Quantcast

From Havana to Hanoi

Vietnam’s communists are a hell of a lot smarter than Cuba’s.

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, thunders with economic productivity and bristles with new construction while most of Cuba’s capital Havana resembles a post-apocalyptic ruinscape.

While civilized countries have a minimum wage, Cuba has a maximum wage of twenty dollars per month for almost every job in the country. A beer costs an entire week’s salary and a meal out in a restaurants costs a month’s, so drinking and dining establishments are almost strictly for foreigners. In Hanoi, though, you can’t walk a block without passing restaurants, bars, cafes, and food stalls packed from one wall to its opposite with local patrons.

Vietnam’s middle class travels on motorbikes for the most part rather than in cars, but in the 1970s almost everyone got around on a bicycle. Cuba hasn’t even reached the bicycle stage yet. Its streets and highways are more bereft of traffic than anywhere in the world except North Korea.

You can find more goods for sale on a single block in Hanoi than in all of Havana.

Havana, Cuba

Some countries are just better at economics than others.

In Vietnam, citizens are allowed to earn and keep money. This makes them rich compared with Cubans who, for the most part, are not. But Cuba is not only poor because the government imposed a glass ceiling an inch off the floor. It’s also poor because the government has banned ordinary commerce for decades. One should hardly expect a booming economy when nearly all economic activity is prohibited.

Cuba’s president Raul Castro is experimenting with microcapitalist reforms, but billboards in Havana broadcast a soul-crushing slogan even today: “In Cuba the only changes are for more socialism.”

By contrast, Vietnam’s Communist Party figured out that communist economics were bankrupt even before the Berlin Wall fell, a mere ten years after winning the war and conquering the south, and in 1986 it implemented the reforms known as Doi Moi. Decades later, the result is an extraordinary explosion of new prosperity that nullifies nearly everything the party did and said when it first came to power.

*

It wouldn’t be quite right to describe Vietnam’s reforms as economic liberalization. The ostensible goal was to produce a “socialist-oriented market economy” where the state still owned major industries. But it was still a far cry from the centrally-planned Soviet-style command economy, and as the reforms progressed the system functioned more or less as a market economy despite the fact that the largest companies were owned by the government.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Small businesses were left alone for the most part, and Vietnam developed what some have called “street front capitalism” where microbusinesses proliferated. You’ll still see them all over Vietnam now. Women sell fresh produce and baked goods from baskets. Men grill meat and sell it to passersby who sit on little stools and eat at tiny tables right on the sidewalk. Everything you can imagine is sold from little stalls in the night markets.

Nowhere in the world have I seen so many boutiques, from cafes and pubs to clothing and electronics stores. I can’t say with this with certainty, but I suspect, due to the sheer number of Vietnamese involved in one kind of small business another, that more people in Vietnam understand the basics of business and capitalism than people in the United States. And that’s in the north, which still lags behind the south.

When the communist leadership decided in the mid-1980s to put Karl Marx and Adam Smith into a blender and see what came out,” David Lamb wrote in Vietnam Now, “Southerners, exposed to capitalism for decades, were far more comfortable than their northern brethren in adapting to the demands of free markets.

“The Old Guard communist leadership of the North can bury its head in the sands of Marxist economic theory all it wants,” he added, “but its constituency wants the model that Saigon symbolized—an economy that rewards initiative, encourages private enterprise, values liberal ideas, and frees itself from rigid government control.”

He wrote those words in 2002. In the meantime, the north got what it wanted. At least it appears that way to me. I didn’t get a chance to visit the south and cannot compare them. Perhaps the south still has a freer economy, and everyone in the north will freely admit that it’s richer, but the north in 2014 is a capitalist wonderland, what Bill Hayton calls the “communist capitalist playground” in his book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon.

“The results of Doi Moi over the first eight or nine years were dazzling,” Lamb wrote. “The annual inflation rate fell to single digits from 700 percent. Farmers, freed from collectivization, transformed Vietnam from a rice importer into the world’s second-largest rice exporter after Thailand. The gross domestic product grew by nearly nine percent a year. Thirty-five thousand small businesses started up in the private sector.”

When Vietnam was still economically Marxist it was one of the world’s poorest countries. “Ninety percent of the roads were unpaved; farmers in the most impoverished provinces got by on the equivalent of perhaps five dollars per month; nationally, bicycles outnumbered cars forty-to-one…Personal freedoms had vanished for all but the communist elite. Food was rationed. A pair of shoes was beyond the means of most families, unless they were prominent Party members.”

Hayton notes that in 1993 more than half the county lived below the poverty line, but less than a fifth did by 2004. The government can cook its books however it wants, of course, and those figures are a decade old, but they seem more or less accurate now, at least in the capital.

Havana, Cuba

The same thing may eventually happen in Cuba after Fidel Castro is no longer with us. He doesn’t govern the country directly anymore—his less-doctrinaire brother Raul has been president since 2008—but it’s spectacularly unlikely than a Vietnam-style renovation is possible in Cuba until Raul and whoever follows him is entirely free of Fidel’s baleful presence and influence.

*

Hoan Do’s father was a fighter pilot for South Vietnam, and the communists put him in a re-education camp after the fall of Saigon.

His wife broke him out and they fled the country by boat. They were boarded by pirates, escaped to another boat, and finally made their way to the United States. Their son Hoan lives today in the Seattle area and works as a motivational speaker for high school students.

Hoan’s father has never gone back and doesn’t want to. He’s afraid the police will arrest him if they find out he escaped. He has so many bad memories there and doesn’t even like to discuss it.

But Hoan has been twice, eighteen years ago and again three years ago. The difference between Vietnam then and now, he said, is startling.

Hanoi, Vietnam

“It’s like night and day,” he told me. “The economic changes in the cities are incredible. The farmland hasn’t changed much—poverty is poverty—but the commerce in Saigon blows me away. It’s incredibly Americanized. The number of malls, shopping districts, and restaurants is amazing compared with when I was a kid. Eighteen years ago the entire country was broken-down. There was hardly any technology, but now even poor people can go to an Internet café and log onto Facebook and YouTube.”

Internet access in Cuba, though, is all but non-existent. Last year I was occasionally able to log on at a hotel in Havana on a shared dial-up connection if I paid the equivalent of a week’s local salary per hour, but it took almost that entire hour just to download my emails from the server. Internet access in private homes is still banned. You certainly can’t surf the Web from a smart phone, which hardly anyone in Cuba can afford to buy anyway unless they receive remittance cash from abroad.

In Vietnam, though, all the middle class kids seem to have smart phones and almost every hangout spot I found in Hanoi has blazing fast wi-fi. Facebook is no longer blocked like it once was.

The press is heavily censored, but I found the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for sale whereas I couldn’t find any media whatsoever in Cuba that wasn’t produced by the Communist Party. Even if Western newspapers weren’t for sale on the newsstands in Hanoi, the Vietnamese can read them for free on the Internet.

I spoke with Nguyen Pham, the founder of a high tech startup incubator called 5desire. Her company manages small- to medium-sized investment funds for technology startups and advises on operation, growth, funding, partnership and expansion. 5desire is based in Vietnam, but it has three managing partners in Silicon Valley.

“The incubation and funding of tech startups is still a fragmented segment of our economy,” she said, “and we’re working on streamlining the process and modeling it rigorously after those in Silicon Valley.”

Ho Chi Minh could not have even imagined high tech startups backed by angel investors. Not even Americans could imagine the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon.com back in the 60s. Fidel Castro is perfectly aware of such companies, but when he was president he never would have allowed anyone to develop something similar, especially not for profit.

The Cuban government blames the US embargo for the poverty of its people, but the truth is the Castros love the embargo because it allows them to deflect blame onto outsiders. Even if that weren’t the case, it was Cuba, not the United States, that cut off all economic relations after the communists seized power.

Vietnam, though, is forging as many economic ties with the United States as it can. The government is forging ties, and so are companies like 5desire.

