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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. 

Cuba: To Embargo or Not

It was bound to happen eventually: The United States and Cuba have decided to restore diplomatic relations after treating each other as enemy states since the 1960s.

Some are elated and some are despondent. Both sides can make a strong case.  

I visited Cuba near the end of last year and returned home with mixed feelings about the US embargo. Cuba is in no way a strategic or military threat to the United States. If diplomatic relations hadn’t already been severed a long time ago, Washington would have no reason to suddenly sever them now. In that sense, the embargo is an anachronism, a leftover from a now-distant past and a different era of history.  

On the other hand, Cuba has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere. Allowing the regime in from the cold gives it a patina of legitimacy it has done nothing whatsoever to earn, and it exhausts whatever scraps of leverage the United States had to convince the island’s overlords to free their people and share power like most other governments in the region.

So is restoring diplomatic ties the right call? I have no idea. I thought I’d return home from Cuba and take a firm stand one way or another, but some things in politics and in life are ambiguous.

What follows are my thoughts as originally published in World Affairs in March, 2014, before this decision was made.

*

Aside from the Arab boycott against Israel, American sanctions against Cuba have lasted longer than any other embargo in the modern era.

The sanctions were imposed in stages in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro began economic warfare against the United States by nationalizing private US property on the island. Cuban communism survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, so in 1993 the purpose of the embargo was modified by the Cuban Democracy Act, stating that it will not be lifted unless and until the government in Havana respects the “internationally accepted standards of human rights” and “democratic values.”

For years now, the embargo has appeared to me as outdated as it has been ineffective. The Chinese government, while less repressive nowadays than Cuba’s, likewise defies internationally accepted standards of human rights, yet it’s one of America’s biggest trading partners. And the embargo against Cuba gives the Castro regime the excuse it desperately needs for its citizens’ economic misery. As ever, it is all the fault of the Yanquis. Cuba’s people are poor not thanks to communism but because of America.

After spending a few weeks in Cuba in October and November, however, I came home feeling less certain that the embargo was an anachronism. The ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his less ideological brother Raúl a few years ago, and the regime finally realizes what has been obvious to everyone else for what seems like forever: communism is an epic failure. Change is at last on the horizon for the island, and there’s a chance that maybe—just maybe—the embargo might help it finally arrive.

“I fully support the embargo and the travel ban,” Cuban exile Valentin Prieto says, “and am on record calling for it to be tightened and given some real teeth instead of allowing it to remain the paper tiger it is. The United States of America is the bastion of democracy and liberty in the world. Not only should we not have normal relations with repressive regimes, it is our moral obligation to ensure, by whatever means possible save for military action, that we in no way promote, fund, assist, ignore, or legitimize said repressive regimes.”

Professor Alfred Cuzán at the University of West Florida offers a counterpoint. “One argument in support of keeping the embargo,” he says, “is that it gives the United States leverage to force the Castros to make liberalizing changes. I think that argument has some merit. And Cuba did confiscate and expropriate American property. But I don’t think the embargo is effective. The regime can still get whatever it wants from Canada, from Europe, and so on. The US embargo is something of a myth.”

He has a point. The United States is Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner after Venezuela, China, Spain, and Brazil. Cuba gets more of its products from the United States even now than from Canada or Mexico. Sanctions are still in place—Cuba cannot buy everything, and it must pay in cash—but the embargo is hardly absolute.

The United States, however, purchases nothing from Cuba. Americans are for the most part prohibited by US law from traveling there. You can’t just buy a plane ticket to Havana and hang out on the beach. You have to go illegally through Mexico or book an expensive people-to-people tour through the mere handful of travel agents licensed to arrange such trips by the US Treasury Department. Journalists like me are exempt from these regulations, but I am still not allowed to buy Cuban rum or cigars and bring them back with me.

The embargo does harm the Cuban economy—after all, that’s the point—but the bankrupt communist system inflicts far more damage, and in any case the decision to break off economic relations was made not by the United States but by Fidel Castro.

“Cuba is ninety miles across the Florida Straits,” said Professor Cuzán, “and was increasingly integrated in the American market for a hundred years. Then Castro severed economic and commercial ties completely and shifted the entire economy toward the Soviet Union. That was insane. Then he tried to forge cultural ties with the Soviet Union and force Cubans to learn Russian. It was a crazy project and it ruined the country.”

Cuba isn’t yoked to Moscow any longer, now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, but its economic system is still mostly communist. The government owns all major industries, including what in normal countries are small businesses like restaurants and bars, so the majority of Cubans work for the state. Salaries are capped at twenty dollars a month and supplemented with a ration card.

I asked a Cuban woman what she gets on that card. “Rice, beans, bread, eggs, cooking oil, and two pounds of chicken every couple of months. We used to get soap and detergent, but not anymore.”

Doctor and hospital visits are free, but Cuba never has enough medicine. I had to bring a whole bag full of supplies with me because even the simplest items like Band-Aids and antibiotics aren’t always available. Patients have to bring their own drugs, their own sheets, and even their own iodine—if they can find it—to the hospital with them.

Cuba is constantly short on food too. I was told in October that potatoes won’t be available again until January. That can’t be a result of the embargo. Cuba is a tropical island with excellent soil and a year-round growing season perfectly capable of producing its own potatoes. But the potato shortage is no surprise. I saw shockingly little agriculture in the countryside. Most fields are fallow. Those that still produce food are minuscule. Cows look like leather-wrapped skeletons. We have more and better agriculture in the Eastern Oregon desert, where the soil is poor, where only six inches of rain falls every year, and where the winters are long and shatteringly cold.

I heard no end of horror stories about soap shortages, both before and after I got there. A journalist friend of mine who visits Cuba semi-regularly brings little bars of hotel soap with him and hands them out to his interview subjects.

“They break down in tears when I give them soap,” he told me. “How often does that happen?” I said. “A hundred percent of the time,” he said.

I too brought soap with me to the island—full-size bars from the store, not small ones from hotels—but I didn’t want to make people cry wherever I went, so I left them discreetly for hotel staff, waiters, taxi drivers, and so on. And I tipped everyone as generously as I could since the government refuses to pay them.

None of this economic impoverishment is the result of American policy. The United States is hardly the world’s only soap manufacturer, for instance. Cuba can buy it from Mexico. Or Canada. Or the Dominican Republic. Cuba can make its own soap. It fact, it does make its own soap. The reason the country does not have enough is because the government historically hasn’t cared if the little people can’t wash. Soap is just one item among thousands that is strictly for the elite, for the “haves,” and for those lucky enough to find some in the shops before it runs out.

In a non-communist country where such a basic product is in short supply, somebody would mass-produce it and sell it. Soap-making doesn’t require nuclear physics. You can make it at home. Google “soap recipe” and you’ll see how easy it is. But Cuba is a communist country where private commerce is banned. If you make stuff and sell stuff, you might become “rich” and “bourgeois,” and the authorities will send you to prison.

That’s why Cuba is poor. Lifting the embargo would have little or no effect on such tyrannical imbecility.

