reform to sectarianism by emphasizing Islamic terrorism, thereby presenting himself as a partner in the global war on terror.

Assad can never be a partner in the global war on terror. He’s the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the Arab world, and his staunchest ally is the Iranian regime, which is the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the entire world.

And ultimately, this is Iran’s victory.

“Aleppo was liberated thanks to a coalition between Iran, Syria, Russia, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah,” says Iranian defense minister Seyed Yahya Rahim-Safavi. “Iran is on one side of this coalition which is approaching victory and this has shown our strength. The new American president should take heed of the powers of Iran.” [Emphasis added.]

“The Syrian army as a fighting force is largely spent,” writes Michael Weiss in the Daily Beast. “Without Russian air support and the some 6,000 to 8,000 Iranian-run paramilitaries Assad now relies on to wage war for him, Aleppo would never have been recaptured.”

An Iranian victory against ISIS would be one thing. We could plausibly shrug and take Henry Kissinger’s view of the Iran-Iraq War. It’s too bad they can’t both lose.

We could take a half step toward the point of view in Aleppo. Many of the rebels are Islamic extremists. Some of them, like the Nusra Front, are aligned with Al Qaeda, though as of two months ago they only had 1,000 fighters in all of Aleppo.

The truth is that rebels aren’t even “the rebels.” There are more factions than most of us can keep track of, and many of them are mutually hostile.

And they aren’t all Islamists. Secular leftist Kurds have been fighting in Aleppo, too, alongside non-political elements in the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, and the Syrian Democratic Forces that advocate a democratic, secular and federal Syria.

If the Assad regime were to fall instead of Aleppo, the war wouldn’t end. Everyone left standing would still have to battle it out. Lord only knows what would happen or how long that would last. It would depend in part on whether or not “the international community,” such as it is, felt motivated enough to do anything to prevent the worst factions from seizing power. In the worst-case scenario, the entire country could become a Sunni Islamist terrorist state, which is why so many people are rooting for an Assad victory even though he is a monster.

An Islamist-controlled Syria would be only one possible outcome, however, if Assad were to fall. I’ll go out on a limb and say it would be the most likely outcome. Terrorists thrive in failed states, after all, and Syria is drawing them from all over the world.

Still, millions of people in Syria have no interest whatsoever in living under a Taliban-style regime, and the only reason many of them are throwing their support behind the extremists is because they want Assad and the Iranians out of power more than anything else. Hardly any of these people would join a deranged revolution if there wasn’t a modern-day Caligula in Damascus to revolt against.

In any case, what the world is getting instead of the possibility of a Sunni Islamist regime in Syria is the certainty of a terrorist state backed by the full weight and power of the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. So don’t go popping any champagne corks.

“[President-elect Donald] Trump has made it clear he wants to join the Russian side in this war,” Weiss writes, “while he is adamantly opposed to the Iranian side. But in the world of real reality they are the same side.”

The Obama administration didn’t want to do anything that threatened Assad’s stranglehold on Syria because he didn’t want to scotch his nuclear deal with Iran. Donald Trump doesn’t want to do anything that threatens Assad’s stranglehold on Syria because he wants to team up with Russia and Assad to fight ISIS, even though Russia and Assad have had little or no interest in fighting ISIS.

Trump could very well convince Assad and Russia to go after ISIS once the rebels are defeated, however. And since fighting alongside Russia and Assad means fighting alongside Iran and Hezbollah, the latter will bolster their victory and influence in the Middle East no matter who’s president, and they will do so at America’s (and Israel’s) expense.

Trump’s Taiwan Call Wasn’t a Blunder

President-elect Donald Trump took a phone call last week and created an international incident before even being sworn into office.

He spoke with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen for ten minutes, which must seem entirely innocuous to almost everyone in America, but professional diplomats went immediately into pearl-clutching mode. And they weren’t the only ones. Several US military generals—including reliably conservative generals—made stern-faced appearances on CNN and said the call was incredibly dangerous.

Millions of Americans heard that and said, really? What on earth is the problem?

China is a bully. That’s the problem. 

Even speaking to the government of Taiwan violates Beijing’s so-called “One China Policy,” which the United States grudgingly accepted under Richard Nixon in the 1970s.

Two countries call themselves China—the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is the Republic of China. The mainland is the People’s Republic. Mainland China will not allow any country on earth to maintain diplomatic relations with both.

So when Trump spoke to Tsai, he kicked over the checkerboard.

“Uh oh,” former Bush administration White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted.  “I wasn't even allowed to refer to the gvt ‘of’ Taiwan. (I could say gvt ‘on’ Taiwan.) China will go nuts.”

China isn’t going nuts, exactly, but Beijing sure isn’t happy. The Chinese government says the episode highlights Trump’s inexperience and diplomatic bufoonery. Plenty of people in Washington said the same thing over the weekend.

Trump himself tried to blow it off as if it were one big nothing-to-see, as if he simply picked up the phone when it rang. A telemarketer could have been on the line for all he knew, but surprise. It was the woman who isn’t supposed to exist. “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency,” he tweeted.

It could have happened that way. The unusual nature of Trump’s transition gave him some plausible deniability. When Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wanted to call Trump to say congratulations, he had no idea how to contact the president-elect. Professional golfer and Trump pal Greg Norman gave Trump’s private cell phone number to Turnbull.

That was way out of the ordinary, but it happened. When Turnbull called, Trump just picked up and said, “hello.” Anyone in the world could have been on the other end of the line, including the president of Taiwan.

That’s not what happened with Tsai, though. According to her office, both sides arranged the call in advance.

It wasn’t a blunder, then. It was on purpose.

The Washington Post reports that the call “was the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Trump’s advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan that began even before he became the Republican presidential nominee, according to people involved in or briefed on the talks.”

Why are we only hearing about this days later? Perhaps the Trump team wanted the Chinese to think it was a blunder at first to give them time to slowly come to grips with the fact that there’s a new sheriff in town.

Is poking China on Taiwan a good idea?

I have no idea. It depends on what happens. As Ross Douthat put it on Twitter, “it’s all fine until there’s an actual crisis and then it won’t be fine.”

China might suck it up and move on. China also might be a gigantic pain in the ass about it.

Nobody knows. The Chinese probably don’t even know. They’ll have to hold emergency meetings and yell at each other in private first.

They might get over it. The United States trades with Taiwan. The United States sells weapons to Taiwan. In 1996, President Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait when China tested missiles in nearby waters.

China’s rulers hate these things and wish we would stop, but they accept them. They’ll accept Trump’s phone call too because by itself it’s not a big deal, and in any case it’s a done deal.

They might even accept a new American policy after they spend a respectable amout of time wailing and gnashing their teeth, but they could make the world a much more difficult place for us if they don’t.

The US needs China’s help to keep nuclear-armed North Korea boxed in. China can veto UN Security Council sanctions against Iran or anyone else. China might strong-arm other East Asian countries into cooling their relations with the United States and moving closer to Beijing, especially now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which excluded China) is dead in the water.

I’d love to see the United States recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation as long as the Pacific Rim doesn’t blow up. For one thing, Taiwan is a sovereign nation whether or not Beijing and Washington say so. It has its own democratically elected government and its own institutions. It makes its own domestic, foreign and trade policies with zero input from the Chinese Communist Party. Its citizens have their own passports with "Republic of China" written across the top. Recognizing these facts is just an acknowledgement of reality. Ari Fleischer might not have been allowed to refer to the government of Taiwan, but those of us who don’t work for the government are free to recognize, talk about and write about reality.

“Reality,” science-fiction writer Phillip K. Dick once wrote, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.”

Also: come on. China is autocratic. Taiwan is democratic. China is the big China. Taiwan is the good China.

“We have had a status quo of sorts in the Taiwan Strait that has kept the peace,” says Orville Schell, the director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, “but it recently has not looked all that durable, nor was it very agreeable to most citizens of democratic Taiwan.”

It’s not very agreeable to lots of Americans either, including my wife. She used to live there.

Beijing wants to impose its rule on Taiwan like it has in Hong Kong, Tibet and East Turkestan. If any half-way moral and sensible person had their way, the reverse would happen and Taiwan would export its democratic Chinese model to its 900-pound cousin. That’s probably what will eventually happen anyway, even if China militarily conquers Taiwan in the meantime.

We all have to deal with the world as it is, but sacrificing Taiwan to the wolves is outrageous. Taiwan had a “permanent” seat on the United Nations Security Council until Richard Nixon, neverminding tens of millions of corpses, gave it to Mao Zedong. Nixon told Taiwan that the US was engaging instead with the mainland Chinese “not because we love them. But because they’re there.” Fine. It may have been necessary, but it was a nasty business. A bully got its way for four decades not because it is right but because it is bigger. Professional diplomats may have to bite their tongues but the rest of us don’t.

