Al Shabab Strikes Back

Al Shabab, Somalia’s franchise of Al Qaeda, killed at least 68 people and wounded more than 175 when it seized control of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall and took hostages in Nairobi this weekend.

The Westgate looks like a mall anywhere in the West. It could be in Los Angeles or Cincinnati or Poughkeepsie.

President Uhuru Kenyatta says one of his nephews and his fiancée are among the 68 dead. Canadian diplomat Annemarie Desloges was also killed

The attackers went to the mall to murder non-Muslims, so Muslims were allowed to go free. Non-Muslims who tried to escape were ordered to name the mother of the Prophet Mohammad. Those who did not know the answer were killed.

Mohammad’s mother, by the way, was named Aminah bint Wahb.

Al Shabab was part of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union until it lost a war against the Somali and Ethiopian governments in 2006. The diehards broke off to form their own organization so they could resume battle. They’ve spent the last couple of years kidnapping and murdering aid workers because that’s how they roll, and they even managed to run parts of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu for a while until ANISOM—the African Union Mission in Somalia—dislodged them in 2011 with help from the Kenyans.

That’s what this attack in Nairobi was ostensibly for: revenge for Kenya’s defeat of Al Shabab in next-door Somalia.

The group posted several messages on Twitter while all this was happening. The account has been suspended, but someone saved the Tweets and posted them on Wikipedia.

“The attacks are just retribution for the lives of innocent Muslims shelled by Kenyan jets in Lower Jubba and in refugee camps”

“What Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military, albeit largely miniscule in nature”

“Since our last contact, the Mujahideen inside the mall confirmed to @HSM_Press that they killed over 100 Kenyan kuffar & battle is ongoing”

“For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land”

“The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders”

“The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia”

“Kenyan government shall be held responsible for any loss of life as a result of such an imprudent move. The call is yours!”

“Kenyan forces who’ve just attempted a roof landing must know that they are jeopardising the lives of hostages.”

The army did manage to free most of the hostages. At least that’s what it claims. Fortunately the soldiers didn’t go in there and kill most of the captives like the Russian and Algerian armies did at various times during the last couple of years when similar groups captured innocents and held them at gunpoint. I’m hardly an expert on Kenya—I’ve never even been there—but I did not expect an Algerian-style ending.

One of my journalism colleagues traveled to South Sudan shortly after it declared independence from Khartoum. The place is an epic disaster, the worst he’s ever seen, and he ran into people from all over Africa who were there to help out. The Kenyans he met seemed to him “incredibly competent” compared with others from East Africa. Kenya is, after all, the regional power on that part of the continent.

International war correspondent and Washington Post African bureau chief Sudarsan Raghavan has seen all kinds of mayhem all over the world, but he never thought he’d encounter Syria- and Iraq-style horrors in Nairobi.

I never expected to see two bullet-riddled corpses at the steps by the entrance I frequently passed through to visit an ATM or enjoy a cappuccino. I never expected to see cars pocked with bullet holes, their doors wide open, along a street I drove on several times a week. I never expected to call my wife while I was in Nairobi to tell her I was safe, or feel my eyes burning from tear gas when police tried to disperse onlookers. Or to consider donning my flak jacket and helmet at a place where I often wore nothing more than shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.

This happens in Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia — not near my house.

But it did happen near his house. My old street in West Beirut was likewise turned into a war zone shortly after I moved away. It can happen almost anywhere in the world these days, and that’s not going to change. 

A Bipartisan Autopsy Report

America’s Middle East policy died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the feet. Scholars Tom Nichols John Schindler co-wrote the bipartisan autopsy report for The National Interest.

We write as two scholars and former national-security practitioners who agree on almost nothing else regarding Syria: one is a traditional realistwho opposed military action against Assad, and the other is a recent arrival in the camp of the post-Cold War liberal internationalistswho supported striking the Syrian regime. We come not only from diverging views but also from different academic disciplines (history and political science), and while both of us have served in positions relevant to American foreign and security policy, we speak on our own behalf, especially since we ourselves are otherwise so deeply divided about U.S. intervention overseas.

We share, however, a background in the study of Russia, and it is here that we find the outcome of the Syrian crisis to be so disastrous. For nearly seven decades, American efforts in the Middle East have been based on a bipartisan consensus—one of the few to be found in U.S. foreign policy—aimed at limiting Moscow’s influence in that region. This is a core interest of American foreign policy: it reflects the strategic importance of the region to us and to our allies, as well as the historical reality Russia has continually sought clients there who would oppose both Western interests and ideals. In less than a week, an unguarded utterance by a U.S. Secretary of State has undone those efforts. Not only is Moscow now Washington’s peer in the Middle East, but the United States has effectively outsourced any further management of security problems in the region to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

We both deplore the hyperpartisanship that has required too many Republicans and Democrats to support or oppose this new agreement based on domestic political calculations. We recognize, however, that more sincere defenders of the September 9 deal see great virtue in it. They argue, for example, that it will avert the need for military force (a threat most Americans did not want carried out anyway), that it will strip Assad of his chemical arms without fighting, and that it will force Putin to take ownership of the WMD question in Syria and thus obligate Russia to live up to better standards of global citizenship.

We find these to be optimistic and hopelessly naïve interpretations. It will be nearly impossible to move chemical weapons anywhere in the midst of a pitched civil war; moreover, the idea that the Putin regime cares anything for international norms or global citizenship beyond its own crudely defined interests is laughable on its face. By gaining American certification of the most important role Moscow has ever played in the Middle East, Putin has achieved in a week what no Soviet or Russian leader managed to do in a century. There should be little wonder that Putin pressed his advantage with a shameless lecture to America in the pages of The New York Times in one of the most appalling and hypocritical public relations stunts by a Kremlin boss since the Soviet era.

Mission Impossible in Syria

I live near an enormous former stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. It isn’t walking distance from my house, but I can drive there between breakfast and lunch without exceeding the speed limit.

From 1962 to 2011, the US Army stored nearly four thousand tons of VX, Sarin, and HD blister agent (commonly known as mustard gas) at the Umatilla Chemical Depot along the Columbia River two and a half hours east of Portland, Oregon.

In 1993 the US signed a treaty forbidding the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and eleven years later, in 2004, the Army was finally ready to begin destroying Oregon’s stockpile.

They did it by incinerating the chemical agents in a 2,700 degree furnace. And they did it in a thinly populated part of the peaceful Pacific Northwest under the complete control of the United States Army.

It still took them eight years. Toxic munitions must be destroyed very slowly and very carefully. A single drop of this stuff will kill you, and the facility is located right on the Columbia River which runs through Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. And though Umatilla County is fairly remote, the Los Angeles Times reported that “disaster scenarios suggested that a major earthquake at the facility, followed by fire, could send a plume of poisonous residue as far as Portland, Seattle or Spokane.”

If you live in the Midwest, you may be used to hearing the blaring sound of air raid sirens when the local authorities test the tornado warning systems. We have a similar setup on the Oregon coast to warn residents and tourists of an incoming tsunami if a Hawaiian volcano falls into the Pacific or if the Cascadian Subduction Zone ruptures. And in three counties in Eastern Oregon, yet another one of those systems was set up in case something at the Umatilla death trap exploded.