Click here to read the rest of the essay.


The Sydney Gunman’s Failed Message

A radical Islamist seized hostages in a café yesterday in Sydney, Australia. Sixteen hours later police shot him dead. At least two of his captives died and several others are seriously injured.

Shortly after he took over the café, he forced some of the hostages to hold a black flag up to the glass for news cameras to photograph. It is known variously as the black standard, the jihad flag, and the Salafist flag. It’s similar in some ways to the Saudi flag. It’s also similar to the black flag of the Abbasid caliphate.

Anybody who flies it is potentially dangerous.

Salafism is a relatively recent Islamic ideology (less than 150 years old) that arose as a reaction against 19th century Western imperialism in general and the liberal Western ideas that began percolating into the Middle East at the time, which was not ruled by Western imperialists but mostly by the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire.

Salafists wish to remove all modern “innovations” from Islam and to bring back the 7th century version as practiced by Mohammad. They also wish to build a caliphate—a state—based on the 7th century model. Some of them would be content to do this non-violently, but others are a little less, shall we say, patient.

So an individual won’t necessarily be violent just because he’s a Salafist—especially not in the Persian Gulf region where their numbers are huge—but Al Qaeda and ISIS are the armed wings of the Salafist movement.

When the Australian gunman forced his hostages to hold that flag up to the glass, he was identifying himself as a Salafist. But no one in media seemed to know what that flag is. Reporters just described it as “a flag with some Arabic writing on it,” as if it’s just some random flag from anywhere that could have meant anything.

The guman sent a message, but it wasn’t received. And we know he was monitoring the news in real time. He was directly across the street from an Australian news channel. He wanted attention, but he was not getting the attention he wanted. Reporters couldn’t even figure out who he was when he clearly identified himself and his ideology.

Hours into the standoff, he demanded an ISIS flag in return for the release of one of the hostages. CNN anchors wondered aloud why, if he wanted an ISIS flag, he didn’t just bring one with him in the first place. But he did bring a Salafist flag. He must assumed that at least somebody would recognize it and explain it to the audience. I recognize it because I’ve been working in the Middle East for ten years, but news anchors are generally not experts in anything in particular except presenting information on television. They’re generalists.

Would the standoff have ended better if the man had more quickly succeeded in delivering his initial message without all the mounting frustration of being misunderstood? Probably not. Obviously, since he took hostages at gunpoint, he was not from the non-violent wing of the Salafist movement. Nevertheless, it’s time for Westerners who aren’t Middle East experts to know who the Salafists are and what they’re insignia looks like. They’ve been at war with us now for a long time.

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.

Al Jazeera’s Scurrilous Attack on Morocco

Some people and organizations who claim to champion human rights don’t give a flying fork about the genuine article and would rather slam Western democracies and their allies than take an unflinching look at those who binge on anti-Westernism who, not coincidentally, include most of the worst human rights abusers on earth. The U.S. and Israel are the most abused targets, but Arab countries can get hit with it too.

The latest example came over the Thanksgiving weekend when Morocco hosted the second annual World Human Rights Forum in the city of Marrakech. (The first was held last year in Brazil.) I was invited to participate—I was not paid to be there, but travel expenses were covered—along with almost 7,000 others, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. 

Al Jazeera published a report about the conference before it even began and described it as a “masquerade” right in the headline. The forum, it says, was “designed to deceive Western political and business partners about the North African kingdom's 2011 political reform project.”

This is nonsense on stilts. The forum had nothing to do with Morocco or its internal affairs. It just happened to take place in Morocco. It was sponsored by an international institution concerned with human rights all over the world. Next year’s forum will be held in Argentina.

But Morocco is a pro-Western country, one of America’s major non-NATO allies, and a source of stability instead of “resistance,” so in certain quarters it’s suspect.

Al Jazeera’s hit piece describes the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, which boycotted the event, as the country’s “foremost civil rights activists,” but it’s actually a motley collection of hardcore leftists and far-right Islamists well outside the Moroccan mainstream.

The organization has some legitimate complaints, though, to be sure. Morocco’s emergence from authoritarian rule is incomplete, and the Ministry of the Interior has shut down some of its meetings in hotels. Using instruments of the state to bust up meetings only gives them more things to complain about.

Robert M. Holley, a former diplomat at the US Embassy in Morocco, attended the conference. He knows the AMDH well and has little patience for them even if they are right about some things. “They have been especially adamant critics of the government for jailing people who have been rounded up on allegations of connections with jihadi groups here seeking to aid ISIS,” he told me. “They won a high profile lawsuit in the Moroccan courts against the Ministry of Interior for interfering with its organizational activities. I think that is clear evidence that the system they are protesting against seems to be working pretty well to address their grievances. There are always going to be dissident voices here. AMDH is an organization whose leadership is composed of many from the far left that has also been infused with new membership from the rejectionist Islamist political spectrum in Morocco. It’s a curious partnership that seems mostly united by its blanket rejectionist approach to most social and political issues in Morocco.”

Eric Goldstein at Human Rights Watch is also quoted in the Al Jazeera report. He thinks it’s “disturbing that at the moment Morocco is preparing to host this forum on human rights, it’s taking measures to restrict the freedom of its own human rights organizations.”

He neglects to point out that Moroccan courts sided with the AMDH against the Ministry of Interior. Perhaps he did say that and Al Jazeera snipped it, but Human Rights Watch, I’m sorry to say, has been on an anti-Morocco kick now for years, which is part of a most unfortunate pattern.

Robert Bernstein founded Human Rights Watch in 1978 and publicly broke with his own organization in 2009 for spending far too much time and effort beating on Israel—the nation with by far the best human rights record in the Middle East—at the expense of investigating Israel’s neighbors even when they’re guilty of backing terrorist organizations abroad and committing mass murder at home. In 2011 he founded a new organization, Advancing Human Rights, to correct the wrongs of his first organization.

But Israel isn’t the only country his first organization spends too much time grinding its axe against. It does the exact same thing to Morocco. Human Rights Watch at times acts as a volunteer shill organization for the Polisario, the communist guerilla army hatched by Fidel Castro and Moammar Qaddafi in the early 1970s and backed by Algeria. The Polisario to this day holds tens of thousands of citizens from the contested Western Sahara region hostage in “refugee camps” in the Algerian desert. Human Rights Watch reports from the Western Sahara read like ludicrous press releases from the Algerian police state, the Polisario’s primary patron, which resembles nothing so much as an Arab version of East Germany circa 1976.

“Refugees from the Western Sahara conflict who have been living in camps in the Algerian desert for four decades seem to be generally able to leave the camps if they wish,” according to a Human Rights Watch report issued in October of this year.

They seem to be able to leave? No. These people have been held against their will for almost as long as I’ve been alive. I’ve been to the Western Sahara. I know a number of people who fled the Polisario’s camps after being tortured nearly to death. I know people whose family members are to this day held in these camps as bargaining chips and who will be hunted down and perhaps even killed if they dare try to escape. There is no reason to expect anything better of an armed militia backed by the Castros and Algeria’s Soviet-style regime, let alone Qaddafi back when he was still with us. Yet Human Rights Watch takes their side against one of the few Arab countries that is successfully democratizing without bloodshed and mayhem.

