The Saudi-American Rupture

The American-Saudi alliance is in danger of collapsing.

The Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is by far the largest threat to both Saudi and American interests in the Middle East now, yet the Obama administration is buddying up with Vladimir Putin on Syria and allowing itself to be suckered by the Iranian regime’s new president Hassan Rouhani.

Never mind the fact that Rouhani obviously isn’t a moderate and is powerless to negotiate sovereign issues in any case. The White House is so desperate to cut a deal with America’s enemies that the president will go along on even a farcical ride. As a result, the Saudi government is threatening to drastically “scale back” the relationship.

 “I’ve worked in this field for a long time,” says Brooking Institution expert Mike Doran in London’s Telegraph, “and I’ve studied the history. I know of no analogous period. I’ve never seen so many disagreements on so many key fronts all at once. And I’ve never seen such a willingness on the part of the Saudis to publicly express their frustration. Iran is the number one issue — the only issue for Saudi policy makers. When you add up the whole Middle Eastern map — Syria, Iraq, Iran — it looks to the Saudis as if the US is throwing Sunni allies under the bus by trying to cut a deal with Iran and its allies.”

Foreign Policy 101 dictates that you reward your friends and punish your enemies. Attempts to get cute and reverse the traditional formula always lead to disaster. Yet Barack Obama thinks if he stiffs his friends, his enemies will become a little less hostile. That’s not how it works, but the Saudis have figured out what Obama is doing and are acting accordingly. 

“They [the Americans] are going to be upset—and we can live with that,” said Mustafa Alani, a Saudi foreign policy analyst. "We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States.”

Before proceeding, let’s be clear about a couple of things. The Saudi regime is in a dimension beyond distasteful. It’s an absolute monarchy wedded to absolute theocracy. It’s worse than merely medieval. Human rights don’t exist. The regime—and, frankly, the culture—offends every moral and political sensibility I have in my being. I’d love to live in a world where junking our “friendship” with Riyadh would be the right call.

But the United States and Saudi Arabia are—or at least were until recently—on the same page geopolitically. For decades we have provided the Saudis with security in exchange for oil and stability, and we’ve backed them and the rest of the Gulf Arabs against our mutual enemies, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime and its allies.

The alliance isn’t deep. It’s transactional. It’s not at all like the American alliance with countries like Britain, Israel, Canada, and Japan. It’s based on interests alone, and that makes it temporary. If the Iranian regime were to be overthrown and replaced with even a half-assed democracy, chances are good that Washington would tilt toward Tehran and away from Riyadh. We could make the same deal with a democratic Iran that we currently have with the Gulf Arabs, only it would not be distasteful. It would be perfectly logical, and we wouldn’t have to compromise our values. I wouldn’t have to plug my nose when typing the word “ally” in same sentence as “Iran” if Iran were democratic.

But in the imperfect world we live in right now, Saudi Arabia is an interests-based ally of the United States. Or at least it was until the Obama administration all but surrendered to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis.

So the Saudis are alarmed. They’re right to be. Maybe threatening to downgrade relations will give Washington a reality check. That’s the idea, anyway.

Either way, if the Saudis want to get real, it’s time for them to suck it up and normalize relations with Israel for the same reason they forged an alliance with the United States. The Israelis and the Gulf Arabs have the exact same geopolitical interests right now. They have the exact same list of enemies. Who cares if Riyadh and Jerusalem can’t stand each other personally? Riyadh and Washington can’t stand each other personally either. That hasn’t stopped us from working together when our interests coincide.

Of course, an alliance with Israel would be a little more awkward (to say the least) while the Palestinians are still stateless, but so what? The Jordanian government worked it out and is in far better shape as a result.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has always been stupid and pointless, and at this late date it’s ludicrous. It’s a festering holdover from a previous era, and it makes progress difficult or impossible for just about everyone. If Sunni Arab governments make a peaceful and reasonable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority, something might actually happen.

It’s logical, isn’t it? Israel poses no threat whatsoever to Gulf Arabs and never has. Israel poses no threat to any Arab country that doesn’t act with belligerence first. The Jordanians figured that out a long time ago. So did the Egyptian government even if Egypt’s population remains as clueless as ever. The Tunisians figured it out. The Moroccans get along with Israel just fine under the table.

The open secret right now is that the Gulf Arabs have also figured it out even as they’re loath to admit it in public. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is not-so secretly working with all the Arab states in the Gulf region right now based on shared (anti-Iranian) interests.

