Quantcast

Let Iraq Die: A Case for Partition

Iraq is finished, an expiring, cancerous nation on life support. Pulling the plug might be merciful. It might be cruel. But either way, it’s time to accept the fact that this country is likely to die and that we’ll all be better off when it does.

The Kurds in the north, who make up roughly twenty percent of the population, want out. They never wished to be part of Iraq in the first place. To this day, they still call the bathroom the “Winston Churchill,” in sarcastic homage to the former British prime minister who shackled them to Baghdad. Since the early 1990s, they’ve had their own government and autonomous region in the northern three provinces, and they held a referendum in 2005 in which 98.7 percent voted to secede and declare independence. The only reason they haven’t finally pulled the trigger is because it hasn’t been safe; the Turks—who fear the contagion of Kurdish independence inside their own country—have threatened to invade if they did.

The Sunni Arabs in the west, who make up another rough twenty percent of Iraq, aren’t itching for independence necessarily, but they sure as hell aren’t willing to live under the thumb of Shiite-dominated Baghdad any longer. Millions of them live now under the brutal totalitarian rule of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has declared its own state not only in a huge swath of Iraq but also in much of northeastern Syria. ISIS either controls or has a large presence in more than fifty percent of Iraq at the time of this writing.

Iraq’s Shiite majority, meanwhile, is terrified of its Sunni minority, which oppressed them mercilessly during Saddam Hussein’s terrifying rule and which now flies the black flag of al-Qaeda and promises unending massacres.

President Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq. For years—and for perfectly understandable reasons—he was very reluctant to wade into that country’s eternally dysfunctional internal problems, but even he was persuaded to declare war against ISIS in the fall of 2014 when its fighters made a beeline for Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region and the only stable and America-friendly place in the country.

But however engaged the US chooses to be, the current war in Iraq is likely to drag on for years. If Iraq somehow manages to survive its current conflict in one piece, another will almost certainly follow. Its instability is both devastating and chronic. Far better at this point if Iraq simply terminates itself as a state and lets its various constituent groups peaceably go their own way, as Yugoslavia did after its own catastrophic series of wars in the 1990s.

In his limited response to ISIS after its seizure of Mosul in early June, Obama called for, among other things, Iraq’s “territorial integrity” to be respected.

Obviously it would have been preferable had ISIS not invaded from Syria and conquered Iraqi territory, but generally speaking there is nothing holy about Iraq’s current borders. It has never been a coherent nation-state. Nor, for that matter, has Syria. Both are geographic abstractions that never would have existed had European colonial mapmakers not created them in the early twentieth century for their own self-interested reasons, now long obsolete and forgotten. Had Middle Easterners drawn their own borders, whether or not they did so peacefully, the map would be strikingly different—and more organic.

As Lebanon Renaissance Foundation co-founder Eli Khoury put it, “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron. It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.”

Theoretically, Iraqis and Syrians still could have forged collective identities and ideals of patriotic nationalism between the time of their nations’ founding and now, but that didn’t happen in their neighborhood any more than it did in the former Yugoslavia. The dictators of Syria, Iraq, and Yugoslavia all tried to paper over the disunity in their countries with a theoretically binding international ideology—Baathist Arab nationalism, communism—but totalitarian regimes always crash in the end, and their ideologies inevitably go down along with them.

In the absence of tolerant pluralism and democratic political liberalism, the basic incoherence of these states guaranteed one of two outcomes. They’ll either be governed by “centralized iron,” as Khoury put it, or they’ll come apart at the seams. Centralized iron only holds incoherent nations together so long. Removing Hussein blew Iraq apart, and Syria blew apart even without its tyrant Bashar al-Assad being forced into exile or dragged from his palace.

Iraq’s current troubles began just one day after the US finished withdrawing its forces, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of planning terrorist attacks against Shiite targets and of murdering Shiite officials. Hashimi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan before security forces could grab him and now lives in Turkey.

In 2012, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death, along with his son-in-law Ahmed Qahtan.

Is he guilty? Did he do it? I have no idea. Iraq has no shortage of vicious individuals, inside and outside the government, willing to use deadly force both overtly and covertly against rivals. Some of Hashimi’s bodyguards confessed, but it’s entirely possible they were coerced or even tortured.

Whether or not Hashimi was guilty, Shiite militias carried out death squad attacks against Sunnis all over Baghdad both before and after this happened. Iraq’s sectarian violence never entirely dissipated during the American occupation, and after the withdrawal it rose again.

The following year, Maliki’s government accused Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi of the same thing Hashimi had been accused of. Some of his bodyguards were also arrested and charged with committing terrorist acts. But now the conspiracy theories were getting ridiculous. Issawi was and is known as a reasonable and peaceable man. Accusing him and his people of terrorism is like accusing Alan Greenspan of operating his own secret prison on the side when he was running the Fed.

Issawi convinced plenty of the implosive chaos at the heart of the Maliki government when he said, “The tyrant of Baghdad will not keep quiet until he targets all of his opponents.” If the finance minister, of all people, could be accused of something like this, any Sunni leader or even civilian could be rounded up and placed in front of a Stalinist show trial.

Click here to read the rest!

Iraq Wants More American Bombs Dropped on Iraq

My how things change. The Iraqi government is cheesed off at the United States right now because Washington isn’t dropping bombs on Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

“The Americans continue procrastinating about the time it will take to liberate the country.” That’s from Ali al-Alaa, an aid to the new prime minister Haider al-Abadi, to the New York Times yesterday.