“We organize technology events that attract world-class foreign speakers and investors,” Nguyen said. “One of our notable events was Hackathon Vietnam 2014 in August where we partnered with Formation 8, a well known venture capitalist firm from Silicon Valley and the Ministry of Science and Technology in Vietnam. More than a thousand people attended, more than 60 percent of them developers. Joe Lonsdale, co-founder of Palantir Technologies and managing partner of Formation 8, has spoken at our events, as have Ngo Bao Chau, Mathematics professor from the University of Chicago, and Jonah Levey, the CEO and co-founder of Vietnamworks.”

You don’t need as much capital to become an angel investor in Vietnam as you need in the United States. A few thousand dollars will do the trick. Even investments of that size, though, are large enough that many Vietnamese still feel reluctant to make their investments publicly known. Prejudice against the rich goes down hard, especially in a country, capitalist playground or not, that is still run by a nominal Communist Party. It may fade in time, and perhaps it already has more in the south than in the north, but it’s still there. It has been a long time since Ho Chi Minh’s goons ran around the north executing landlords, but that bloody period in Vietnam’s history is still within living memory of older generations.

With all this technology, Nguyen said, “we have seen great improvements, but the bad side is huge too. It’s easier to communicate, but people are more lonely than they used to be. When you walk into a restaurant it’s common to see a group of friends sitting together without anyone saying a word. They’re all concentrating on their smart phones. A large number of Vietnamese youths are addicted to online games.”

Local markets are still the main focus of most Vietnamese startups, but some are aggressively expanding outside the country, especially in Asia and Africa. “Going global is a dream of many developers now,” she said. “After the success of Flappy Bird, many game developers aim for the global market with some success, such as AmazingBrick from Tung Hoang and NinjaRevenge from Divmod. Adatao has a team in Silicon Valley.”

Vietnam’s economy, capitalist as it is, is still directed to an extent by the government. It doesn’t own the company that made the Amazing Brick game, of course, but it steers things from on high much the way China’s government does. The system is hopelessly opaque to an outsider like me and isn’t entirely understood by average Vietnamese either, so I had to ask: does the state get in the way of a company like 5desire or does the government do anything to make its job easier?

“The Vietnamese government is now paying more attention to innovative technology,” she said, “and the Ministry of Science and Technology wants to take bigger steps to improve the startup community. They’re operating a fund backed by the World Bank. That’s good for us because startups will have more access finance and support. Some investors still complain about the high fees and bureaucracy when they invest in Vietnam. I believe the government is trying to fix this, but it won’t happen any time soon.”

There was a time, not long ago, when the government wanted everyone to think it and only it was responsible for technological advancement. I saw two statues in Hanoi of men wielding gigantic power plugs, presumably representing the Communist Party’s electrification of the countryside.

Power Plug Guy, Hanoi, Vietnam

Communists governments all over the world have bragged about their electrification of poor rural countrysides despite the fact that, once discovered, electricity spread all over the world under every conceivable form of government, from liberal to monarchist to fascist as well as to communist.

It’s not like Saigon lived in the dark before 1975. Electricity would have found its way to the countryside no matter who was in charge. So it’s a bit of a stretch to credit the Communist Party with improvements that likely would have happened regardless, but the party deserves all kinds of credit for voluntarily scrapping communist economics. Hanoi’s rulers learned much faster how to enrich their country than the Castro family, which is only just now beginning to implement the kind of reforms that will allow people to join the 21st century after walling them off from nearly all progress the human race has experienced since the 1960s.

*

Southerners still hold grudges against the north for what it imposed on them in 1975, despite the fact that Vietnam is communist-in-name-only and despite the fact that South Vietnam wasn’t a free country either. Southerners today are arguably more free and are certainly more wealthy than they were when the United States defended their republic from the north during the war.

“We hate northerners,” said Tuong Vi Lam, “because they changed our lives overnight. Everyone became workers.”

“In the south there’s still amazing prejudice against the north,” her American husband Alex Kasner told me. “Whenever a crime is committed, someone always blames northerners. They are supposedly uneducated. Not all people think this way, but it’s astounding to me how much of it there is. They’re all Vietnamese, but at the end of the day they’re not the same people.”

Even though the north is richer than it used to be, the south is still vastly more wealthy. It only suffered full-blown communist economics for a decade or so. Almost everyone still remembered how capitalism worked once it was permitted again.

Saigon is the center of economics and culture while Hanoi is the center of government. The north dictates to the south and has since 1975. Southerners naturally feel resentment about it. They also resent the north for changing Saigon’s name to Ho Chi Minh City, which to this day many refuse to acknowledge.

The hatred, for the most part, goes only one way.

“I’m from the south,” Huy Dang told me in Hanoi, “but I live in the north and I married a northern girl. In the south they don’t like the north, but northerners feel okay about the south. Northern people see southerners as open and happy all the time. Northerners are more reserved. They’re more careful and lazy.”

“Hanoi doesn’t look at all to me like a lazy place,” I said. Really, it doesn’t. Everyone is busy going somewhere and doing something all the time, even in the unspeakable heat of the summer, which, for quirky reasons of climate, is hotter and more stifling than the south for a few months of the year.

“It’s lazy compared with the south,” Huy said. “Northerners do things slowly. They procrastinate. If you tell them to do something they’ll say, ‘Okay, I’ll do it tomorrow.’ But the next day they still haven’t done it. Northerners like working with people from the south because we meet deadlines. We get it done. We are responsible. But not here in Hanoi.”

I have no idea how much of that is true, how much of it used to be true, and how much of it is simple prejudice. I’m not qualified to say. I can tell you just by looking around that Hanoi is not objectively lazy by global standards, but I didn’t get a chance to visit Saigon and can’t compare the two.

“Why is the south so different?” I said to Huy.

“The south has been with the Western world for a long time,” he said, “much longer than the north, for several generations. The north has opened up, but less so and it happened more recently. Young people haven’t had time to learn it from their parents yet, but in the south it’s part of their culture. Saigon is like New York and Hanoi is like Paris.”

Huy works for General Motors, so I thought he might have an idea how easy or difficult it is for an American company to open up shop in Vietnam.

“It’s very easy,” he said. “After Bill Clinton's visit, the post-war restrictions were lifted. Just present them with a business plan, tell them what you want to do, and you're good to go.”

“What about small businesses?” I said. “I see a lot of them on every street, so I imagine it's not too hard, but let's say you want to run coffeeshop. Can you just rent the space and open it up, or do you have to go through some complicated bureaucratic procedure?”

“It’s easy,” he said. “Just rent the space, pay the taxes, and that's it.”

That seemed slightly hard to believe, but Vietnam is one of the most capitalistic places I've ever seen. It can’t be too difficult to go into business if so many people are doing it. “Is there anything left of communism here aside from the name of the ruling party?” I said.

“The Communist Party still controls electricity, communications—including the cell phones companies—mining companies, and shipping companies,” Huy said. “But they're now selling stock to the employees like your stock options in the US.”

After sunset I walked through the local night market in the Old Quarter when the heat was slightly less oppressive. Individual proprietors set up shop in the middle of a street closed to vehicle traffic. I saw grilled meat, clothing, bootleg DVDs, sunglasses, smart phones, incense sticks, fake money to burn as offerings to dead ancestors, motorcycle helmets—you name it. The market reminded me of a Middle Eastern souk, only this one was out in the open under the sky.

Ad hoc markets have been a feature of local economies for millennia. Today we call this capitalism, but nobody needed to construct an ideological ism before it took off. Buying and selling is what people naturally do when governments don’t get in the way and ban commerce. You don’t have to read Adam Smith to figure out how it works. You don’t even need to be literate. The process is natural, organic, and it’s universal across cultures.

