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Russia Threatens Poland Over Decommunization

Just days after the Russian government accused the United States Congress of violating international law by imposing sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin is threatening Poland with sanctions if it pulls down Soviet World War II memorials. Vladimir Putin ought to be grateful that the Poles have let them stand as long as they have. Moscow built them to glorify and whitewash its brutal conquest in the ashes of the Third Reich, yet Warsaw has been free of Russian domination since 1989, more than a whole generation.  

Even after all these years, though, Poland is still in the process of decommunization—eradication of the political, psychological and physical detritus left behind by a totalitarian regime that rivaled only Nazi Germany in its brutality. Yet Russia’s foreign ministry, cribbing the language of political liberalism that it so despises, is accusing Poland of “Russophobia” and of belittling the Soviet Union’s role as a “liberator.”

Russians might even believe that they liberated Poland, but that’s only half true at best. Yes, they drove the Nazis from Poland, but only after first signing on to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact) that guaranteed Adolf Hitler’s annexation of the western half of the country. Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin turned on Hitler only in 1941 after the Wehrmacht blitzkrieged through Soviet-occupied Poland all the way to the outskirts of Leningrad. After defeating the Nazis, Stalin imposed his own ghastly Russian-made totalitarian system on Poland in its place, complete with secret police, the persecution of dissidents, show trials, the execution of political prisoners, the nationalization of private industry, a botched collectivization of agriculture and all the rest of it.

Imagine if, after the United States invaded Iraq, George W. Bush replaced Saddam Hussein’s mass-murdering regime with a mass-murdering Washington puppet and erected statues of himself in Baghdad. Imagine also that the brutal Bush-installed tyranny lasted half a century before the Iraqis finally squirmed out from beneath it. How do you think the Iraqis would feel about the United States, and about Bush in particular, had this happened? And how do you suppose the Iraqis would feel if the United States then threatened them with sanctions for toppling a hated statue of W?

At least the Russians had enough sense not to put up statues of Stalin himself. Instead they installed a statue of his predeccesor Vladimir Lenin in Krakow.

Poland doesn’t have to tear down the Soviet monuments to effectively decommunize its own landscape. Hungary, for instance, moved some of its own Soviet-era garbage scuptures into a place called Memento Park in Budapest and turned it into a tourist attraction. "This park is about dictatorship,” architect Ákos Eleőd said. “And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”

This isn’t the first Soviet statue controversy in Poland. The Warsaw government temporarily took down the Monument to Brothers in Arms (pictured above) in 2010 to make way for a construction project, and its removal was made permanent when residents who live nearby complained that it constantly reminded them of the communist era. The Russian government complained, of course, but they really howled in 2013 when Jerzy Bohdan Szumczyk erected a statue in Gdansk showing a Russian Red Army soldier raping a Polish woman. He did it without permission, and the police removed it just a few hours later. Even many Poles found that statue outrageous. The Kremlin’s response, though, tells us everything we need to know about how Russia views its former vassals. Russia’s then-ambassador said Szumczyk “defiled by his pseudo-art the memory of 600,000 Soviet servicemen who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom and the independence of Poland.”

The freedom and independence of Poland? In 1945? Poland wasn’t free and independent until nearly a half-century later, until the regime in Moscow that “liberated” Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe finally began to circle the drain.  

The ambassador might be able to fool Russian schoolchildren who don’t know any better into believing this kind of ahistorical absurdity, but nobody in Poland is going to buy it. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is as committed to lies as was Soviet Russia when George Orwell masterfully exposed it in his allegorical novel, 1984. Soviet troops died for freedom in Poland? Sure, and war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength, like Big Brother insisted.

The Russian propaganda organ Pravda, which operates under the same name and from the same office as it did during the Soviet era—and whose name, in classic Orwellian style, means “truth”— says Poland, with its slated removal of Soviet monumnets, is trying to “prove its devotion to Western masters.” As if anyone in Washington or Brussels cares a whit what Warsaw does with its own urban landscape.  

With Denazification, the West all but forced Germans to acknowledge the unspeakable crimes the Nazi regime commited in the 20th century. Germans internalized that critique and directed it back at themselves to an astonishing—some would even say excessive—degree. Within a historical instant, Germany was transformed from the world’s most belligerent nation into one of its most pacifist.

Nothing comparable ever happened in Russia. The West never even asked Russians, let alone attempted to force them, to atone for the crimes they committed in the 20th century, probably, at least partly, because so many victims of the Soviet system were Russian. Most of us assumed Russia would move on from its communist past as enthusiastically as the people of Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia have.

We were wrong, and we should have known better. Because the Soviet Union was more than just a totalitarian state. It was also an empire, and that empire was Russian. Hardly anybody in Warsaw, Prague or even Moscow wants to bring back the slave labor camps, but Russians are still chafing at the loss of their vassals in Warsaw and Prague. They’re still smarting from the loss of their empire. They won’t be good neighbors unless and until they get over it.

Congress Makes Russian Sanctions Trump-proof

Bipartisanship isn’t dead yet, not even in Donald Trump’s Washington. The House of Representatives just passed a sweeping new sanctions package against Russia, Iran and North Korea by 419 votes to 3.

The White House won’t say if the president will sign it or not. It’s no secret that he doesn’t like it, and the reason why is perfectly obvious—Congress is making it Trump-proof. He will not be able to strike a unilateral deal with Vladimir Putin and roll back these sanctions. Let him veto it if he wants. Congress can just override it. He doesn’t have the power to stop it.

Nor do the Russians. The Kremlin can hardly even retaliate. Not effectively, anyway. Case in point: Russian Senator Alexei Pushkov is threatening “sanitary sanctions” against McDonalds. He’s referring to what Russia did in 2014 when, angry about the last round of sanctions, it closed the largest McDonald’s in Moscow for three months so that officials could launch “safety inspections.”

These people do not understand how American politics and economics work. They’re projecting their own twisted norms onto us. In authoritarian crony capitalist Russia, all the largest businesses are yoked to the Kremlin. If Washington punishes one of those companies, it’s effectively punishing Russia’s government.

That’s not how it works over here. The United States government has nothing to do with McDonalds. The Kremlin could burn every McDonalds franchise in the entire country to the ground and it would hurt the American government less than if an entry-level Russian spy threw gravel at the capitol building.

Russia’s mafioso system makes it especially vulnerable to sanctions that target businesses and rich individuals personally, and nothing so far tops the precision-guided Magnitsky Act. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012, also with overwhelming bipartisan support, it singles out the Kremlin’s worst human rights abusers, freezes their assets, bans their travel to the United States and places their names on the US Treasury’s list of sanctioned individuals, preventing them from opening up a bank account anywhere in the world. Any bank that lets one of these people open an account would itself be in violation of American sanctions.