So people who live in that area felt a sense of relief when the Army finally finished destroying the stockpiles on October 25, 2011.

The Chemical Weapons Convention was drafted in New York and Paris. The United States signed it in 1993.

Syria agreed to sign it three days ago. A plan is now being put together to rid Syria of its chemical weapons

Considering all of the above, which I’ve been all too familiar with for many years now, you can color me more than a little bit skeptical.

The whole thing was Vladimir Putin’s idea. Not because he cares a whit about chemical weapons or how many people are horribly killed by them, but because he needs to stick up for his one Arab ally and he needs to stick his thumb in America’s eye. 

Barack Obama likes the idea, though, because it means he doesn’t have to do anything about Syria even though Bashar al-Assad crossed the “red line” and used poison gas against humans. Assad likewise likes the idea because, now that the international pressure is off, he can kill another 100,000 humans with conventional weapons and the only people who will say boo about it are human rights organizations and journalists.

Disposing of VX and mustard gas was slow and dangerous work in Oregon. I can only imagine how much more difficult the job will be in a Middle Eastern country that’s ripping its own guts out while Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are loose and running wild.

For those reasons alone, I imagine it is impossible. As Jeffrey Goldberg added, “Assad is a lying, murdering terrorist, and lying, murdering terrorists aren’t, generally speaking, reliable partners, except for other lying, murdering terrorists.”

Let’s say, though, just for the sake of discussion, that the process goes just as smoothly in Syria as it did in Oregon, that it will take precisely the same amount of time to destroy Assad’s arsenal, and that they (whoever they are) can get started tomorrow.

They won’t finish until 2021. Because that’s how long it took down the road from my house.

But there’s no chance destroying this stuff will happen as swiftly and smoothly in Syria as it did in Oregon. That wouldn’t be good enough anyway. It would need to happen more swiftly and smoothly. And the only thing that happens more swiftly and smoothly in Syria than in Oregon is the deployment of car bombs.

I suppose Syria’s thousand tons of chemical weapons could be driven to the airport (!) and flown out, but the only country I can think of that would want guardianship of Assad’s weapons of mass destruction is Iran (unless Lebanon’s Hezbollahland counts as a country), and I doubt many would allow flights containing Assad’s arsenal over their air space.

Furthermore, I doubt a single high-level person involved in this international performance will ever even try to make it work. Because it’s damn near impossible and everyone knows it. It doesn’t matter, though, because this is about face-saving status quo maintenance.

Everybody at the top wins. Putin doesn’t want to lose his one Arab ally, and now he doesn’t have to. Obama never did want to bomb Syria, and now he doesn’t have to. Assad does not want to stop bombing Syria, and now he doesn’t have to.

Vladimir Putin's Reset with America

Here are two pieces that should be read together.

First up is Lee Smith in The Weekly Standard on Vladimir Putin’s victory in the Middle East:

Give Vladimir Putin his due. With his proposal to put Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons under international control, he proved he was more than a mere thug who expresses his self-regard by posing bare-chested, dating teenage gymnasts, and wrestling wild game. In showing his subtlety and cunning, Putin reminded us that his professional training as an intelligence officer (not to mention his judo hobby) taught him to zero in on human vulnerabilities and exploit them. Obama is vain. Putin saw that the American president always needs to look good. 

Thus, after years of denigrating the president and his staff, Putin spared Obama a devastating defeat on Capitol Hill by repackaging humiliation as a diplomatic win for a president whose motto is that he came to end wars, not to start them. It mattered little to Putin that the White House claimed credit for the initiative, that administration spokesmen said Obama officials had broached the subject with Moscow over a year ago, that the Obama team pretended it was the president’s threat of force that had prompted the diplomatic breakthrough. Let Obama boast of another beautiful victory: Putin knew that he had exposed an American president too timid to fire a dozen cruise missiles into the Syrian desert as indecisive, unreliable, and weak. To American allies, a president who makes good on neither his promises nor his threats is a liability.

Astonishingly, Putin won with a weak hand. Russia is not China, never mind the Soviet Union. Her economy is run like a criminal enterprise and depends on a monopoly in European energy markets; Russian society is in a demographic tailspin; and the only way for Putin to shore up his domestic legitimacy is through a steady diet of anti-Americanism and posturing meant to signal Russian strength. If the Americans can’t keep Putin in line, our allies are wondering, who else might start punching above their weight, and at us?

Second is Matthew Continetti’s piece in the Washington Free Beacon on America’s long withdrawing roar:

What happens when the sea recedes? The shoreline is exposed. Sand crabs and sea gulls and seaweed appear on the beach: Iranians and Saudis, Russians and Taliban. They come to fill the void left by the vacating American tide. The lower the tide becomes, the more daring the actions of the creatures liberated by its wake.

For several years now Americans have been comfortable in the delusion that the benefits, such as they are, of a global economy and of a world where war is a rarity can be enjoyed without cost. We can look inward, slash defense spending, gut the Navy, pull out from theaters of combat and from strategic bases, ignore the political character of Islamism, and otherwise pretend that at heart all human beings share the same feelings and want the same things, and life will go on as usual. And perhaps life will go on as usual, for most people, in most places in the country. After all: America is huge, protected by two oceans, and at peace with its neighbors.

But inevitably there will come a time when a lack of maintenance causes the international structure that America has built over decades to fall apart; when inwardness and self-preoccupation and “nation building here at home” exacts a cost of its own; when the flotsam and jetsam left behind by the receding tide, the sand crabs and seagulls and seaweed, begin to take over the shore.

Cuba is Funded

You know what’s awesome? Kickstarter.

You know what’s even more awesome? Everyone who pitches in for my travel expenses on Kickstarter.

I’ve raised the money I need for Cuba, so it looks like I’m going. Most likely in November when it’s slightly less hot and I’ll be more prepared. Working there will be challenging and I need to work out some things in advance.

Thanks so much to everyone who is backing this project. I’m going to send personal thank-you notes, but I want to wait until the fundraising period is finished and do it all at once if that’s okay with everybody.

Let's Go to Cuba

I just launched a Kickstarter project to raise money for a trip to Cuba this fall. I’m not asking for donations. I’m asking for funding and will give something back in return. Check out the project page for all the details.

With Kickstarter, you can see how much money I need and how much I’ve raised. I won’t get any money at all unless the entire project is funded, so please make sure I don’t come up short. You and I both need me out of my office, but alas traveling costs money.

As I mentioned here earlier, I don’t want to stop writing about the Middle East. What I want to do is get out of my rut and add more places to write about.

There’s a promo video on the Kickstarter page you can watch, but here’s the text.


The Berlin Wall fell 24 years ago. Just two short years later, the Soviet Empire collapsed. Yet communist parties still rule five nations—North Korea, Cuba, China, Laos, and Vietnam.

These vestigial regimes may not be long for this world. China and Vietnam have already transitioned half-way to something else. But the other three are living museum pieces, frozen in the brutal mid-20th century when totalitarianism held sway over whole swaths of the planet.

I intend to visit them all. I’ll have enough material for another book at the end.

Cuba is first. Traveling there is banned for most Americans under the Trading with the Enemy Act, but journalists are exempt. Scrutiny from abroad is always bad for police states.