Cubans would naturally behave much like the Vietnamese do if the government would let them, but Raul Castro’s reforms are still in their infancy. The tiniest businesses are still micromanaged by the state to the brink of oblivion. Even a ruined and shattered country like Iraq is more economically robust than Cuba right now.

In Havana there is hardly anything to buy. Across the street from the Melia Cohiba Hotel, which is known as the most luxurious in the country even though it’s faded and drab, is a “mall” where “rich” people go. It’s a concrete box from the 1960s. You can buy a washing machine or a TV there, or you can hit the grocery store and pick up a few things that aren’t available with government ration books, but I’ve never seen such a pathetic mall in my life, nor have I seen such a grim grocery selection.

Royal City Mall, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, though, has one of the most extraordinary shopping malls I’ve seen in the world. I wandered around the Royal City mega mall for hours without retracing my steps, gawking at its splendor and vastness. Enough middle class families fill it at any given moment to populate a small city. I would have been impressed by the Royal City if I found it in Los Angeles, and I don’t even like malls. I can only imagine how it would look to somebody whisked there from Havana.

*

All communist countries revert to capitalism eventually. Some just get there quicker than others.

Hardly anyone bothers to defend Cuba’s groaning economic system anymore, but a stodgy core of calcified defenders haven’t quite given up yet.

Havana, Cuba

Oliver Stone—whose documentary Comandante was axed by HBO for being “incomplete,” as the channel euphemistically put it—said Fidel Castro is “one of the Earth's wisest people, one of the people we should consult.”

And The Nation magazine recently took travelers to Cuba on an “educational” trip.

The Nation,” writes editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, “for decades has covered Cuba in a way that few publications have done or dared.”

That’s true. And the article produced by the magazine’s “educational” trip is yet another in its long line of ludicrous reads. “Cuba has democracy and freedom but they are defined differently,” vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel is uncritically quoted as saying.

The piece as a whole isn’t uncritical, but it bristles with defensiveness about a system that even its president realizes needs to be overhauled.

Decades of disinformation to the contrary, Cuba never had a kinder and gentler version of communism that works. No, the island is not North Korea or Cambodia under Pol Pot, but it was never any better than Vietnam or East Germany in the 1970s and the 1980s. It just had better PR. The sorry truth is that of all the communist regimes that have ever existed—with the single exception of North Korea’s—Cuba’s is the most stubborn, the most reactionary, and the slowest to figure out how economics actually works.

It’s too bad the individuals who paid good money for The Nation’s dog-and-pony show didn’t head to Vietnam when they were finished. Every single one of the Cuban regime’s talking points would have been shown up as absolute nonsense within an hour of leaving Hanoi’s airport. The fools who think Cuba is anything but a disaster need to visit Vietnam post-haste and see what Fidel Castro’s socialist paradise will look and feel like when his imbecilic ideology is finally overthrown or reformed out of existence.

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

The Walking Dead in an Age of Anxiety

After the release of my zombie novel, Resurrection, City Journal asked if I could explain why so many people worldwide are obsessed with zombies. Here’s the first part of my essay:

“Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us,” the German poet and journalist Heinrich Heine wrote in 1842, “and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of Saint John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.” Heine wasn’t thinking of zombies, necessarily, but 170 years later, many of us are. Zombies seem to be everywhere these days. Barnes and Noble called the decade from 2003 to 2013 a “Golden Age for zombie fiction.” Max Brooks—son of comedian Mel Brooks—has written several zombie-themed books, the most popular of which—2006’s World War Z—sold more than 1 million copies and inspired the blockbuster 2013 movie of the same name, starring Brad Pitt. (I recently jumped into the genre myself, with a novel called Resurrection, which has been optioned for film.)

Zombies dominate the video-gaming world. Dead Rising 3 for Xbox One and Microsoft Windows, released last November—the latest in a zombie-killing franchise—has already sold 1.2 million copies, at $50 a pop. In May 2014, CNN reported that the Department of Defense had come up with an elaborate (fictional) zombie-based contingency plan for a military response to “a planet-wide attack by the walking dead.” Pentagon planners liked CONOP 8888 (a.k.a. Counter-Zombie Dominance), the report claimed, because it allowed them to avoid “casting” the role of the bad guys in their training scenario with denizens of real countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted a Zombie Preparedness page on its website, meant to be “a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages.” The Wall Street Journal recently noted a surge in dissertations and academic books with the word “zombie” in the title. Zombie characters show up frequently in everything from road races to flash mobs, as well as at the expected Halloween parties.

But when it comes to zombies’ hold on our collective imagination, AMC’s The Walking Dead, starting its fifth season October 12, is in a class by itself. Based on Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic book of the same name, the show chronicles the efforts of a small group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse to stay alive in the ruins of civilization. Ratings were good for the first season, in 2010, and have grown every year since, making The Walking Dead a massive hit—indeed, a cultural phenomenon. According to Variety, 16.1 million viewers watched the season-four premiere—a record not just for AMC but for basic cable—and that’s before counting everyone who saw it on Hulu, Netflix, and other on-demand outlets. The Walking Dead’s popularity has spawned a small industry of related products, from video games to action figures, and regularly put stars Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus on the covers of big magazines like Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and GQ.

Why so much enthusiasm for a show filled with gruesome violence and almost unbearable tension? Why all the interest in the end of the world generally?

The ongoing story of The Walking Dead begins with sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Lincoln) waking in a hospital bed, dazed, from a three-month coma—he’d been wounded in a gun battle—and finding himself in a world gone mad. The hospital, located near Atlanta, is seemingly empty, with signs of violence, including the mangled corpse of a woman and blood-splattered walls, all around. Outside, the dead are piled high in bags. Stumbling about, Rick heads home to find his family. On the way, he comes to a park—where, to his horror, a severely decomposed body, missing its lower half, begins to crawl toward him.

At first, Rick doesn’t understand any of this. He slept through the apocalypse—a virus has animated the dead with a mindless, relentless urge to consume human flesh, spreading the plague further by their lethal bites, and civilization has collapsed—and it’s too much to comprehend. But he soon meets a live human being, Morgan Jones, who gives him shelter and a rude education.

“Hey mister,” Jones says. “You even know what’s going on?”

“I woke up today in the hospital,” explains Rick, “came home, and that’s all I know.”

“But you know about the dead people, right?” Jones asks.

“Yeah,” Rick says. “I saw a lot of that, out on the loading docks piled in trucks.”

“No,” Jones says. “Not the ones they put down. The ones they didn’t. The walkers”—what The Walking Dead’s protagonists call zombies. “They might not seem like much, one at a time,” Jones later warns Rick, “but in a group all riled up and hungry, man, you watch your ass.”

Rick sets out to find his missing wife, Lori, and son, Carl, and, against the longest odds, succeeds, becoming the leader of a small group of ragged survivors, struggling against infection and death in a world where everything is shattered and danger lurks around every corner. The suicidal Dr. Edwin Jenner, whom the group meets at the abandoned offices of the Centers for Disease Control, sums up the bleak reality in the season-one finale. “This is what takes us down,” he says. “This is our extinction event.”

Read the rest at City Journal.

Islamic State: Army of Psychopaths

Roughly one percent of human beings are psychopaths. Most aren’t violent, and nearly all are high-functioning. Supposedly they are overrepresented in Congress, on Wall Street, in corporate boardrooms, and in large urban areas.

They’re even more overrepresented in terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda. Every violent psychopath with Muslim parents for thousands of miles in every direction is drawn to these organizations like maggots to meat. It gives them permission to behave monstrously with impunity.

I wasn’t a bit surprised to learn recently that two British jihadists purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies before heading to Syria. They weren’t drawn there by religion. They were drawn by the license to kill.

Unlike Al Qaeda, IS is trying to build an actual state, but its behavior is so unrelentingly savage that little the organization does gets attention anywhere in the world except when its goons behead foreign civilians, crucify dissidents, and wage war with genocidal intent against local minorities.