We know the Magnitsky Act is the near-perfect weapon because it works, and we know it works because Vladimir Putin rails at it constantly. Abolishing it is one of his principle foreign policy objectives, yet most Americans had never even heard of it until we found out earlier this month that Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya met Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort in Trump Tower last year and hoped to trade sanctions relief for dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The act is named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He worked at the Firestone Duncan law firm and accused Russian officials of ripping off hundreds millions of tax dollars. The Russian state responded by banishing the company’s co-founded Bill Browder, illegally signing over the business to convicted kidnapper and murderer Viktor Markelov, throwing Magnitsky into Moscow’s Butyrka prison, assaulting him while he was in custody and denying him adequate medical treatment. He died days before his scheduled release.

Magnitsky’s namesake act singles out 44 individual human rights abusers worldwide (the original list included only 18, all of them linked to the Kremlin) and makes them international pariahs. “When Putin reacts to the Magnitsky Act with such personal venom,” Browder said a few days ago in an interview with Jacob Weisberg at Slate, “he’s reacting because he feels like the entire purpose in life, which was to steal money from the Russian state and keep it offshore, is at risk. That’s why they’re ready to ruin relations with America over the Magnitsky Act by banning adoptions and doing other things, and that’s why so much money has been spent fighting the act and fighting me, the person behind the campaign to get Magnitsky Act in the United States and around the world.”

Browder estimates that roughly 10,000 people in Russia have stolen upwards of a trillion dollars from Russian taxpayers over the years. Only a tiny percentage of them are currently targeted by American sanctions, but many more could be in the future, and in any case, those named are the most notorious. More important is that the sanctions throw sand into the gears of Putin’s crony capitalist system. If members of his little oligarchy can’t spend the money they steal when and where they want to spend it, they have less incentive to bother working for him or stealing it in the first place.

These people are still rich, sure, even with the sanctions against them, but they don’t just want to be wealthy in Russia. They want to be wealthy in New York, London, Prague and Berlin. They want to be rich on the French Riviera. It’s nice enough owning a dacha on the Black Sea in Sochi or Yalta, but I’ve been to Yalta and it’s no Provence. If you’re vacationing there in the winter from Moscow you’ll surely appreciate its rugged coastline, its relative warmth and its palm trees. It’s provincial and tacky, though, and it underwhelms just about everyone who has ever been anywhere else. So if you’re a staggeringly wealthy Gazprom executive accustomed to whiling away your leisure time in the Swiss Alps, in Paris or in Tuscany, Yalta will seem as barren a destination as the center of North Dakota.

What happens to these people if the Putin regime is overthrown and they have to go into exile? They’ll have nowhere to go and no money to spend once they get there. Washington should never bail them out, ever. Don’t trade sanctions for “better relations” or “cooperation” in Syria or anywhere else. If they want to work with us against ISIS, that’s fine, but we should still treat them like the murderers and thieves that they are.  

In the Hobbesian realm of foreign policy, American national interests often clash with American values. The United States partners with medieval Saudi Arabia against Iran, for instance, and during the Cold War supported brutal Latin American military dictatorships so long as they were anti-communist. Washington has strangled local economies from Cuba to Iran in order to punish the hostile regimes in those countries but mostly ended up hurting innocent people instead. Our Russian sanctions are bigger, better, smarter and more American by punishing only the perps. Long may they live.  

Iran Takes Another American Hostage

Iran just sentenced Princeton University graduate student and American citizen Xiyue Wang to ten years in prison for espionage. His professor Stephen Kotkin tells The Washington Post that Wang “is innocent of all the charges.” Of course he’s innocent. Wang is just the latest in a long line of Americans kidnapped by the most promiscuous hostage-taking regime in the world.

Never mind, for now, the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, when radical followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held 52 diplomats and other American citizens against their will for 444 days. That was a uniquely despicable event that even the Islamic Republic hasn’t repeated.

Arresting Wang and convicting him of espionage is part of another pattern that has been ongoing for years. This is the same government that convicted Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian of espionage before releasing him and three other prisoners last year on the same day the United States government paid Iran 400 million dollars. The State Department said the 400 million wasn’t ransom since Washington legitimately owed Tehran that money since before the 1979 revolution, but the Iranian government took it as ransom anyway. “Taking this much money back was in return for the release of the American spies,” General Mohammad Reza Naghdi, commander of the Basij militia, said on Iran’s state-run television, neverminding the fact that the “spies” he referred to weren’t spies.

The only thing unique about arresting Wang is that he holds dual Chinese-American citizenship. Iran’s government generally captures dual Iranian-American nationals, presumably because it thinks it can get away with it a little more easily.

Two months ago, American and Iranian diplomats met in Vienna and discussed yet another batch of four dual American-Iranians held in Iran, including art gallery owner Karan Vafadari, his wife Afarin Niasari, businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer Namazi. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Ghasemi confirmed to the New York Times that representative from the two governments met and discussed the fates of these people and said that similar talks in the past produced “positive results.” If earlier prisoners were arrested and sentenced legally and properly, why even discuss it with the United States? What “results” could have been “positive” from the Iranian point of view unless the regime got something in return?

Even if arresting and charging Wang weren’t part of a well-established pattern already, we should always be skeptical when a repressive police state tells us why it puts anybody in prison. Earlier this month, Lahav Harkov wrote a blistering piece in The New York Post excoriating commenters in the West who took seriously North Korea’s claim that it sentenced University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of slave labor for stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel.

The regime forced Warmbier to “confess” his crime in front of cameras. He said he was following the orders of his Friendship United Methodist Church in Ohio when he stole the poster. Never mind the ludicrous notion that any church anywhere in the United States would order someone to steal a poster from North Korea. Warmbier didn’t even attend Friendship United Methodist Church or any other church in Ohio of anywhere else.

Warmbier was Jewish.

One of two things happened during Warmbier’s forced confession. The regime told him to say he was following orders from “his” church, or Warmbier inserted the easily checkable falsehood himself to telegraph to the rest of us that his confession was bogus.

“In North Korea,” Harkov writes, “like in the Soviet Union, there’s no such thing as a fair trial or justice. It’s an evil regime, and buying their side of the story only empowers them.” The same goes for the Iranian government, and for the same reasons.

Besides, the CIA doesn’t send Chinese-American graduate students as spies to Iran. What on earth could a foreign college student possibly learn, in Iran or anywhere else, that governments around the world don’t already know?

From the very first moment I started working in the Middle East as a journalist, all kinds of people over there have accused me of being a spy. At first I didn’t even know what to say. I could hardly convince anyone otherwise. A year or so later, a hotel manager in Beirut all but begged me to give him a job at the CIA. I told him I don’t even know anyone at the CIA, but acknowledged that he’d make a better spy than I would. That’s when it clicked for me. That’s when I knew how to convince Middle Easterners that I wasn’t a spy.

From that day forward, I’ve told people this: “I’d be useless as a spy. I’m a white man from the United States. The American spies in your country were born here. They blend in. They speak the language with a local accent. And they work at the highest levels of the government and the military.”