“Until recently,” Isaac Stone Fish writes in The Atlantic, “Taiwanese and Chinese diplomats regularly traveled the world fighting for diplomatic recognition, while China sat quietly in the UNSC seat it took from Taiwan in October 1971, using its veto largely as a cudgel against countries that recognized Taiwan. Now it doesn’t need to; the fight is over, and Taiwan lost. South Africa, the last major country to recognize Taiwan, switched over in 1998. Taiwan lost Gambia, the smallest nation in continental Africa, in March 2016, dropping the number of states that recognize it to 22, the most important of which are the Vatican and Nicaragua.”

Plenty of officials in both the Democratic and Republican parties would go along with a policy change, including many who spent the last several days wigging out about the Trump team’s unconventional methods. Whether we like it or not, though, the unconventional is about to become the new normal, not just in the United States but everywhere populist political parties take power, from the United Kingdom, Poland and Hungary to the Philippines and possibly France.

The entire world is going to have to get used to it. 

Springtime for Morsi

I reviewed Eric Trager's book, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days for Commentary magazine.

Almost everyone got the Arab Spring wrong.

At a casual glance, the Middle East and North Africa appeared to be sprouting political liberals like daisies at the tail end of 2010, when a nonviolent revolution in Tunisia spread to Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Tunisia’s autocratic Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell in a matter of weeks, followed a month later by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Rebellions then broke out in Libya against the tyrannical Muammar Qaddafi and in Syria against Bashar al-Assad.

Tunisia came through fairly well. It is now governed by a secular democratically elected government. But elsewhere, the Arab Spring failed spectacularly. Syria is ground zero for ISIS, and it’s suffering its fifth year of catastrophic civil war. Libya is disintegrating into a terrorist war zone. Egyptians first elected a theocratic Muslim Brotherhood government, then cheered when the army toppled their first and only elected president—the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi—and replaced their fledgling psuedo-democracy with yet another military dictatorship.

The Arab Spring failed for different reasons in each place, but in no country were expectations so violently dashed as in Egypt.

With Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, academic and journalist Eric Trager has written the definitive account of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise and collapse, beginning with the revolt against Mubarak, the elections that brought the Brotherhood to power, Morsi’s inept and ill-fated reign, and its decimation at the hands of the army.

“What looked like a democratizing ‘Arab Spring’ to many foreign observers,” Trager writes, “was in fact a deeply uncertain ‘Arab Fall’ for many Egyptians, in which the political climate grew colder and colder as time wore on.”

How did so many journalists, diplomats, academics, and analysts get Egypt so wrong? It was partly the result of hope and naiveté. But the Muslim Brotherhood also waged a brilliantly effective campaign of deception at home and abroad, hoping to convince as many people as possible that it was a politically moderate organization with a broad and diverse base of support. It wanted to earn the trust of Egyptians who weren’t yearning for an Islamist theocracy, and it feared a hostile reaction from the West, so it mounted a full-court press in the Egyptian, European, and American media. The Washington Post even published an op-ed from one of its leaders, Abdel Moneim Abouel, who wrote that the Brotherhood “embraced diversity and democratic values.”

Its media-savvy spokesmen touted this line at every opportunity to every journalist and diplomat who would listen, but the Brotherhood’s decades-old motto revealed what they truly believed. “Allah is our objective,” it reads, “the Prophet is our leader, the Qur’an is our constitution, jihad is our way, and death for the sake of God is our highest aspiration.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood was never a moderate organization or a democratic one in any sense of that word,” Trager writes. “It is a rigidly purpose-driven vanguard that seeks total control over its members so that it can mobilize them for empowering [founder] Hassan al-Banna’s deeply politicized interpretation of Islam as an ‘all-embracing concept.’ It accepts electoral institutions as a mechanism for winning power, but its ultimate goal is theocratic: It seeks to establish an Islamic state and ultimately establish a global Islamic state that will challenge the West.”

Trager saw what others did not in part because the Brotherhood blacklisted him and forced him to seek access beyond its smooth media handlers. “My goal was to interview the Brotherhood’s lesser-known leaders at every level, the individuals who attended the same meetings as their more prominent colleagues but who were less media-trained and therefore less guarded in sharing information,” he writes. “These folks, as it turned out, hadn’t received that blacklist memo.”

Read the rest in Commentary.

How Trump’s General Mike Flynn Sees the World

General Mike Flynn will be President-elect Donald Trump’s national security advisor, and if the only things you know about the man come from the mainstream media, you have no idea who he really is or what he really thinks, which means you have no idea what he’s likely to do when he starts his new job.

Yes, he had dinner with Vladimir Putin, and no, he’s not politically correct or even diplomatic. Yes, he was fired from his job as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency because he does not play well with others. And yes somebody should tell him to retire his Twitter feed, or at the very least stop tweeting bombastic insults, fake news and conspiracy theories

All human beings are greater than the sum of their screwups, and if you want to know what he has been doing for the past several decades and what he wants to do next, skip the news reports and read his book, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, co-written with Michael Ledeen.

It has been on bookshelves since July of this year. It’s short—only 208 pages—so you can read it in one day or even one sitting.

First, let’s get a big question out of the way right at the start.

No, he is not friends with Vladimir Putin.

He did sit next to Putin at the 10th anniversary dinner of Kremlin propaganda station RT (Russia Today) and he appeared as a guest on RT as well. He also, like Trump, thinks the United States should team up with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria.

But he’s not Putin’s pal. That comes across as loud and clear as a gunshot in his book.

Flynn divides the world into two sets of enemies. First, there are the radical Islamists, whom he sees as America’s principal foes. Then there is a constellation of hostile anti-democratic regimes that he calls “the alliance” that includes both Islamists and non-Islamists that collaborate against the West because we’re their common enemy. The alliance includes Russia, Syria, North Korea, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Flynn puts Vladimir Putin and his Syrian client Bashar al-Assad squarely in the hostiles camp. There’s no point wasting much angst on Nicaragua and Bolivia right now, but he’s quite right to declare the Russian and Syrian governments enemies of the United States. Assad is the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the entire Arab world, and he’s Iran’s staunchest Arab ally. And since Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the entire world, that makes Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis the greatest state-level geopolitical threat to the West.

“This alliance surprises a lot of people,” Flynn writes. “On the surface, it seems incoherent. How, they ask, can a Communist regime like North Korea embrace a radical Islamist regime like Iran? What about Russia’s Vladimir Putin? He is certainly no jihadi; indeed, Russia has a good deal to fear from radical Islamists to its south, and the Russians have been very heavy-handed with radical Islamists in places like Chechnya. Yet the Russian air force and Iranian foot soldiers are fighting side by side in Syria. Somehow, Russian antipathy toward radical Islam does not prevent the Kremlin from constructing all the Iranian nuclear power plants.”

It’s not so hard to understand. Forging ideologically incoherent alliances is normal in wartime. Americans have done it too. We armed Afghanistan’s Mujahadeen to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s despite the fact that many of them were radical Islamists. We forged an alliance not just with a Communist state but with Josef Stalin himself against Nazi Germany. We also armed and trained right-wing military dictatorships in Latin America when they faced communist insurrections backed by Moscow.

We can only go so far with this sort of thing, though, before ideological incoherence collapses into strategic incoherence. Forging an alliance with Syria and Iran, for instance, in the war against ISIS would be preposterous. Expecting state sponsors of international terrorism to act as an American firewall against international terrorists makes as much sense as placing arsonists in charge of the fire department.

Mike Flynn is many things, but he isn’t stupid. He knows this, which is why he says we should partner with Russia—but not the Iranians or the Assad regime—against ISIS in Syria.

In one of his debates with Hillary Clinton last month, Donald Trump said Russia and Assad are fighting ISIS in Syria, but it’s not true. Russia is fighting in western Syria to prop up the Assad regime against rebel fighters while ISIS territory is in eastern Syria well outside Russia’s theater of operations. 

Trump apparently doesn’t know this, but Flynn does because he explains it in his book.

Teaming up with Russia to fight ISIS will require a dramatic transformation of both American and Russian foreign policies—another Russian “reset,” if you will. Vladimir Putin is a scorpion by nature. I don’t expect Trump’s Russian reset to work any better than Obama’s Russian reset or George W. Bush’s old college try, but I guess we’ll find out.

There’s a bit of incoherence in Flynn’s book. He blasts the Obama administration for reaching out to anti-American tyrannies in Syria, Iran and Cuba, but he advocates doing exactly the same thing with Russia right now despite the fact that Russia is neck-deep in the Syrian-Iranian axis. At times I couldn’t quite tell if Flynn is a foreign policy “realist” who’s willing to work with despicable tyrants as long as it suits us, or if he’s a neoconservative who thinks we should always ally ourselves with democracies against dictatorships.

Perhaps the book contradicts itself once in a while because the neoconservative Michael Ledeen co-wrote it.  Maybe the differing worldviews of the two authors come through in different passages on different pages. Or perhaps Flynn is just ideologically flexible. It’s hard to say. Mostly he comes across as a Jacksonian who wishes to wage total war against his enemies.

He wrote a chapter on how to win such a war against radical Islamist terrorists, but first he describes what winning means—destroying terrorist armies, discrediting their ideology, forging new global alliances and “bringing a direct challenge to the regimes that support our enemies, weakening them at a minimum, bringing them down whenever possible.”