There are a number of reasons why certain types of self-styled human rights champions bash Western democracies and their allies disproportionately while giving far worse actors a pass. Partly it’s because they have a double standard, partly it’s because of a reflexive anti-Western bias, and partly it’s because democratic and tolerant nations won’t kill, arrest, or blacklist those who complain. That last problem is built-in and unfixable, but the first two certainly aren’t.

What Al Jazeera, the AMDH, and Human Rights Watch ignore or don’t even care about much in the first place is the fact that Morocco is the most under appreciated Arab Spring success story. The Western media ignore this as well, not because foreign correspondents are generally suspicious of Morocco but because Morocco doesn’t explode. If it bleeds it leads, as we say in the media business, and Morocco doesn’t bleed. It successfully transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected government, and it did so with neither revolution nor war. Morocco, along with Tunisia, adopted one of the most liberal constitutions in the entire Arab world while much of the rest of the region went up in flames. But hardly anyone noticed because the infernos in Egypt, Libya, and Syria sucked up all the oxygen.

*

Though Morocco’s King Mohammad VI did not attend the conference, a minister from the government read his speech at the opening ceremony. In it he explained why so many attendees were from Africa and the Middle East.

“It is a historical fact,” he said, “that international human rights instruments were developed in the absence of Africa. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, there were only four independent African countries. When the 1966 International Covenants were adopted, there were only about 30 African countries which had freed themselves from the colonial yoke.

“Africa cannot remain a mere consumer of international standards devised in its absence,” he continued. “Africa can no longer be the invariable object of international reports and external evaluations. Our continent has become mature enough to claim its rightful place in the global human rights architecture and to fully play its role in it.”

I attended some of the discussion groups in the following days and was curious what the attending Arabs and Africans would say about human rights and democracy considering they hail from regions where human rights and democracy are often in dismal condition at best. I’ve run into far too many people in this part of the world who have only the vaguest idea what these concepts even mean. The Muslim Brotherhood says it’s in favor of human rights and democracy despite championing terrorist organizations and governing like pharaohs after being elected. Many of Egypt’s secular activists likewise proved to be profoundly illiberal when they hailed the military dictatorship of General Sisi, who is far more of a brute than Hosni Mubarak.

I encountered none of this Egyptian-style faux liberalism at the World Human Rights Forum. Instead I heard one Arab and African speaker after another extolling the virtues of liberal constitutions, the separation of powers, the protection of minority rights, the right to worship freely, the need to dismantle authoritarian and unaccountable institutions, and the necessity of flourishing civil society organizations that act as buffers between individuals and the state.

A panel on democracy and human rights sponsored by the Embassy of Switzerland and the Council of Europe pondered a serious question: Can the Middle East and North Africa preserve human rights during democratic transitions and prevent the Arab Spring from turning to winter? The answer in Tunisia and Morocco is yes. The answer in Egypt, Libya, and Syria is an unambiguous no. 

Sectarian and ethnic divisions complicate things as well in the Arab world and in Sub-Saharan Africa. One speaker pointed out what simply can’t be denied: ethnically and religiously fractious nations that hold elections prematurely may discover that elections are civil war by other means. Iraq has proven that to everybody with eyes. Sunnis voted for Sunnis, Shias voted for Shias, and the Shias, with their demographic majority, used the power of the state to smash the minority. Some despondent Sunni leaders then made a fateful alliance with ISIS in order to keep Baghdad’s boots off their necks.

One speaker at the forum passionately argued that human rights existed before states and cannot be taken away by states, and that everyone on earth is born into this world with inalienable rights. He quoted Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism. Thomas Jefferson would have smiled. Many of the people who made these points spoke in the language of the Middle East and North Africa. They proved that Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir was right when he said, shortly before Syria’s Assad regime murdered him in Beirut with a car bomb, that “political liberalism can be conjugated in Arabic.”

On occasion I hear Arabs saying such things in opposition to their governments, but genuine democrats are thin on the ground in most of the Middle East, and they’re rarely numerous or powerful enough to transform their political systems. But in Morocco these things were said under the auspices of the government and the head of state. Nothing remotely like this will happen any time soon in Egypt, Libya, or Algeria. The very idea is absurd. It certainly won’t happen any time soon in Syria where would-be democrats are trapped between the anvil of the Assad regime on one side and the hammer of ISIS on the other. They have no choice, really, other than exile.

Al Jazeera can pre-emptively dismiss all this from thousands of miles away as a “masquerade” if it wants, but the real masquerade is Al Jazeera pimping human rights to its audience while elsewhere supporting the narrative of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations

Morocco doesn't have a perfect record—not even the US or Canada in 2014 have perfect records—but it has been moving in the right direction for years. Freedom House—a far more serious organization than Human Rights Watch—used to rank the country as Not Free, but now says it’s Partly Free and improving. Yet it remains imperfect. Even if were Free instead of Partly Free it wouldn’t be perfect. The country did not snap its fingers and transform instantly into a Jeffersonian democracy. But the Al Jazeera bosses in the quasi-medieval Qatari sheikhdom—which Freedom House bluntly dismisses as Not Free—have no clue what a Jeffersonian democracy even looks like.

Israel Bombs Syria – Again

The Israelis bombed Syria again. That’s what the Syrian and Iranian regimes are claiming anyway, though the Israelis won’t confirm or deny it.

Generally we should take Israel’s word over Syria’s and Iran’s, but not this time. Israel’s refusal to deny it is a tacit admission that it did indeed launch air strikes against Syria, this time on the outskirts of Damascus.

Israel is not bombing Syria randomly. It’s targeting weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The rest of us are focused on ISIS and ignoring what the Assad regime and Hezbollah are up to, but the Israelis have to live in that neighborhood. The main reason Hezbollah is fighting Sunni jihadists in Syria is because it desperately needs the Assad regime as backup in its relentless war against Israel. If ISIS defeats Assad, Hezbollah loses.

The Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers are claiming Israel is “in the same trench” as ISIS since it’s attacking those who are fighting against ISIS. There’s a certain logic there, but it’s circular. The United States is “in the same trench” as Israel, which according to these characters puts us “in the same trench” as ISIS. Yet the United States is also “in the same trench” as Assad and Hezbollah since we’re bombing ISIS. That’s a heck of a trench! It’s a circular trench, or perhaps even a three dimensional möbius trench. But that’s the Middle East for you.

Russia is furious about all this, of course, but that’s no surprise. There’s nothing complicated about which trench Vladimir Putin is in.

Dispatch from Vietnam: Will the US Foster a Natural Ally?