Working as a journalist in unfree countries is tricky, but I’ve poked around under the noses of dictators in the past and I know the workarounds.

Fidel Castro retired. He isn’t likely to last very much longer. His brother Raul took his place, but he’s only a couple years younger. Big changes might be coming to the island and fast. No one can know for sure, but I’m going over there to take a look and report on what things are like now.

My first-person narrative dispatches from Middle Eastern countries at war and in the throes of revolution garnered me three blogging awards and a book prize from the Washington Institute.

I’ve published four books so far, and my best-seller is Where the West Ends, a fusion of travel writing, journalism, and history in post-communist Eastern Europe and Western Asia. But I still work as a freelancer. I don’t have a salary, let alone a travel expense account.

That’s where you come in. Fund my next trip—to Cuba this fall—so I can produce a brand-new batch of first-person narrative dispatches. You can follow along as I publish them on my blog. And at the end of the project, I’ll publish all my material as a dispatch pack—including full-color photographs—that you can read on your iPad, your Kindle, or any other tablet or reading device. And if you don’t have a tablet or reading device, you can just read them on your computer. Generous backers will receive public thank-yous from me, on my blog and in the dispatch pack when it’s published.

I’m not asking you for donations. I’m asking you to participate and will give you something back in return. Let’s go to Cuba.


Click through to my Kickstarter project, pledge a bit of money, and let’s make this happen. I can’t go anywhere without your support.

No Confidence

It’s not Barack Obama’s fault that Syria is an epic disaster, nor is it his fault that it’s a lose-lose situation for the United States no matter what he decides to do about it, including the do-nothing option. But the particular bind he’s in right now is the result of an unforced error of his own making.

Here’s Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest:

An effective leader would have consulted with key people in Congress and made sure of his backing before making explicit threats of force. Now the President is twisting lonesomely in the wind, and the question is whether Congress will ride to the rescue. If it doesn’t, it will be the closest thing the American system has to a parliamentary vote of “no confidence”, where Congress explicitly declares to the world that the President of the United States does not speak for the country.

That would be very dangerous. Foreigners will no longer know when and whether to take anything this President says as representing American policy rather than his own editorial opinions.


Considered in the abstract, the planned attacks on Syria may or may not be smart. But thanks to this latest round of “smart diplomacy,” if bombs don’t fall on Syria, President Obama will have bombed his own credibility into oblivion.

He is now at the mercy of forces beyond his control. Congress will either authorize war or it won’t. And if it doesn’t, he’s finished on the world stage. We’ll have President “present” for the next three years, which in all likelihood is enough time for Iran to complete a nuclear weapon if it decides not to hold back. God only knows how many more people will die in Syria during that time frame and how badly it will tear apart the rest of the region.

Apparently the reason the US hasn’t bombed Syria yet is because the president lost his nerve.

Here is the AP’s Josh Lederman:

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama was ready to order a military strike against Syria, with or without Congress' blessing. But on [last] Friday night, he suddenly changed his mind.

Senior administration officials describing Obama's about-face Saturday offered a portrait of a president who began to wrestle with his own decision – at first internally, then confiding his views to his chief of staff, and finally summoning his aides for an evening session in the Oval Office to say he'd had a change of heart.

If the president has no confidence in his initial decision to strike Bashar al-Assad, and if Congress has no confidence in the president, and if the public has no confidence in either, then we’d all better hope, if we do bumble our way into intervention in Syria, that Assad, the Iranians, and Hezbollah decide to just sit back and take it for a couple of days. Because if this gets even a little bit complicated—if Iran or Hezbollah strike back at the United States or its regional allies—we could really find ourselves in some trouble.

Look. There’s a solid case to be made for getting involved, and there’s a solid case to be made for staying out of it and letting events run their course. I can easily think of disastrous consequences no matter what course of action the president takes, and I could do it all day. So I’m inclined to give him plenty of slack.

But he’s hurting himself and he’s hurting America with all this wishy-washy hand-wringing and dithering.

The Debate Over Syria

America’s foreign policy makers have my sympathies, especially this week. The Syrian conflict is the kind of problem that keeps actual decision-makers awake at night, staring at the ceiling, and sweating even with the air conditioning on.

Every option—including the option to do nothing at all—is ghastly. Syria is a big bloody mess and it will continue to be a big bloody mess no matter what America does. The United States will be partly blamed for what happens no matter what. Every option is doomed to look like a screw-up in hindsight. Even if Washington selects the least worst option (whatever that is), it will still look like the wrong choice once the results are in.

I can’t know exactly what foreign policy makers themselves are thinking right now, but here’s a sample of thoughts from various analysts across the political spectrum, including some from abroad and a few from my own comments section.

I’ll start with Daniel Johnson in the Wall Street Journal on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to get parliamentary support for striking Bashar al-Assad.

In a speech on Thursday that otherwise failed to persuade, Mr. Cameron had one memorable line: The experience of Iraq, he said, had "poisoned the wells of public opinion," undermining trust in the intelligence and other evidence on which all governments must make decisions.

It will indeed be hard to rebuild that trust, on both sides of the Atlantic—even though the war crimes of the Assad regime are being committed in broad daylight. But the mistake that both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Obama are making, like their predecessors Tony Blair and George W. Bush, is to focus solely on chemical weapons.

Mr. Cameron ruled out regime change as the aim, yet it is obvious that unless he is deposed, Bashar Assad (like his father Hafez Assad before him) will continue to use the genocidal methods to destroy the rebels that have already cost well over 100,000 mainly civilian lives and displaced up to three million refugees.

The attacks now planned by the allies are thus explicitly intended to leave Mr. Assad and his regime in place, but to deter them from deploying WMD. This makes no sense. More likely, airstrikes with this limited purpose will merely embroil the West in a protracted civil war.

The lack of a clear and attainable objective in Syria was one of the main reasons why Mr. Cameron was unable to persuade many of his Conservative colleagues to support him. Another reason was suspicion that Syria's opposition groups, such as the Syrian National Council, are really Islamist front organizations, funded by the Saudis and Gulf states and infiltrated by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists. Many in the West are deeply concerned by the persecution of Christians and other minorities in Syria and across the Middle East, as evidence mounts that rebel forces have carried out ethnic and religious cleansing in the areas under their control. Clearly, any U.S.-led intervention must take precautions against the danger that one genocidal regime could be replaced by another.

Hanin Ghaddar in NOW Lebanon:

There is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad and [Hezbollah’s Secretary General] Hassan Nasrallah are today quite relieved now that Obama has decided to seek congressional approval for a limited strike on Syria. State media in Syria immediately presented Obama’s decision as a victory for the regime, in addition to the start of a historic American retreat. Hezbollah’s media in Lebanon described it this morning as a victory for the Axis of Resistance.

It is not hard to imagine how things will go from here in case a strike on Syria is called off. To reinforce this “victory” and translate it into practical terms, the Syrian regime will do whatever it takes to gain more control on the ground. This means that it may freely kill more people with whatever weapons it desires. As for the Syrian regime’s allies, Iran will gain more bargaining chips over its nuclear program and regional domination, and Hezbollah in Lebanon will regain its legitimacy as a “victorious” party.

Does the United States want this?