IS fighters conquered a lot of ground this way in a hurry, but it will eventually be their undoing.

Shashank Joshi explains in London’s Telegraph:

There are two ways in which a strategy of brutality can backfire.

The first is that it can induce your enemies to fight even harder, because surrendering is such an awful option. One academic study shows that “the Wehrmacht’s policy of treating Soviet POWs brutally undercut German military effectiveness on the Eastern front”. Moreover, the Soviets’ own relative brutality to Germans meant that German soldiers fought harder in Russia than in Normandy. The lesson? The Islamic State can make its enemies flee, but it would be a foolish Iraqi unit that surrendered – and the net effect is that the Islamic State has to fight all the harder.

The second problem is that the Islamic State is in the state-building game. It is out to conquer, not merely to annihilate. But it was precisely such excessive and indiscriminate violence that proved the downfall of the Islamic State’s precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sunni groups, armed and protected by a surge of US forces, turned on the group in the so-called Awakening, expelling it from the same Sunni-majority areas in which it’s now encamped. Although the Islamic State initially sought to restrain itself in the places it seized over the first half of this year, its record has been patchy, to put it mildly. Iraqis may be accustomed to being ruled by terror, but it doesn’t mean they like it.

Meanwhile, Israeli doctors saved the life of a five year-old Syrian boy who was shot in the head. Try to imagine IS or Al Qaeda doing anything of the sort for one of their enemies. The idea is ludicrous, isn’t it?  

It could take an awfully long time before every place in the Middle East adopts a zero tolerance policy toward organizations like IS and Al Qaeda, but such gruesome people are always destroyed in the end. 

Islamic State Using Human Shields

The Pentagon says Islamic State fighters in Syria are using human shields to protect themselves from American airstrikes. I can’t verify that claim, but it’s a little like saying the Islamists breathe oxygen. Of course they’re using human shields. It’s what terrorist armies in the Middle East do when facing a civilized enemy.

It wouldn’t accomplish squat against a war criminal like Bashar al-Assad. His regime would happily take out a thousand Sunni civilians to kill a single Islamist fighter. He’d see the thousand civilians as bonus points. But the West doesn’t fight like that and the Islamic State knows it.

Civilians always die in war zones. It’s unavoidable. The United States, however, takes great care to keep that number as low as possible. When the US Army and Marines took Fallujah back from Al Qaeda in Iraq (the Islamic State under its previous name) in 2004, for instance, they first spent weeks evacuating the city of as many civilians as they could before going in.

The US cares more about the welfare of Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq than the Islamic State does—which is not likely to help the medieval head-choppers and crucifixion enthusiasts much in the hearts-and-minds department.

Hamas gets an almost-free pass for this gruesome behavior in Gaza, but that’s only because no one but Israelis and Palestinians fear Hamas might one day come after them. Dozens of countries are involved in the war against the Islamic State, including Arab countries, and the Islamic State is clearly at war with the entire human race, beginning with the very civilians it’s hiding behind.

Dig In For a Long War

The Islamic State drove a convoy of stolen Humvees into an Iraqi army base named Camp Saqlawiya just north of Fallujah and exploded themselves. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers are dead or missing.

I paid a visit to Saqlawiya six years ago. “That's where you'll want to go,” an American Marine told me, “if you want to say you get shot at once a week.” Nobody shot at me. Saqlawiya was relatively “quiet” back then because the American military was occupying the area.

The American military is no longer occupying the area. And since the Iraqi army is effectively useless, despite years of American training, the Islamic State can wage its scorched earth campaign of murder and mayhem almost with impunity.

I say “almost” because air strikes by the US-led coalition are putting a crimp in their plans, but IS rules a huge area straddling two large countries and somebody will need to go in there, clear ground, and hold it if anything substantial is going to change.

Likewise in Syria. The US and several Arab governments are now bombing the Islamic State on the Syrian side of the border, including its “capital” in Raqqa and several oil refineries in order to keep cash out of the terror group’s pockets.

Again, though, somebody will have to go in there and clear and hold ground if anything substantial is going to change.

No one we like will be able do that anytime soon. If the Iraqi army can’t handle it at this late date it might never be able to handle it. As for Syria, according to David Ignatius in the Washington Post, “the U.S. military will…lead the training of Syrian forces, but this will take longer because the opposition there starts from a low base of readiness. The hope is that by sometime next year, a well-vetted force of at least 5,000 Syrians, trained in Saudi Arabia and other countries, will be ready.”

Nobody really knows how many fighters the Islamic State has, but estimates are in the tens of thousands. And those 5,000 American proxies in Syria don’t even exist yet.

So in the meantime, any ground cleared of IS fighters will be open to the Syrian and Iranian regimes and their terrorist proxies such as Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah. Washington may be coordinating with Bashar al-Assad indirectly through the Iraqis and admits that it’s coordinating with Iranian-backed militias through the Iraqis.

We could argue all day about who is more dangerous—the Sunni terrorists of the Islamic State or the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. The Iranian-led bloc isn’t cutting off American heads on YouTube at the moment, but Tehran has a nuclear weapons program and will certainly place Assad and Hezbollah under that protective umbrella if it’s ever completed. IS is unspeakably savage, but it will never acquire that kind of strength or pose a threat to anyone on that scale.

Standing aside and letting the two blocs cancel each other out was always wishful thinking. History and war don’t work that way. Prioritizing threats and focusing on one without indirectly assisting the other is most likely impossible. Defeating both at the same time without a massive commitment of ground forces is also impossible.

So we’re resisting one group of odious actors and boosting the other.

We’ve done this before, most famously during World War II when the US and Britain formed an alliance with Josef Stalin against Adolf Hitler in Germany. The long Cold War against Russia began almost immediately after the allies defeated the Nazi regime. One of the West’s last moves in that war was backing the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation, some of which later formed the Taliban as others joined the Northern Alliance.

If there were an easier way to clean up the world, believe me, we’d do it. But there’s not. So here we are.

When the Syrian civil war started I argued that the Assad should take be taken care of before the Sunni Islamists, but the latter were weaker then, and in any case we’ll have to deal with both in the long run either way. Because there can be no chance whatsoever of peace and quiet in the Middle East until both the Islamic State and the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis are defeated. Effectively dealing with just one of those factions will take many years.

The Obama administration has been perfectly in line with American public opinion these last few years in wishing the Middle East would just sod off and leave us alone. Huge numbers of Middle Easterners have felt the same way about us. After working in and writing about the region for ten years, I’m sick of it too. But we’re stuck with each other, like it or not.

A Dispatch from Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan

My friend and colleague Jonathan Spyer recently traveled to Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan—as usual, the only “safe” places to go in those countries—and published a dispatch from the front line in the war against the Islamic State.

Erbil has changed a lot since I was there last. In early 2013, on my way into Syrian Kurdistan, I had stopped off in the city for a few days to make preparations. Then, the city had the feel of a boom town – shopping malls springing up across the skyline, brand new SUVs on the road, Exxon Mobil and Total were coming to town. It was the safest part of Iraq, an official of the Kurdish Regional Government had told me proudly over dinner in a garden restaurant.

A new kind of Middle East city.

What a difference a year makes. Now, Erbil is a city under siege. The closest lines of the Islamic State (IS) forces are 45 kilometers away. At the distant frontlines, IS (formerly ISIS) is dug in, its vehicles visible, waiting and glowering in the desert heat. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces are a few hundred meters away in positions hastily cut out of the sand to face the advancing jihadi fighters.

The atmosphere in the city remains febrile. It is generally believed that were it not for the rapid intervention of the US Air Force after August 8, IS would have found its way into the city. The American air – strikes stopped the jihadis in their tracks. The land surrounding the city is flat, stark and bare. IS knows that if it seeks to push any further toward Erbil, its forces will be wiped out by American air power.

Read the whole thing.