My latest essay in the print edition of World Affairs is now available online. Here's the first part:

Nearly forty years after the Vietnam War, Hanoi holds no grudges against the United States, in part because nearly all the country’s negative energy today is focused on China. And for good reason: China is big; it’s powerful; it’s right next door; and it has been hostile for two thousand years. Vietnam’s war with the US will never be repeated, but its long history of conflict with China, which is roughly as old now as Christianity, hasn’t been settled and might be revving up yet again.

Earlier this year, Vietnamese and Chinese naval vessels squared off in the South China Sea when China installed an oil rig in disputed waters. No one was hurt in this confrontation, but several Chinese nationals in Vietnam were killed later, in response to the incident, when furious mobs of Vietnamese rioters attacked Chinese-owned factories. Thousands of Chinese citizens left Vietnam in the wake of the violence. The government cracked down on what it rightly called “hooligans,” but relations between the two countries remain testier than they’ve been in a quarter-century.

This recent conflict may well blow over, but the tension that sparked it in the first place is not going anywhere. Vietnam and China both claim the Paracel Islands, and the Spratly Islands farther south are claimed by yet four more countries in Southeast Asia, but China claims almost the entire sea, more than a thousand miles from its own mainland, well south of Vietnam, and nearly all the way down to the coast of Malaysia.

Chinese maps show a so-called “nine-dash line” that supposedly delimits these claims over the sea. The line is also known as the “cow’s tongue line” for its vague U-shape. The United States insists rightly that this line is inconsistent with international maritime law, but Washington takes no position on who owns either the Paracels or the Spratlys. I spent quite a bit of time looking into it myself and had to give up in frustration. There are no right answers. These are legitimate disputes that need to be resolved amicably.

Vietnam refuses to recognize China’s claim over the Paracels, but at least Vietnam recognizes that China is making what it sees as an invalid claim. China, on the other hand, doesn’t even recognize that Vietnam has an invalid claim, making peaceful resolution all but impossible.

Robert D. Kaplan’s latest book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, describes maritime Southeast Asia as a major upcoming theater of conflict. “The composite picture,” he writes, “is of a cluster of states that, with problems of domestic legitimacy and state-building largely behind them, are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores. This outward collective push is located in the demographic cockpit of the globe; it is here in Southeast Asia, with its nearly 600 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian Subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. And the geographic meeting place of all these states is maritime: the South China Sea.”

Most modern wars are fought over power and ideology rather than resources, but a conflict in the South China Sea would be old school. It could begin and end with relatively minor naval skirmishes or it could escalate. Nobody knows. Either way, China and Vietnam are both growing economically and militarily more powerful, and they’re both expanding their presence in the South China Sea at the same time the United States is scaling back, creating a situation ripe with potential for a serious face-off.

“China makes us nervous sometimes,” says Huy Dang, a Hanoi resident from the south who works for General Motors. “Our common sense tells us not to trust the Chinese. We don’t use Chinese products. They’re bad quality.”

But what about the Chinese government and military? Do everyday Vietnamese feel threatened by the colossus to the north?

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The Last Days of the Communist Party?

Vietnam is an authoritarian one-party state that looks and feels like a free country.

Local people scoff at the government publicly without fear of reprisal. I saw plenty of men in uniforms from both the police and the army, but they did not look intimidating, nor did they look like they were trying to be. They carried themselves the way uniformed security people carry themselves in countries like the US and Canada.

I didn’t worry for even a second that my hotel room might be bugged. It wasn’t, and if it had been I wouldn’t have cared. There was no need for me to keep my identity as a journalist secret as I did in Cuba and Libya. I’d have to hide my true identity in China too and—especially—in North Korea. But not in Vietnam.

Tunisia was like that before the Arab Spring started. Azerbaijan is too to this day. Taiwan and South Korea passed through such periods shortly before their transitions to democracy.

One might even—with great caution—make a case that the final days of these waning dictatorships were and are characterized by regimes that aren’t really that bad, at least compared with other authoritarian and—especially—totalitarian states.

Hanoi, Vietnam

The idea of a good dictator, in the overwhelming majority of cases, is of course ludicrous. But once in a very long while relatively decent ones will appear. Robert D. Kaplan defines such a rare creature as “one who makes his own removal less fraught with risk by preparing his people for representative government.” He cites Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew as an example.

It’s not that Lee’s government was better than a representative democracy. It wasn’t. Lee was just better than other dictators because he created the necessary conditions for a non-violent transition to something more liberal and open.

“The worse the dictator,” Kaplan writes in his book Asia’s Cauldron, “the worse the chaos left in his wake. That is because a bad dictator eviscerates intermediary institutions between the regime at the top and the extended family or tribe at the bottom—professional associations, community organizations, political groups, and so on—the very stuff of civil society.”

Saddam Hussein did that in Iraq. Bashar al-Assad did it in Syria. Moammar Qaddafi ruined Libya in precisely the same way, as did Pol Pot in Cambodia, Adolf Hitler in Germany, and the Kim family in North Korea.

I’m tempted to argue that communist regimes have done this in every country where they have ever seized power, but I’m not certain it’s true. Vietnam’s Communist Party reformed itself out of all recognition, first by junking Marxist economics and then by ceasing and desisting from micromanaging Vietnamese citizens’ personal lives. The government did these things voluntarily.

“The good dictator,” Kaplan continues, “by fostering economic growth, among other things, makes society more complex, leading to more civil society groupings, and to political divisions based on economic interest that are by definition more benign than divisions of tribe and sectarian ethnic group.”

Vietnam’s government meets the threshold. Just barely. But let’s be clear about what exactly that means. It does not mean that since the dictatorship is relatively “good” compared with most others that it ought to continue. It definitely ought not continue. It’s only “good” compared with most others insofar as it’s at least arguably possible to transition to a more democratic system without the violence and mayhem gripping countries like Syria, Egypt, post-communist Yugoslavia, Ukraine after the removal of Viktor Yanukovych, Somalia after the implosion of Siad Barre’s communist state in 1991, and Libya after the destruction of the Qaddafi regime.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam today more closely resembles pre-democratic Taiwan and South Korea, and it’s in better shape, economically and politically, than South Vietnam before it lost the war to the communists. The Vietnamese have no experience with democracy, but neither did the South Koreans before they finally got it in the late 1980s and made it work without many hiccups. The Taiwanese had no experience with electoral democracy either while Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang was still in place, but they transitioned fairly smoothly during the 1980s and 1990s. Tunisia’s transition has been a bit rockier, but they take two steps forward for every slip-up.

I should stress that Vietnam appears to be the kind of place where a mostly non-violent democratic transition seems possible. I could be wrong. Historical optimists are often proved wrong. It has happened to me. It has happened to everyone who thinks they know which direction events might be heading.

To visitors, Hanoi looks and feels like the capital of a free country most of the time, but one must take seriously Bill Hayton’s warning in his book Vietnam: Rising Dragon. “The trappings of freedom are apparent on every city street but, from the economy to the media, the Communist Party is determined to remain the sole source of authority. Beneath the great transformation lurks a paranoid and deeply authoritarian political system. Vietnam’s prospects are not as clear as they might first appear to outsiders.”