Works every time. Sometimes the answer actually spooks people.

You don’t have to be an intelligence expert or even read spy novels to know that that’s how espionage works in the real world. Nothing else even makes sense. Foreign journalists and college students can’t blend in, can almost never speak the native language with a local accent, can’t get within a mile of sensitive information, and can’t possibly learn anything the CIA doesn’t already know.

Someone like me or Xiyue Wang could be an intelligence analyst, sure, but if that were the case, we’d be working in Langley, Virginia, not in Tehran, Beirut or Damascus And yes, someone like me or Xiyue Wang could be a case officer—a recruiter—but if so, we’d be attached to the American Embassy, not a university or a media organization.

That’s why it’s obvious on the face of it that Wang, even more than the dual Iranian-American nationals who are normally kidnapped in Iran, is a hostage instead of a spy.

Ukraine’s Risky Bid to Join NATO

Ukraine is about to begin a slow-motion process to join NATO as early as 2020. It’s probably not going to happen, and it would be way too late to save the country from the violence Russia has already inflicted, but we can hardly fault the Ukrainians for giving it the old college try.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenerg and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko held a joint press conference in Kiev this week. “Today,” Poroshenko said, “we clearly stated that we would begin a discussion about a membership action plan and our proposals for such a discussion were accepted with pleasure.”

“We are also here to demonstrate NATO's solidarity with Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said, “and our firm support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of your country.”

What a difference five years can make. In 2012, when asked if and how they would vote in a referendum, just 26 percent of Ukrainians said they would vote “yes” to join NATO. Today, 78 percent say they’d vote “yes.”

Charting a neutral third path between Russia and the West used to make sense, up to a point. Ukraine is more liberal and democratic than Russia and a bit less corrupt, but it shares a great deal of culture and history with the leviathan next door. Now that Vladimir Putin has invaded, annexed the Crimean Peninsula and backs a violent insurgency in the eastern Donbass region, splitting the difference between Moscow and Brussels seems daft. No serious person can believe the West would ever attack Ukraine or lop off parts of its territory.

The Ukrainians should have joined the North Atlantic alliance a long time ago. Their country would almost certainly still be intact right now if they had.

Russia has never invaded a member of NATO. While I’d like to say Russia probably never will, just about anything can happen if you wait long enough. Years from now, decades from now, generations from now, the entire world may be unrecognizable. Given enough time and enough change, there’s no telling what Russia might do in Europe. So far, though, Russia has never invaded a member of NATO. Membership in the Western alliance is the closest thing to guaranteed safety that exists in this world. NATO expansion at least semi-permanently restricts the zone that Russia can destabilize and wreak havoc upon with impunity. It’s a good thing all around if you’re not a Kremlinist, which is one of the reasons Vladimir Putin hates NATO expansion so much.

The other reason is that he, like so many of his countrymen, for reasons of both geography and history, inherently fears foreign invasion. Look at a relief map. The Russian heartland around Moscow and St. Petersburg is bang in the middle of one of the earth’s vastest stretches of flat land, unprotected by mountains and water and wide open to attack from every direction except from the Arctic. Few otherwise powerful nations are so vulnerable.

The reason Russia has expanded so far from its major populations centers (historically as far as Berlin and Alaska) is because it has been brutally invaded from both the east and the west, most disastrously by the Mongols, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Nazis. Russians can’t hide behind mountains as the Swiss can or behind oceans like the Americans, so instead they seek to build a “moat,” so to speak, of vassal states that they’ve conquered or can control from a distance. Such states would bear the brunt of a foreign invasion and force an enemy army to disintegrate ahead of impossibly long supply lines.

Russia’s need to surround itself by a ring of vassals is perfectly understandable, but it means occupation and war for the vassals and a constant state of anxiety for the vassals’ neighbors. It’s in the West’s interest, then, for Ukraine to join NATO, but Russia has far more to lose in Ukraine than the West does. Ukraine is one of Russia’s last buffer states to the west. Nearly all the rest have joined NATO already. And while Ukraine is not Russian, it is the place where Russia’s proto-civilization Kievan Rus was born in the 9th century.

Putin wants it a lot more than Americans do, which is why his soldiers are there and ours aren’t. And it’s the reason his soldiers—or at the very least his proxies—are going to stay. There is virtually no chance Ukraine will be admitted to NATO while it’s fighting a Russian-backed insurgency in the east. Nor will Ukraine be admitted while Kiev has a disputed territory conflict with Moscow. Putin may have lost Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution in 2014, when a mass protest movement dislodged the Kremlin’s puppet President Viktor Yanukovych, but war in Ukraine and Putin’s annexation of Crimea ensure that Russia’s loss is not the West’s gain.

The insurgency would have to end, one way or another, before Ukraine could join NATO. Russia would also have to return Crimea to Ukraine, or Ukraine would have to cede Crimea to Russia.

Since Russia will almost certainly never give up Crimea—it is desperately short of warm water coastline—Ukraine’s only viable option is surrendering territory.

The Ukrainians might go for it. They might think it’s worth it. They’re never going to get Crimea back anyway. They’d be well advised, though, not to let the Russians know in advance that it’s going to happen lest they provoke Putin or his successor to lop off even more territory. If he thinks he’s on the verge of losing a Ukrainian rump state to NATO, you can bet your bottom dollar that Putin will seriously consider invading it first. So it’s all fine and good if Ukrainians want to join NATO, but at some point, preferably sooner rather than later, they ought to say no more about it in public until it’s a fait accompli.

After Liberation, Will Mosul Fall to Iran?

My latest column in The Tower magazine is live. Here's the first part.

After a brutal nine-month war, the Iraqi Army has liberated Mosul from ISIS. The city, Iraq’s second largest, is all but destroyed.

The butcher’s bill tallies 30,000 people dead and counting. Another 600,000, roughly a third of the population, have been displaced. Roughly three-fourths of Mosul’s buildings are in ruins, two-thirds of its electrical grid is shredded, and much of what’s left of the water system is booby-trapped. The price tag for reconstruction will be tens of billions of dollars that Iraq doesn’t have.

Now comes the hard part.

Anyone with sufficient weapons and training can kill terrorists, and it’s much harder to rebuild a city than level it. Harder still in a fractious sectarian place like Iraq is establishing enough political trust and goodwill that hardly anyone will be interested in picking up a rifle and shooting at the neighbors again.

It’s not an impossible task, but if past behavior best predicts future behavior, what has happened during the last couple of years in Saddam Hussein’s hometown isn’t encouraging. ISIS fighters conquered Tikrit, 87 miles northwest of Baghdad and home to roughly 160,000 people, in June of 2014. They began their reign of terror the very next day by executing more than 1,500 Iraqi Air Force recruits and burying them in mass graves. They captured the whole thing on video and uploaded it to the Internet. The Iraqi Army didn’t take back the city until the following March and was only able to do so with help from Shia militias backed by Iran.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

Congress Considers Banning Tourism to North Korea

Congress may ban tourism to North Korea next month, so if you want to visit Pyongyang on holiday, you’d better hurry.