The Ghosts of Communism in Asia

I awoke from a fitful jet-lagged sleep in Hanoi to the sound of communist propaganda being broadcast outside on a city-wide sound system. It began with patriotic Vietnamese music, which I first thought an annoying neighbor must be playing on a boom box or car stereo, but then the Ant Queen came onto the air.

She obviously worked for the government. Nobody needed to tell me that. She sounded too official to be anything but the spokesperson for the ruler of an ant hill barking orders at worker drones. This was no radio station DJ, and anyway, no radio station on earth blasts an entire city at full volume from a public address system.

I stayed in a small boutique hotel the size of a large bed-and-breakfast tucked between businesses on a main street in the Old Quarter. The sidewalk was just outside and only one story down. Judging by its volume, I could swear one of the speakers was right outside my window.

I rose, bleary-eyed, and when I yanked back the curtain, sure enough, a megaphone wired into a rat’s nest of electrical wires was indeed less than three feet from the glass and pointing at the street and sidewalk below.

Grumbling, I returned to bed. But the Ant Queen wouldn’t shut up. When I emerged from the shower, she was still haranguing the city. When I finished my breakfast downstairs she was still at it.

“What on earth is going on outside?” I said to the woman at the front desk.

“It’s the morning news from the government,” she said. She looked a little embarrassed. “I know it’s loud. Sorry.” She actually cringed when she said the word sorry. She must have to explain this to foreign visitors constantly.

“Oh, that’s just propaganda,” another Vietnamese person said dismissively when I later asked for a second opinion. I’m keeping his name out of this so he won’t get in trouble.

“Does anyone listen to it?” I said.

“It’s impossible not to,” he said and laughed, “because it’s so loud.”

I found the whole thing amusing initially. What an anachronism! I encountered what I would have expected in a place like Moscow circa 1956, and I found it in tropical Southeast Asia in the year 2014.

Somebody recorded one of these state public addresses on a video camera and uploaded it to YouTube. The clip is eight years old, but the phenomenon he recorded is still going strong.

Obviously it’s a leftover from the totalitarian era. I flew to Hanoi from Seattle via Taipei, and I know without even checking that nothing remotely like this exists in Taiwan even though I never made it out of the airport. Nor does anything like it exist in the Philippines. Or South Korea. Or Thailand. Certainly not in Japan.

But a touch of North Korea remains behind in Hanoi.

Vietnam is emphatically not regulated or regimented like its unspeakable neighbor far to the north. For the most part, it looks and feels like a freewheeling place, a country I could live in without much stress at all as long as I stayed out of politics. But its totalitarian past hasn’t entirely faded. No democratic state in the world would inflict noise pollution like this on its citizens. Only an unelected regime that lords it over everyone else from on high would even think of behaving this way in the 21st century.

Vietnam’s one-party state, despite being much more relaxed than it used to be, still spends hours each day broadcasting bullshit into everyone’s ears whether they like it or not. I couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity.

Then it hit me: This is going to wake me up in the morning every single day that I’m here.

“What exactly,” I said to the lady at the hotel’s front desk, “is the woman on that loudspeaker talking about?”

She paused and listened. “She’s telling us about a Communist Party meeting in the ward yesterday.”

The last vestiges of economic communism appear to have been vaporized. Hanoi looks and feels more like a capitalist Wild West than the actual West does these days. But some habits die harder than others.

I never asked anyone the name of the woman who reads “the news” at seven o’clock in the morning to a city that’s spectacularly uninterested in listening to it. Her name doesn’t matter. To me she is and always will be the Ant Queen.

Rice production is up 200 percent!

She isn’t saying anything quite that ludicrous now, but I’ll bet she was back in 1973 when ragged civilians waited in lines on those very same streets to exchange government coupons for meager handfuls of food. Vietnam suffered terrible shortages when its economy was still Marxist-Leninist, but once that system was scrapped and producers were “allowed” to profit from their work on the market, Vietnam became one of the world’s largest exporters of rice.

I only asked a handful of people if they enjoyed getting “news” from the state every morning and then again at the end of the work day, but surveying a handful was enough. Everyone hates it. Is there any conceivable reason why they would not?

Even some government officials think it’s ridiculous.

“For people who live near the speakers, it’s a disaster,” Pham Van Hien said to the LA Times five years ago. “It hurts their ears.” Hien at the time was the chairman of one of Hanoi’s so-called government “communes,” and he tried to convince the party to shut off its public address system and put its broadcasts on the Internet where residents could listen to them voluntarily, but his initiative obviously didn’t work out.

Vietnam’s nationwide English-language newspaper is, for the most part, a written version of the Ant Queen for foreigners. The vast majority of its articles are tedious descriptions in crushing detail of things government officials did and said the previous day.

Here’s an example. “President Truong Tan Sang wrapped up a two-day tour of the central province of Quang Tri yesterday, visiting Con Co island district and inspecting the new-style rural area building programme in Vinh Linh District's Vinh Thach Commune… Sang hailed the locality's efforts to implement the new-style rural area building programme. The commune fulfilled 15 of the 19 criteria and aims to achieve the rest by the end of this year.”

Almost the entire paper is like that. You’ll learn as much about the country reading “news” of that sort as you would if you stayed in your hotel room and napped.

I brought with me the electronic version of Theodore Dalrymple’s book The Wilder Shores of Marx. He visited Vietnam just after the Berlin Wall fell when the country was only beginning to reform its way out of communist economics, and he had a similar experience in one of Saigon’s bookstores.

I picked up a little volume of the recent speeches of Nguyen Van Linh, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Part of Vietnam (ie, the Pope). It was called Vietnam: Urgent Problems. Following the title page was a photograph of the General Secretary: I knew at once I was not in for an exciting read. The first paragraph was unencouraging.

“After several days of diligent and active work with a high sense of responsibility to the Party and people, today the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam has come to fruition.”

Although the book was only 147 pages long, I could not help but recall Lord MaCauley’s review of a two-volume biography of Lord Burghley:

“Compared with the labor of reading these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, the labour of children in the mines, the labour of slaves on the plantation, is but a pleasant recreation.”

 *

Vietnam is no longer totalitarian. It’s merely authoritarian now.

The difference may seem strictly semantic, but it’s huge. Jeanne Kirkpatrick explained it in a landmark essay in Commentary in 1979.

“Traditional autocrats,” she wrote, “leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.

“Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes. They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will ‘fit’ better in a foreign country than in their native land.”

Most Vietnamese-Americans originate in the south. They and their families moved here after the communist north overran Saigon and annexed the republic of South Vietnam in 1975.

The communists didn’t instigate the widely feared bloodbath, but they did send hundreds of thousands to re-education camps. French historian Jean-Louis Margolin published a letter about the ghastly conditions from prisoners that several dozen orally “signed.” It concluded this way:

“If it really is the case that humanity at present is recoiling from the spread of Communism, and rejecting at last the claims of the North Vietnamese Communists that their defeat of American imperialism is proof of their invincibility, then we, the prisoners of Vietnam, ask the International Red Cross, humanitarian organizations throughout the world, and all men of goodwill to send us cyanide capsules as soon as possible so that we can put an end to our suffering ourselves.”

Hundreds of thousands of south Vietnamese fled the country by boat. They didn’t care where they might end up or that they might not make it at all. All they wanted was out. They’d rather hurl themselves into the ocean and hope for the best than stick around and be ruled by the revolutionary new government. Cuban exiles in Florida can perhaps relate to them better than anyone else.

“Without firing a shot,” journalist David Lamb wrote in his book, Vietnam Now, “the communist leadership managed to achieve what a generation of war had not: the flight of discontents; more than a million Vietnamese left their homeland in three waves between 1975 and 1989. Never before in any country had so many people fled peace.”

The north had been terrorized too, as far back as 1931.