Bringing them down whenever possible.

Did I mention that Flynn isn’t a pacifist or isolationist?

“I know [our enemies],” he writes, “and they scare me, a guy who doesn’t scare often or easily. They scare me even though we have defeated them every time we fought seriously. We defeated Al Qaeda and the Iranians in Iraq, and the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, they kept fighting and we went away. Let’s face it: right now, we’re losing, and I’m talking about a very big war, not just Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” [Emphasis added.]

In Flynn’s view, the war against terrorism is enormous. He makes Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld seem cautious and even timid. He says we know how to win this kind of war because we did it during World War II and the Cold War.

He recommends we do four things.

“First, we have to energize every element of national power in a cohesive synchronized manner—similar to the effort during World War II or the Cold War—to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle…Second, we must engage the violent Islamists wherever they are, drive them from their safe havens, and kill them or capture them…Third, we must decisively confront the state and nonstate supporters of this violent Islamist ideology and compel them to end their support to our enemies or be prepared to remove their capacity to do so…Fourth, we must wage ideological war against radical Islam and its supporters.”

No one has a clue what’s going to happen after the Obama administration gives way to the Trump administration. Trump has already mellowed out in one policy area after another, and in any case, Flynn’s book isn’t Trump’s policy. It’s Flynn’s policy.

What you just read above, though, is more or less what Trump is likely to hear from his national security advisor. It is almost certainly what Trump has already heard from the man who will become his national security advisor.

“Most Americans mistakenly believe that peace is the normal condition of mankind,” Flynn writes, “while war is some weird aberration. Actually, it’s the other way around. Most of human history has to do with war, and preparations for the next one. But we Americans do not prepare for the next war, are invariably surprised when it erupts, and since we did not take prudent steps when it would have been relatively simple to prevail, usually end up fighting on our enemies’ more difficult and costly terms.”

Or to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.

Donald Trump’s national security advisor is much more eager to fight a huge war than George W. Bush or Barack Obama. If you voted for Trump because you want less war instead of more, you’re probably out of luck.

An Uncertain New Era Begins

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States feels to some like the end of the world. It’s not. It’s the beginning of a new era. And it’s time to take some deep yoga breaths. Uncertainty always triggers anxiety, but it’s important for the anxious not to catastrophize.

“Catastrophizing relies on an overestimation of the odds of a bad outcome as well as an underestimation of your ability to cope with it should it befall you.” Those are some serious words of wisdom right there, not just for politics, but for life in general. They were written by Dr. Edmund Bourne in his book, Coping With Anxiety.

Nobody really has a clue what’s going to happen next, including Donald Trump and his team. The polling and forecasting industry has been gut-punched. Even the GOP thought he would lose. I wouldn’t dare predict anything specific in public right now. The odds that I’d be wrong approach 100 percent. I’m not even making any private predictions in my own head. Radical uncertainty makes a lot of people uneasy, but look on the bright side. At least the next couple of years will be interesting. 

The first step to calming down at least a little is understanding what actually happened and why. Trump supporters chose him over Hillary Clinton and his Republican establishment opponents because they’re fed-up with business-as-usual and the Washington “swamp.” Who isn’t fed up with Washington at this point? If Trump had been less divisive and more even-tempered, he probably would have won in a landslide.

And let’s dispense, please, with the notion that everybody who voted for Trump is a deplorable racist. Some of them are. No question about it. But a black man named Tim Scott was just elected senator in a state-wide race in South Carolina, and he’s a Republican. The majority of voters in South Carolina voted for Donald Trump and a black man on the same ballot.

Virtually nobody voted for Trump because they want the apocalypse. They took a gamble on an outsider because they want things to get better. Aside from the worst people on the fringes like white supremacist David Duke, they aren’t yearning for a political nightmare. If everyday voters find themselves in a political nightmare anyway, they will vote very differently next time. They’ll start by bringing reinforcements two years from now and will give Trump his walking papers in four years.

If the truly worst case scenario materializes—if Trump tries to govern like an outright dictator—Congress can and will remove him from power. The thing about worst-case scenarios, though, is that they rarely actually happen. They are the worst out of a range of possibilities. If worst-case scenarios were always the most likely to come true, we’d be living in a hellscape like The Walking Dead.

Sure, there is plenty to worry about. Donald Trump is a reality TV star with no government or military experience whatsoever. He has rattled nerves and induced near-panic attacks with the proposal on his website for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” his promise to deport eleven million people, peddling one conspiracy theory after another, acting like an Internet troll on Twitter and floating alt-right enabler Steve Bannon as his top advisor. American allies from Europe to East Asia are breathing into paper bags right now after he trash-talked NATO, threatened to pull out of trade deals, and said he wants to renegotiate defense agreements in the Pacific Rim.

But Trump has moderated his tone and his policy proposals substantially. The worst-case scenario is off the table already, and he hasn’t even started yet.

Outgoing President Barack Obama reassured Americans and the world at a press conference on Monday that President-elect Trump is committed to NATO. “He’s going to be the next president,” he added, “and regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office. This office has a way of waking you up.”

According to Trump surrogate and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Muslim ban has evaporated. Trump himself says he will keep the good parts of Obamacare so that people with pre-existing conditions can still get health insurance. He also says he wants to deport two-to-three million people rather than eleven million. For a sense of perspective, the Obama administration deported two million.

He ran the most bombastic political campaign most of us have ever seen, but his tone has been much better, and more presidential, since the campaign ended, and he looked straight into the camera and told his most cretinous supporters who have been acting like bigoted bullies to stop it.

Trump has been yelling “Drain the swamp!” on the campaign trail, and even some Democratic voters who would rather chew off their own legs than vote for him felt a private thrill when he said that. Almost everybody hates the Washington swamp, including lots of people who live there. Of all American institutions, Congress has the lowest approval rating, less than 10 percent, and the military has the highest at 73 percent. In the Middle East and Latin America, numbers like these would portend a military coup. But we don’t live in the Middle East or Latin America. We live here. So instead of a military coup, we got Donald Trump.

Count your blessings.

You know what else, though? The swamp has a role. The swamp is bipartisan, but it acts as a conservative anchor. It prevents a political revolution from hurtling the country off the rails into an abyss. As President Obama put it at his press conference this week, “The federal government and our democracy is not a speedboat. It’s an ocean liner.” So if the next four years turn out to be as terrible as many fear, the swamp might actually save us.

Donald Trump isn’t actually going to drain it. He is not going to purge tens of thousands of people like Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did earlier this year after a botched military coup. He will not replace everybody in government with his real estate and casino friends. I am confident of that much, at least. That would be preposterous even by the standards of the last 15 months. He is hiring one establishment pol after another because, with a handful of exceptions, there’s no one else he can hire.

“Modern governing is immensely complicated,” Eli Lake writes in Bloomberg. “There is an old chestnut that says politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. This year that's an understatement. Donald Trump campaigned in tweets and he will govern in risk assessments and annotated omnibus appropriations bills.”

The United States—and the world—has been through much worse than anything Donald Trump is going to throw at us. The incoming era may indeed turn out to be terrible, but if we all sat down and wrote out four or eight years of specific predictions, every single one of us would be wrong. And if we’re wrong about almost everything, that includes most of the scary stuff.

American Brexit

Global markets plunged after learning that Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States.

Few saw it coming, and the polling industry will have to spend some time in the wilderness for a while, but the market response shouldn’t shock anyone. It’s exactly what happened after the Brexit vote, when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

“They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!” Trump said on Twitter in August. “Brexist times five,” he said at rallies last month.

It’s not hard to understand why British voters gave a middle finger to the establishment in Brussels, nor is it hard to understand why Americans are furious at the political establishment on this side of the Atlantic. There are almost as many reasons for both as there are voters.

Much of the world is in a panic, though, because what happens in America doesn’t stay in America. The United States is the world’s only superpower, and Donald Trump has threatened not only to kick over the garbage cans in Washington, but to kick over the entire global order that has been built since we won World War II. In addition to his promises to overturn American trade agreements, he has cozied up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, called NATO “obsolete” and threatened to retract the security umbrella that protects our allies as far away as Japan and South Korea.

It’s one thing to rail against the American establishment and another thing entirely to rail against the parts of the international establishment built and maintained by America. The most powerful person on earth can’t do that sort of thing without provoking an overwhelming reaction.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister, said the election is a “huge shock” and fears it will be the end of “Pax Americana.”

Sweden’s foreign minister said that after first Brexit and now Trump, “Looks like this will be the year of the double disaster of the West.”

“After Brexit and this election, everything from now on is possible,” French Ambassador to the US Geraud Araud wrote on Twitter. “A world is collapsing before our eyes. Vertigo.”

“The West is no longer,” said a Finnish diplomat I know who wants to remain anonymous. “The times of darkness have dawned. Watch the spineless jump to the bandwagons of fascism, watch rules and rights crumble, as crude power will now have impunity. Forget checks and balances, the rules have just changed. It is back to small-state nationalism and basic survival. The Molotov-Ribbentrop era is back.” He is no hysterical leftist, by the way. He’s a conservative.