Don’t be surprised. All the existing Sunni Arab governments moved on from the Arab-Israeli conflict decades ago. Aside from the Palestinian Authority during the Second Intifada, only the Iranian regime and its network of allies and proxies—Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and Hamas—have fought Israel at any time during the last thirty years or so. The only exception occurred when Saddam Hussein launched a couple of SCUD missiles at Tel Aviv during the first Persian Gulf War in an attempt to fracture the Arab-Western alliance against him.

The majority of Arab citizens would surely think my analysis is nonsense on stilts, but aside from the (non-Sunni) regime in Damascus, Arab governments are behaving precisely in line with it. They learned quite a while ago that it’s time to set the ridiculous Palestinian conflict aside and deal with real threats for a change. They’ve tried to turn it into a frozen conflict instead of resolving it, but still. At least they haven’t been poking it with a stick.

Washington is adrift at the moment, but we change administrations more often than the Middle East does, and we change policies even faster. We’ll be on the same page sooner or later.

Post-script: Don’t forget. I have books. And I have two more coming out next year. The first is a novel unlike anything I've written before, and the other is a collection of dispatches from the Middle East.

I get a royalty check every month that includes money from every single copy that sells, so please, help me pay my mortgage, fatten your bookshelf, and order some for your friends!

Why Muslims Should Love Secularism

Hussein Ibish argues in an interesting piece in NOW Lebanon that Muslims should love secularism. I’m not entirely convinced of everything he writes here--little or none of it applies to bin Ladenists, for instance--but I  know he’s right about most of it and I’ve had similar thoughts and observations myself.

Muslims should love secularism. But very few of them do, largely because they misunderstand what it stands for and would mean for them.

Secularism as an English term – in contrast to the French concept of laïcité – simply means the neutrality of the state on matters of faith. This bears almost no resemblance to the way in which most Arabs understand the term, whether translated as ‘almaniyya, ilmanniyya, or even dunyawiyya.

Secularism has become strongly associated in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds with atheism, iconoclasm, and anti-religious attitudes and policies. And in the process, one of the most important pillars of building tolerant, inclusive, and genuinely free Muslim-majority societies has been grotesquely misrepresented and stigmatized.

The first of these experiences was the overtly anti-religious attitude of the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which was presented as "modernization" and "secularism."

The second is the objectionable and noxious French concept of laïcité, which also tends to be more anti-religious than neutral. This association has been particularly exacerbated by "secular" laïcité laws in France and elsewhere that oppressively prevent Muslim women from covering their hair in public spaces such as schools.

The third, and perhaps most damning of all, has been the misappropriation, abuse, and discrediting of "secularism" by regimes that placed Arab nationalism at the center of their authoritarian ideology. Socialist, communist, and fascist Arab regimes oppressed, abused, and waged wars against their own peoples and each other in the name of, among other things, "secularism."

Read the whole thing in NOW Lebanon.

When Assad Apologists Attack

It’s hard to find even much black humor in the Syrian civil war, but I laughed out loud a couple of times during this screamfest on Lebanese television between one of Bashar al-Assad’s mafioso and a bemused spokesman for the Free Syrian Army.

I don’t want to ruin it by quoting the good parts, so just watch it.

Quote of the Day

This guy is a laugh riot.

“Personally, I don't see any obstacles to being nominated to run in the next presidential elections,” Assad told Syria's Al Mayadeen TV when asked if he thought it was suitable to hold the election, as scheduled, in 2014.

This was in a Reuters piece which says in its headline that Assad "mulls re-election."

Reminds me of a Syrian joke I heard in Beirut, which I believe was imported from the Soviet Union. It goes like this:

Syria holds an election. An advisor to the president Hafez al-Assad—who, of course, runs unopposed—says, “Mr. President. Great news! You won 99.9 percent of the vote!”

Assad growls under his breath.

His advisor, perplexed, says, “But Mr. President. Only 0.1 percent of the people voted against you. What more do you want?”

“Their names,” Assad says.

Will Israel Accept Syrian Refugees?

Israel is the only country in the Eastern Mediterranean that isn’t involved in the Syrian refugee crisis. It doesn’t even occur to Syrians to seek refuge in what is supposed to be an enemy state.

But what if that changed?

The Israeli Druze community is now pressuring the government to accept Syrian Druze refugees.