Tikrit is occupied by ISIS. Baghdad wants it back. Washington would like to see Baghdad get it back, but the Pentagon has good reasons to keep its finger off the fire button right now. The Iraqi armed forces consist partly of Shia militias led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters who are firing artillery and even operating surveillance drones.

The Iranian-Iraqi coalition has made almost no progress at all in Tikrit. ISIS laced the area with mines and is dispatching suicide bombers with reckless abandon--another bit of irony. Iran’s Lebanese client Hezbollah pioneered suicide bombings in the Middle East during the 1980s, and now that very deplorable tactic is being used against its own architects closer to home.

Still, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey says Iranian support of Iraq’s push into Tikrit might be “a positive thing” if it doesn’t exacerbate sectarian tensions. Okay. But in what alternate universe will Iranian armed forces and undisciplined Shia militias not exacerbate sectarian tensions? Tikrit is a Sunni city—and a particularly hard one at that. ISIS massacred more than 1,000 of Baghdad’s soldiers there last year when it captured the city. The residents, whether or not they support ISIS, have every reason on earth to fear retribution. ISIS wouldn’t have been able to conquer Sunni territory in Iraq in the first place if people in that part of the country didn’t already think Tehran and its proxies wanted to subjugate them forever.  

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gets it right. “Sectarianism is what brought us to the point where we are,” he said in testimony on Capitol Hill, “and so I do look at it with concern. We are watching it very closely.”

The offense against Tikrit is a prologue to a planned Iraqi assault later this year against ISIS-held Mosul, the second-largest city in the country. The Iraqis would be well-advised to enlist the Kurdish Peshmerga as its primary backup instead of Iranians. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds don’t get along famously, but at least they aren’t divided by sect. (The overwhelming majority of the Kurds also are Sunnis.) And the Kurds are good fighters. They liberated the northern part of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s army after the first Persian Gulf War, and they’re holding their own against ISIS right now with American air cover.

So far they’re the only ground fighters in the region who can hold their own against ISIS. And the city of Mosul is practically walking distance from the border of their autonomous region. They’re even more motivated than Baghdad to keep the wolf away from their door.

In the meantime, the sectarian maelstrom that engulfed Iraq in civil war after the removal of Saddam Hussein is building again and will be with us indefinitely.

ISIS' Next Target

ISIS has announced that Lebanon will be the next state to fall under the sway of its “caliphate.” According to Beirut's Daily Star newspaper, the only reason ISIS hasn't attacked yet in force is because they haven't decided on the mission's commander.

The Lebanese army is one of the least effective in the Middle East—and that's saying something in a region where the far more capable Syrian and Iraqi armies are utterly failing to safeguard what should be their own sovereign territory.

So France is going to send a three billion dollar package of weapons to Lebanon and the Saudis are going to pay for it. It won't solve the problem any more than a full-body cast will cure cancer, but it beats standing around and not even trying.

It may seem surprising at first that Riyadh is willing to fund a Lebanese Maginot Line. Saudi Arabia is the most culturally conservative Arab country and Lebanon is the most liberal, partly because of its one-third Christian minority, but also because Lebanon's Sunni Muslims are, for the most part, Mediterranean merchants rather than isolated desert-dwellers. They've been exposed to cosmopolitan ideas and culture for centuries while most Saudis outside the Hejaz region on the Red Sea have been hermetically sealed off from the wider world and its ways for millennia.

Despite the vast cultural differences between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, the Saudis want Beirut to remain exactly as it is—a freewheeling Arabic-speaking “Amsterdam” or “Hong Kong” on the Med. The Saudis vacation there in droves when they need a break from their fanatically conservative homeland. The country is like a pressure release valve. If they were to lose it, they'd have to holiday in France where they feel profoundly unwelcome.

But aside from all that, the Saudis feel just as uneasy about ISIS as everyone else. Never mind the ideological overlap between the upstart jihadists and the Wahhabi-backed monarchy. ISIS threatens every single government in the region. It would make permanent alliances with none and conquer all if it could.

The Lebanese, of course, are in far more immediate danger. They can feel ISIS' hot breath on their necks. The army has been scrapping with them along the Syrian border for some time now. A majority of Lebanon's population is either Christian, Shia, or Druze, and all three populations rightly see ISIS as a potentially genocidal threat to their very existence. Even the Sunnis, though, fear and loathe ISIS. Other than the nominal sectarian sameness—ISIS also is Sunni—Lebanon's culturally liberal Sunnis have little more in common with ISIS than the French or Italians do.

A serious invasion of Lebanon by ISIS could unleash a bloodbath that makes the civil war in Syria look like a bar fight with pool sticks and beer mugs. It would be tantamount to a Nazi invasion. Every family in Lebanon is armed to the gills thanks to the state being too weak and divided to provide basic security, but people anywhere in the world facing psychopathic mass-murderers will fight with kitchen knives and even their fingernails and teeth if they have to.

The only good thing that might emerge from an attempted ISIS invasion is that the eternally fractious Lebanese might finally realize they have enough in common with each other to band together for survival and kindle something that resembles a national identity for the first time in their history.