*

Thich Quang Do, head of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), is the most famous political dissident in the country. He won the Homo Homini Prize for human rights in 2002 and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize nine times. He’s living under house arrest inside a pagoda in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). His crime? Demanding democracy.

“For the past few years,” he said in an interview, “I have been living like a prisoner on a long leash. All day, I stay in my room. I eat one meal per day. The routine is exactly the same as when I was in prison. Outside my door, there is a stool. At lunchtime, around 11 am, they bring my food up from the kitchen and put it on the stool. I take the meal and eat it inside my room. When I’ve finished, I put my tray back on the stool. They come and take it away. Exactly like in prison.”

Al Jacobson at Amnesty International has been working Do’s case since 2002. “We are tenacious after we adopt a prisoner,” he told me. “Since his church is so large, the Vietnamese government considers it a threat and refuses to recognize it. There was a nominal recognition of the Catholic church a couple of years ago, but it has a smaller following than the Buddhist church.”

“Is this primarily about politics, religion, or both?” I asked.

“It’s largely a political issue,” he said. “The church has developed a large following and it’s strongly opposed to the communist government. I follow this closely and I’ve never heard anything from the government that suggests it’s opposed to the church for religious reasons.”

The UBCV wants freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and freedom of assembly. “They’re opposed to the authoritarian nature of the Vietnamese government in general,” Jacobson said.

Recently, when tensions rose over the conflict in the South China Sea, Thich Quang Do wanted to organize a Buddhist demonstration against the Chinese, but the police surrounded his pagoda and wouldn’t allow him to travel. The government worried that a large gathering of people from the Buddhist church for any reason might pose a threat to the government even if the government and the church agreed with each other on the protest agenda completely.

“The government is very astute about how they treat him,” Jacobson said. “They say look, he’s not in prison, he’s in a pagoda. But he doesn’t have rights and we at Amnesty International consider him a prisoner of conscience.”

The authorities may keep him locked in a pagoda rather than prison for astute and cynical reasons, but it’s nevertheless significant that they haven’t thrown him into a gulag like the North Koreans most certainly would have. Vietnam doesn’t even have any gulags. The re-education camps are long gone. I had plans to meet with him myself in Saigon—his people were going to sneak me in and out under cover—but I had to cut my trip short for medical reasons.

“If there were a massive public protest movement in Vietnam,” I said to Jacobson, “how do you think the government would react to it? Would they do what the Chinese government did in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and shoot hundreds of people? I get the feeling they wouldn’t. The country seems too bourgeois for that now.” But I figured Jacobson may have a better feel for it than I do.

“There’s a wide continuum between mass killings and milder forms of repression,” he said. “Freedom of speech, assembly and so on are already restricted, and these are the issues Amnesty International cares about. There are clear violations of human rights in Vietnam, not only with Thich Quang Do but also with cyber dissidents. I doubt there would be a massive violent crackdown against a huge movement, but there’s no way to know that for sure. Either way, it doesn’t change our position at all.”

*

Vietnam’s government still calls itself the Communist Party, but I saw more market capitalism in Vietnam than anywhere else in the world, including the United States where the economy is much more heavily regulated. It’s a little confounding.

“What does the word communist even mean anymore?” I asked a Vietnamese man named Huy in Hanoi. He calls himself Jason when talking to Americans because it’s easier to pronounce, so I’ll refer to him as Jason from here on.

“Communism today just means we're run by one political party,” he said. “Some people complain about that, but it doesn't matter to me as long as the government creates a good business and living environment, and it does. I don't want different political parties competing with each other and creating a crisis like in Thailand.”

The Thai military overthrew the elected government in May of 2014.

“If you were unhappy with the government, though, could you criticize it in public?” I said.

He laughed. “It's okay. We do it all the time. We're in a public place and I'm not keeping my voice down. You can criticize the government all you want as long as you don't take any action. Protesting the government isn't allowed, but we have had a lot of protests against China recently. We do get anti-government protests sometimes, though, even in Hanoi. It happens in Hanoi more often than in Saigon. People in the south don't give a shit, but people in Hanoi do it more often. The protests disappear quickly, though.”

“What happens to protesters?” I said. “Do they get arrested?”

“No,” he said. “They just get corrected by the authorities.”

Interesting euphemism, corrected. In the United States, correctional institution is government longhand for prison.

“What does that mean, exactly?” I said.

“They're told that protesting is bad,” Jason said, “that it's not allowed, and if they do it again they'll be punished. People hear that and they get scared, so they quit. That's it. Someone who is extremely radical will get one warning, their name will go on a list, and if they do it again they'll be in trouble. But if they go home and don't do it again, they'll be fine. Nothing will happen. Vietnam is not North Korea.”

No, Vietnam is definitely not North Korea. Nor is it Syria under Bashar al-Assad or Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Nor is it as strongly repressive as China. It’s less repressive than Burma (Myanmar) was recently, and the regime in that particular country is beginning to reform itself out of existence. The process isn’t complete and it might backslide, but it’s happening.

“How much has Vietnam changed during your lifetime?” I asked Jason.

“It’s growing very fast,” he said, “especially Saigon. The south is growing faster than the north.”

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

“Why is that?” I said.

“Because the capital is in the north,” he said. “Everything is more restricted here and controlled by the government, but the south is more open. The government let the south open up so the economy could grow, and the money flows from the south to the north. That’s how it works.”

I was surprised to hear that Hanoi is more restricted and closed than Saigon. It doesn’t appear to be restricted or controlled. Looks can be deceiving, of course. Repression isn’t always out in the open. But I have a keen nose for subtle political repression and can say honestly that I didn’t feel any. One of the reasons I’m aware that it does exist is because Vietnamese people were willing to tell me about it in public. The country does not meet the definition of what Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky famously called a “fear society,” where citizens will not say what they truly believe if other people can hear. 

“What does the government control here?” I asked Jason. “When I look around it doesn’t look very controlled. What am I not seeing?”

“Bars are forced to close earlier in Hanoi,” he said. “There can be no entertainment here after midnight. In Saigon they can stay open 24/7. Here we have to go home and sleep. We can be out on the street after midnight, but we can’t gather together or the police will come and tell us to go home.”

“What’s that about?” I said.

“That’s what we call the capital law,” he said. “It’s only in Hanoi. We have to disband after midnight.”

*

There is no getting around it: my Vietnamese colleagues in the media cannot write whatever they want.

I asked a local journalist about how the censorship system works and she seemed to answer me honesty. I will not print her name here because I don’t want to get her in trouble. Vietnam is not North Korea, but it’s not Canada either.

“The government technically owns everything but no longer controls it directly,” she said. “I’m honestly not sure how much press freedom I have or how much self-censorship I engage in because I’m so used to it.”

Fish don’t feel the water.

“No one tells me what I can and can’t write. I just instinctively know the things I shouldn’t say because I grew up here. The rules are not written down, but they change. In the past, for instance, we couldn’t print the word democracy in any context whatsoever, but now we can. Criticism of China used to be over the line, but now it’s okay.”