Actually, don’t. The Kim family regime has been kidnapping American citizens and using them as leverage against the United States government—what Korean experts call “hostage diplomacy”—for years. And on the off chance you haven’t heard, earlier this month it sent University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier home with a fatal brain injury after first sentencing him to fifteen years of slave labor.

The United States lifted most of the travel restrictions to Cuba last year, finally ending its absurd curtailment of Americans’ freedom of movement. Until then, it was okay to visit Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria as a tourist. Cuba alone was off limits. There was only one way to resolve that anachronistic contradiction—lift the Cuban travel ban or prohibit tourism to every hostile state in the world. The latter would have been both pointless and draconian, and Congress eased up on the Cuban ban last year shortly before the seemingly immortal Fidel Castro finally keeled over.

Prohibiting American tourism in Cuba was part of the long-standing sanctions package imposed after Castro nationalized American property in the 1950s. The proposed ban to North Korea is being considered for an entirely different reason—because North Korea is dangerous.

Vacationing in Havana has never been dangerous. Depending on where exactly you live, it’s probably less dangerous than staying home. The Castros don’t snatch random tourists out of hotels. And while the island nation has a host of debilitating problems, crime, at least, is not one of them. Cuba is poor and oppressive, but it’s one of the safest countries on earth.  

North Korea is actually dangerous, at least for Americans. “It does sound exotic to go to a Hermit Kingdom,” says one of the bill’s co-sponsor Representative Joe Wilson, (R-SC), “but it's not exotic, it's dangerous and you're dealing with a maniacal society."

Lots of countries are dangerous. Mexico is flooded with American tourists at all times, yet it’s the second-most violent country in the world after Syria. You can go to Syria, though, if you really want to. (Don’t.) You are also free to visit crime-ridden Venezuela. You can go to Iraq. (I went seven times.) You can go to Somalia. You can climb Mount Everest, which is even more likely to kill you. Earlier this month, Alex Honnold free climbed the near-vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope. If you want to put your ass on the line for adventure and kicks, have at it. It’s not the government’s business.

At least it usually isn’t. Congress could argue that it is the government’s business if North Korean authorities yank you off your plane at the airport so they can use you as a bargaining chip. The Israeli government bans its citizens from travel to Lebanon for a similar reason. Hezbollah likes to kidnap Israelis and swap them. In 2008, Israel released five Lebanese prisoners, including the convicted child-murderer Samir Kuntar. In exchange, Hezbollah returned the mutilated bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Israelis can and do visit other Arab countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and Oman, but heading to Lebanon puts the entire country at risk, so it’s outlawed.

But that’s not why Congress is mulling a travel ban to North Korea. No, this is about keeping us safe. It’s more like the seatbelt law than Israel’s travel ban to Hezbollahland. It won’t even have the unintended side effect of preventing the Kim regime from using American hostages as weapons against the rest of us because the bill has a loophole. If you want to go there for a reason other than tourism, the Treasury Department will give you a permit. So when—not not if—Kim Jong-Un wants more hostages, he’ll just grab permitted travelers rather than tourists.

Unless the government thinks it’s right and proper to ban tourism in countries just because they are dangerous (which would logically begin with Syria and move directly to Mexico), Congress would be wise to drop this.

Why China Hasn’t Stopped North Korea and Probably Won’t

Senators John McCain and Al Franken are right. North Korea murdered Otto Warmbier, the 22-year old University of Virginia student sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel and shipped home last week with a fatal brain injury. It doesn’t matter whether or not the North Korean government killed Otto on purpose. Under American law, if you even accidentally kill someone during the commission of a serious crime, you will be charged with felony murder. If enslaving a tourist for a minor infraction he may not have even committed isn’t a felony, we might as well drop the word from our vocabulary and laws.

American officials met with a Chinese government delegation in Washington this week to discuss the burgeoning missile crisis on the Korean Peninsula with Warmbier’s grotesque treatment at the hands of North Korea’s Caligula added to the list of American grievances. We air those grievances to China because it’s the only country with any serious leverage over North Korea short of gunboat diplomacy.

China is North Korea’s largest trade partner—virtually its only trade partner. North Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world that China can exert a significant amount of economic pressure, but it can only work if it hurts “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-Un and his inner circle. The regime has already proven itself staggeringly indifferent to widespread human suffering inside its borders. Hundreds of thousands of people starved to death in the 1990s, and hundreds of thousands more toil away in Stalinist-style slave labor camps where 25 percent of the population dies every year.

The Chinese tend to oppose crippling sanctions, however, not because they value their trade deals with Pyongyang –they don’t—but because they think the status quo is just peachy. They don’t want a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula for obvious reasons (look at a map), but they want to maintain a strident and bellicose anti-American regime there as long as possible. If they could have their way, they’d freeze Korea’s politics in amber forever.

Sure, Pyongyang is a pain. Worse, though, from Beijing’s point of view, is Korea going the way of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with pro-Western unification following a collapse on the communist side. China is the natural hegemon in East Asia. Having a virulently anti-Western, anti-Japanese and anti-South Korean sore in the region keeps China’s competitors preoccupied and in check. Beijing has leverage over Pyongyang at the moment, but if the Kim dynasty falls, Pyongyang may not be the capital of anything any longer.

The Chinese likewise don’t want a substantial portion of North Korea’s 25 million people surging over the border if the regime collapses and isn’t replaced at once by something stable. And let’s not kid ourselves. A post-communist North Korea would barely resemble post-communist East Germany. Compared to North Korea, East Germany circa 1989 was practically Switzerland. Even post-Saddam Iraq and post-Qaddafi Libya were more advanced than North Korea is now.

And the Chinese government doesn’t give a flying fork about human rights abuses there or anywhere else. Its own human rights record is plenty dismal enough. The only reason Otto Warmbier’s death even registers is because it’s prompting the United States to ratchet up pressure on China to ratchet up its own pressure  on North Korea.

Last month, my colleague Gordon Chang showed that Beijing is still protecting its client from the United States and the rest of the world. In late May, Chinese fighter jets intercepted an American WC-135 plane in international airspace “sniffing” for radiation following a possible North Korean nuclear test. “The incident,” he wrote here at World Affairs, “is totally in keeping with China’s long history of insincerity characterized by empty, false, feigned, and betrayed promises to rein in the Kim regime.”

He also argues that the Chinese government’s deportation of asylum-seeking North Korean refugees as “economic migrants” violates the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention which it has agreed to. These people aren’t economic migrants, nor would they put the least bit of strain on China’s economy. They want the Chinese to deport them—to South Korea rather than back to the North where they will be imprisoned or executed.