Foreign armies don't do well in Lebanon over the long term. The Israelis managed to invade and occupy a large part of the country during the civil war in 1982 and even exiled Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, but they ended up fighting a grinding counterinsurgency against Hezbollah until 2000. The Syrians invaded and dominated the rest of the country, but the biggest demonstrations in the history of the Middle East forced the Assad regime into a humiliating retreat in 2005. Those are just the most recent examples. At the mouth of the Dog River is a mural of sorts. Seventeen conquering armies carved inscriptions into the stone cliffs congratulating themselves for seizing new territory. All, Ozymandias-like, have been vanquished.

So ISIS will eventually lose if thrusts into Lebanon, but the cost could be unspeakable. Few of Lebanon's prior invaders murdered innocent people with such gleeful ferocity. If ISIS makes any headway at all in that country, the rest of us will see just how barbaric they really are when they violently encounter large numbers of people unlike themselves. And the odds that the West will get sucked even deeper into the great war of the Eastern Mediterranean will only loom larger. 

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Egypt Unites Against ISIS

The Libyan branch of ISIS massacred 21 Egyptian Christians over the weekend. A knife-wielding executioner frog-marched the bound and blind-folded captives to a beach in front of a camera, said “safety for you crusaders is something you can only wish for,” and cut off their heads. The Egyptian government responded at once and attacked ISIS positions in the city of Derna near the border with at least two waves of air strikes.

Egyptian Christians in Libya are hardly “crusaders.” Like Mexican migrant workers in the US, they’re leaving desperate conditions back home and looking for jobs. Not that ISIS will ever see it that way. From their point of view, all Christians on earth, including secular Christians, are “crusaders” fit only for slaughter.

“Avenging Egyptian blood and punishing criminals and murderers is our right and duty,” an Egyptian military spokesman said in a statement broadcast on television.

Avenging Egyptian blood, as he put it, is hardly enough to stop ISIS, but there’s something else, something deeper, encouraging about Cairo’s response: a Muslim army is bombing Muslims to avenge murdered Christians. How many of us would have expected that after the Arab Spring soured and briefly brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power?

Egypt has been an emergency room case since Gamal Abdel Nasser and his so-called “Free Officers” overthrew King Farouk in 1952, but it has something most Arab countries do not—a coherent national identity that transcends sect and tribe. The place is riven by sometimes violent sectarian hatreds, and its Christian minority hasn’t been entirely comfortable there for a long time, yet the nation is nevertheless bound together by historic communal memory that stretches back to the time of the Pharaohs.

It isn’t prone to civil war the way Iraq and Syria are and it never has been. The Nile River and its Mediterranean delta are far enough removed from potentially dangerous neighbors that a sense of safety and community can flourish, at least during good times. Iraq, on the other hand, is wedged between large imperial-minded powers—in particular the Persians and Turks—and it’s as wide open and defenseless as Russia.

“While Egypt lies parallel and peaceful to the routes of human traffic,” British explorer Freya Stark wrote during World War II, “Iraq is from earliest times a frontier province, right-angled and obnoxious to the predestined paths of men.”

“Mesopotamia cut across one of history’s bloodiest migration routes,” Robert Kaplan added in his outstanding book, The Revenge of Geography, “pitting man against man and breeding pessimism as a consequence…Whether it was the Achaemenid Persian kings Darius and Xerxes who ruled Babylon, or the Mongol hordes that later swept down to overrun the land, or the long-running Ottoman rule that ended with the First World War, Iraq’s has been a tragic history of occupation. The Tigris and Euphrates, which run through Iraq, have long constituted a frontier zone where various groups, often the residue of these foreign occupations, clashed and overlapped.”

Iraq’s chronically fractious condition makes it a perfect incubator for ISIS. Libya, likewise, has no coherent national identity or even a coherent national government. But Egypt, despite its seemingly endless dysfunction, is a bona fide nation-state. The likelihood that it will become a theocratic power like Iran any time soon or a schismatic dismemberment case like Syria and Iraq is low. Partly that’s because the military is the most powerful and least dysfunctional institution in the country, but also—and just as important—because the majority of Egypt’s Christians and Muslims feel at least some ties of kinship with each other even if those feelings are sometimes submerged and forgotten.

There’s nothing like barbaric mass murder to remind regular people that they have things in common with each other that should never be taken for granted. The ISIS view of the world is without a doubt genocidal. Shia Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, Alawites, Jews, and insufficiently orthodox Sunni Muslims will all find themselves in mass graves if they’re ever captured or occupied. Not even aid workers are safe. Hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims have already fled ISIS rampages in Syria and Iraq. Whether or not the average Egyptian is aware of this fact, the military certainly is. Of that I assure you.

Egypt is hardly the only country threatened by the expansion of ISIS in Libya. After beheading 21 Christians, the man in the massacre video pointed his knife toward Europe and said, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah's permission.”

ISIS will not conquer Rome. It’s impossible. Not even Russia, with all its formidable might, could conquer Rome any time soon. But ISIS just might be bloody-minded and delusional enough to give it a shot. They can certainly wreak havoc and mayhem. Their supporters already have in Paris and Copenhagen and might have pulled off something in Belgium as well had the police not conducted successful night raids in January.

Libya, however, is up for grabs. ISIS took over the entire city of Derna, where more than 100,000 people live, back in November. They've established training camps throughout the country. They control radio and television stations in Sirte. Their sinister enforcers go on “morality patrols” in the capital. And they took credit for a rash of terrorist attacks across Libya even before releasing their snuff film over the weekend. 