“What would happen if you broke the rules?” I said.

“The story wouldn’t make it past the editors,” she said. Of course it wouldn’t. News editors have to meet with the Propaganda Department once a week to hear what can and cannot be covered. “If it did somehow get past the editors, they’d get a call from the government and they’d have to fix it.”

Corruption gets covered in the media, but only low level people are named, she said, never ministers or high officials. “When corruption at the higher levels is mentioned by the press, the government in general is blamed rather than anyone in particular in the government.”

Social media sites are no longer banned, but they’re monitored. If you complain about the government on Facebook it’s sort of “okay,” apparently, although the state will be watching. If you make a complaint group on Facebook, things might get a little iffy for you. And if you make a complaint group on Facebook and take it offline and into the street, the rubber is going to meet the road.

Despite all this, Vietnam feels less repressive to me than any other one-party state I’ve ever visited. It’s a lot less repressive than Cuba, its supposed communist brother. The Castro regime strangles everything whereas the Vietnamese government only does what it must to stay in power which, somewhat paradoxically, has led to less control over everyday people’s lives rather than more. 

Tunisia looked and felt similar when Ben Ali was still around before the Arab Spring started, when Christopher Hitchens astutely pointed out that “its system of government is fractionally less intelligent and risktaking than the majority of its citizens.” Aside from the regime, things were going rather well in Tunisia the first time I visited in 2004. The state was a pain in the ass, but the society itself was open, tolerant, prosperous, and complex. It’s no surprise—not to me anyway—that Tunisia’s transition from authoritarian rule went smoothly for the most part and did not degenerate into civil war or an authoritarian counter-reaction as in Syria, Libya, or Egypt.

I could be wrong, but I get the strong sense that Vietnam will fare similarly when the trigger point is finally reached. It’s more prosperous and more free than at any time in its history. Things are getting better, and that is what often precipitates successful democratic transitions. When a sizeable middle class first emerges from poverty amidst a slackening of repression it tends to heave a sigh of relief and count its hard-won blessings and live content with its progress so far. But when a new generation is born with no personal experience of a more difficult past, the lack of political freedom is vastly more aggravating. Even older middle class citizens begin feeling secure enough to demand more after a while.

Whatever happens later, it’s clear what’s happening now. Vietnam’s citizens and government have achieved a temporary modus vivendi: if you won’t screw with us, we won’t screw with you. It’s a dismal state of affairs for anyone who’s politically minded, and it’s especially dismal for people like me who write about politics for a living, but most Vietnamese are staunchly apolitical—partly, I suppose, because they have to be, but also because the culture right now is primarily concerned with commerce and economic development.

Arguing about politics is a national pastime in most Middle Eastern countries despite the fact that few are politically free. Citizens can't always talk about their own governments, but they certainly can and do talk regional politics if not both. In the Middle East I always feel like I am in the middle of history as it’s unfolding. In Vietnam that feeling is less. The present is certainly a time of transformation, but there is much less daily intrigue, fewer things happening out in the open. There is no war, no revolution, and no terrorism.

But history is hardly over in Southeast Asia. China is bullying the region. Thailand’s military overthrew an elected government. Burma (Myanmar) is finally moving away from unspeakable repression. How much longer before something similar happens in Vietnam? It’s surprising that Burma is pulling ahead since its starting point was drastically lower, but if it can happen there it can certainly take root in Hanoi and Saigon.

The lack of horrible things happening or getting ready to blow in Vietnam makes my job harder, but the part of me that isn't a journalist, the part of me that's just a regular person, finds it refreshing. The Middle East could use a break from history like Vietnam is getting right now. But that's what it is: a break. The break will end. You can bet your bottom dollar on that.

*

Washington pressures Hanoi to make specific improvement rather than harping on human rights in general, which is more likely to get results. Generic complaints can be dismissed out of hand, but it’s harder to bat away targeted criticism from friends. Recent progress is modest, but improvements from the 1970s and 1980s have been dramatic.

“My family tried to leave in the 1970s and couldn’t,” Tuong Vi Lam told me. She grew up in Saigon during the war, and her family faced hell when the communists won. “My father and grandfather worked for the old government, so we had no chance there after the communists came. My father had to go to a re-education camp. He was forced to do hard labor in the fields. The camp was supposed to be for re-education, but it was really all about labor. He wasn’t abused, but many were and some were even killed.”

The only reason he was sent to a camp was because he worked for the old South Vietnamese government. He didn’t commit any actual crime. The communists had a list with everyone’s name on it. He got a notice in the mail telling him to report on a certain date.

“They didn’t arrest him?” I said.

“They arrested some people when those who were ordered to report didn’t return home,” she said.

“How bad was it in the south when the north took over?” I said.

“Very bad,” she said. “All the schools were shut down. My aunts and uncles were in college and they had to quit. They just couldn’t get there. Property was confiscated and given to northerners. Communist propaganda was even put in our math books. We had questions like this: ‘Yesterday a soldier killed three Americans and today he killed five. How many Americans did he kill total?’ The books don’t have those kinds of questions anymore, but they did for five or ten years.”

Her father eventually escaped the re-education camp and her family tried to flee on a small boat to a larger boat. The larger boat was so crowded that people had to cram themselves together on the deck. And they got caught.

“Where were you trying to get to?” I said.

“Either the Philippines or Thailand,” she said. “They had refugee camps there. But America was always the end goal.”

She eventually did make it out and lives now in Oregon.

“Why did the government even care that you were trying to leave?” I said.

“Because we were trying to escape the country,” she said.

“Yes, but why did they care? What was the reason they gave?”

“They just said we were trying to leave the country,” she said.

So that was it. Jailed for trying to leave. The entire country was turned into a prison. Jail was just a jail inside a jail.

“They didn’t come up with some other excuse,” I said, “like accusing you of smuggling? They just brazenly said leaving the country was a crime?”

“If you tried to leave the country you went to jail, even the children. Once a month family members were allowed to visit and bring us food and medicine. My father was sent to a camp and sentenced to stay there forever. But he escaped.”

“How?” I said.

“Everyone had to work in the fields in the morning and go back to jail at night,” she said. “One day they were working near a river, and he’s a very good swimmer. When the guards weren’t paying attention he threw a large rock into the water and hid in some bushes. They thought he had jumped into the river. He stayed hidden while they were yelling and shooting. And after four hours when it was dark and no one was around he jumped in, swam seven miles, and ran to my mom’s relatives. They gave him some money and he took a bus to Saigon. He couldn’t go back to the province, but he could hide in plain sight in a city of millions of people. We finally escaped to America and he didn’t return to Vietnam for twenty years.”

*

The Vietnamese government’s respect for human rights is hardly ideal and would be intolerable if ported over to the United States, but it is improving and it is currently better than at any time previously. That’s something, isn’t it? Surely it’s at least worth pointing out.