Norbert Roettgen, another European conservative on Germany’s foreign affairs committee, spoke in a more moderate yet still worried tone. “We're realizing now that we have no idea what this American president will do if the voice of anger enters office and the voice of anger becomes the most powerful man in the world. Geopolitically we are in a very uncertain situation.”

Earlier this year, Britain actually considered refusing to grant Trump a visa.

The reaction in Asia is more muted, but South Koreans are also quite nervous. Government news agency Yonhap said the “stunning victory of Donald Trump casts deep uncertainty over US policy on the Korean Peninsula and beyond as he has campaigned on pledges to overhaul the relations with allies and renegotiate trade deals under his ‘America First' policy.’” The Korea Times says the US-Korean trade agreement is in “unprecedented jeopardy.”

The Japanese have remained politely neutral, but their stock market is crashing, forcing the government to convene an emergency meeting. The Mexican peso is also crashing, and hard. It is now at its lowest level ever against the dollar.

Those are the reactions among American friends and allies. The Kremlin in Moscow, meanwhile, is euphoric.

“It turns out that the United Russia [Vladimir Putin’s party] has won the elections in the United States!” said Omsk governor Viktor Nazarov.

“Tonight we can use the slogan with Mr. Trump; Yes We Did,” said Boris Chernyshev, a member of the Russian parliament’s ultranationalist faction.

“I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in the window, if I can find a flag,” said Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Putin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today).

Putin himself is pleased, of course, and says that the United States and Russia can now restore full diplomatic relations.

Fierce Putin critic Garry Kasparov, meanwhile, is despondent. He wrote a book a while back called Winter is Coming, and last night he tweeted “Winter is here.”

Europe’s far-right is also popping champagne corks. “Their world is falling apart,” said senior French National Front figure Florian Philippot. “Today the United States, tomorrow France!” The National Front’s founder, Jean Marie Le Pen, repeatedly referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a mere “point of detail of the history of the Second World War” and said the Nazi occupation of France “was not particularly inhumane, even if there were a few blunders.”

We can only imagine the paranoia sweeping the Middle East now since Trump has repeatedly said the United States should have “taken the oil” in Iraq. Perhaps he has done us a favor, though, by pointing out to the conspiracy theorists of the world that we did not, in fact, steal Iraq’s oil like they thought we did.

I honestly don’t know what to make of all this. Is the world overreacting? Is Trump serious about NATO and Russia and Iraq and Korea? How much of all that was just campaign bluster? Will he change his mind on a couple of things after he starts getting top secret briefings from our intelligence agencies? Will his advisors steer him in a more mainstream direction?

Your guess is as good as mine.

The New Socialist Realists

I reviewed Sohrab Ahmari’s book, The New Philistines, for City Journal. Here’s the first part.

The general public hates modern art. In an online poll, The Escapist magazine asked if modern art even qualifies as art in the first place. Only one person in five said that it does. At Debate.org, when asked if modern art is real art, 70 percent said no, it’s not. The collapse in artistic standards has been obvious for a while. In 2005, ABC News ran an experiment showing that even most artists and art critics can’t tell the difference between modern art and finger paintings by four-year-olds. Worse, however—and the general public has been dismissing modern art for so long now that most people aren’t even aware of this—the contemporary art world is crippling itself with axe-grinding identity politics.

This is the subject of Sohrab Ahmari’s short, barn-burning polemic, The New Philistines (just published in the U.K. and available now in the U.S. on Kindle, and in April 2017 in hardcover). Ahmari, a London-based Wall Street Journal editorial writer, takes the reader on a tour through London’s dismal art scene, where beauty is out and racial, gender, and sexual identitarianism are in; where form and aesthetics are pitched over the side and replaced with trashy attempts to shock the audience out of some imagined complacency. “Universalist, legible art still brings throngs of reverent, beauty-starved people to the museums, galleries, theaters and cinemas,” he writes. “It is why museum retrospectives of the great masters—from Greek sculpture to high modernism—usually sell out. Meanwhile, the contemporary art world of the identitarians is a desert scattered with tumbleweeds.”

Ahmari was inspired to write The New Philistines after attending a spectacularly unpleasant performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at William Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. The theater’s new director, Emma Rice, detests the original Shakespeare. The Bard’s plays, she says, are “tedious” and “inaccessible.” Perhaps, with such a dim view of the source material and its creator, she should have taken a different job, but instead she chose to make Shakespeare more “relevant.” “Relevance meant rewriting the play,” Ahmari writes, “and not just rewriting, but bad rewriting.” For instance, “Away, you Ethiope,” was changed to, “Get away from me, you ugly bitch.” Rice knew that plenty of Shakespeare purists would find her coarse edits appalling, so she had an actor walk on stage in a spacesuit and say, “Why this obsession with text?” She also placed identity politics front and center. She mandated, for instance, that 50 percent of the cast be female regardless of the gender of the characters. “It’s the next step for feminism,” she said, “and it’s the next stage for society to smash down the last pillars that are against us.”

Ahmari was aghast, and he wasn’t alone. The Globe announced last week that Rice would depart after just one season at the helm.

Ahmari decided to investigate the London art world to find out how pervasive this sort of thing actually is and found that the entire scene has become obsessed with identity politics at the expense of everything else, especially beauty and form. “The hostile takeover of a beloved institution was by no means a one-off event,” he writes. “It was an expression of one of the deepest cultural trends of our time. Identity politics now pervade every medium and mode of art, from architecture to dance to film to painting to theater to video, from the highest avant-garde to the lowest schlock.” His first stop was a multimedia installation at Gasworks by London-based Sidsel Meineche Hansen. She created an exhibition that, in her words, “foregrounds the body and its industrial complex” in a “technological variant of institutional critique,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. On a screen looped animated images of a female humanoid named EVA 3.0 stroking a strap-on penis made out of lasers and flames on a wooden bondage and sadomasochism rack.

Ahmari moved on to a film festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts near Trafalgar Square. One of the selected films, YOU ARE BORING, is about what it’s like to be “looked at” within “queer representational politics.” Another, Party for Freedom, is about the supposed “increasingly phobic natures of Western societies (homo-, islamo-, xeno-, to name a few),” ignoring the fact that with legal same-sex marriage sweeping both Europe and North America, one can safely say the West has never been less homophobic. The institute also hosted an exhibit by American artist Martine Syms that explored photography “as a colonial tool.”

During a panel discussion, Ahmari asked two filmmakers if they ever thought about creating projects with nonpolitical content or considered aesthetics. They looked at him like he’d wandered in from another dimension and told him, in so many words, no. He wanted to pull his hair out. “It is almost inconceivable,” he writes, “that so many filmmakers could think of nothing—nothing, nothing, nothing—but the politics of representation, ‘performativity,’ gender, race, queer theory, etc. There must be other subjects, in the world outside or in their inner lives, which belong on the silver (or digital) screen.”

Read the rest in City Journal

An Open Letter to the Next Leader of the Free World

My latest long-form piece has been published in The Tower magazine. Here's the first part.

Dear President-Elect,

Congratulations on winning the election for the 45th president of the United States, but are you sure you really want this?

The world is a mess, as it usually is, and taking on this awesome responsibility right now is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that a devious trickster messed with by moving some of the stickers around.

You are not battling a Hitler or Hirohito that you can bomb into submission. Nor are you facing down a Stalinist empire that you can outspend into oblivion.

You and the citizens whom you have been elected to serve are beset instead by a constellation of problems—international terrorism, rogue states, and a renascent expansionist Russia. These persistent features of our international landscape may not be as dangerous as the Nazi rampage across Europe or the threat of all-out nuclear confrontation, but they are much more intractable. They will bedevil us throughout your presidency and beyond.

You will not be able to democratize the Middle East and drain the swamp of its political pathologies by using regime change or any other tool at your disposal. Nor will you be able to diplomatically “engage” your way to being liked by the Vladimir Putins and Ali Khameneis of the world. You can flush the terrorists of ISIS out of their nests and vaporize them with Predator drones, but they’ll pop up again in some other unstable and anarchic part of the world.

I hate to break it to you, but these are problems to be managed rather than solved. At least the Israelis, who have become masters of this art throughout the brief existence of Jewish state, can commiserate with your unenviable role.

You’re going to have to come to grips with it, though, because it’s all on you now.

The American president, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, is practically a foreign policy dictator. You can start wars without going through Congress. (Congress and the public will complain, don’t kid yourself about that, but it will be too late.) You can end wars—or at least choose to stop fighting and let them continue without you. You can order daring raids against the likes of Osama bin Laden if you think you know where they’re hiding, you can forge and unmake alliances, and you can initiate all kinds of black ops that the public is unlikely to discover as long as they don’t catastrophically fail.

You will have more power and authority on foreign policy than you will over any other area, and since what you do with this power can affect the entire human race, you’d damn well better wield it wisely.