They don’t have a proper conventional-style army in Libya as they do in Syria and Iraq, but recently ISIS was no more than an elusive shadowy presence even in those countries. So yes, Libya—or at least parts of it—could very well be conquered by ISIS. Parts of it have already been conquered by ISIS.

Egypt’s army is both enormous and state-of-the-art by the Middle East’s standards. If any Arab country were to become a mini regional superpower again, it would be Egypt. It wouldn’t be a benign power necessarily, but it wouldn’t be entirely hostile to American interests either. Not if it’s run by the military.

For all the faults of its coup leader General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—he is without a doubt a far bigger brute than Hosni Mubarak—at least he won’t be backing ISIS any time soon, not even implicitly through inaction. If Egyptian Muslims and Christians can set their differences at least on occasion when facing monsters like ISIS, Washington and Cairo should be able to repair the post-coup rift at least slightly. It wouldn’t be the first time a monstrous enemy inspired an awkward alliance, nor will it be the last.

No Proxy War Against Russia

Senator Ted Cruz thinks the United States should arm Ukraine so it can beat Russian-backed separatists in the east. As much as we’d love to help plucky Ukraine resist the giant bear to the north—and we have a solid precedent under our belts—it’s a terrible idea.

Backing the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s worked smashingly well. Moscow learned the hard way that it could no longer project enough hard power to shield its vassal states from local uprisings and everything fell apart almost instantly.

Afghanistan was hardly the only country in the Soviet sphere disgruntled with communist rule. Eastern Europeans never acquiesced to it in the first place. They had it imposed on them by the victorious Stalin atop the ashes of the Nazi regime. The Hungarian Revolution in 1956, which began as a seemingly harmless student revolt, brought down the local Russian puppet state. Moscow panicked, deployed thousands of soldiers and tanks, and reimposed the brutal old order. It did the same during the Prague Spring in 1968.

But after the debacle in Afghanistan, Russia lacked the resources and will to repeat it. Nothing could hold back the rising tide of mass discontent in Europe, and barely six months later the Berlin Wall fell.

But Ukraine isn’t Afghanistan, and it is not Hungary. It’s where Russian civilization was born, as the medieval state Kievan Rus in the 10th century. For Russians, losing Kiev to Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union was a bit like Jews losing Jerusalem. Their toleration of a sovereign Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet system was always conditional on Kiev taking orders from Moscow. As soon as that ended with the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych last year, so did its independence.

Russia will no sooner surrender to American-backed forces in Ukraine than we would surrender to a Russian-backed insurgency in Vermont. The situation is hardly analogous—unlike Vermont, Ukraine is a country—but from Vladimir Putin’s point of view it’s precisely analogous.

This is all about NATO expansion which scares the daylights out of the Russians. It shouldn’t, but it does, and it’s not hard to understand why. Just ask yourself how the British would feel if the USSR won the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact expanded to Paris and Brussels. London would feel like it’s “next.” London would have cause to feel like it’s “next.” That’s exactly how it looked from Moscow’s point of view when former vassals like Lithuania and Estonia joined up with Germany and France—and the United States.

It’s a paranoid analysis, but Russia has always been paranoid.

“I believe the Russians are mobilizing right now for a war that they think is going to happen in five or six years,” said US Army Commander in Europe Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges. “Not that they’re going to start a war in five or six years, but I think they are anticipating that things are going to happen, and that they will be in a war of some sort, of some scale, with somebody within the next five or six years.”

The solution from Russia’s point of view—as always—is to either control or destabilize as many “buffer” states as it can. Any of its smaller neighbors that get a little too uppity will find themselves undermined from within or outright invaded, and in the modern era they’re likely to find scraps of territory “annexed” by Moscow to indefinitely prevent them from joining NATO. No one in NATO wants to admit a nation as a new member state that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. It’s dangerous. That’s ultimately what Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was about, and it’s the main reason Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year.

Putin has already achieved his primary objective and doesn’t need to do much else at this point except not lose the rest of the war. If the United States gets even indirectly involved, he’ll just ramp it up. He needs to win in Ukraine far more than we do, and unlike us he’s more than willing to deploy his own forces directly.

There is no chance Ukraine could ever win a total war against Russia. All it can do is make continued Russian intervention too costly. While it may appear that arming Ukraine will make Russian intervention too costly, it will only inflame Moscow’s anxiety and make losing Ukraine too costly for Russia.

Maybe—maybe—if Kiev wins the war in the east on its own and cedes lost territory to Russia, a Ukrainian rump state could join NATO and prevent something like this from happening again in the future, but that’s only remotely possible if Putin doesn’t feel like he must best the West in his own “near abroad” or lose everything.

ISIS Meets Steel

The idea that what happens in Syria stays in Syria is as dead as Saddam Hussein, but ISIS is meeting steel as it expands. 

The Lebanese army is facing as many as 3,000 fighters in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains along the Syrian border and Nicholas Blanford reports a war of attrition is taking place there. In late January the army “roasted” ISIS with artillery, according to a military advisor he spoke to, then picked up “the smoking remains.”

Meanwhile, the Jordanian air force flew devastating sorties over the Islamic State’s “capital” of Raqqa in Syria yesterday to retaliate for the gruesome murder of its fighter pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh.