“The Party threw itself into the creation of rural ‘soviets’ in Nge Tinh and started liquidating landlords by the hundreds,” Margolin wrote in The Black Book of Communism, translated and published by Harvard University Press. “An article in the Viet Minh press in Hanoi on 29 August recommended that the people set up ‘traitor elimination committees; in every neighborhood and village…Vietnamese women who had married Frenchmen were also systematically slaughtered, although these actions were blamed on people who were not really members of the Viet Minh. In August and September alone the Viet Minh carried out thousands of assassinations and tens of thousands of kidnappings…These fanatics showed not only their unpitying dogmatism, but also the will toward a totalitarian classification of society that was a driving force inside the Vietnamese Communist Party.”

He estimates that 50,000 people were executed and that as many as 100,000 imprisoned. Not only did fellow communists get the axe—the majority of them got the axe. “86 percent of the members of Party cells in the countryside were purged,” he wrote, “as were 95 percent of the cadres in the anti-French resistance.”

Ho Chi Minh is dead now, as are his economic ideas. Despite scrapping his system, however, the party still lionizes him for being the founding father of modern, sovereign, unified Vietnam.

They embalmed his corpse and keep it preserved under glass. Actually, the Russians did the embalming because they know how. They’re experienced. They did the same to Vladimir Lenin. Ho’s body is periodically returned to Russia for a bit of a touch-up. Former US President Bill Clinton was relieved that Ho’s remains were in Moscow for routine maintenance when he visited in 2000 so he wouldn’t have to face the awkward choice of either paying his respects at Ho’s mausoleum or offending his hosts by refusing.

That worked out for everybody, not just Bill Clinton. A visit to Ho wouldn’t have played well in the US. Scabs on old wounds would have torn open again. Refusing to visit Ho would have cheesed off the Vietnamese government, which is as friendly to the United States now as its people. Clinton was treated like a rock star in Hanoi, and, if anything, the US is even more popular today than it was fourteen years ago.

Washington and Hanoi will never forget that they were enemies once, but there’s no point in making a big public show of it now. The Vietnamese got it over a long time ago, and the country is now arguably richer and freer than Saigon was under the South Vietnamese government that Americans fought to defend from the north.

Few Americans would be offended if I visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, so I put it on my schedule, but the line was three kilometers long in the blazing tropical sunshine. His mausoleum is only open for a few hours in the morning and it’s closed on Mondays and Fridays. I have little doubt that it’s because the government wants a long line. It makes Ho Chi Minh appear more popular than he actually is.

So I didn’t even try going inside. Outside was interesting enough anyway. A man named Nguyen showed me around.

In front of Ho’s mausoleum is a gigantic square that makes mere mortals like me and Nguyen appear gnat-sized. Spread out over much of that area are 360 squares of grass. “Each square represents a group of people in Vietnam,” Nguyen said.

Carrying the analogy forward, I imagined each blade of grass as an individual person. And it gave me the creeps. The entire country is represented as a blocklike structure flat on the ground at the feet of a single dear leader.

I slightly doubt today’s Vietnamese government would design a public space and monument this way. The country is still a one-party state, but it is no longer militarized, regimented, or blocklike. Like the Ant Queen, the mausoleum and its grounds are anachronistic fragments from the past.

A few hundred yards from Ho’s mausoleum is his old house, a simple wooden structure on stilts next to a pond. Across the pond is a museum, an architectural delight that seems a perfect fusion of French and Vietnamese.

Inside, below photographs of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, Ho’s plain wooden dining room table is covered on only one end with a small bit of cloth. “Ho Chi Minh didn’t need to cover the entire table,” Nguyen said, “so he cut the tablecloth and donated the rest so a poor person could use it.”

I thought of the story in America about George Washington and the cherry tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” young George said when his father asked if he felled the tree with an axe. Maybe that story is true, but it’s probably not. It’s a cute little story for kids.

Nguyen showed me the pond behind Ho’s old house.

“Ho Chi Minh came out here every morning and fed the fish,” he said. “He clapped his hands and the fish came. If we clap our hands the fish will still come because they think Ho Chi Minh is still alive.”

He did not attempt to prove that hypothesis by clapping his hands.

The road leading up to Ho’s house is shaded by giant trees—and thank goodness for that. I was dying out there in the heat. “These trees,” Nguyen said, “don’t produce any fruit. Do you know why?”

“Because it’s too cold this far north?” I said.

Nguyen didn’t laugh. I’m not sure he realized that I was joking.

“When Ho Chi Minh planted them,” he said, “the country was only half independent. The south wasn’t yet free. So the trees survived but didn’t produce any fruit.”

These are stories for six year-olds. I doubt Nguyen believes them, but I didn’t ask. He’s an official guide. The government tells him what to say. I can at least attest to the fact that he doesn’t believe every fantastical story because at one point, when telling me about a wooden dragon at one of the local pagodas, he informed me that “dragon is not a real animal.”

 *

Hoa Lo Prison, known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, was built by French imperialists in the 19th century for the warehousing of Vietnamese political prisoners. After the French finally left what they called Indochina, the communist government used it to warehouse American prisoners of war, including John McCain, who later became a US Senator and presidential candidate, and Pete Peterson, who later became a US Congressman and the first US Ambassador to Vietnam after the war.

The Vietnamese demolished most of the prison but left a piece of it intact and turned it into a museum. An office complex now rises over the rest of the site which includes one of Hanoi’s finest Western-style coffee houses.

Most of the museum is devoted to French mistreatment of Vietnamese prisoners, which makes sense since that’s what the prison was used for during most of its life. It includes statues of men with shackled ankles and men forced into slave labor.

Grim murals depict the torture of prisoners. A narrow cell block leads to an execution room complete with a guillotine. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin invented the head-chopping device in 1789 supposedly as a “humanitarian” method for killing. I suppose it was when compared with medieval era devices such as the Catherine Wheel still in use at the time which were arguably more savage even than crucifixion.

I do not believe in ghosts, detectable remnants of bad emotional energy, or anything else supernatural or paranormal, but I nevertheless felt some seriously bad juju inside Hoa Lo. Standing and walking in the very places where people were so mistreated is not a pleasant experience. These kinds of museums are important, but I nevertheless felt like it wouldn’t be entirely wrong if the Vietnamese one day decide to raze the rest of Hoa Lo and build just about anything in its place.

For the Vietnamese the museum is all about France, but I was more interested in the American experience there. The official depiction of the “Hanoi Hilton” era of that building’s history is not, shall we say, unflinchingly accurate. I saw no photographs of Americans in prison cells or any mention that they were abused in any way whatsoever. On the contrary, I saw photographs of American prisoners of war decorating a Christmas tree and playing basketball.

There’s a picture of a young John McCain being treated by a doctor. His flight suit hangs on a wall behind glass.

McCain says he was tortured in there. So does Pete Peterson, our former ambassador. Surely others were too. Yet there’s no mention of it anywhere in that building.

We don’t have to hold it against Vietnam that this happened. McCain and Peterson don’t. They appear to have forgiven their former captors and torturers as much as human beings can forgive such a thing, and they both consider themselves friends of Vietnam now. The Vietnamese, for their part, seek a formal alliance with the United States, and for whatever it’s worth I think they should get it. The Vietnamese won’t torture an American captive ever again, nor will Washington ever again bomb Hanoi.

But the American section of that museum, I have to say, is a farce. Perhaps an understandable one—admitting to and publicly displaying one’s past bad behavior can be uncomfortable—but it’s a farce all the same.

So is Vietnam’s Museum of Revolution, though it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

Of course it’s one-sided, and its descriptions use standard-issue communist boilerplate. Still, its biases cast a revealing light onto the communist north’s view of the world, if not today then at least during the 1960s and 70s.

The southern Vietnamese at that time are dismissed entirely as “puppets,” as if they had no will of their own, as if the only reason they were anti-communist is because the United States persuaded or forced them to be.

Since the United States and Vietnam are at least on friendly terms if not quite allies just yet, since our people and governments both get along without any hiccups, and since the north and the south are unified and more or less at peace with each other, maybe it’s time to jettison that kind of language.