So I’m here to give you some advice, and it’s not quite the same as what you’ll hear from Ivy Leaguers from Foggy Bottom and Langley in their jackets and ties. Unlike most of them, I’ve spent more than a decade on and off in the broken parts of the world. I’ve seen radical Islamic terrorism up close and personal, not just in Lower Manhattan, but also in Beirut and Baghdad. I’ve encountered violent Russian expansionism in person in the post-Soviet republic of Georgia. I’ve spent more time than is good for my health in post-war rubblescapes from Bosnia to Fallujah, and I’ve worked illegally as a journalist inside tyrannical police states from Raul Castro’s Cuba to Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya.

My experience spans a Republican administration and a Democratic administration, and though I haven’t seen it all, I’ve seen enough of it, and I’m here to tell you: No party or ideological faction has The Solution because The Solution doesn’t exist. Much of the world beyond our shores is a wreck, and the best you can pull off right now is damage control.

First things first. You need to get real about Russia.

No more “resets” or “bromances.” Vladimir Putin is not your friend.

He is implacably hostile to the U.S. and Europe for one simple reason. He recoils from the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, just as we would have done had the Soviet Union won the Cold War and expanded the Warsaw Pact to Brussels and Amsterdam.

So Putin pushes back anywhere and everywhere he can. The handful of countries in his backyard that haven’t yet joined the European Union and NATO but might some day—Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, and Moldova—must either bow to Russian hegemony or suffer the consequences.

Armenia and Belarus kiss Putin’s ring, but Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova do not, so Moldova’s breakaway province of Transnistria is occupied by Russian soldiers, while Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, along with Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, aren’t just occupied by the Russians but annexed.

Disputed territory conflicts prevent all of these countries from joining the European Union or NATO.

You can be excused if you didn’t see Russia’s invasion of Georgia coming back in 2008, but Russia’s invasion and bloody dismemberment of Ukraine should have been a no-brainer. I drove from Poland through Ukraine to Crimea in 2010 and predicted in my book, Where the West Ends, that it wouldn’t be long before Russia annexed the region. I said so matter-of-factly. It didn’t even occur to me that the notion would be controversial because it was obvious.

Ukraine’s disaffection with Russia dates back at least to the genocidal hunger-famine of the 1930s, when Josef Stalin deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the name of collectivization. In our post-Soviet era, it was inevitable that Ukraine would receive the Moldovan and Georgian treatment and lose Crimea—the best piece of real estate in the country, where almost everybody speaks Russian instead of Ukrainian, and where the Russian navy bases its Black Sea fleet.

Yet somehow—astonishingly—the CIA and the State Department did not see the Crimea invasion coming.

I’m hardly the only person who did see it. I was in the Georgian capital Tbilisi when Russian soldiers invaded and lopped off parts of that country, and the fact that Ukraine was most likely “next” was the talk of the town among Georgians, journalists, and stressed-out resident diplomats.

Surely you remember George Kennan, our ambassador to the Soviet Union under Harry S. Truman and the architect of our Cold War policy of “containment”? “Russia,” he famously said, “can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” Any and all of Russia’s borderland countries (the name Ukraine, by the way, means “borderland”) that aren’t under the NATO umbrella and refuse to obey like a good vassal will be invaded and butchered. The was true before the Cold War, it was true during the Cold War, and it’s still true today. It has been true for centuries. Just ask the residents of Siberia and Northeast Asia like the Buryats and the Koryaks who have been conquered so thoroughly that most people don’t even know they exist.

Would it be great if we could get along with Russia or reset relations? Of course. But it’s not going to happen because there’s not a damn thing you can to do change Russia’s national interests or its centuries-long hostility toward its neighbors. You want to know what Putin hears when you outstretch your hand and say we should be partners? He hears what Luke Skywalker heard in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader said, “Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”

Your predecessor Barack Obama said to New Yorker editor David Remnick in 2014 that he didn’t need George Kennan. But he did! He also needed a handful of advisers who’d spent at least some time in post-Soviet space while bullets whizzed past their ears.

Are you familiar with the phrase “echelons above reality?” It’s U.S. militaryspeak for the upper-level headquarters that are so far above the ground that the people who work there have no idea what’s actually happening. It’s where you and most of your advisors live. So please, I implore you, invite at least a couple of people into the Oval Office who have some mud on their boots.


Estonia Prepares for an Anti-Russian Insurgency

Estonia may look like a European country out of a children’s storybook, but it’s bracing to become another Afghanistan.

The Defense League is preparing more than 25,000 volunteers, including women and teenagers, to fight a deadly insurgency against a Russian invasion. It’s training them to make IEDs and strike Russian convoys in hit-and-run attacks, and the government is encouraging everyone to keep guns and ammunition in their houses and hidden in backyards and forests.

They are not overreacting.

“There’s no doubt,” British army Colonel Rupert Wieloch said on the BBC a couple of days ago, “that Russia is looking at Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania as potentially the same as what they did in Ukraine and Crimea.”

And they stand no chance in a conventional stand-up fight if it happens. Estonia is tiny. It’s barely 150 miles across at its widest and could be swallowed by Russia in matter of days. Only 1.3 million people live in the entire country. Its army is only 6,000 strong while hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers are dug in on the other side of the border.

Training soft European civilians to fight like Iraqi and Afghan insurgents (minus the suicide bombing and terrorism) sounds a little bit nuts, but Estonians would have no other choice but surrender if Russia invades and NATO doesn’t come to their aid.

NATO should come to their aid, and the Estonians should not have to do this. They’re in good standing with the alliance which requires every member state to assist any other member state that’s attacked. They decided some time ago, though, that the West might not have the stomach for this sort of thing anymore. 

The Obama administration has caved to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin over and over again, and earlier this year the Estonians got a loud and clear signal from even the Republican Party when its nominee Donald Trump said he might not jump to Europe’s defense if its member states “aren’t paying their bills.” Trump didn’t single out Estonia, which has sent troops to fight alongside Americans in Afghanistan, but former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich did single out Estonia as a country unworthy of full protection, despite the fact that Gingrich himself championed NATO expansion into Estonia shortly after the Cold War.

“Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg” he said on CBS News. “The Russians aren’t gonna necessarily come across the border militarily. The Russians are gonna do what they did in Ukraine. I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”

America’s bipartisan world weariness isn’t the only reason Estonia is digging in for the worst. Europe’s Baltic region was quiet before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, but it’s not anymore.

“A drive across the Baltics reveals a constant hum of military activity,” Washington Post reporter Michael Birnbaum wrote this summer. “Camouflaged convoys snake down dim roads late at night. Armored personnel carriers idle alongside fields. Belgian, British and Spanish fighter jets thunder across the skies. Before the Crimean annexation, it was rare to see a combat vehicle in the Baltics. Now they are omnipresent, amid a constant cycle of military maneuvers and rotations. The biggest military operation in Europe this year is underway in Poland, where 25,000 troops from 24 nations are engaged in combat exercises that include live fire from tanks.”

And this week, Estonia accused the Russian air force of violating its air space for the sixth time this year. Russia denies it, of course.

If Russia decides to invade Estonia, it won’t be hard for Vladimir Putin to come up with an excuse. Estonia is 25 percent Russian. All he has to do to claim the Russian minority is being mistreated and needs Moscow’s protection. Sure, it will be a ludicrous claim, but that’s exactly what he did when he invaded Ukraine, annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fomented war in the Russian-speaking Donbass region.

Katja Koort, an ethnic Russian born in Estonia, wrote about the tension between her community and the Estonian majority here in World Affairs two years ago.

Today, parts of the Russian community in Estonia remain quite isolated because many ethnic Russians have stronger links to their historic homeland than to their country of permanent residence. Considering the fact that more than three hundred thousand Russian-speaking people (including Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others) are living in Estonia, accounting for approximately a quarter of the whole country’s population, it’s no surprise that the reluctance of some of them to integrate into Estonian society has caused a number of socioeconomic and political problems, most visibly in major industrial areas of the Soviet era like Ida-Viru County, bordering Russia in the northeast, and the capital, Tallinn. More than twenty years after the restoration of Estonia’s independence, the opinion that time would automatically resolve the integration issue of non-ethnic Estonians, and that the younger generation born here would blend into Estonian society, has not been confirmed in practice.

[…]

The role of Russian media in inciting such ethnic hatred cannot be underestimated, even more so because the standards of official Russian media have sunk back to where they were during the depths of the Cold War. With a few cosmetic exceptions, Russian television news today resembles Stagnation Era propaganda: the nightly program transmits an exaggerated and biased picture of an evil and threatening Western world that now includes the Baltic states, Georgia, and Ukraine. As a counterweight, authorities present a glorified picture of Russia, on display most recently at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II is another favorite theme of Russian programming, and one particularly useful for Putin during his misadventure in Ukraine. Indeed, the victory is evidently the only achievement in recent history that not only upholds Russians’ national pride but also helps justify current military intrusions into neighboring countries that are still portrayed to the people within the Russian sphere of influence as peacekeeping missions undertaken to defend the Russian people. Ironically, Russia’s actions in Ukraine today are very much like those of Nazi Germany in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938–39. In this light, Putin’s assertion that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century sounds especially ominous.