Farther afield, ISIS attacked and killed at least 30 Egyptian security men in the Sinai and killed 10 at a hotel in the Libya’s capital Tripoli.

It should have been obvious from the very beginning that a terrorist army like ISIS threatens the entire region and points well beyond, but somehow it wasn’t. The prevailing view in the West held that ISIS and the Assad regime might somehow cancel each other out (as if war has ever worked that way in the past), but even right next door a large percentage Jordanians opposed their country’s involvement in this fight. Yet after ISIS put al-Kaseasbeh in a cage, burned him alive, and uploaded the video onto the Internet, everything changed. The mood in the capital Amman is eerily similar to that in New York City and Washington DC shortly after September 11, 2001. “These criminals aim to stamp out life and rights everywhere,” King Abdullah said. “Their hate and murder has reached Asia, Europe, Africa, America and Australia.”

Lebanon is also findings its spine. The army is entirely useless when the country’s various communities slug it out with each other. Everyone fears—correctly, I should add—that the army might fragment into opposing militias if the leadership takes one side or another in a sectarian conflict. It happened during the civil war and could easily happen again. But Lebanon isn’t Syria, and ISIS is opposed almost monolithically in Lebanon, even among their “natural” Sunni constituency.   

ISIS is expanding its deadly operations at an alarming rate, but it’s also finding out the hard way that not every country in the Middle East and North Africa is as soft a target as Syria and Iraq. Libya might be. It has been precarious, to say the least, ever since Moammar Qaddafi was lynched outside Misrata in 2011. But taking on Egypt, Jordan, and the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq is almost as perilous for ISIS as taking on the Israelis.

Lebanon is more vulnerable—its soldiers are not especially competent—but ISIS would require a diabolical miracle to make any headway in the parts of Lebanon where Christians, Shias, and Druze live. Every family in the country has at least one rifle in the closet, and they’d correctly see ISIS as a potentially genocidal threat to their existence.

Washington’s backing of anti-ISIS proxies in Syria may be a fool’s game this late in the war, but the Kurds, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Lebanese—and maybe even the Libyans—should receive all the help from the Pentagon they can get.

Moscow is Still Churlish About the Loss of East Germany

The Russian government is considering a proposal to condemn the “annexation” of East Germany by West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Even Vladimir Putin knows the only reason East Germany ever existed as a separate political entity is because the Russians occupied it an imposed a totalitarian puppet regime on its subjects.

The Russians are just mad that the rest of the world won’t recognize their annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, and Germany has been their favorite Euro punching bag since Hitler invaded the Motherland. 

Walter Russell Mead explained Putin’s psychology vis-à-vis Germany last week in The American Interest.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, western power in Europe rests on two platforms. There is the global American hegemony, and then there is Germany, which has emerged as America’s sub-hegemon in Europe. Putin thinks that the Germans aren’t wise enough to rule Europe well, strong enough to rule it by force, or rich enough to rule it through economics and that Washington doesn’t understand that or, if it does, that Washington itself is too distracted or too weak to care. Either way, from Putin’s point of view, Germany’s position is much, much weaker than either Berlin or Washington understands.

[…]

Putin sees Germany as the weaker, nearer, and, in the short term, more dangerous obstacle to his ambitions than the United States. His current policy is aimed incrementally at reducing American hegemony; it is directly aimed at disrupting what Putin sees as Germany’s attempt to create a new post-1990 order in its image and under its aegis.

Germany, of course, doesn’t threaten Russia even remotely. No nation threatens Russia right now even remotely. But Russians are conditioned to fearing neighbors beyond the buffer states they control, and they don’t control much of anything in Eastern Europe anymore except Belarus and Transnistria. Its enormous flat geography has left it vulnerable to invasions from every direction but the Arctic for centuries.

Russia is no more likely to do anything about West Germany’s “annexation” of East Germany decades ago than Germany or the U.S. will reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year. This silly rhetorical stunt is just a healthy reminder that—nevermind the geography—Russia is not part of Europe.

New Audio Book Available

My first book, The Road to Fatima Gate, is now available as an audiobook from Audible and Amazon.com.

It is narrated by the fantastic Steven Roy Grimsley who also narrated the audio versions of Where the West Ends and Resurrection.

The Truth About American Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s new film, American Sniper, is a blisteringly accurate portrayal of the American war in Iraq. Unlike most films in the genre, it sidesteps the politics and focuses on an individual: the late, small-town Texan, Chris Kyle, who joined the Navy SEALs after 9/11 and did four tours of duty in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. He is formally recognized as the deadliest sniper in American history, and the film, based on his bestselling memoir, dramatizes the war he felt duty-bound to fight and his emotionally wrenching return home, with post-traumatic stress.

The movie has become a flashpoint for liberal critics. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore dismissed the film out-of-hand because snipers, he says, are “cowards.” “American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds,” comic actor Seth Rogen tweeted, referring to a fake Hitler propaganda film about a Nazi sniper, though he backtracked and said he actually liked the film, that it only reminded him of Nazi propaganda. Writing for the Guardian, Lindy West is fair to Eastwood and the film but cruel to its subject. Kyle, she says, was “a hate-filled killer” and “a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people.”

The Navy confirms that Kyle shot and killed 160 combatants, most of whom indeed had brown skin. While he was alive, he said that he enjoyed his job. In one scene in the movie, Kyle, played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, refers to “savages,” and it’s not clear if he means Iraqis in general or just the enemies he’s fighting.