The country enjoys no freedom of the press, but foreign newspapers and magazines are available. So is the Internet, which includes information from everywhere about almost everything. That’s not enough—foreign newspapers and websites rarely cover local Vietnamese issues—but it’s also not nothing. At least people have a decent idea what’s going on beyond their borders, unlike the poor souls slaving away in North Korea with nary a clue.

Demonstrations are against the law, but some people go out in the streets and demonstrate anyway. At some point—it’s all but inevitable, really—so many people will demand change simultaneously that fear of doing so will be vaporized.

Impossible to say for sure, but the country could be one screw-up, reform, or mass protest away from blowing wide open. The timing of historical hinge moments is always unpredictable. No one could have predicted that Tunisia’s Mohammad Bouazizi would set himself on fire and trigger the Arab Spring, but it happened and something like it was bound to happen eventually. Authoritarian regimes can only achieve stasis and stability until they can’t. They always fail in the end.

The human rights record of every country on earth must be judged by the same standard. At the same time, it’s only fair to give a nation points for improvement if the improvement is genuine. One should not expect an authoritarian regime, let alone a totalitarian one, to snap its fingers and transform itself instantly into a Jeffersonian democracy. That’s not how history moves.

Pete Peterson—former prisoner of war in Vietnam, former Democratic Congressman from Florida, and the first US Ambassador to Vietnam after the war—agrees.

“When I was ambassador,” he told me, “I wanted to measure progress rather than compare the country to a 100-percent ideal. It did get better, and it’s still getting better. If you were to graph it, you’d definitely see the progress.”

Citizens aren’t fleeing the country by the millions anymore. Re-education camps no longer exist. Landlords are no longer executed. Facebook is no longer banned. Local people aren’t prohibited from speaking with foreigners anymore. Uncensored foreign newspapers and Web sites are available to everyone. 

“There are still abuses, though,” Peterson said. “The government doesn’t tolerate opposition and dissidents are nipped in the bud at once. There is a lot of censorship, including self-censorship. Nobody wants to be the tall poppy that gets smacked down.”

The United States nevertheless had friendly relations with Vietnam, as it should. The war is long over. Our two countries share the same strategic vision for Southeast Asia, and our two peoples, despite a terrible history several decades ago, genuinely like each other.

I asked Peterson what he thinks is the biggest misconception Americans have about Vietnam, and I wholeheartedly agree with his answer.

“Not just Americans,” he said, “but people all over the world have no idea how huge Vietnam is. It’s not a wide spot in the road we can ignore. It’s the 13th largest country on earth and it has an enormous military, economic, and strategic capacity. It should not be ignored, but it is. And our blind spot—if we aren’t careful—could create a vacuum that’s filled by someone or something that we do not like.”

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

Also, I have a brand-new book out now. Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Book Release Day

My new book, Tower of the Sun, is now officially released.

Those of you who pre-ordered a copy should have it on your Kinde. The rest of you can get your electronic copy delivered right away from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, iTunes, Scribd, or Inktera.

If you prefer the trade paperback edition—real books look much better on shelves, don’t they?—you can get a copy right now from Amazon.

The Kurds Rise From the Ashes of Syria

Syria no longer exists.

The tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad governs parts of what’s left of it. The psychopathic Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controls another large swath. Small scraps of territory are ruled by sundry other militias which, more likely than not, will eventually be absorbed by Assad or ISIS.

Up north the Kurds have carved out a proto state of their own which they call Rojava. It is being violently squeezed by ISIS from the south, and it’s jammed up against the wall of the Turkish border to the north. It is split into three besieged non-contiguous cantons, the most endangered of which is based around the city of Kobani.

Yet Syrian Kurdistan, spliced and diced though it may be, stubbornly continues existing. 

ISIS says Rojava is an atheist entity that must be destroyed. Turkey says it’s a left-wing terrorist state that must at least be resisted.

The United States quietly considers Rojava an ally.

Darius Bazargan produced a short documentary about Kurdish Syria for the BBC’s Our World called Rojava: Syria’s Secret Revolution, where we see Commander Redur Khalil, spokesman for the armed forces: If the American and European plans are to succeed, he says, “they will need allies on the ground.” He and his people are it. There is no one else.

Their ideology is quasi-Marxist, which is hardly ideal, but it’s vastly preferable to the Assad regime and ISIS. At the very least it ensures there is no religious repression. Women, men, and people from all religious backgrounds—secular or otherwise—have the same rights. Apostates from Islam and converts to Christianity face no persecution. Jews wouldn’t suffer much either if there were many around. An Israeli woman recently volunteered to fight alongside them and she is most welcome. Rojava is also not a ethnocracy. Arabs live there too, and many fight in the armed forces against ISIS.

The quasi-Marxism of the proto state’s leaders may be a potential problem for the region’s long-term prosperity, but it poses no threat to the West whatsoever and is likely just a transition phase anyway.

Bazargan says two million people make up the area. Terry Glavin reports in the Ottawa Citizen that the refugee crisis has swollen the population to a bursting 4.6 million. No one can really know for sure what the number is. Some of the refugees may return to where they came from at some point, or they might continue to swell and become permanent.

The Turks are supremely unhappy about this. Roughly a fourth of Turkey’s own population is Kurdish. The nightmare scenario, from Ankara’s point of view, is an independent Turkish Kurdistan and a loss of even more post-Ottoman territory. But the human right of self-determination is not contingent on whether or not Turks find it convenient.

Turkey is nominally an American ally, but it steadfastly refuses to help in any meaningful way whatsoever. The Kurdish entity known as Rojava doesn’t even exist on the map, but it’s a better ally than the one Middle Eastern nation in NATO.

The Kurds can’t possibly extinguish the Islamic State or the Assad regime, but given enough support and time they may be able to carve out a functioning contiguous autonomous region with secure borders like the one that already exists in Iraq.

Making it so should be the first order of business for American foreign policy in Syria. It would make a clear definable objective and help keep ISIS in a box for the time being.

Saving or fixing all of Syria is impossible, but a partial victory is better than nothing. If you doubt this, consider how Seoul would look today if North Korea had swallowed the south at the end of the Korean War.

What’s happening in Syria is an echo of what happened in Iraq during the 1990s and 2000s. The Kurds first broke away from Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian rule, then shored up their defenses against Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS that the Kurds in Syria are facing today.

What the Kurds achieved in Iraq is permanent. Never again will that region be lorded over by Baghdad. Its independence from Iraq has been achieved in all but name. It’s a fait accompli. Nor will ISIS ever control it. The Kurds will fight ISIS with kitchen knives and even their own teeth if they have to.

Rojava’s leaders publicly say they don’t want to partition Syria, but only because it’s the safe thing to say. The Turks might invade otherwise. It’s Washington’s job to guarantee the Kurds their safety and freedom and to make it clear to Turkey that if it invades and fights on the wrong side of this war that its membership in NATO would be in serious jeopardy.

There is nothing holy about borders in the Middle East or anywhere else. Kosovo recently broke off from Serbia. Scotland nearly split from the United Kingdom earlier this year. Abkhazia told Georgia to sod off. Almost everyone on earth thinks the Palestinians will have their own state in the West Bank and Gaza at some point.