Estonia’s fears may be overblown. A Russian attack against a NATO member is a very different proposition than kicking around largely defenseless nations like Georgia and Ukraine. Putin knew perfectly well that the United States wouldn’t declare war against him when he attacked isolated countries, but he’d be risking another world war if he struck the Western alliance, especially when British, Belgian and Spanish fighter jets are traversing the skies.

Also, the dovish Obama is on his way out. Hillary Clinton might replace him, and she’s always been more hawkish than he is. If the Republicans take back the White House, I’d expect Trump to instantly reverse his opinions of Putin and NATO if Russia actually mounts an invasion of Europe.

Estonians aren’t willing to bet their country on it, however. Besides, even if Europe and the United States do come to Estonia’s aid in the event that Putin miscalculates and thinks he can get away with something he can’t, Russia will still win the first round.

“If Russian tanks and troops rolled into the Baltics tomorrow,” writes Dan De Luce in Foreign Policy, “outgunned and outnumbered NATO forces would be overrun in under three days. That’s the sobering conclusion of war games carried out by a think tank with American military officers and civilian officials.”

A report by Rand Corporation backs that up. “In a series of war games conducted between summer 2014 and spring 2015, RAND Arroyo Center examined the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The games' findings are unambiguous: As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.”

The UK’s Daily Mail sent a journalist to the Russian-Estonian border recently and quoted a Russian businessman who lives in St. Petersburg and has a weekend apartment in Tallinn. “Each time I cross here,” he said, “I think it may be the last. Suddenly things are different and people are talking of World War Three. This is the front line between East and West. I am worried, full of foreboding about what happens next.”

Frankly, I doubt Russia will actually invade Europe, but I don’t doubt it the way I doubt Russia will send fighter jets into the skies over New York and Washington. I’m plenty sure that’s not going to happen, but Estonia (and Latvia and Lithuania) isn’t New York. The fact that we're even talking about this is not a good sign. Putin might test the US and Europe with a small and plausibly deniable operation or incursion like he did in Ukraine, where he lied and said Russian troops weren’t involved. That’s how Gingrich said Putin would probably do it, and he’s right. And if the West responds with nothing but hand-wringing and talk, Estonia had better fill up its sandbags. 

Children of the Revolution

City Journal sent me to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer. More than 20,000 journalists were there, and since I covered the convention for a quarterly magazine, it’s probably safe to say that my piece was published dead-last.

I had to be sure, then, that what I wrote wouldn’t be dated before it even saw print, and I tried to write one that will be relevant for many years.

Here’s the first part.

In this year’s race for the White House, American voters nearly had to choose between a fake Republican and a fake Democrat. Billionaire real-estate developer and reality TV star Donald Trump thumped his opponents in the Republican primary after spending his entire adult life as a boorish Democrat. Bernie Sanders nearly grabbed the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton despite spending his entire Senate career as an independent socialist, well to the left of the Democratic Party.

Sanders and Trump are flip sides of the same populist coin. At a glance, they appear to be ideological opposites. Whether incidentally or on purpose, Trump appeals to the so-called alt-Right—the ragtag crew of white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, Muslim-haters, neo-Confederates and “birthers.” Sanders, meanwhile, appeals to what might be called the alt-Left—assorted Marxists, “safe-space” activists, cop-haters, anti-Zionists, anti-vaxxers, and blame-America-firsters. Look closer, though: both candidates are populist anti-elitists who claim that “the system” is “rigged.” Both promised to kick over the garbage cans in Washington. Both railed against money in politics. Both claimed that immigration depresses working-class wages. Isolationists in economics and in war, they bucked mainstream Republicanism and Clintonism. And, as Troy Campbell put it in Politico earlier this year, they are both “enabling dissenters” who have “legitimized for discussion ‘fringe beliefs’ that millions of Americans beforehand had been unsure of or too shy to fully embrace, but nonetheless felt strongly about.”

Trump mounted a successful insurgency against the Republican establishment; his rise has ignited fratricidal warfare in the GOP, and no one knows where it will end. The Democratic Party establishment had better luck battling against the Sanders insurgency, putting it down, at least for the time being. But Hillary Clinton is the standard-bearer for a status quo that huge numbers of people on both sides of the political spectrum can no longer stand. In the years ahead, Sanders’s overwhelmingly young supporters will only become more numerous and engaged. If they pull off a hostile takeover someday, the Democratic establishment can’t say that it didn’t hear the warning shots—they rang out loud and clear at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this past summer.

If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that Philadelphia was ground zero for an anti-Clinton insurgency. When I went downtown to pick up my press credentials the day before the convention, furious Sanders supporters swarmed the sidewalks, blocked streets, snarled traffic—and guaranteed overtime pay for local police officers. They chanted, “Hell, no, we won’t vote for Hillary!” They carried placards and signs. CAPITALISM HAS OUTLIVED ITS USEFULNESS, read one. I saw “Bernie 2016” T-shirts everywhere and not a single Hillary shirt. Even without the T-shirts, the Sanders activists were easy to spot. They were the ones who looked like they’d just eaten a sack of lemons. Right in front of Philadelphia’s gorgeous City Hall—it’s the largest in the United States and could fill in for the Paris City Hall in a pinch—a Sanders crowd impersonated a Donald Trump rally, chanting “Lock her up!” and carrying “Hillary for Prison” signs.

Traffic ground to a standstill. My taxi driver ranted and raved, banging on the steering wheel over and over again. He called me “sir,” but I nevertheless felt guilty for being one of tens of thousands of outsiders who had effectively colonized his city and made it nearly impossible for him to do his job. “I’ve been a Democrat my entire life,” he said, “but this year I’m voting for Trump.”

At first glance, it appeared that nearly everybody in Philadelphia hated Clinton, until I saw that the city center was packed with DNC volunteers. They, too, were easy to spot. All wore the same light-blue T-shirts reading “Democratic National Convention” on the front and “Ask Me” on the back. I chatted with some of them, partly because I needed directions and also because I wondered what they thought of the protesters. They made no secret of their contempt for “the Bernie people,” as they called them.

Sanders activists weren’t the only ones taking to the streets that week, hoping for coverage from the journalist hordes. Even more extreme leftist demonstrators gathered as close as they could to the delegates. They screamed, “Go home, F*** Hillary,” and burned American and Israeli flags. Some shouted “Long live the Intifada!,” referring to the wave of Palestinian suicide-bombers who exploded themselves on Israeli buses and in Israeli cafés in the early 2000s.

Philadelphia native Erica Mines led a protest march against police brutality, yelling, “Hillary Clinton has blood on her hands.” One of the signs in her rally read, “Hillary, Delete Yourself.” “Hillary, you’re not welcome here,” read another. “I need all white people to move to the back!” Mines thundered. “This is a black and brown resistance march! If you are for this march and you are here to support, you will take your appropriate place in the back!”

Those whose favored candidates lose a primary election often feel bitter toward the winner, but the Sanders supporters were furious at the entire Democratic Party for allegedly stealing the nomination. Just two days earlier, WikiLeaks had dumped a trove of e-mails onto the Internet, probably acquired from hackers backed by Russian intelligence, that proved that party elites had had it in for Sanders all along. Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had just resigned her position, and at another rally downtown, Sanders supporters chanted, “Debbie is done!”

Sanders and his supporters had a right to be angry, but it doesn’t matter what the establishment wants if the voters want something else. Just look at the GOP. The Republican establishment went after Trump with hammer and tongs, but primary voters put him over the top, and their second choice, Ted Cruz, is another antiestablishment crusader. Establishment pols can’t force voters to do what voters don’t want to do.

The Democratic establishment didn’t have to fight as hard as their Republican counterparts. If Sanders had been ahead during the primary season instead of perpetually lagging behind, the Democratic establishment almost certainly would have blasted him with both barrels, but a Sanders win never looked likely. He won small, overwhelmingly white, states; but Clinton won larger, racially diverse, states in one landslide after another, not because the system was rigged but because Sanders came across to most nonwhite voters as an alternative novelty candidate. The establishment could hold its collective breath and ride out the storm.

The 2016 Democratic National Convention actually sprawled across two main venues: downtown, at the Philadelphia Convention Center, the place for untelevised (and unscripted) meetings and panel discussions between delegates and other party officials; and, a few miles south, the Wells Fargo Center arena in the South Philadelphia Sports Complex, where party big shots delivered speeches in front of the television cameras.

On the first day, I headed for the Convention Center for the morning meetings before the televised portion from the Wells Fargo Center kicked off in the late afternoon. On my way inside, a man on the corner handed me a pamphlet for the Communist Party. Everyone who went in got one. The DNC couldn’t keep Communists away from the perimeter any more than it could keep the angry Bernie legions away.