Of course not. (That is why Obama considered the strike in the first place). But now that the US administration is hesitating and lacks overall determination, many analysts say that the question over a potential strike will be put to congress so it dies in debate. Even if untrue, Obama has certainly demonstrated to Iran and Assad that the US does not seriously care about the Middle East, and that the supposed Resistance is free to behave as it pleases.

Lincoln Mitchell in the Huffington Post:

The most striking thing about the debate, to use that word in a general sense, regarding the possibility of the U.S. attacking Syria has not been the coalescence of the foreign policy establishment behind the president. That is to be expected in a town where being alone is far more damaging than being wrong. Rather, it is that the arguments against the proposed Obama policy from both the left and the right.

The arguments on the left revolve around a battery of issues questioning things like why the U.S. should act as the adjudicator of international law, what the longer term plan for Syria would be, and the wisdom of completely ignoring precedent from places like, for example, Iraq. Many critics on the left cannot help but notice the disturbing parallels between the sudden urgency which now characterizes the Obama administration's call for action against Syria and the tone of the Bush administration during the runup to the war in Iraq.

Critics on the right have argued that the type of small-scale limited strike against Assad will accomplish little, especially given that the administration has said that it will not seek to bring down Assad's regime. These arguments raise the question of what the Obama administration hopes to accomplish by a limited strike and what the President will do the day after the strike when Bashar al-Assad is still in power and still committing atrocities against his own people. It is quite possible that surviving a limited strike will not, as the Obama administration hopes, send a message to Assad that continued use of chemical weapons will lead to more attacks, but instead will allow Assad to turn to the rest of the region and argue that he has stood down Obama and the U.S.

Both the left and the right, generally speaking, make very strong arguments, but these arguments lead to very difficult policy recommendations. The left arguments suggest either doing nothing or seeking some kind of either non-military or multi-lateral solution, while the arguments on the right often call for a broader military intervention than the one proposed by the president. It is flabbergasting that while the war in Iraq is still going on, there are those who think another large intervention in the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, to address an issue that is not directly related to US national interest is a good idea. Promises that there will be no boots on the ground notwithstanding, a long involvement in Syria would be a disaster. Perhaps conservative policy makers and kibbitzers don't see or want to believe that, but the American people do.

Elliot Abrams in National Review:

As it becomes increasingly obvious that President Obama has decided to attack Syria with cruise missiles and perhaps a bit more, those of us who have been urging a stronger stand on Syria for two years should be very pleased. This is what we’ve asked for, isn’t it?

It isn’t, and I can’t muster more than one or one and a half cheers. Why not?

Two things have been notable about the Syrian civil war. First, real American security interests are at stake in Syria and have been from the start. Iran and the terrorist group Hezbollah, which together have an enormous amount of American blood on their hands, have sent troops to Syria to win a war there. Russia has provided a constant flow of arms to the regime. They all consider their control of Syria important, and they are right: If they lose the control they have through Bashar Assad, their position in the entire Middle East is badly weakened — and ours is strengthened. This is a proxy war, with them on one side, and American allies — Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — on the other. It is in the interest of the United States to win this fight, and we should want Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to lose.

I’ve been in Israel this week, and found universal the sense that America is receding in the region — and seeking to recede. I know from previous travel, and many conversations with Arab leaders, that our Arab friends in the Gulf share this view. A couple dozen cruise missiles landing on chemical-weapons warehouses will not change that perception, and indeed will raise questions about our odd priorities on both the humanitarian and strategic levels.

Mario Loyola in National Review:

The U.S. must think backwards from the Middle East that it wants to achieve. That means, first and foremost, diminishing Iran’s pernicious influence and, eventually, expelling that influence from the eastern Mediterranean altogether. The Islamic Revolution of Iran has been successful nowhere outside of Iran except in Lebanon, and has reached into that country only because of Iran’s alliance with Syria, which has provided a strategic bridge to the Levant. But Syria is not a Shiite country, nor is anyone in Syria, including Assad, a true believer in the Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. Cutting Iran off from its crucial Syrian ally is not only possible, it is probably only a matter of time.


The first step towards capitalizing on our opportunity in Syria is for Congress to ensure that any strikes on Syria serve the Obama’s administration’s own diplomatic goals: changing the momentum on the ground and eventually removing Assad from power in a negotiated settlement.

If the Syria resolution cannot be modified to meet these goals, then military strikes will be pointless by design, and should be opposed.

Max Boot in Commentary on how the president’s vacillations appear in the rest of the world.

It is perfectly appropriate to debate whether U.S. military action is justified; there are strong arguments against (especially against the kind of tepid and symbolic cruise missile strike that Obama seems to be contemplating). But the time to have that debate is before the president and secretary of state tell the entire world that the U.S. is about to strike.

Michael Young in NOW Lebanon:

Pity Hezbollah. After years of hearing earnest observers tell you what a quintessentially Lebanese party it was, and a revolutionary one at that, now we can plainly see that it is merely the Foreign Legion of the Iranian leadership—there to march or die at Tehran’s behest—as well as, more recently, cannon fodder for Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

With the United States intending to attack Syria for the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta east and west of Damascus, Hezbollah may again be placed at the forefront of a retaliatory plan.

Iranian parliamentarians have warned that any attack would provoke a response against Israel. “In case of a U.S. military strike against Syria, the flames of outrage of the region’s revolutionaries will point toward the Zionist regime,” Mansur Haqiqatpur, an influential parliamentarian said on Tuesday. Hossein Sheikholeslam, who heads the Iranian parliament’s international affairs committee, warned that “the first victim of an attack on Syria will be the Zionist regime.”

Most analysts, however, see such statements in the context of implicit red lines set by the Iranian regime. They also note that threats made by parliamentarians, even important ones, do not necessarily have the same impact as those issued by senior security or political figures, perhaps buying Iran a margin of maneuver.

Iran’s red line, evidently, is this: If the United States limits its attacks both in time and scope and does not undermine the Assad regime, then the Iranians will not retaliate, or ask Hezbollah to retaliate. However, if American action takes longer than a few days and is seen as tipping the balance in favor of the rebels, then Iran and its allies will widen the war, most probably by firing rockets at Israel.

Vali Nasr in the New York Times:

Syria, or chunks of it, could be ruled by radical Islamists associated with Al Qaeda — producing new and unwelcome threats to global security that could invite an even larger American intervention down the line…It is in America’s strategic interest, then, to take decisive action to mortally wound the Assad regime. Ensuring that Syria does not become a haven for Al Qaeda — a legitimate fear — would have to immediately follow.

Render, in my own comments section:

A tremendous waste of money and risk to men and expensive equipment to do little more then make already existing and empty rubble bounce. A waste which will not undo the effects of Assad's chemical weapons or bring back those already dead and is rather unlikely to effect the morale of the Alawite community, who are already locked in a no quarter civil war for their very survival.

Craig, in my own comments section:

I'm a non-interventionist at heart but nothing bothers me more when it comes to foreign policy than the fact Khomeini declared open season on Americans more than 30 years ago and the IRI and its proxies have been targeting innocent Americans ever since, and nothing has ever been done about it. Nothing. If we do strike at Assad, it will be the very first time those evil sons of bitches have ever gotten the response from the US that they deserve for their crimes against us.