But let’s take a step back and leave the politics of aside. All psychologically normal people feel at least some hatred for the enemy in a war zone. This is true whether they’re on the “right” side or the “wrong” side. It’s not humanly possible to like or feel neutral toward people who are trying to kill you. Race hasn’t the faintest thing to do with it. Does anyone seriously believe Kyle would have felt differently if white Russians or Serbs, rather than “brown” Arabs, were shooting at him? How many residents of New York’s Upper West Side had a sympathetic or nuanced view of al-Qaida on September 11, 2001? Some did—inappropriately, in my view—but how many would have been able to keep it up if bombs exploded in New York City every day, year after year?

Kyle had other reasons to hate his enemies, aside from their desire to kill him. In American Sniper, we see him in Fallujah and Ramadi fighting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, the bloody precursor to ISIS. His immediate nemesis is “the Butcher,” a fictional character whose favorite weapon is a power drill. The Butcher confronts an Iraqi family who spoke to Americans and says “if you talk to them, you die with them.” He tortures their child to death with his drill.

Kyle kills a kid, too, but in a radically different context. The boy is running toward Americans with a live grenade in his hand. “They’ll fry you if you’re wrong,” his spotter tells him. “They’ll send you to Leavenworth.” He’s right. Kyle would have been fried, at least figuratively, if he shot an innocent, unarmed civilian—regardless of age—with premeditation. In a later scene, he has another child in his sights: the child picks up a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and aims it at an American Humvee. “Drop it,” Kyle says under his breath from far away. He doesn’t want to pull that trigger. He’ll shoot if he must to protect the lives of his fellow Americans, but the kid drops the RPG and Kyle slumps in relief. How different he is from the Butcher, who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing children to death—not even children of the American invaders, but Iraqi children.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Too Little Too Late in Syria

The US military is gearing up to train moderate Syrian rebels this spring, but there’s virtually no chance this is going to work by itself.

The US spent years training the Iraqi Army, and for what? Baghdad’s forces turned out to be no more effective in the face of the ISIS onslaught than the French were when Hitler invaded.

Had ISIS been nipped in the bud at the beginning this might not have happened, but they’ve had years to build themselves up and grow stronger while an isolationist White House did nothing and let everything fester.

President Obama’s advisors warned him that the Syrian civil war could explode well beyond its borders and even wash up in Europe and the United States if it dragged out long enough, and that’s exactly what happened.

The Iranian-Hezbollah-Assad axis is still entrenched in its part of the country, and ISIS—one of the most formidable terrorist armies in history—controls the other half of the country, along with an enormous swath of Iraq. There is virtually no chance that a ragtag band of lightly trained “moderate” rebels can compete with the Assad regime and ISIS at the same time if the much-better trained and equipped Iraqis can’t handle ISIS alone. 

But this might work if the air campaign against ISIS is expanded dramatically.

So far the air strikes are barely containing ISIS, let alone degrading it, but that’s partly because it’s so half-assed. Occasional pinprick strikes won’t finish off ISIS any more than occasional terrorist attacks in the US would cause Washington DC to implode.

Fighting a terrorist organization or an insurgency with air strikes is a fool’s game, but ISIS is much more than that. It’s not hiding in alleys and shadows and safe houses. It controls a chunk of territory the size of Syria. Its “state” isn’t formally recognized by any real nation, nor does it appear on any atlases, but it has most of the attributes of a state in the making and can be weakened and degraded and destroyed from the skies just like Moammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya was weakened and degraded and eventually destroyed from the skies.

The US-led coalition might be able to do this. It wouldn’t mean the end of ISIS any more than destroying the Taliban regime in Afghanistan spelled the end of the Taliban, but it would end ISIS as a “state” and force it to revert to its previous status as a shadowy terrorist organization.

Then it just might be possible for a US-backed force to move into the vacuum. Fighting would continue indefinitely, and the US might have to remain involved to an extent, but at least the Islamic State could be downgraded into a wannabe state that has a much more difficult time recruiting new members. Though I wouldn’t expect a tidy resolution any time in the next decade—it’s far too late for that now—it would be better than watching ISIS expand.

But if we’re just going to train a few thousand people and hope for the best while sending them into a meat grinder without any serious backup, we’re better off staying home and they’re better off being refugees.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

The Iranian Regime and Charlie Hebdo

As Washington continues its vain quest for a good faith nuclear deal with Tehran, the Iranian regime continues behaving like the gunmen who massacred French cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo earlier this month in Paris.

Here’s Mojtaba Safari in The Daily Beast:

Many in the West talk of the “moderation” of Iran’s regime. Foreign Minister Mohamed Zarif flies around the world claiming that Iran is committed to peace, justice and human rights. That would come as news to the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Iranian jail for nothing more than advocating freedom and democracy.  

Soheil Arabi is one of those activists whose Facebook posts landed him on death row. What was Arabi's great "crime"? He is charged with "spreading corruption on Earth," (mofsed-e-filarz), punishable by death in Iran. 

Soheil was first arrested and sentenced to death in November 2013 on the charge of "insulting the Prophet" (sabb-e-nabi). Article 262 of the Islamic Penal Code of Iran explains:

Anyone who swears at or commits qazf  [false accusation of sexual offenses] against the Great Prophet [of Islam] (peace be upon him) or any of the Great Prophets, shall be considered as sāb ul-nabi [a person who swears at the Prophet], and shall be sentenced to the death penalty.