That language is not even accurate. An honest museum might feature on its walls a poem by Trinh Cong Son, which includes the following all-too-true lines. “Open your eyes and turn over the enemy corpses. There are Vietnamese faces upon them.”

The majority of human beings everywhere in the world who found themselves under communist rule ended up, to one extent or another, as anti-communists. Otherwise, communism would still be a viable force. Communist parties would win elections. Communists would never have needed to round up so many political prisoners and send to them to gulags or re-education camps. Communist regimes would never have created so many millions of refugees or felt the need to murder a combined total of 100 million people.

But the word communist means different things in the United States and in Hanoi. The Communist Party is still in power yet Vietnam is a hypercapitalist wonderland. While most of us equate communism with totalitarian economics and government, in Vietnam it also has a nationalist dimension.

They’ll tell you that if you ask them about it, and their definition made a little more sense when I saw an old ration book from the 1970s behind glass. That book, the description said, was from “the subsidy period.” I think of the 1970s as the communist period, but the Communist Party defines it as the subsidy period.

“Vietnam was never all that ideologically communist,” said Pete Peterson, our former ambassador and Hanoi Hilton survivor when I called him at his home in Melbourne, Australia. “It was always more socialist and nationalist. I told them they should stop calling themselves the Communist Party, but I didn’t get anywhere with it. Everybody pays for everything over there, including health care. The government hardly provides anything. Sweden is more socialist than Vietnam.”

That sounds about right. Whether or not he was right about Vietnam’s communists in the past, I know he is right about them today. Back during the “subsidy period,” people used to queue up for handfuls of rice on the same streets where they can now buy smart phones and iPads. Communism, Marxist economics, subsidies, or whatever we want to call it only lasted from north to south from 1975 to 1989 before if was junked.

The totalitarian system of political control has likewise eased up. Facebook and Twitter used to be banned, but they’re not anymore. Vietnamese were once prohibited from even speaking to foreigners, but that hasn’t been the case for a long time. The Lives of Others, one of the best anti-communist films ever made, played in movie theaters in Hanoi while I was there. I could hardly believe it, and yet there it was.

The phrase “regime-change” has been bandied about in the West for some time now and generally refers to the overthrow of a government by external forces, such as the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003. It can also, of course, refer to the kind of revolution from below that we saw in Tunisia in 2011 and in Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall fell.

But there really is a third type of regime-change, and we’ve seen it in Vietnam (as well as in China). The same party, the Communist Party, has been in power for decades, but the party, the regime, has dramatically changed. That change came not from outside the country or from inside and below but from within the regime and the party itself.

The Ant Queen still wakes everyone up in the morning and one could argue that the museums themselves belong in a museum, but these relics of a bygone era stand out so starkly because they’re at odds with everyone and everything else.

Voluntary regime-change isn’t common in history, but it would be wrong to say it’s unheard of.

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

The Brutal Truth about ISIS

My latest was published today in the Sunday edition of the New York Daily News. Here's the first part.

It was inevitable: Our post-Iraq isolationist funk is finally ending. And it’s ending, of all places, right back in Iraq.

President Obama, a mere week after saying ISIS is a problem that needs to be “managed,” is now promising to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist organization that controls a proto-state in huge swaths of Syria and Iraq. He plans a “systematic campaign of air strikes” alongside support for the new Iraqi government and relatively “moderate” Syrian rebels.

The President is the most reluctant of warriors. He campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the most casual observer could see that he was spectacularly uninterested in doing the first thing about Syria’s civil war.

What forced his hand is the fact that the Syrian civil war is no longer the Syrian civil war. It’s a regional war that is exploding into Iraq and to a lesser extent into Lebanon. It long ago sucked in Iran and Hezbollah and is now dragging in Washington, kicking and screaming.

The erstwhile hawkish Republicans have been hardly more interested in getting involved than Obama, what with Syria’s terrorist-supporting President Bashar Assad battling it out with other terrorists. Sarah Palin summed up the mood of her party’s right wing when she wrote “let Allah sort it out” on Facebook.

Why not, right? Iraq has proven to be all but unfixable, and so has Afghanistan.

The reason we must reject the tempting tendency to close our eyes and hope this problem goes away is that Allah doesn’t always sort things out according to American interests.

Life is filled with things we don’t want to do but have to do anyway. No one wants radiation or chemotherapy, but if you get cancer, you’re going to have to take it despite the fact that it might not work and that it will certainly feel like it’s killing you.

Let’s not kid ourselves. ISIS — or ISIL as the President calls it — is cancerous. And it is not a benign tumor. It is metastasizing and will not stop growing stronger and deadlier until it is dealt with aggressively and, at the absolute minimum, contained.

Read the rest in the New York Daily News.

Iraq's Kurdish Firewall

Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga forces worked with the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah to oust Islamic State fighters from the town of Amerli, but now they’re told they are no longer welcome. “We fought for three months here, and now we have to fight these bastards,” one of the Kurdish fighters told Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post. “If this continues, we’ll have another war.”

I doubt the Kurds will get sucked into a war with Iraq’s Shia population, but it’s possible. What’s more striking about this and other recent developments is that Iraq’s Kurds are frequently fighting outside their autonomous region in the northern three provinces.

They’re doing it defensively—they have no interest in conquering and annexing Arab parts of the country—but they’re doing it nevertheless.

They’ve long wanted out of Iraq and they plan to hold a referendum on independence, but for now, thanks to IS, they’re intricately and militarily involved with the country they want to leave.

The Kurds of Iraq and Syria are not strong enough to demolish the Islamic State by themselves or even with help, but they’re perfectly capable of keeping hostiles out of their well-guarded autonomous region and can even push back beyond their own borders with help from their friends in the US and even enemies like Iran and Hezbollah.

The Obama administration is currently looking for allies in the region who are willing to fight the Islamic State and the Kurds are without a doubt the best we’re going to find. They are allergic to radical Islam, they’re more pro-American than even Israelis, and they fight competently and hard.

Washington has been mostly neglecting these people for more than a decade now. Their autonomous region has been stable since the 1990s and they sat out most of the fighting after Saddam Hussein fell, but their holiday from history is over.

The Iraqi Army dropped its weapons and ran when IS approached, and Syria’s ludicrous “president” Bashar al-Assad Syria left IS alone for years since they make him look almost respectable by comparison, but the Kurds are not screwing around. Give them whatever they want and whatever they need—including recognition when they declare independence.

The Fate of Steven Sotloff

Earlier today Gretchen Carlson at Fox News interviewed me about Steven Sotloff and the risks foreign correspondents take when working in war zones. You can watch the clip online if you're interested.

Journalist Steven Sotloff Executed

The Islamic State just executed my colleague Steven Sotloff on camera.

He and I corresponded by email and planned to meet in Libya last year, though it didn’t work out. He had to leave and I had to cancel my trip and re-route myself to Lebanon, so we never actually met. But I did introduce him to the publisher of this magazine and he wrote a few articles for us before he was kidnapped in Syria.

I sort of knew him, though not in the flesh, so I can’t tell you much about him personally, but I can tell you this: he was a hell of a lot braver than I am. I have not for even a second considered going to Syria during this conflict, and I doubt I’d be willing to go there even a couple of years from now if the conflict were to miraculously end later today.

When he lived in Benghazi and everyone was heading for the exits, he told me—and I believed him—that Benghazi was the same old Benghazi, by which he meant mostly fine aside from some unfortunate incidents. Dangerous places are often, though not always, less dangerous than they appear in the media. At least they appear that way.

Maybe that's just a trick of the mind. Those of us who insert ourselves into war zones figure out ways to cope with anxiety and get it to drop nearly to zero. The human mind is extremely adaptable, and it’s easier to neutralize fear when it’s faced voluntarily. That’s why I felt calm in Baghdad most of the time. It’s also why exposure therapy works.  