The Looming Strike Against Syria

I’ve wanted to watch Syria’s Bashar al-Assad get his clock cleaned for eight years, so it feels rather strange that I’m a bit ambivalent all of a sudden now that it looks like the United States might actually take action against him. Before we get into that, though, let’s look at how we got to this point and what we might expect in the near future.

The Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus and killed at least hundreds of civilians and possibly more than a thousand.

“We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks,” President Barack Obama said to NewsHour. “We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out.”

I can’t verify that, but I’ll accept it as most likely for now. The administration has access to hard intelligence data the rest of us can’t see. And anyway it’s not hard to believe that a war criminal who owns chemical weapons would commit a war crime with chemical weapons. No one’s fingering the King of Belgium for the deed.

It’s possible that Al Qaeda or the Free Syria Army got a hold of these weapons and did this themselves, but the thousands of survivors are certain the government did it.

So are the Israelis.

They could be wrong. Everyone could be wrong. It happens. But it’s spectacularly unlikely that everybody is lying. Conspiracy theories and convoluted explanations are almost never correct. Straightforward explanations are the right ones 99 percent of the time.

I don’t believe everything the government says, but lies about this sort of thing are much less common than lies about, say, the opposing candidate’s tax plan during campaign season. And anyway, why would the White House lie about this? The idea that Barack Obama is ginning up a fake excuse to bomb Syria makes no kind of sense. He has clearly been against getting involved if he can help it. He ran as the opposite sort of president from George W. Bush and he wants to govern that way. It must drive him crazy that he’s weighing an intervention against an Arab Baathist dictatorship over weapons of mass destruction, but that's what's happening.

So now there’s talk of cruise missile attacks that will last a couple of days at the most. We’ll have to wait and see if that pans out, but that’s the word from “senior US officials” as of late Wednesday. Assad’s forces are evacuating what they suspect are the target sites, so this might not even turn out to be a big deal.

This isn’t about regime-change. Not at this time, anyway. “I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change.” That was Jay Carney, the White House spokesman. Americans can rest assured that they’re safe from another long war—at least for now—and Assad can rest assured that he's safe as well.

This is about enforcing Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons. He told Assad there’d be hell to pay if he used them, and if he doesn’t enforce it, he’ll lose credibility. It’s really not okay if a state sponsor of international terrorism thinks he has a green light to use weapons of mass destruction against civilians. It’s not okay if anyone does. Even if you don’t care a fig about Syrians, well, they aren’t the only ones within range.

If Obama doesn’t enforce this, he’ll also lose credibility on the other red line he’s drawn in the Middle East—the one against Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

He desperately wants to convince Iran to abandon that program without going to war. The only way that’s even remotely possible, however unlikely, is if the Iranian government believes he’ll declare war if it doesn’t stop at some point. So if Assad gets to step over his red line, Tehran’s rulers will have every reason to believe they can step over theirs.

That’s the theory, anyway. That’s what this is about. I am not going to get in the way (not that it would make any difference), and I am not going to protest.

But a much better case could be made that the very existence of these chemical weapons stocks pose a threat not only to Syrians, but also to Syria’s immediate neighbors and even to people in more distant parts of the world. Because if Assad is overthrown by the rebels, that country will disintegrate into absolute chaos. Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are already running around, and without the government in place to secure its stockpiles of weapons, anybody could go in there and get them and use them against whoever they feel like using them against.

The US, however, isn’t making that case and apparently plans to do nothing about it. So nothing on the ground is likely to change. Military action should be used to advance some kind of strategic objective, but unless the White House is keeping its plan a secret from everyone, it doesn’t look as if that’s going to happen.

US Gears Up to Bomb Syria

US Secretary of State John Kerry says it’s undeniable that Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad, whom he used to hail as a reformer, murdered more than a thousand civilians with chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus, a suburb that is currently under heavy artillery bombardment by the regime.

Military strikes appear set to commence within days.

I’ll have a lot more to say about this—some of it critical, some of it supportive, some of it just plain analytical—but I want to hold off for the moment until I have a better idea of what, exactly, is going on here.

Syria's War Spreads to Lebanon

It finally happened. Syria’s civil war has officially spilled into Lebanon, and the two sides are using mass casualty terrorism against one another.

Earlier this month, a car bomb exploded in Hezbollah’s stronghold in the suburbs south of Beirut, killing dozens And this week, at least 47 people were killed and more than 500 wounded when two car bombs exploded next to mosques in the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest.

This wasn’t inevitable, exactly, but it wasn’t hard to foresee.

If you divide the hostile factions into two blocs, it’s obvious who is responsible for each of these terrorist attacks.

Somebody associated with the Free Syrian Army—and by extension the Middle East’s Sunnis—detonated the car bomb in Hezbollahland, a Shia area that is generally on side with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian government.

Meanwhile, somebody associated with the so-called “Resistance Bloc,” the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis, attacked the two mosques in Tripoli and killed all those people.

But Lebanon is the kind of place where a variety of different groups could theoretically be responsible for any one given car bomb.

The Free Syrian Army has been threatening for months to come after Hezbollah in Lebanon unless it withdraws its forces from Syria. The same goes for the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Lebanon itself has no shortage of radical Sunnis—including a small number of Salafists—who wouldn’t flinch at terrorizing the terrorists in their own nest.

The Tripoli bombs could have been set by Hezbollah. Or maybe Syrian intelligence agents. Possibly the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. They’re all terrorists and they’re all on the same side.

Supposedly a man named Sheik Ahmad al-Ghareeb has been arrested for the Tripoli bombs. He’s a Sunni with alleged ties to Hezbollah, and word has it he was caught on surveillance cameras. That would make him ideal. Hezbollah and the Syrians could then say to the Sunnis, one of your own people did this to you, so don’t go blaming or retaliating against us.

But the number of Lebanese Sunnis who sympathize with Hezbollah and the Assad family is vanishingly small. It’s not zero, but it’s close. Finding someone from the Sunni community who is willing to blow up two of his “own” mosques would be monumentally difficult. So we shouldn’t swallow this story yet. In Lebanon, though, anything’s possible. 

If al-Ghareeb is guilty, however, and he is who they say he is, his crime still leads back to Hezbollah which remains, as always, at the end of the day, a terrorist organization.

For forty years now, terrorism has been Syria’s only real export. It’s still exporting terrorism even while engulfed in a war. And it’s suffering more terrorism now than anyone else. Hezbollah pioneered the use of the car bomb in the Middle East*. Now it knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of its weapon of choice. So there’s some twisted karmic justice here of a sort.

But the longer the war in Syria goes on (and it could go on for years even after the Assad regime goes down the garbage disposal), the more likely this war will become a full-blown regional conflagration that could suck in more nations than it already has.

*Correction: The Stern Gang actually deployed the first car bomb in the Middle East.

Reader Feedback Needed

The Middle East has never been the only part of the world I want to visit and write about, and I’d like to branch out again.

My first attempt to expand my beat, so to speak, was a smashing success. Of the four books I’ve written so far, Where the West Ends—which mostly takes place in the post-communist region of Eastern Europe and Western Asia—is my best-seller. Amazon.com still ranks it in the top 100 in the Eastern Europe category a year after it was first published, and it was in the top slot just a few months ago.