Why won’t Beijing ship them to Seoul? Simple. China’s rulers want North Korea’s would-be refugees to stay right where they are. A critical mass of them could pose an existential threat to their client. Both governments understand this perfectly well. After all, on the rare occasions when Beijing is sufficiently disgruntled with Pyongyang, it does allow refugees to pass through its territory to Seoul.

While China is potentially part of the solution, it’s still part of the problem. Short of extraordinary American pressure, that’s not going to change.  

Assad Still Must Go

My latest long-form essay in The Tower magazine is live. Here's the first part.

Like it or not, the United States is getting more involved in the Syrian war despite President Donald Trump’s promise to stay out of it.

First, on April 6, after Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad again massacred civilians with chemical weapons, Trump ordered two American battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean to strike Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase with Tomahawk missiles. According to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the U.S. damaged or destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s air force in ten minutes.

Then, on May 18, American warplanes bombed a vehicle convoy belonging to a pro-government militia that encroached upon a restricted area where American and British soldiers are training local fighters to battle ISIS.

America’s Syria policy is just as incoherent now, though, as it was when Barack Obama was president. In August of 2013, the former president refused to enforce his own “red line” when Assad murdered over 1,400 people and wounded thousands more in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta with chemical weapons. He meekly called for Assad’s removal but did virtually nothing to bring it about, choosing instead to lift sanctions against Assad’s staunchest ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran, in exchange for a temporary halt to its nuclear program.

The Trump administration hasn’t figured out what to do either. “Our priority,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said in April, “is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said more or less the same thing at the same time. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” he said, “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

Both reversed themselves within a week. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” Tillerson later said, followed by Haley who said, “It’s hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad.”

Since then, though, little has happened and less has changed. Like the Obama administration, the Trump foreign policy team recognizes that Assad is bad news but is unwilling to do much more than talk about it. At some point, though, we’re all going to have to come to grips with an unpleasant truth: If the invasion of Iraq proved to the American public how dangerous intervention can be, the Syrian apocalypse should have proven by now to the American public that non-intervention can be equally perilous.

Eventually, one way or another, Assad has to go.

One could make the case on humanitarian grounds. Assad, after all, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. One could also make the case on geopolitical grounds. The Syrian war, after all, triggered the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The strongest case, though, is on national security grounds. Whether or not most Americans realize it, replacing the Assad regime with just about anything but a radical Islamist terrorist state will make the U.S., Europe, the greater Middle East, and even most of the world safer places than they are now.

Destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria is our first priority. That’s not going to change. ISIS has conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks on every inhabited continent except South America, and that’s without factoring its brutal conquest of Syrian and Iraqi cities; its medieval punishments such as amputation, crucifixion and stoning; its cultural and historic erasure of ancient sites like the Roman-era city of Palmyra; and its genocidal extermination campaign against Iraq’s Yezidi minority.

The last thing the U.S. should do, though, is partner with the Assad regime. Never mind the fact that Assad is allied with Iran, America’s principal foe in the Middle East, and with Russia, America’s principal geopolitical foe. ISIS itself is a creature of Bashar al-Assad.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

What the Qatar Blockade is Really About

The blockade against Qatar, Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday this week, referring to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate, is “a very complex situation.” It certainly is. Taken at face value, it doesn’t even make any sense.

It started late last month when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain severed diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar. They said it’s because of the latter’s funding of Islamic extremism, but that doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

The Saudis have spent billions of petrodollars funding mosques all over the world to promote their extreme Sunni Wahhabi sect. Cutting off the Qataris for financing extremism is like prosecuting an apparatchik for “corruption” in a crooked police state where everyone is corrupt. Something else is going on.

The trigger was a fake news story planted by Russian hackers with a fake quote by Qatar’s ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. A story appeared on the state-run Qatar News Agency quoting Al Thani saying nice things about Israel and Iran while criticizing President Donald Trump. The emir supposedly made these remarks in a speech at a military ceremony, but he did not deliver a speech at that ceremony, let alone a speech that included those words. The incident was entirely fabricated. It seemed legit, though, since it appeared on a news site controlled by his government.

“Intelligence gathered by the US security agencies indicates that Russian hackers were behind the intrusion first reported by the Qatari government two weeks ago,” CNN reported on June 7. Russia, as always, is using cyberwarfare to open up rifts within the Western alliance and between the West and its Middle Eastern allies, once again to smashing success. This Qatar News Agency story, unlike press reports critical of the White House, is actual fake news. Real fake news, if you will. Weaponized propaganda by a hostile power.

Even so, there’s a lot more going on than a single fake news story. A single fake news story wouldn’t blow up the Gulf if Qatar’s neighbors weren’t already nearing the breaking point.

Here’s the real story: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE think Qatar is too soft on Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re fed up with relentlessly negative press coverage from Qatar’s state-run media organ Al Jazeera.

They aren’t wrong. Qatar really is soft on Iran. For starters, the two countries share the world’s largest liquefied natural gas field—which just so happens to threaten the Gulf’s petro economy—so they’re forced to get along to a certain extent. More importantly, though, Qatar, like many small and weak states throughout history that lack a powerful and reliable patron, is taking great pains to foster good relations with everyone in the neighborhood. Small and weak states that double down on the losing side in a regional conflict tend to get smashed, and Iran, like it or not, is a force to be reckoned with.

We know Al Jazeera is part of the problem because the Saudis and the others have been grousing about it for years and because almost immediately after the fake news story hit the Internet, the Saudis blocked Al Jazeera. That network is emphatically not CNN. It’s a state-run media enterprise that at times savagely criticizes Middle Eastern governments yet, for reasons that ought to be obvious, always spares Qatar’s government. Since the emir exerts considerable pressure over the channel’s coverage, it’s generally safe to assume that what Al Jazeera anchors and reporters say is the government line.

The Saudis are pulling a fast one here when they say this is about Qatar’s supposed funding of Islamic extremism. They figured that angle would get President Donald Trump on their side, and it worked.  

“During my recent trip to the Middle East,” the president tweeted, “I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!” “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he said in another tweet. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

Others in the administration can’t be fooled quite so easily. They know this is bad news for the United States, partly, though not entirely, because Qatar hosts an enormous military base from which the US is fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. “We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockade on Qatar,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Friday.

The US military is also contradicting the president and continues to praise Qatar as if Trump’s tweetstorm never happened.  “We continue to be grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support for our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security,” Navy Captain Jeff Davis said at a news briefing. When a reporter asked about how that squares with what the White House has been saying, Davis said, “I can’t help you with that.”

The United States has plenty of reasons to be disgruntled with Qatar, and they just so happen to be the same reasons the Saudis and the others are disgruntled with Qatar. This diplomatic spat has been a long time coming. We’ll have to wait and see if the emir will change his behavior. One way or another, though, the Qataris need to come back in from the cold. Otherwise, for the sake of survival, they will probably draw themselves into the Russian-Iranian orbit. It’s what small and weak states do when they have no other options.  