I tossed the Communist propaganda into the garbage and sighed, relieved that I could put the heat, the anger, the yelling, and the political whack jobs behind me. No one could set foot in the convention center without credentials, and the air inside the building was 30 degrees cooler and 50 percent less humid. Still, 100 percent of the T-shirts inside the Convention Center had Bernie Sanders’s name on them. Had I been whisked into an alternate universe where Hillary Clinton lost the primary? Were the halls of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland the previous week filled with people wearing Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio T-shirts? Not a chance.

After a few minutes, I figured it out. Clinton supporters didn’t wear T-shirts. They dressed professionally. Some sported a small Hillary button next to an American flag pin, but they otherwise looked like managers and corporate executives. Sanders supporters looked like hipsters who’d just spent the night on somebody else’s couch, and they appeared to be, on average, about 20 years younger than everyone else.

The data support my observations. Young primary voters overwhelmingly pulled the lever for Sanders, while older voters went overwhelmingly for Clinton. In New York, for instance, Sanders beat Clinton among voters under 30 by a whopping 53 points, yet Clinton still carried the state by 16 points.

Those aren’t the only political data that set young millennials apart from their elders. According to an exhaustive report by political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in the Journal of Democracy, young people today are considerably more authoritarian and antidemocratic by attitude and temperament than any other generational cohort, especially baby boomers. Only 30 percent think that it’s “essential” to live in a country with a democratic system of government, and a terrifying 24 percent actually think that a democratic system of government is a bad thing. Only 32 percent of millennials think that it’s “absolutely essential” that “civil rights protect people’s liberty.” According to a Pew Research Center report, 40 percent of millennials want the government to ban “offensive” speech.

“The decline in support for democracy,” Foa and Mounk write, “is not just a story of the young being more critical than the old; it is, in the language of survey research, owed to a ‘cohort’ effect rather than an ‘age’ effect.” In other words, millennials are likely to carry these ideas and attitudes with them for the rest of their lives. Their contempt for free speech is a stunning reversal of the Free Speech Movement on university campuses in the 1960s led by young boomers who fought hard to topple institutional censorship. Many of today’s young adults, by contrast, want to impose institutional censorship—not just on college campuses but across the nation.

I slipped into a Small Business Council meeting, attended by perhaps 150 people along with a handful participating in a panel. I saw plenty of Hillary buttons and small American flag pins. Nobody wore a Bernie T-shirt. In fact, no one in that room wore any kind of T-shirt. This was a room full of professionals, not unemployed college kids. It had the look and feel of a Rotary Club meeting.

By contrast with the unglamorous and somewhat dreary discussions going on at the Convention Center, the program at the Wells Fargo Center was a pep rally and commercial for TV. The arena is far removed from the city center, in a gigantic ocean of parking lots near two other stadiums. Federal and local authorities set up a perimeter a mile and a half away, manned by police officers who ensured that everyone who passed that point had the proper credentials. Protesters and would-be assassins could not get any closer without being arrested—or shot.

Those of us with credentials had to walk for a half-hour through blazing sunshine, without shade. Temperatures pushed 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. The air was as heavy and hostile as Baghdad’s. My clothes stuck to my skin. I could smell the tar bubbling on the asphalt. I envied, for once, the Sanders delegates in their soft shoes and T-shirts.

Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and heavily armed Secret Service agents manned metal detectors. Black jeeps with the words “Counter Terrorism” stenciled on the sides roamed inside the perimeter. Helicopters flew overhead. Snipers took up positions on the stadium roofs. I haven’t seen so much security anywhere in the world except on military bases in Iraq.

Read the rest in City Journal.

 

The Battle for Mosul is On

A coalition of Iraqi government forces, Christian militiamen, and Kurdish soldiers in home-made post-apocalyptic battle tanks are now on the outskirts of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and with air support from the US and Britain, they are poised to retake it from ISIS.

Mosul is the last Iraqi city still under ISIS control. Washington and Baghdad saved it for last because, with a normal population of more than two million people, it will likely prove the most difficult battle.

The number of ISIS fighters inside the city is estimated at less than 10,000, but they’ll be fighting guerrilla-style with booby traps, car bombs, IEDs and suicide bombers. ISIS has also dug in deep underground with a vast network of Vietcong- and Hezbollah-style tunnel networks. Rooting them out of there is going to be a nightmare.

The cities of Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi were purged with the help of Iranian-backed Shia militias. This time, Assyrian Christians and Kurds are backing up the Iraqis instead.

The Kurds are the best fighters in the region after the Israelis, and they are by far our most reliable allies. They are consistently on the right side of every conflict, against both secular tyrants like Saddam Hussein and all manner of religious totalitarians like Al Qaeda and ISIS.

And they are truly formidable fighters. Attacking Kurdish territory is as brain-dead as attempting an invasion of Texas. At the height of his power, Saddam Hussein had the fourth-largest army in the world, yet Kurdish fighters, thanks to a British and American no-fly zone, fought and won against Baghdad in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War with nothing but small arms.

They’re making their own tanks now, if “tank” is the right word for contraptions that appear air-lifted out of Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead. You can tell just by looking at them that they’re not as fireproof as an M1 Abrams, a Merkava, or a Russian T-4 Armata, but they don’t have to be. The Kurds are fighting terrorists, not the Wehrmacht.

ISIS is doomed. Fewer than 10,000 terrorists are currently facing off against almost 100,000 Kurdish and Iraqi fighters. They aren’t fighting “imperialists” this time, but indigenous Muslims and Christians, many of whom, especially on the Kurdish side, would be willing to fight with kitchen knives if they had to.

A Kurdish general says he expects the fighting to last roughly two months, which seems about right since taking back smaller Iraqi cities took a couple of weeks. However long it takes, ISIS is going to lose Mosul, just like it lost Tikrit and Fallujah.

“They will come back with a new name and they'll be more extreme and more barbaric,” Kurdish Lieutenant-Colonel Fariq Hama Faraj told the Military Times. “If you look to the history of these organizations we see that each one is more extreme than the last.”

That has been true so far, but it’s hard to imagine a nastier terrorist army than ISIS. The only thing limiting ISIS’ barbarism is its dearth of technology. Does anyone doubt for a moment that it would use nuclear weapons if it had them? If it had a superpower’s arsenal, mushroom clouds would have already risen over Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus, Tel Aviv, Brussels, Paris and Washington.

Even if ISIS were forced out of every last stronghold in both Syria and Iraq, it would still exist in some form, for sure, but the whole point of denying it territory, especially urban territory, is so it can’t amass military strength like a conventional state.

A lot of ISIS fighters are going to die, but they are part of a global organization and the survivors will fly away and land somewhere else like exploding mold spores. Some will hunker down elsewhere in Iraq. Some may head to Libya, others to Egypt’s increasingly anarchic Sinai peninsula.

Most will probably crawl back to Syria where they came from. ISIS is still going gangbusters there, especially in and around its “capital” in Raqqa. Contrary to popular belief—and propaganda out of the Kremlin—neither the Assad regime nor Vladimir Putin’s Russia are fighting ISIS. Their only concern is keeping the Arab Socialist Baath Party propped up in its rump state in Damascus and along the Mediterranean. ISIS still has a free hand to do whatever it wants out in the desert.

Some fleeing ISIS fighters will probably make a beeline for Europe and the United States. It won’t be easy for them to get here. The State Department has a notoriously difficult time vetting refugees, but more ISIS members than ever are now known to foreign intelligence agencies. Syrian rebels, for instance, have handed vast amounts of intelligence on ISIS’ network of foreign fighters to the US while other troves of information, much of it also about foreign fighters, including American citizens, have been obtained directly by the US military.

It won’t be easy for these people to get here when they run out of Mosul, but you can bet your bottom dollar that at least some of them are going to try.

Slow Blogging This Week

Two weeks ago, my mother-in-law died of liver and kidney failure.

My wife and I have just returned home from Southern California where we scattered her mother’s ashes at sea off the coast of Ventura. She is doing okay, but her father is having a much harder time. Her parents were married for 49 years.

There’s plenty going on in the world right now, but it’s going to take me a couple of days to catch up and get back in the swing of things. Thanks for being patient.

What Just Happened in Colombia?

By a razor-thin margin of less than half a percentage point, Colombian voters narrowly rejected a proposed peace plan that would have formally ended the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere.

Almost everyone thought the referendum would pass, that it was a mere formality after years of painstaking negotiations in Cuba, but no.

The UK’s Independent calls the vote “Farcxit.” Indeed, the peso crashed hard against the dollar for the same reason the British pound fell after Brexit—international markets hate uncertainty, especially where war and peace are concerned.

“If Colombians were dinosaurs,” one supporter of the peace deal said on social media, “we would vote for the meteorite.”

For more than five decades, the Soviet- and narco-backed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has waged a brutal insurgency against the Colombian government and its people. When Soviet largesse dried up at the end of the Cold War, the guerrillas turned to kidnapping and drug trafficking to fund their insurgency, and they’ve used just about every terrorist tactic short of suicide-bombings since the very beginning. More than 220,000 people have been killed since the war started in 1964, and more than seven million have been displaced.