This time I’d like to broaden my scope not to the post-communist world but the part of the world that's still actually communist.

Five communist countries remain: Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and China. China and Vietnam are post-Marxist, of course, but they’re still ruled by the Communist Party. Laos remains an old school hard-line communist police state even after all these long years.

Monument to Kaysone Phomvihane, leader of the Lao People’s Liberation Army

Cuba, as we all know too well, is still under the boot of the largely unreconstructed Castro family.

Havana, Cuba

North Korea still has the most horrendous political system of all—a Stalinist monarchy ruled by a quasi-theocratic God-king.

I suspect these vestigial regimes aren’t long for this world, but who knows? China and Vietnam have already transitioned half-way to something else, but the other three are living museum pieces, frozen in the brutal mid-20th century when totalitarianism held sway over whole swaths of the planet. They’ve lasted so long now they look almost permanent.

China’s Ministry of Defense

Shanghai, China

Shijiazhuang, China

North Korea will prove a tough place to get into, but the others should not be. The United States bans travel to Cuba, but journalists are exempt, so that won’t be a problem at all. Reporting from inside police states can be tricky, but I’ve done it before and am familiar with the various workarounds.

If I can make my way to at least four of these countries, I’ll have more than enough material for another book, a sort of sequel to Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.

What do you think? Does that sound interesting and worthwhile? Would you be willing to fund Kickstarter projects for each of these places? It’s interesting to me, and I always write better when I’m interested in the topic, but I also need to make sure it’s interesting to you.

Political poster in Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam

I don’t want to stop writing about the Middle East. What I want to do is get out of my rut and add more places to write about. I’ve never been to any of these countries before. I’ve never been to any country that’s still actually communist. New experiences will invigorate my writing and photography as a matter of course.

The foreign journalism industry has all but collapsed, so I’ll need some Kickstarter cash, but if you’re interested and want this to work, it will work.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Egypt Spins its Wheels

Walter Russell Mead’s latest essay in The American Interest, Bambi Meets Godzilla in the Middle East, is a must-read. I wish he was wrong, but alas he is not.

Bambi, in his formulation, is President Barack Obama, of course. Godzilla describes both radical Islamists and the Egyptian military regime.

I believe that democratic capitalism works better than the alternatives (though it does not work perfectly) and that other things being equal over time the societies who embrace these ideas will outperform those who do not.

But this does not mean that I believe that the world will become liberal and democratic tomorrow or that the path to this future will be a smooth and steady ascent. As a Christian, I believe in the Second Coming and the Last Judgment; that does not mean I have maxed out my credit cards in the belief that Jesus is returning tomorrow.

Unfortunately, much of our political and policy class, both on the left and the right, shares an unfounded confidence that liberal capitalism is going to triumph tomorrow. They are the secular, liberal counterparts of Christian fundamentalists waiting for the Rapture, a near-magical translation to a better world. This is what most American policy makers believed about Russia in the heady years after the Soviet collapse. President George W. Bush bet the ranch on the imminent democratization of the Middle East. So did President Obama.

This is not a new mistake. Thomas Jefferson was sure that the French Revolution heralded the dawn of democracy in 18th century Europe. Henry Clay thought the Latin American revolutions against Spain would create stable democracies across South America. Many Americans thought the 1848 revolutions in Europe would establish true freedom in the Old World. Many Americans thought that Sun Yat Sen’s revolution in China would establish democracy there back in 1911. Alexander Kerensky’s Russia was hailed as an ‘emerging democracy’ in 1917. Woodrow Wilson thought he could kill history with Fourteen Points and a League. It was a thought crime among liberal and progressive people to doubt that Africa would race ahead to democratic capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s as colonialism ended.

We are not always wrong. Germany, Japan and, in its own eccentric way, Italy all became liberal capitalist states after World War Two. Most of the Warsaw Pact countries signed up to the program in the 1990s. Much of East Asia has been moving in a liberal direction as its prosperity has grown. Mexico, Chile and Brazil, among other Latin states, are looking more like Henry Clay once hoped they would.

As a nation, we are not very good at figuring out when the end of history is going to dawn in particular countries, and because we are looking so hard for the triumph of democratic capitalism, we tend to assume that any sound we hear in the night must be its footsteps drawing nigh.

The Middle East is not monolithic. Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, and—yes—even Iran have many of the necessary ingredients for a successful transition to a properly functioning democracy. They also still have some obstacles, especially in Iran. Turkey has had a semi-dysfunctional quasi-democracy for decades while Saudi Arabia is no more ready to even begin taking the plunge than North Korea is now.

Egypt isn’t ready yet either. By now that should be clear. The United States should prod Egyptians in that direction anyway so they’ll understand what is ultimately expected of them, but be realistic about it and don’t expect it to work any time soon.

Mubarak Will Go Free

Cairo’s new government has ordered the release of Hosni Mubarak from prison.

Egypt is going in circles.

The Truth About Egypt

Egypt looks dodgier than ever right now.

Just six weeks after overthrowing the government in a military coup, the armed forces opened fire on civilians protesting the removal of President Mohammad Morsi and killed more than 500 people, prompting President Barack Obama to cancel joint American-Egyptian military drills.

Springtime never came to Cairo at all. In some ways, Egypt is right back where it was when Hosni Mubarak still ruled the country. The political scene is exactly the same. Two illiberal titans—a military regime and an Islamist opposition—are battling it out. But in other ways, Egypt is in worse shape now than it was. It’s more chaotic, more violent. Its economy is imploding, its people increasingly desperate.

I recently interviewed Eric Trager, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He’s a real expert on Egypt and has been more consistently right than just about anyone. He called out the Muslim Brotherhood as an inherently authoritarian organization while scores of other supposed “experts” falsely pimped it as moderate. And contrary to claims from the opposing camp, that the army “restored” democracy with its coup, he saw the recent bloody unpleasantness coming well in advance.

I spoke to him before this week’s massacre happened, but it’s clear from his remarks that he suspected something like it was coming.

MJT: For starters, what do you say to those who insist the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate and democratic political party?

Eric Trager: The Muslim Brotherhood is certainly not democratic. Its view of Egyptian politics in one in which it should control everything. For example, while it is willing to pursue power through elections, once it comes to office its goal is to establish and Islamic state in which it and its institutions control the Egyptian bureaucracy and institute its version of Islam while sidelining and oppressing all opponents.

“Moderate” is an even less accurate word in describing the Brotherhood. It’s designed to weed out moderates during the recruitment process. The process of becoming a Muslim Brother is a five to eight year ordeal where potential Muslim Brothers are vetted through five tiers of membership that tests their commitment to the cause and their willingness to take orders. Anyone who has second thoughts about the organization, the ideology, or their willingness to blindly do what they’re told, is out.

When the Brotherhood first emerged as the leading organization after the 2011 uprising, a lot of observers thought it would become more moderate when forced to actually govern, but what those analysts overlooked that is that the Brotherhood prevents moderates from becoming members and prevents members from becoming moderates.

MJT: How did you learn about their internal structure? What are your sources?

Eric Trager: I’ve interviewed dozens of their leaders and rank-and-file members. I’ve interviewed many of the top figures that you read about in the press, including Mohammad Morsi.