Why the Rise of Corbyn's Labour Party Should Worry the West

My latest piece, published in The Atlantic, is live. Here's the first part.

In the days since British Prime Minister Theresa May’s disastrous snap election, the Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have been taking in the sheer surprise of their upset near-victory: gaining 30 seats after being down some 20 points in the polls only weeks ago. While May’s Conservatives won the most seats in the election—an election the prime minister expected would give her a mandate to negotiate the U.K.’s exit from the EU—they fell short of an outright majority.

May is no doubt competent, but she campaigned so disastrously that her astronomical lead evaporated in less than two weeks. Like Hillary Clinton in America last November, she offered the same microwaved establishment gruel that nearly everyone on both ends of the spectrum has been gagging on for years. Corbyn, by contrast, was, like Donald Trump, the underdog populist from beyond the Westminster bubble, known for jousting with the political class in both parties.

If the election had been decided based on enthusiasm rather than votes, Corbyn would have cleaned up. The British left’s grievances with the centrist wing of the Labour party are nearly identical to progressive complaints about the Clinton wing of the Democratic party. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Labour distanced itself from those floundering at the bottom of the economy, fixating instead  on the upper-middle and managerial classes. Corbyn, a Labour MP for 23 years before becoming the leader of the party in 2015, embodied those grievances, promising in plain English to kick over the rubbish bins in London. He shares qualities with Bernie Sanders, who praised the him last weekend during a three-day speaking tour in the U.K. Also like Sanders, Corbyn is a star among the young: More than two-thirds of voters younger than 25 told pollsters they wanted Corbyn to move into 10 Downing Street. The party’s stirring online manifesto, #WeDemand, has been shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook alone. Corbyn could have called it “Make Britain Fair Again” if it wouldn’t have all but plagiarized Donald Trump’s slogan. If he had been a little more mainstream, last Thursday would have been his.

But Corbyn, in some disturbing ways, is more like Trump than he and his supporters care to admit. The Western world, so far, seems incapable of nominating an anti-establishment populist without resurrecting ghoulish attitudes once considered extinct, like a zombified Tyrannosaurus Rex bubbling up out of the tar pits. Corbyn’s problems represent more than just the rough edges of a career back bencher suddenly thrust onto the dais—there’s an unrefined quality to his world view, a blinkered embrace of far-left positions over the years that make him seem divorced from reality. If left-wing populists don’t jettison their hoarier positions, they risk wreaking as much havoc as their right-wing populist counterparts—if they ever win outright, of course.

Corbyn isn’t an anodyne Danish-style socialist; at times, he seems willing to go all-in, Venezuela-style. He’s so far to the left that he makes Sanders look like Dick Cheney. “Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared,” he tweeted in 2013. “He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world.” Venezuela, for the record, is currently suffering chronic shortages of everything from food to toilet paper, a mass civil insurrection and murderous police brutality. Last November, Corbyn hailed Cuba’s dead communist dictator Fidel Castro as “a champion of social justice.”

There’s also Corbyn’s embrace of a virtual planet-wide rogue’s gallery of dictators and terrorists. “It will be my pleasure and my honor to host an event in parliament,” he said two years ago,“where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking. ... I also invited friends from Hamas to speak as well.” Moments later, never-minding Palestinian suicide-bombings and rocket attacks against Jewish civilians, he insisted that Hamas is dedicated to “long term peace and social justice” and that Britain’s labeling of it as a terrorist organization is “a big, big historical mistake.” He reportedly praised Muammar Qaddafi’s “achievements” right at the moment NATO was debating whether or not to intervene on behalf of Libya’s civilian population in Benghazi, an intervention he opposed along with every other military action the U.K. has participated in since World War II. And while he has insisted that former prime minister and fellow Labour Party member Tony Blair should stand trial for war crimes, he was part of a movement in parliament opposing the U.K.’s decision to strike against Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic—an actual genocidaire— denying that the butcher of Belgrade attempted yet another round of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999.

Corbyn also appeared on Iran’s hysterical state-run propaganda channel Press TV as a paid guest, even after the U.K. suspended its broadcasting license. When U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, Corbyn went on the channel to complain that there was “no attempt whatsoever that I can see to arrest him and put him on trial, to go through that process” and that “this was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy.”

Read the rest in The Atlantic.

Trump's Trip a Disaster for Transatlantic Relations

Donald Trump manufactures enemies and unfriends allies like it’s his job.

His first trip abroad to the Middle East and Europe could have been a success, could have given him at least a temporary reprieve here at home as his poll numbers continue to slide. He skated through okay in the Middle East, as I wrote last week, one of the toughest places in the entire world to get good reviews. For the European leg of his trip, all he had to do was reassure our friends that the Transatlantic alliance is as robust as ever while refraining from doing or saying anything stupid. He botched it, though, in the one part of the world after Canada and Australia that’s supposed to be easy.

In his speech at the NATO headquarters, rather than calming nerves and reaffirming the mutual defense commitment in Article 5 where an attack on one member state is considered an attack against all, he hectored Europeans for not paying their fair share of defense expenditures.

It’s true that most NATO members don’t spend the suggested two percent of GDP on defense, but 22 of them pledged to increase spending over time until they reach or exceed that two percent threshold. They did this years ago, when Barack Obama was president.

Somebody should have told him.

He rudely shoved Montenegro’s Prime Minister Dusko Markovic on camera like a schoolyard bully. (The video must be seen to be believed.) In Sicily, while other heads of state walked to a plaza for a group photo, Trump refused to walk with them and waited for a golf cart driver to give him a ride, suggesting that Hillary Clinton may have more stamina after all.

“The Germans are bad, very bad,” he reportedly said at a European Union meeting in Brussels. “See the millions of cars they are selling in the U.S.? Terrible. We will stop this.”

His staff quibbled with the report, but this week he trolled Germany using similar language on his Twitter account. “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany,” he tweeted on Tuesday, “plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.”

Goodness.

First of all, the United States does not have a trade deficit with Germany. The United States trades with the European Union as a bloc, not with individual nations in particular.

Second, trade deficits, as Adam Smith Institute scholar Tim Worstall explains in Forbes, don’t matter in the slightest. “Trade deficits themselves don't matter and bilateral deficits matter even less than that. Thus the idea that the United States buys more from Germany than that country buys from the United States is simply a matter of no import at all.”

The president of the United States is badgering Germany for no reason other than the fact that he doesn’t know what’s actually happening or how the world works. (He did the same thing to Canada last month.)

“When it comes to diplomacy,” a State Department official said to the Daily Beast, “President Trump is a drunk tourist.” And “President Trump,” writes Kori Schake in The American Interest, “acts as though boorish behavior has no consequences, as though other countries have no choice but to comply with American demands.”

Other countries do have a choice, though, and apparently unlike the American president, they know it.

The new French president Emmanuel Macron went out of his way to snub him and warmly greet German Chancellor Angela Merkel instead. Merkel, for her part, went farther and warned her constituents that Transatlanticism is on the decline now. The days when Europe can count on others are "over to a certain extent,” she said at a rally in Munich. “This is what I have experienced in the last few days."