Safari is an Iranian blogger. The only reason he’s alive and free is because he’s living in Canada.

The fact that the Iranian regime behaves this way at home does not by itself make a deal with Iran impossible. The United States has a transactional alliance with Saudi Arabia despite its government being no less grotesque. But the geopolitical interests of Washington and Riyadh overlap while the geopolitical interests of Washington and Tehran are entirely at odds with each other.

At some point this is all going to change. Iran will eventually get a new and more civilized government that more accurately represents the political views of its citizens who are far less anti-American and anti-Israel than the regime. Then our two countries will be able to have decent relations.

Iranians are not the natural enemies of the West, nor are they the natural enemies of Jews and of Israel. There is little history of hostility between Persians and Jews. There is, however, a long history of unbroken hostility between Persians and Arabs. A democratic Iranian government will be friendlier to the West, but its relations with the countries on the other side of the Persian Gulf will be just as fractious as they right now.

When that day finally comes, our transactional alliance with Saudi Arabia will likely be slowly phased out in favor of a genuine alliance with Iran. In the meantime, both nations will continue using the instruments of the state to commit crimes against humanity that only terrorists are willing and able to carry out in the West.

Son of Notorious Hezbollah Commander Killed in Syria

Jihad Mugniyeh, son of notorious Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh, was just killed by an Israeli airstrike in Syria near the Golan Heights.

Hezbollah is fighting against Sunni jihadists in Syria on behalf of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, but that doesn't mean it has abandoned its war against Israel. If the Syrian regime doesn't survive, Hezbollah won't be able to receive high-grade weapon systems from Iran anymore. It already has a formiddable missile arsenal and can now—unlike during the 2006 war—inflict signinificant damage on Tel Aviv and even Jerusalem if it dares. But with Assad out of the picture, once those missiles are gone, they're gone, and Hezbollah would be downgraded from the quasi state-conventional actor that it is now to a mere guerrilla and terrorist organization again.

It's not clear how important the now-deceased commander Jihad Mugniyeh was, but his father was a bloodthirsty psychopath with the blood of hundreds of people under his fingernails. Many of us have forgotten, but he was the most notorious anti-American terrorist in the world before Osama bin Laden usurped the position.

Mugniyeh orchestrated the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983 that killed 63 people, as well as the suicide truck bombings against French paratroopers and US peacekeepers that same year that killed 299 in one day. The attack against the Marine barracks was the single deadliest strike against the US Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima. He hijacked TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome in 1985 and executed US Navy diver Robert Stethem and dumped his body onto the tarmac. The rest of the passengers were held hostage for weeks in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.

Argentina charged Mugniyeh with murdering 114 people in Buenos Aires in 1992 by blowing up the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center.

He is also believed to have masterminded the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 20 people and wounded 372.

He was car-bombed to death in Damascus in 2008, presumably by Israeli intelligence. No one else was hurt in the incident.

And now his son, aptly named Jihad, is dead too.

Jihad was working near the Golan Heights alongside infamous child-murdered Samir Kuntar whom the Israelis released in 2008, along with four Hezbollah members, in exchange for the return of the bodies of IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser who had been captured and tortured to death at the start of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

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

Trading that guy for two soldiers who were already dead was a raw deal for Israel.

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

Mugniyeh's son may be dead, but Kuntar is an at-large recidivist psychopath who's planning more attacks. The Israelis erred in releasing him, but if they can whack Mugniyeh they can correct it by next whacking Kuntar. The last thing they should do is arrest him again.

The ISIS of Africa

Boko Haram galvanized activists all over the world last year when it kidnapped hundreds of school girls in Nigeria and threatened to sell them into slavery, but hardly a peep has been uttered since the Al Qaeda-linked army massacred as many as 2,000 people near the Chad border last week.

“I walked through five villages,” a survivor told The Guardian, “and each one I passed was empty except for dead bodies.”

The attack in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo office sucked up most of the Western media and political oxygen—understandably so since France is a Western country—but it’s also unfortunate because it diverted out attention from the fact that Boko Haram is rapidly turning into the ISIS of Africa. These guys are not mere terrorists anymore. They’re behaving more and more like a regular army, and they now control a swath of territory in northeastern Nigeria the size of Belgium.

“The United States needs to recognize we have a problem that's second only to the problem we have with ISIS (Islamic State),” the Atlantic Council’s Peter Pham told USA Today. “We have a group holding territory and shooting down jet fighters. ... If Nigeria collapses — it is the strong state in the region — there are no strong states to contain what would happen if Boko Haram succeeds in carving out an Islamic state in that area.”

Radical Islamists are immeasurably more dangerous when they organize themselves into states or state-like entities than when they hide in the shadows and strike like serial killers with bombs. Terrorist organizations are bad enough, but radical Islamist state-like entities such as ISIS, the Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah are menacing enough to start wars.

The United States isn’t directly involved in all these wars—Israel battles Hamas and Hezbollah, and the French took out the proto-Islamic state in Northern Mali—but if a huge swath of Africa collapses and Boko Haram metastasizes fully into an ISIS-linked entity with staying power, what happens in Sub-Saharan Africa may no longer stay in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Christopher Hitchens on Today’s Paris Massacre

Gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar” attacked the offices of French satirical newspaper named Charlie Hedbo and killed twelve people, including journalists and two policemen.