The only plausible things standing in the way of a permanent de-facto independent Kurdish state called Rojava at this point are ISIS, the Assad regime, and the Turks. Two of those three will eventually cease to exist.

There can be no peace in the Eastern Mediterranean until the Assad regime and the ISIS are both erased from the face of the earth, but the Kurdish regions can be saved and strengthened right now and used as beachheads—or at the very least buffer zones—in the future.

Postscript: My new book, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, will be released later this week. You can pre-order the Kindle version right now for just 7.99 and it will be automatically delivered to you on Thursday.

Russian Provocations Increase Against NATO

Russia is provoking Poland on purpose to see how NATO will respond. From Popular Mechanics:

NATO and allied jets have scrambled more than 100 times this year in response to Russian military sorties. This activity is growing more dramatic. Within the last week, NATO intercepted four groups of Russian aircraft. "These sizable Russian flights represent an unusual level of air activity over European airspace," the alliance said in a statement.

When the planes at Łask jump into action, it's called a Quick Reaction Alert, or QRA. Lt. Col. Ireneusz "Palm" Nowak, the base commander at Łask, says that while the Russians keep to their own airspace, the Poles scramble fighters to shadow them whenever they come near. Sometimes, Nowak says, Russian aircraft cruise right up to the Polish border in what professionals call RECCE missions — reconnaissance endeavors meant to test the enemy's readiness.

[…]

Because they can't match the Russians plane-for-plane, the Poles look to the United States for help. The U.S. has responded with an increased presence, but the American warplanes here arrive unarmed. They're here to train the Poles, not fight alongside them.

There’s also a report from the European Leadership Network describing “almost 40 sensitive incidents that have occurred over the last eight months. The locations of the majority of these are graphically represented in the map in Appendix A. These events form a highly disturbing picture of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, and other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area. While the majority of the documented incidents have taken place in the Baltic Sea, there have also been ‘near misses’ in the High North, Black Sea and along the U.S. and Canadian borders.”

The regular news media are paying little attention to this. (Perhaps because no one is shooting at anyone over Poland.) So we’re learning about this in Popular Mechanics—hardly a foreign policy magazine.

The war in Eastern Ukraine has also dropped off the screen, more or less, thanks most likely to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but not entirely.

This is unfortunate, not because we’re about to enter a new Cold War—we aren’t—or because Russia is planning an invasion of Poland—it isn’t—but because Russia, like ISIS, is determined to disrupt the international order and scare everyone else into giving it a free pass to do whatever it wants militarily within its self-declared sphere of influence.

Which wouldn’t be a problem necessarily if Russia were a responsible power like, say, France, which unilaterally invaded Mali to take out a proto Al Qaeda state in the north. Russia is acting more like a hegemonic 19th century power. Its ideology is much less extreme than that of ISIS, of course, but its size and its strength are orders of magnitude greater. The amount of pain and disruption Russia can cause if it wants is enormous.

It’s tempting sometimes to think we’ve moved beyond that stage in our history, but Vladimir Putin and his sometimes violent supporters have not. 

New Book Release – TOWER OF THE SUN

My new book, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, will be released on November 20. You can pre-order the Kindle version right now for only 7.99 and it will be automatically delivered to you the morning of the release date.

Here’s the description from the back of the book.

Prize-winning author Michael J. Totten’s gripping first-person narratives from the war zones, police states, and revolutionary capitals of the Middle East and North Africa paint a vivid picture of peoples and nations at war with themselves, each other, and—sometimes—with the rest of the world.

His journeys take him from Libya under the gruesome rule of Muammar Qaddafi to Egypt before, during and after the Arab Spring; from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in Syria on the eve of that country’s apocalyptic civil war to a camp on the Iran-Iraq border where armed revolutionaries threaten to topple the Islamic Republic regime in Tehran; from the contested streets of conflict-ridden Jerusalem to dusty outposts in the Sahara where a surreal conflict few have even heard of simmers long after it should have expired; and from war-torn Beirut and Baghdad to a lonely town in central Tunisia that seeded a storm of revolution and war that spread for thousands of miles in every direction.

Tower of the Sun is a timeless close-up of one of the world’s most violent and turbulent regions that will resonate for decades to come.

“A decade in the making, Tower of The Sun is not just an authoritative, intimate and lively reconnaissance of the tectonic upheavals shaking the earth from North Africa's Maghreb to Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s also a masterpiece of clear-eyed political analysis and literary journalism in the travel-diary style of Paul Theroux.” – Terry Glavin, author of The Sixth Extinction

“Totten…practices journalism in the tradition of George Orwell: morally imaginative, partisan in the best sense of the word, and delivered in crackling, rapid-fire prose befitting the violent realities it depicts.” Sohrab Ahmari, Commentary

“I can think of only a certain number of people as having risen to the intellectual and journalistic challenges of the last few years, and Michael J. Totten is one of them.” Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism

“Michael J. Totten, to my mind, is one of the world’s most acute observers of Middle East politics. He is also an absolutely fearless reporter, both physically—he has explored the darkest corners of Middle East extremism—and morally.” Jeffrey Goldberg, author of Prisoners

The release date is coming up and you can pre-order the Kindle version right now.

Eight Ways to Thrill

My first novel, Taken, is included in a thriller box set for a limited time from Storybundle.

When you buy a box set from Storybundle you pay what you want. You can even choose how much money goes to the authors and how much goes to Storybundle. As long as you pay at least twelve dollars, you get all eight books. That’s a buck and a half apiece. 

Eight thrillers for twelve dollars? That’s a great deal even if you only read a couple of them.

The box set is only available for a couple of weeks. Before November is out it will vanish from the shelves, never to be seen again. So if you want this--and of course you do--snap it up today so you don't forget until it's too late.

US Proxies Surrender in Syria

Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front just surrendered to Al Qaeda in Syria.

Most people have never heard of either organization, though they’ve been sort of quietly backed by the US since they oppose the Assad regime, the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and the Islamic State. Now they may be effectively finished. 

The US waited far too long to back proxies in Syria while the Islamic State and the Nusra Front spent years building up their strength and conquering territory. Throwing support behind anyone but the Kurds at this point is too little too late.

It’s over.

They were bad proxies anyway. The Syrian Revolutionary Front was an Islamist organization. Less deranged than Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, sure, but it was still an Islamist organization. Harakat Hazm is more secular, but it consists of a measly 5,000 fighters while the Islamic State has as many as 100,000.

Syria is gone. The only portions of that former country that may still be salvageable are the Kurdish scraps in the north. The Kurds are good fighters and they may be able to hold on with our help, but there is no chance they will ever destroy the Assad regime or the Islamic State. They don’t have the strength or the numbers.

So unless the United States decides to invade outright with ground forces—and fat chance of that happening any time soon—we’re going to have to accept that the geographic abstraction once known as Syria will be a terrorist factory for the foreseeable future.

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