“Trump must have said some outrageous things behind closed doors for the cautious Markel to make this statement,” former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted on Sunday.

Donald Trump is his own worst enemy. He picks one unnecessary fight after another, not just with his Democratic opposition, which is par for the course in domestic politics, but also with members of his own party, American intelligence agencies, journalists, former American presidents, and our closest friends and allies.

Every one of his self-made enemies is capable of fighting back—the intelligence agencies with leaks, journalists with negative press coverage, members of Congress with investigations and (perhaps later) with articles of impeachment. There’s no telling what European heads of state are going to do, but we’ll find out soon enough.

A lot of us on this side of the Atlantic have been concerned about Europe’s own populist demagogues—Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Nigel Farage in Britain and Norbert Hofer in Austria. Rather than putting these folks in the saddle, Europeans might instead elect a batch of leaders that, with the exception of Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, are more aggressively anti-American than anyone on the continent since World War II.

Barely four months into his presidency, Donald Trump is flitting from one self-made crisis to another. When a real crisis hits—one that isn’t of his own making and one that none of us can see coming—America First could curdle into America Alone.  

The Geopolitical Education of Donald Trump

On Sunday, President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the leaders of dozens of Muslim-majority countries in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, written by bombastic travel ban architect Stephen Miller. Most of the world cringed in advance. As it turned out, Trump’s speech marks a radical departure from the crude, obnoxious and flat-out hysterical rhetoric we’re all accustomed to hearing from him and (some of) his aides on the subject.

“To the leaders and citizens of every country assembled here today,” he said, “I want you to know that the United States is eager to form closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce…We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

“It was frankly the kind of speech President Obama could have given,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said, and he’s right.

Those who stressed about this beforehand weren’t wrong to worry. Thanks to the president of the United States, our relations with Mexico are worse than at any time since Pancho Villa. He screamed at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after he’d been in office for barely a week. He even said Canada is behaving disgracefully as recently as a month ago.

The travel ban alienated our friends and allies in Iraq back in January (can you believe that was only four months ago?), and he said plenty of unhinged things about Muslims in general and Saudi Arabia in particular when he ran for president. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” he said last year to cheers at one of his campaign rallies, “until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” 

He lied—or at best fabricated a false memory—about “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks. “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” he said, again at a campaign rally. “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”

“Who blew up the World Trade Center?” he asked on Fox News. “It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents.”

“Islam hates us,” he said to CNN’s Anderson Cooper a little more than a year ago, as if “Islam” is some kind of a monolith. Obviously lots of Muslims hate us, but plenty don’t, and many of them are our friends. Practically everyone with even an ounce of experience in that part of the world can attest to the fact that a huge range of opinions toward the West exists in the Middle East. It’s as obvious and basic as the fact that lunch follows breakfast. That Trump apparently didn’t know this and spoke about the entire region as if everyone is our enemy alarmed diplomats, foreign policy professionals and foreign correspondents across the entire political spectrum.

No one who can’t tell the difference between a friend and an enemy will ever win a war in the Middle East or anywhere else. I can promise you that. Trump complained endlessly that Barack Obama refused to publicly identify “radical Islamic terrorists” as our enemy. Well, we’re also not going to get anywhere if we refuse to acknowledge that Muslims from Morocco to Kurdistan and even—to a drastically lesser extent—Saudi Arabia are our allies. We especially won’t get anywhere if we treat these people so terribly that they can’t work with us anymore.

Something huge has changed in the meantime, though. Perhaps it’s partly the fact that, per Trump’s own policy, we’re now arming Kurdish Muslims to fight ISIS. The president must have realized, at some point in the recent past, that the Saudis are more vigorously opposed to the Iranian regime than we are and that they’re softening their attitude toward the Israelis. His National Security Advisor HR McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis most certainly have described the lay of the land to him by now, and he apparently listens to them more than he listens to the likes of Steve Bannon. He acknowledged in his speech that the overwhelming majority of people murdered by terrorists are Muslims—a detail that’s hard to square with the notion that every Muslim on earth is programmed as a jihadist.

Professional haters of all things Islamic like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Frank Gaffney are unteachable. You can point out to these people that Muslim-majority Albania is among the most pro-American countries in the entire world and they’ll still describe it as a jihadist menace. It’s what they do.

Donald Trump is different. He’ll never change his personality. For the rest of his days, Trump’s gonna Trump. He is, however, capable of learning new things and reversing himself.

It’s probably safe to say at this point that the president’s earlier views were the product of staggering ignorance rather than axe-grinding ideology, and it’s easier to fill an empty vessel than to replace the contents of one that is already full.

Syria’s Surreal Fake Peace Process

Staffan de Mistura has a strange job. The United Nations is paying him to organize peace talks in Geneva that he knows perfectly well aren’t going anywhere.

“Nothing substantial" will result from the talks Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said last week. They are just for show, “merely a meeting for the media.”

Of course they are. Even journalists who cover Syria for a living are hardly paying attention, and not just because the general public isn’t interested. We aren’t interested either. The only newsworthy item here is that one of the parties can admit the whole thing is a charade and yet it continues.  

Peace talks work when both sides are tired of fighting and would rather end a war than win it. That isn’t ever likely to happen in Syria. On one side is a sectarian non-Muslim Alawite regime that rightly fears it will be genocided off the face of the earth if it’s ever defeated by the likes of the Al Qaeda and the Nusra Front. On the other side is a hodgepodge of Sunni Muslim militias, most of them Islamist, and they too rightly fear they will be liquidated if the “heretical” mass-murdering totalitarian regime has its way.

What could the two sides possibly ever negotiate? Power-sharing? Impossible. A transition to free and fair elections? Neither side would ever win a proper election and they both know it.

The Assad clan is not stepping aside. Anyone who wants him out of his palace is going to have to shoot him out of his palace. The entire world by now should know enough about Al Qaeda and similar terrorist armies like ISIS and the Taliban that they don’t compromise either. None of these people resemble in any way whatsoever former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat or King Hussein of Jordan who signed peace treaties with Israel.

Syrian peace talks are no more real than Syrian elections, where Assad “won” 99.7 percent of the “vote” in the year 2000. If the Western world were as autocratic as the Middle East and Russia, the Syrians wouldn’t even bother with fake elections or fake peace talks. They’re doing this entirely to make an impression on gullible Westerners. Judging by the near-total dearth of press coverage or confidence that anything remotely productive will ever result from the theater in Geneva, they’re wasting their time. The only people in the West who are actually interested in any of this are those who are paid to show up.

Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura is going through the motions, though, and he might even be sincere. He says there can be no resolution to the Syrian war with some kind of political settlement. Actually, there can be. The war will end the way almost every other war in history has ended—when one side wins and the other side loses.