MJT: So your sources are inside the organization rather than outside.

Eric Trager: Yes. I’m one of the few people who talked about this during the aftermath of the uprising, but I didn’t discover it. Richard Mitchell wrote about it in his book, The Society of the Muslim Brothers. It was originally published in 1968 and it’s considered the classic text on the Brotherhood, but many people who put themselves out there as experts on this subject haven’t read one of the most basic studies of the organization’s history. I’ve talked about this at conferences and been told by supposed experts that the Brotherhood isn’t structured that way. They obviously haven’t read Mitchell even though they have to if they’re going to call themselves experts.

MJT: But surely the organization has changed at least somewhat since 1968. That was a long time ago, before I was even born.

Eric Trager: Yes, of course. Mitchell lays out the early history of the organization, describes its recruitment process, and spells out the nationwide chain of command. He does these things well. The recruitment process and chain of command have been updated in some important respects. The recruitment process, for instance, has a few more membership levels now than it used to. But the basic idea that this is a vanguard and a closed society that ensures its members are totally committed to the cause and are willing to die for it is still true.

He also wrote that the Muslim Brotherhood was fading, and that didn’t pan out. But he was writing in 1968 during the time of the Nasser regime when the Brotherhood was severely repressed. He didn’t foresee its re-emergence under Sadat in the 1970s and then again under Mubarak. That much is understandable.

Many people think of the Brotherhood as an Islamist organization that rejects Al Qaeda style violence, so therefore it’s “moderate.” And this, in fact, is how Muslim Brotherhood leaders describe themselves when I talk to them. I’ll ask them what they mean when they say they’re moderates, and they’ll say, “we aren’t Al Qaeda.” Frankly, that has never been my standard of moderation. [Laughs.]

I think Washington’s fascination with the Brotherhood is the product of a search for an Islamist organization that reflects the “culture” of the Middle East and isn’t violent. There is a lack of appreciation for the fact that just because an organization doesn’t lead with violence doesn’t mean it’s going to be moderate or democratic or capable of governing.

And too many analysts took the Brotherhood’s claim of moderation at face value. The Brotherhood says it views shura, an Islamic concept that means consultation, as democracy. Many analysts said the Brotherhood is not only adopting democracy, it’s finding an Islamic justification for it. My view is that far from finding an Islamic justification for democracy, they were simply redefining democracy in a way that wasn’t democratic but sounded good to the West.

MJT: What do you make of all the Brotherhood’s talk lately about martyrdom? Is that a threat? Are they saying they’re willing to be killed by the government? Or is it just talk?

Eric Trager: The Brotherhood seems to believe that if it can draw the military into a fight directly, it can create fissures within the military—not necessarily because there are many Islamists in the military, although that’s possible, but because the Brotherhood believes Egyptian soldiers won’t fire on fellow Egyptians.

Remember that during the initial uprising, the soldiers didn’t fire on demonstrators in Tahrir Square. I think, although I can’t be certain, that many soldiers would have refused to follow that order. We can see this belief that the military would fracture if such orders were given reflected in the Brotherhood’s statements. For its part, the army insists it’s one army, that there aren’t any fissures. So I think that’s the Brotherhood’s angle right now.

One other thing: the Brotherhood has a five-part motto. The last two components of that motto are “Jihad is our way” and “Death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”

It’s an open question how seriously they take that, but I often ask young Muslim Brotherhood members if they’d be willing to die as a martyr in Palestine, and some of them say yes.

I interviewed a young Brotherhood member in 2008 and he said he had recently snuck over the border into Gaza, and he said he hoped he’d be killed by an Israeli missile. It was incredibly disturbing to hear. He was a fairly intelligent twenty year-old. So now I always ask young members if they’d be willing to die as martyrs in Gaza, and many say they would like that.

So at least some of them take that motto seriously. We’ve also seen children of the Muslim Brothers dressed in shrouds at demonstrations, which suggests they’re ready to die. A critical mass of Muslim Brothers have prepared themselves for this possibility.

MJT: Why do you think General Sisi removed Morsi? Some Egyptian activists are calling it a “correction,” that the democratic revolution went off course, so the army stepped in and hit the reset button. I don’t buy it, personally. Sisi looks like he might even be somewhat of an Islamist himself. Either way, the man doesn’t strike me as any kind of democrat.

Eric Trager: I don’t buy it either, but I should say that during my conversations with officials in the Egyptian military leading up to Morsi’s removal, they didn’t seem at all eager to re-enter politics. The generals admitted they aren’t good at governing. They had a bad experience running the country after Mubarak. They aren’t trained to do police work, they’re trained to fight wars and defend borders.

But two things happened. First, we had a massive outpouring against Morsi due to his frankly undemocratic rule of the country and his bid to consolidate power for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Second, Morsi completely lost control of the state. By the time the protests started on June 30, he didn’t control anything. He didn’t control the police and he obviously didn’t control the military. He didn’t control any of the institutions of government, and it made his presidency untenable. So the military stepped in, somewhat reluctantly, first to respond to the protests and also to prevent impending state failure.

But once the army made the decision to step in, as reluctant as it may have been, it’s modus operandi unquestionably changed. It entered into a direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even an existential one. The military believes it not only has to remove Morsi, it has to decapitate the entire organization. Otherwise, the Brotherhood will re-emerge and perhaps kill the generals who removed it from power.

That’s what’s in Egypt’s future right now—persistent civil strife between the military and its supporters on one side and the Brotherhood and its supporters on the other.

MJT: When you say civil strife, I assume you don’t mean an Algerian-style conflict.

Eric Trager: Right. I mean something that’s probably—and hopefully—less deadly and less all-consuming. But it’s likely to become a constant feature of Egyptian life and politics. There’s likely to be a steady flow of violence, but it probably won’t be ubiquitous. It will consist in pockets around demonstration sites. It will be bad enough to disrupt life, and it will likely undermine a transition moving forward, but it probably won’t be as ugly as in Syria or Algeria.

MJT: Do you think getting rid of Morsi was a good thing, a bad thing, or is it too soon to tell?

Eric Trager: I don’t think it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s not really for me to say, and anyway I think it was inevitable. Once a president loses control of the state—whether he’s removed by a mass uprising, a military coup, or some other scenario—his presidency become untenable.

When I was standing in Tahrir Square after Morsi was removed, a felt a certain amount of sadness because I knew that violence would be an inevitable and significant consequence. People in the square were very happy, but people in another square a few miles away people were mourning. They believe something has been stolen from them, and they intend to fight to get it back.

I think the Brotherhood won’t get it back. It’s highly unlikely that Morsi will see the light of day outside a courtroom. But it’s a fight that’s going to continue for a while, and it’s a fight that many of those celebrating in the square that evening didn’t think about. Egyptian society is so polarized right now that the anti-Morsi camp and the pro-Morsi camp are beyond talking past each other. They exist in their own separate universes.

MJT: How much support do you think the Muslim Brotherhood actually lost since it won the election?

Eric Trager: It has lost substantial public support. Think back to the early presidential elections in 2012. Morsi only won five million votes, which was 25 percent of the votes cast. That’s not a high number. It’s substantially lower than what the Brotherhood had won just a few months earlier in the parliamentary elections. So already by May 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s support shrunk back to its base which is only around five million people.