Radical Islamists apparently don’t share the paper’s sense of humor.

What good is legal freedom of speech if violent enforcers of a different, older, and foreign set of laws take it upon themselves to punish you extrajudicially?

This is not a new problem, not in the Middle East and not in the West. A few years ago I spoke with Christopher Hitchens about it and here’s what he said.

Hitchens: Let's do a brief thought experiment. I tell you the following: On New Year's Eve, a man in his mid-seventies is having his granddaughter over for a sleep-over, his five-year old granddaughter. He is attacked in his own home by an axe-wielding maniac with homicidal intent. Your mammalian reaction, your reaction as a primate, is one of revulsion. I'm trusting you on this. [Laughs.]

MJT: Oh, yes. You are correct.

Hitchens: Then you pick up yesterday's Guardian, one of the most liberal newspapers in the Western world, and there's a long article that says, ah, that picture, that moral picture, that instinct to protect the old and the young doesn't apply in this case. The man asked for it. He drew a cartoon that upset some people. We aren't at all entitled to use our moral instincts in the correct way.

[…]

MJT: The current president of Ireland said Muslims have the right to be offended by Westergaard's cartoons. I suppose that's true as far as it goes, that everybody has the right to be offended by anything, but why…

Hitchens: Ah yes. This is not new. I've written about this many times. It's reverse ecumenicism. It first became obvious to me when the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989. The reaction of the official newspaper of the Vatican was that the problem wasn't that the foreign leader of a theocratic dictatorship offered money, in public, in his own name, to suborn the murder of the writer of a book of fiction in another country, who wasn't an Iranian citizen. The problem was not that.

You and I may have thought, bloody hell, this is a new kind of threat. But it's an old level of threat. Blasphemy is the problem. That was also the view of the archbishop of Canterbury. The general reaction of the religious establishments to that and to the Danish case—and, by the way, of our secular State Department in the Danish case—was to say the problem was Danish offensiveness. A cartoon in a provincial town in a small Scandinavian democracy obviously should be censored by the government lest it ignite—or as Yale University Press put it, instigate—violence.

Instigation of violence can only mean one thing. I know the English language better than I know anything else.

MJT: Instigate means it's on purpose.

Hitchens: These people are saying the grandfather and granddaughter were the authors of their own attempted assassinations. These are some of the same people who say that if I don't believe in God I can't know what morality is. They've just dissolved morality completely into relativism by saying actually, occasionally, carving up grandfathers and granddaughters with an axe on New Year's Eve can be okay if it's done to protect the reputation of a seventh century Arabian man who heard voices.

MJT: It's hard to psychoanalyze other people, but I sometimes suspect that blaming Salman Rushdie and Kurt Westergaard, as many writers have, for bringing down the wrath of these maniacs from Somalia and Iran, may be a way of convincing themselves they'll be safe as long as they don't cross the same line. Any writer or graphic artist must, at least for a second, think oh fuck, they could come for me if I don't watch out. They can say to themselves they'll be fine if they don't cross that line.

Hitchens: But the line will never stop shifting.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Erasing Israel From the Map

The Iranian clerical regime has repeatedly vowed to erase Israel from the map, but American publisher HarperCollins actually did it.

The company released an atlas of the Middle East for English-speaking students in the Persian Gulf region, and Israel isn’t on it. The West Bank and Gaza are on it, which is entirely appropriate since they exist and are not part of Israel, but Israel itself is just…absent.

The Tablet newspaper in Britain originally reported the story, and HarperCollins has since recalled the atlases and promises they will be pulped. Executives at the company headquarters are embarrassed and say they sincerely apologize.

Lower level employees, however, thought they did the right thing.

Collins Bartholomew told The Tablet that putting Israel on the map would have been “unacceptable” in the Middle East and that “local preferences” had to be respected.

He isn’t imaging those local preferences. I’ve seen plenty of Arab maps that don’t include Israel. Sometimes it’s labeled as Palestine. Sometimes it’s a blank space. Sometimes it’s there and labeled correctly. It depends on the map and, to an extent, which country produced it. Some Arab nations are less hung up on this than others.

Companies that want to sell products to customers really do need to think about what would and would not be acceptable or they won’t turn a profit. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just basic business. 

But the map HarperCollins produced is a lie. Right there on its atlas cover are the words, “Learn with maps” in English. But kids can’t learn real geography from fake maps. Setting aside the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the product fails to live up to its own description.

Let’s get back to politics, though. People who hate a country so intensely that they can’t bear to see its existence on maps have a serious problem. I detest North Korea and wish it didn’t exist. So much better if it were joined to democratic South Korea like East Germany merged with the west after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But for God’s sake, I don’t require the maps in my house to show North Korea as blank. If I did, I’d have a problem and I’d need some help.

There isn’t much Westerners can do to change reactionary attitudes on the other side of the planet, and publishers aren’t generally in the political-emotional therapy business, but pandering to a denial of reality only perpetuates it.

If Middle Eastern customers will only buy a map if it lies, they can make their own damn maps. And if HarperCollins, or any other publishing company, actually wants kids over there to “Learn with maps” as it says, then the local delusional bubble needs to be punctured. 

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Michael J. Totten's blog