It’s also entirely possible—and inevitable in the long-run—that both sides will lose. No totalitarian army or regime in history has lasted forever. Rather than pointlessly cajoling the Middle East’s Hitlers and Stalins to lay down their weapons and make peace with each other and with their neighbors, those of us who are actually concerned about Syria, for the sake of our own well-being as well as for Syria’s, should concentrate instead on ensuring that neither side has a future.

Arming the Kurds Is Worth Angering the Turks

My lastest piece in The Tower magazine is live. Here’s the first part:

The United States government has formally announced that it’s going to arm Kurdish militias in Syria in a bid to capture the city of Raqqa from ISIS, the “capital” of the Islamic State’s “caliphate.”

It’s about time.

The YPG, or Kurdish Protection Units, is the largest faction in the Syrian Democratic Forces and the military arm of the leftist Democratic Union Party. It is loosely aligned with the PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, in Turkey, and has carved out an autonomous region in northern Syria which the Kurds call Rojava. It is, as the Pentagon put it, ““the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”

The Obama administration crafted the plan last year, and the Trump administration initially scrapped it, assuming, for reasons we can only guess at, that the White House could come up with a smarter plan. Arming the Kurds, though, has been the smart plan from day one of the Syrian conflict even though years passed before anyone in Washington figured that out. As Winston Churchill famously said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

Aside from the Israelis, the Kurds are the Middle East’s most capable fighters. The majority are Muslims (a minority are Yezidis and Christians), yet they are as allergic to radical Islam as Americans are. They are among the most staunchly pro-American people in the entire world and make perfect military allies.

If the United States wants indigenous ground forces in Syria to fight ISIS so that our own soldiers don’t have to go in there and do it, the Kurds are the only viable option. Contrary to popular belief, Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime is not fighting ISIS, nor are the Russians. Assad’s forces are fighting just about every armed group in the country except ISIS.

There are more active militias in Syria right now than just about anyone can keep track of, but most of them, alas, are Islamist, and the vast majority would rather fight Assad than ISIS. After six years of war, political moderates who haven’t already been killed have fled by the millions.

So why didn’t we arm the Kurds earlier? Actually, we did. We just didn’t want the world to know we were doing it.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

The Center Holds in France—but for How Long?

Nearly everyone but Vladimir Putin, chief Brexiter Nigel Farage, and the staff writers at Breitbart are celebrating centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron’s landslide two-to-one victory in the French presidential election against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.

In The American Interest, journalist and Paris resident Claire Berlinski compares French voters to “passengers on a long-haul flight, colicky infants on either side, [who] find themselves trapped with a flight attendant cheerfully offering them the chicken or the plate of raw monkey eyeballs dipped in Ebola.”

Lest you suspect she is exaggerating, let’s get this something out of the way: Marine Le Pen isn’t the French Donald Trump. Sure, they’re both right-wing populist change agents backed by the Kremlin, and of course that’s a significant overlap, but Trump is closer to Dwight D. Eisenhower than he is to Le Pen. For when it comes to authoritarian demagoguery, Americans are amateurs. More than just about anyone else in the world, the Europeans are pros at it.

Le Pen’s party was founded not by an abolitionist like the Republican Party but by her father Jean-Marie and his claque of Vichy nostalgists, Holocaust deniers and embittered pied noirs from French Algeria. Le Pen père famously and repeatedly stated on television that the Nazi gas chambers were a mere detail of history and has never been able to scrub the stench of neo-fascism out of his pores.  

Two years ago, Marine forced her father out of the party and tried with some success to detoxify the National Front and rebrand it as one that is anti-European and anti-immigrant rather than quasi-Nazi and anti-Semitic, but as recently as last month she reverted to form and declared that France is blameless for the round-up and deportation of Jews during World War II.

“France wasn’t responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she said, referring to events in July of 1942 when almost 5,000 French police officers, on orders of the government in Paris, arrested thousands of Jews and held them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports stadium. All, including the children, were later deported by the French authorities to Auschwitz and murdered. “If there was responsibility,” she continued, “it is with those who were in power at the time, it is not with France. France has been mistreated, in people’s minds, for years.”

These events, and France’s complicity in them, are as incontrovertible as the Holocaust itself. The French erected memorials to the victims inside and outside Paris decades ago. Until Le Pen opened her mouth, it wasn’t even controversial, certainly not among decent civilized people. But the National Front is neither decent nor civilized. Just last month, Jean-François Jalkh, who denied that the Nazis used Zyklon B gas to exterminate Jews, was promoted to replace Le Pen as the head of the party. And members of her inner circle have been caught on camera organizing neo-Nazi rallies and waving Iron Cross flags.

These people are not conservatives. They aren’t extreme conservatives or even pseudo-conservatives. They are something else entirely, something a lot of us thought had become permanently alien to Western electoral politics. Yet they beat the conservative party in the first round of elections.

Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin openly laud each other. She visited the Kremlin in March of this year and gushed that Putin “represents a new vision…A new world has emerged in the past years. This is Vladimir Putin’s world, Donald Trump’s world in the United States, Mr. Modi’s world in India…I think I am probably the one who shares with all three great nations a vision of cooperation.” As you might expect after such comments, she supports Russia’s violent annexation of the Crimea in Ukraine. “Crimea,” she lied, “has always been Russian.” She goes even farther, though, and denies that Russia even invaded Ukraine in the first place.

Le Pen admires Putin for his anti-European nationalism, which she shares. Putin, for his part, endorsed her for the plain reason that she promised to weaken his enemies in the European Union and NATO by withdrawing from both.

Donald Trump’s bizarre pro-Putin tweets and Putin’s clear preference for him over Hillary Clinton in the American election were never as brazen as the romance between Le Pen and the Kremlin. The surreal chumminess between Trump and Putin was never going to last and may be over already, but it’s probably safe to say that a friendship between Putin and the National Front will last years.

Don’t get complacent just because normal politics prevailed in the election’s second round—the mainstream center-left and center-right parties both collapsed in the first. The underlying malady that hollowed out the establishment center hasn’t yet been addressed let alone solved.

Imagine if, during the presidential election last year in the United States, neither a Democrat nor a Republican were on the ballot. That’s basically what happened in France, and the left-wing revolt is just as creepy as the right’s. Candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon forged a political alliance with the communist party and is practically a communist himself, and he got three times as many votes as the mainstream center-left party. The squishy centrist who won the second round was only the first choice of 24 percent of the country, yet a full third of French voters would rather have raw monkey eyeballs dipped in Ebola for dinner than chicken.

So, sure, the center is holding, but for how long? Macron epitomizes the French status quo and intends to double down on it at the time when the French status quo has been broadly repudiated. Far more people on both ends of the spectrum hate it than like it. If he fails to satisfy the discontented—and it may be as difficult for him as it would have been for Hillary Clinton to satisfy the Trumpkins and the Bernie bros—the outcome of the next French election probably won’t look like this one.   

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