The Brotherhood’s power is not derived from mass public support and it never has been. It is derived from its exceptional organization capabilities on one hand, and the fact that the rest of Egypt is deeply divided and highly disorganized on the other. That’s still the case. I think if Egypt had free and fair elections today, the Brotherhood would still do well and might even win because nobody else is prepared to run in an election.

Of course, I don’t expect there will be free and fair elections ahead, and the nature of the Brotherhood is about to change because the military is decapitating it. It’s hard to see right now exactly who will emerge, but whoever emerges given the current trajectory will need significant military support.

MJT: Why don’t you expect a free election?

Eric Trager: As reluctant as the military may have been to remove Morsi, now that it’s back in the picture, it won’t repeat the quote unquote “mistakes” it made last time. Certainly it’s going to view one of those mistakes as working with the Brotherhood to have parliamentary elections that the Brotherhood could win. I assume it will not allow the Brotherhood to re-emerge. The military will do something to the elections or to the Brotherhood that will take “free and fair” out of the equation.

MJT: Okay, so let’s say the White House were to ask you for advice about how to proceed if what you just said turns out to be true. What would you tell them?

Eric Trager: I’ve been telling the White House that they need to remember what they in Alcoholics Anonymous call the Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

I’ve never been to Alcoholics Anonymous and I’m not an alcoholic, but it’s relevant to what’s happening in Egypt right now. We need to understand what the consequences of removing Morsi are for the military. For example, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Sisi he needed to release Morsi, but this is something that’s never going to happen. A general is not going to release a president he just toppled.

MJT: Right.

Eric Trager: This is something we can’t change, and if we try to change it, we’re going to fail, and we’re going to look like failures. Better to focus on the things we can change.

One thing we might be able to do is convince the military to deal with the Brotherhood and its supporters less violently. The military needs to find other mechanisms for containing these protests. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is to try to get a civilian-led transition process going that is open to participation by the Brotherhood, but isn’t dependent on participation by the Brotherhood. Instead of focusing on inclusion during the transition, we should focus on its effectiveness giving the Brotherhood—or what’s left of it—the choice to participate or not participate.

When the military removed Morsi, it promised exactly that kind of process and we should hold them accountable to what they’ve promised at the very least.

MJT: I assume that when you go over there you hear the same sorts of things from secular Egyptians that I do. Secular people in Egypt tell me they think the Obama administration is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular people in Tunisia say the same thing, and liberals in Lebanon think we’re siding with Bashar al-Assad in Syria. I hear this every single day without exception when I’m in the region.

Eric Trager: Of course, so do I.

MJT: What do you make of all that? Is it a result of unforced errors on the part of the United States government, or is it just typical Middle Eastern insanity?

Eric Trager: The United States has done a very poor job managing perceptions in Egypt. The administration assumed if it wasn’t critical about Morsi’s behavior domestically, they’d win his cooperation on foreign policy. The problem is that Morsi was only willing to cooperate with us on foreign policy in the short run. The Muslim Brotherhood wants to consolidate power in Egypt and then create a global Islamic state. It’s a key part of their ideology and their rhetoric. They talk about it with me. They can’t be our partners.

Worse, by not speaking up and criticizing Morsi as he tried to create unchecked power for himself, it created the impression that the United States wanted to replace Mubarak with the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s extremely damaging in a place like Egypt with such tumultuous politics.

We didn’t support the Brotherhood. We failed to speak up and manage perceptions. In the future, the only way to address this problem will be to make sure we don’t put all our eggs in one basket. We have to spread our risk by making sure we engage everybody.

MJT: Okay, now let me ask you this. Why should everyday Americans care about what happens in Egypt?

Eric Trager: For the simple reason that Egypt is a lynchpin of American foreign policy in the Middle East. It’s important for counter-terrorism, for maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, ensuring overflight rights so our planes can deliver goods to the Persian Gulf, to check Iran’s interests, and ensure passage through the Suez Canal.

But what I’ve found is that Americans not only understand Egypt’s importance strategically, they’re fascinated by Egypt. We study Egypt in the sixth grade. We learn about ancient Egyptian history even as children. It’s mentioned in the Bible. It’s one of the few countries in the world that actually resonates with ordinary Americans.

I think that’s why the American news media focused mostly on Egypt during the Arab Spring. Democratic uprisings in other countries wouldn’t attract the same kind of attention.

MJT: That’s certainly true. Tunisia was and still is mostly ignored, and it’s practically right next door.

Eric Trager: And farther afield we have countries like Burma. Most people don’t pay attention to these places. But Egypt resonates in America the way few other countries do.

I went on Egyptian television recently because people were angry about something I wrote on Twitter. So I went on to clear the air, and one of the things I said was that Americans are rooting for Egypt and that Egyptians should know that even when we have disagreements, Americans like Egypt. That’s not just rhetoric, that’s a fact.

Here’s something interesting: In 2010, Israel’s popularity in the United States was at 63 percent according to a Gallup poll. That same year, Egypt’s popularity was at 58 percent.

We know why Americans like Israel. We can trace it to the Bible, the fact that Israel is a Jewish country, it’s democratic, it’s developed, and all these other things. But Egypt is not democratic. It is not well-developed.

MJT: Yes, that is interesting.

Eric Trager: When Americans think about Egypt, they think about the pharaohs, the pyramids, and the Bible. They know about the peace treaty with Israel.

Some Egyptians get upset when they find out that Americans equate Egypt with the pyramids and the pharaohs, but for whatever reason, Egypt holds a special place in the American imagination.

MJT: What do Egyptians say when you tell them about the Gallup poll?

Eric Trager: I mention it all the time. And it’s not just that 58 percent of Americans liked Egypt in 2010. In 2011, something like 88 percent supported the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. That’s incredible.

MJT: And what the Egyptians say about that?

Eric Trager: One on one, it touches them. So I think it needs to be part of our public diplomacy. We have interests there. The United States Embassy in Egypt is one of the largest in the world. But Americans also like Egypt. They like visiting Egypt and seeing the pyramids and going to Luxor. And they like being with an ally.

MJT: Is Egypt really an ally at this point?

Eric Trager: Among Egyptians there is strong hostility toward the United States and American foreign policy. Conspiracy theories are rampant, especially about 9/11. Dealing with that will always be a significant challenge. 

At the same time, Egypt has been basically cooperative with American strategic interests for nearly forty years. We have significant disagreements about Egyptian domestic politics, and it’s a tumultuous place, but unless hostile Islamists emerge yet again—which is certainly possible—Egypt will remain in the American camp.

And there’s the odd fact that Americans really like Egypt.

MJT: That is odd. It seems even more odd to me now that I’ve actually been there several times.

Eric Trager: I was shocked when I saw these polls.

MJT: Me too, but I suppose I’m only a little bit shocked. I used to think about Egypt in exactly the way you described—that it’s a great ancient Mediterranean civilization. My perception of the place is very different now, but my original impression was precisely the one you described.

Eric Trager: Of course Egypt’s popularity has declined in America since 2010. It’s tumultuous, full of radicals, and has an aggressive military. Its popularity is not what it was a few years ago.


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