Steven was brave and unlucky, but he was not stupid. He knew how risky going to Syria was and, according to Ben Taub, he planned to take a hiatus from this nasty business after one final trip and possibly apply to graduate school in Florida.

The Islamic State took that from him, and they took him from us.

I didn’t actually meet him, but I miss him anyway. Sincerest condolences to his friends and family.

The Nusra Front's Impossible Demand

Considering the events of the last couple of weeks, you could be forgiven if you forgot that the Islamic State isn’t the only terrorist group fighting in Syria. There’s also the Nusra Front.

They recently kidnapped peacekeepers from Fiji monitoring the ceasefire on the Israeli-Syrian border. (They also surrounded Filipino peacekeepers who managed to escape.)

The Associated Press reports that they won’t release the hostages unless the United Nations takes them off its list of terrorist organizations.

I’d say someone should tell these guys that if they don’t want to be called terrorists they shouldn’t do terroristy things like taking hostages, but they are the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, so fat chance of that ever happening.

Don't Cooperate with Assad

The US is considering air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq and the Syrian government says any unilateral action that isn’t coordinated with Damascus will be seen as an act of aggression.

President Bashar al-Assad would be perfectly content, however, to have the United States fighting on its side. That’s what he wanted from the very beginning. He hoped Americans would forget or simply not care that he is the Arab world’s largest state sponsor of international terrorism and has even cooperated with ISIS under its previous name to kill Americans in Iraq.

He might pull it off. Nicholas Blanford, a brilliant analyst of Levantine politics, explains why that would be dangerous in the Christian Science Monitor.

One of the grim ironies of the Syrian civil war is that IS has flourished in Syria in part due to the manipulations of the Assad regime itself. As initially peaceful protests turned into sectarian war in the latter half of 2011, Assad appears to have understood that secular moderate rebel factions posed a greater long-term threat to his survival than bands of wild-eyed Islamist extremists. Moderate rebel groups were more likely to win the logistical backing of the US and other Western countries that could provide sufficient leverage to oust Assad.

On the other hand, if the rebel ranks were dominated by Al Qaeda-style Islamist groups, the West would balk at providing support and could eventually even side with Damascus.

In a cynical but skillfully exploited strategy, hundreds of Islamic militants were released from Syrian prisons in the first few months of the then generally peaceful uprising.

Some of those militants became leading figures in groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which today is Al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and one of the most effective anti-Assad factions. IS was originally an Iraq-based group that began extending its influence into Syria in 2012, drawing ever-expanding numbers of recruits and earning a reputation for brutality. Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel factions, ISIS has been more interested in acquiring territory and funds to build its self-declared caliphate than in tackling the Syrian Army. And the Assad regime, until recently at least, was generally content to leave IS alone, especially as the extremist group’s attacks against moderate rebel rivals turned it into a tacit ally of Damascus.

With IS, analysts say, the Assad regime has quietly nurtured the perfect enemy – one that prefers to battle Assad’s more moderate opponents but whose brutal behavior has alarmed the international community and spurred calls in the West to bite the bullet and consider resuming cooperation with Damascus.

“In a very disciplined way, Bashar al-Assad is trying to maneuver the US into collaborating with him against ISIS in eastern Syria, even as he stands aside while ISIS tries to finish off the nationalist Syrian opposition in western Syria,” says Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former State Department adviser on Syrian affairs. “This appearance of collaboration [between Damascus and Washington] will, in Assad's view, facilitate his eventual return to polite society while promoting tension between Washington and its Gulf partners.”

[…]

A European ambassador in Beirut who is in regular contact with a broad array of opposition groups in Syria, including ISIS, warns that any Western coordination with the Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawites, a splinter sect of Shiite Islam, would further inflame Sunni sentiment across the region and further afield, deepening the sectarian dynamics of the conflict and rallying more recruits for IS.

If the West joins forces with the Assad regime to fight ISIS, it will be perceived as “Crusaders fighting with Alawite infidels against Sunnis.… It couldn’t be worse,” the ambassador says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The experienced diplomat says that IS can be defeated if Sunnis in Syria and Iraq are brought into an alliance against the extremist group. Recalling a recent phone conversation with a member of IS in northern Syria, the ambassador quoted the militant as acknowledging “the more it becomes a Sunni-Shiite war, the faster we will grow.”

The Worst Fate Possible for a Journalist

Last year when Libya still looked like it might be okay I planned my second visit. It would have been my first since the overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi.

An American journalist who lived in Benghazi emailed me and said we should meet for coffee once I arrived. I liked the idea, partly because he could show me around and introduce me to people, but mostly because I would not be alone in a strange and potentially dangerous city. No one, not even war correspondents, enjoys being alone in such places.

Then several governments, including our own, ordered its citizens out. Westerners headed for the exits and European airlines stopped flying to Tripoli. I had no choice but to cancel my trip. Nothing much bad was happening at the time, but several foreign intelligence agencies, including the CIA, concluded that something horrible was likely to happen and that people like me had to clear out of the way.

I didn’t know what, exactly, they were worried about, which only made my own anxiety worse. What I dreaded more than anything was being kidnapped. I’ve risked getting shot and blown up in a number of different war zones, but I will not go to a place where I stand a serious chance of being grabbed by terrorists. I decided long ago I would let would-be kidnappers shoot me in the street before I’d get in a car with them even at gunpoint.

So I cancelled my trip to Libya and went to Lebanon instead. Knowing I had a colleague and a friend-to-be waiting in Benghazi wasn’t enough. There is safety in numbers, sure, but we journalists can only do so much to protect each other. He seemed disappointed, but he too ended up leaving Libya and went to, of all places, Syria.

His name is Steven Sotloff. And he was kidnapped last August by ISIS. Last weekend ISIS executed our colleague James Foley on camera and said Sotloff is next. Sotloff appears in the video too and personally witnessed Foley’s beheading.

I never met him, but now I can’t stop thinking about him and worrying about him. Sometimes it makes me physically sick. We were going to meet in Benghazi. I’m sure we would have become friends. We have friends in common already and, believe me, hanging out with colleagues in dangerous places is a bonding experience. He published a few articles in this very magazine because I introduced him by email to the editors and the publisher.

Apparently ISIS demanded 132 million dollars in ransom money from Foley’s family before killing him—an impossible amount. The government could pay it, of course, but will not. Rewarding kidnappers only encourages more kidnappings and puts even more people at risk.

Instead the US military tried to rescue Foley, Sotloff, and other so-far unnamed journalists who are supposedly being held. The operation didn’t work out. The victims were at another location.

Washington can’t pay ransoms, but it could and probably should offer a large cash reward for intelligence that leads to a successful rescue. Kidnappers might try to collect the reward money themselves, which would make it a ransom by other means, but there’s an easy way around that—kill all the kidnappers. Do not arrest them and send them to Guantanamo. Kill them.

I have no doubt Washington is looking for Sotloff and the others right now. They’ll send men if they think they know where he is. They’ve already tried at least once. We can only hope they’ll succeed before it’s too late.

In the meantime, to all of my colleagues: for God’s sake, stay the hell out of Syria.

Vice News Embeds With the Islamic State

I’ve just returned from a very brief summer vacation in a remote part of the Pacific Northwest without cell phone coverage or Internet access, so I’m a bit behind on what’s happening in the world. While I’m catching up, take a look at Vice magazine’s five-part documentary on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

I don’t know how they did it, but they somehow got permission to embed a team of reporters with IS in both Syria and Iraq. There is no chance I would ever trust these people with my life and my safety, but the team got in and out okay and what they came back with is extraordinary.

The Islamic State is a deadly serious army with delusional global ambitions. Someone will have to defeat it with force, and it won’t be one of the local armed forces. Not any time soon. I’m sorry to say this, but if you watch Vice magazine’s documentary I doubt you’ll come to any other conclusion.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Michael J. Totten's blog