So why did a slim majority of the population vote “no” in a national referendum to end the war once and for all?

Because the peace deal was too nice to the FARC.

Amnesty was part of the package, of course. All the FARC leaders could have stayed out of prison if they confessed and made reparations. Worse, the peace treaty would have given the FARC ten seats in Congress—five in the Senate and five in the House—for ten years.

Plenty of wars end with amnesty for the losing side, including the American Civil War. Confederate soldiers, officers and political leaders surrendered partly because they lost on the battlefield but also because they knew they’d be citizens with equal rights rather than corpses, prisoners or subjects. President Andrew Johnson, who followed Abraham Lincoln in the White House, issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon to all but a few who had participated in the rebellion against Washington. The war would have lasted longer and ended even more bitterly otherwise.

Giving the FARC ten seats in Congress, however, would have rewarded them for their violence. Colombia is a democratic country. The only people who deserve seats in the Congress are those with enough popular support to win a proper election.

The FARC is and has always been communist. Communists prefer bullets and barbed wire to ballots. Every communist nation in the history of the world has been a police state. All communist rulers murdered their way into power and murdered and jailed opponents to stay in power. Rewarding the FARC’s kidnapping and bloodshed with an unearned share of an otherwise functioning democracy would have been a travesty far worse than amnesty.

Former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe led the political opposition to this treaty, which should surprise no one. He’s the man who turned the conflict around during his presidency between 2002 and 2010. He did it by clearing and holding guerilla-occupied territory, ramping up the police and army presence in dangerous areas, improving the government’s human rights record, assisting internally displaced people and convincing murderous right-wing militias to disarm. Call him Colombia’s David Petraeus. He knows how the beat the guerrillas and is confident that they can be whipped even harder if need be.

If I lived in Colombia, I probably would have voted for the peace deal with extreme reservations. At the same time, I’d probably be relieved that it failed by a miniscule margin because it will force the FARC to accept harsher—and much fairer—terms.

Make no mistake. The FARC is willing to negotiate because the government spent a good solid decade kicking its ass. It has been losing and losing badly for a long time and has absolutely no chance of a miltary or political victory, ever.

Even without a final peace treaty, violence in Colombia has dropped so sharply during the last couple of years that the country is becoming a must-visit tourist destination. The city of Medellín, once among the most violent and hellish on earth, has won a number of international awards for its urban dynamism, including the City of Year Award from the Urban Land Institute, the Lee Kwan Yew World City Prize, and another for urban design from Harvard University.  

We’ll know the Syrian civil war is well and truly over, whether or not it says so on paper, if Aleppo ever wins these kinds of prizes.

The Colombian vote was so close that the results were in range of a rounding error. Just 50.24 percent voted no. Another treaty with just slightly harsher terms should at least narrowly pass, and it might even pass by a lot.

So the FARC leaders are spectacularly unlikely to ramp up the violence again. They’ll go back to Havana and swallow that pill if the alternative is more fighting that they can’t possibly win and that could easily lead to their death, imprisonment or permanent exile.

I could be wrong, of course, but if they’re willing to risk that by setting the country on fire again, I’ll eat my hat. Colombians are used to war. Most of them have never known anything else. If it takes a little more fighting to end this thing properly, they’ll do it. And they’ll win. 

Trump Botches Iraq

Donald Trump hit Hillary Clinton hard on foreign policy during the first presidential debate Monday night.

“Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS,” he said. “Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out -- what, they shouldn't have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed.”

Bernie Sanders has made a similar argument. Lots of people on both the left and the right have made similar arguments. Democrats love to blame ISIS on George W. Bush for invading Iraq, while Republican partisans blame ISIS on Obama and Clinton for withdrawing from Iraq prematurely.

They’re all wrong for one simple reason.

ISIS is a product of the Syrian war, not the Iraq war.

The Syrian civil war started in 2011, eight years after the United States invaded Iraq and three years after President Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that included a deadline for all American troops to leave the country. All combat forces were out in 2010. Only a small “transitional force” remained until 2011.

Whether or not invading was a good idea, leaving almost certainly was, and in any case, it was inevitable. The war was over. Americans didn’t want to be there anymore. Iraqis didn’t want us hanging around either. Public opinion in both countries mandated withdrawal.

I visited Iraq seven times as a foreign correspondent. On my final trip, in 2008, I was bored. It was a hard country to write about then because it was more or less stable. The various militias and terrorist organizations had been routed. If the Iraqis had their act together, they’d be in fine shape by now after eight years of peace.

An entirely separate chain of events led to the rise of ISIS. It started in Tunisia when a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi in the remote town of Sidi Bouzid doused himself with gasoline and lit a match to protest the crooked authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Non-violent protests swept across the country like a human tsunami. After a short and furious month, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. Tunisia has enjoyed several free and fair elections in the meantime and is currently governed by a secular center-left government.

Tunisia is the one Arab Spring success story, and ousting Ben Ali triggered copy-cat revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria. All failed in their own way, though no revolution has failed as spectacularly as Syria’s.

What began as a non-violent protest movement for reform against Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party transformed over time into an armed insurrection. Relatively moderate forces fought both alongside and against Islamist factions like the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Foreign fighters poured into the country from all over the world, and three years into the bloodshed and mayhem, in 2014, ISIS declared its “caliphate” in the Syrian city of Raqqa in the wake of the withdrawal of Assad’s armed forces.

That’s how it started, and the Syrian civil war is emphatically not a product of the Iraq war. Follow the international chain of causation backwards and you won’t end up in Baghdad, but in Tunisia. ISIS—or something that looks and sounds a lot like it—would have sprung up in Syria even if Iraq were an Arab version of Switzerland.

To be sure, ISIS is the reconstituted and rebranded version of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which reared its ugly head in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein, so in that sense it does appear, at a glance anyway, that ISIS is the product of the Iraq war rather than the Syrian war, but here’s the thing: Al Qaeda in Iraq effectively ceased to exist for years after losing to the American and Iraqi armed forces in the mid-to-late 2000s. It lost every scrap of territory and its entire leadership was erased.

If ISIS didn’t exist, and if Al Qaeda in Iraq never existed, the Nusra Front, which is the Syrian franchise of Al Qaeda, would be recruiting all the foreign fighters, and the Nusra Front has never even set foot in Iraq.

Donald Trump (along with Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson and so many others) talks about Iraq as if the Middle East would be fine if the Baath Party were left in place in Baghdad. It’s a frankly ludicrous proposition. The Baath Party is still in place next-door in Syria, and how’s that working out?

These kinds of governments can only keep a lid on things until they can’t.

Trump is partly right in one sense, at least. If Presidents Bush and Obama had acted differently, and if Iraq were somehow—miraculously—stable, ISIS would not have been able to invade and conquer the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi from Raqqa. ISIS (or something like it) would still exist, but might be confined to Syria.

How much of an improvement would that be? By focusing all its attention on Syria instead of spreading itself thin across two separate countries, ISIS could very well  control twice as much territory in Syria and might even have overthrown the Assad regime by now. (We could speculate all day, but nobody can possibly know.)

Anyway, ISIS is spreading all over the world from Syria, not just into Iraq. It has roughly 20,000 fighters. The overwhelming majority aren’t from either Syria or Iraq. It’s a genuinely international terrorist army, forged in the vacuum left behind by the cleansing of Assad’s army in the Syrian Desert.

At least it’s not spreading everywhere. ISIS controls no territory in Tunisia. It controls no territory in Morocco or Jordan or Algeria. ISIS and organizations like it can only conquer and hold ground in failed states and other anarchic places, of which there are legion.

We’d have a deadly serious ISIS problem on our hands even if Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders had been running the White House for the past sixteen years and never went anywhere near Iraq. The problem would have a different shape and different details, sure, but let’s not kid ourselves here. There is no policy recipe that any American president can come up with that will prevent failing Middle Eastern countries from failing. Nor is there any conceivable policy prescription that can stop ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar entities from recruiting the disaffected, the radical, the extreme, and the psychopathic.

America’s available foreign policy options are so narrow at this point that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would likely make similar decisions about tackling ISIS next year. They’d both use the Air Force and drone strikes, and they’d both assist local ground forces like the Kurdish Peshmerga. They’d both work with Vladimir Putin’s Russia whether they want to or not, they’d both have to deal with the increasingly deranged Turkish president whether they like it or not, and neither are remotely likely to mount a full scale invasion of Iraq or Syria or anywhere else.

It’s not America’s fault that that part of the world is a mess. It’s the fault of the people who live there. When we aren’t busy taking partisan shots at whichever political party we love to hate most, we all know it’s true, so please, for once, let’s stop blaming America and Americans for what the Middle East does to itself. 

The United States has made plenty of mistakes over there, no question about it, and only a stubborn fool refuses to learn anything from them, but Iraq is so dysfunctional that it would still be in catastrophic shape even the United States did everything right. And if Iraq had its act together, it wouldn’t matter how many mistakes Americans made—Iraq would be fine.

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