It’s an interesting idea. The Druze are Arabs, but they’re not Muslims. Not really. They belong to a closed minority spin-off sect that is largely secular in orientation and doesn’t accept converts. Most tenets of their religion are secret, and as minorities they have a unique take on regional politics.

The Druze don’t have the numbers to build a state of their own. Their community is split between Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. In each place they ally themselves with whoever is in power in order to keep themselves safe.

In Israel, they’re loyal Zionists. In Syria, they’ve been on side with Bashar al-Assad. On the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, they divide their loyalty between Israel and Syria. They’re partly loyally to Israel because they live under Israeli jurisdiction, but they’re also partly loyal to Syria in case the Israelis ever give the Golan Heights back. In Lebanon, under the leadership of Walid Jumblatt, they’re constantly shifting with the ever-changing political landscape.

They rarely, if ever, cause trouble for whoever’s in charge. And they’re more keenly aware than anyone else of which horse to bet on during power struggles. They have to be or they will not survive.

So if Syria’s Druze do end up seeking Israeli protection, it will only be because the power dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean are in the process of a permanent shift. Leaders in Israel’s Druze community seem to believe that’s an actual possibility or they wouldn’t even be talking about it.

The Russia Left Behind

I have not yet been to Russia, but when my friend Sean LaFreniere and I drove into a remote part of Ukraine from a remote part of Poland and hit roads so deteriorated they looked and felt like they’d been shredded to ribbons by air strikes, Sean said “we’re in Russia!” He insists that this place—outer Western Ukraine on the road to the town of Sambir—is exactly like the long dark stretch of road between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

I wrote about that journey in my book, Where the West Ends. And now Ellen Barry has written what reads like a haunting companion piece about the actual stretch of road between Moscow and St. Petersburg for The New York Times Magazine.

Her piece is extraordinary, as are her photos.

At the edges of Russia’s two great cities, another Russia begins.

This will not be apparent at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, nor is it visible from the German-engineered high-speed train. It is along the highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg — a narrow 430-mile stretch of road that is a 12-hour trip by car — that one sees the great stretches of Russia so neglected by the state that they seem drawn backward in time.

As the state’s hand recedes from the hinterlands, people are struggling with choices that belong to past centuries: to heat their homes with a wood stove, which must be fed by hand every three hours, or burn diesel fuel, which costs half a month’s salary? When the road has so deteriorated that ambulances cannot reach their home, is it safe to stay? When their home can’t be sold, can they leave?

Clad in rubber slippers, his forearms sprinkled with tattoos, Mr. Naperkovsky is the kind of plain-spoken man’s man whom Russians would call a “muzhik.” He had something he wanted to pass on to Mr. Putin, who has led Russia during 13 years of political stability and economic expansion.

“The people on the top do not know what is happening down here,” he said. “They have their own world. They eat differently, they sleep on different sheets, they drive different cars. They don’t know what is going on here. If I needed one word to describe it, I would say it is a swamp, a stagnant swamp. As it was, so it is. Nothing is changing.”

Driving the highway, the M10, today, one finds beauty and decay. There are places where wild boars roam abandoned villages, gorging themselves on the fruit of orchards planted by men.

There are spots on this highway where it seems time has stopped. A former prison guard is spending his savings building wooden roadside chapels, explaining that “many souls” weigh on his conscience. A rescue worker from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl is waiting, 27 years later, for the apartment the Soviets promised him as a reward. Women sit on the shoulder, selling tea to travelers from a row of samovars. Above them, pillars of steam vanish into the sky, just as they did in 1746, the year construction on the road began.

This part of Russia should not be the back of beyond. It’s the single stretch of road between the country’s two largest cities. The road from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean is in better condition than this. (I know, I’ve driven it.)

It’s not just the roads in rural Russia that have fallen apart. The society itself seems to have slipped back into the 18th century.

What struck me most about Ukraine is how it looks like the West, but it’s not. It’s like an alternate universe version of the West, what our civilization might have looked like had history gone another direction. Russia and Ukraine actually went that direction.

Hezbollah's War Crimes

Hezbollah is guilty of more than just terrorism. Lebanon’s so-called Party of God also commits war crimes, especially nowadays against civilians in Syria.

If you can stomach it, take a look at the latest video evidence. It’s extremely graphic—one of the nastiest incidents I’ve seen on film from the Syrian conflict—so you might want to pass if you’re squeamish.

Paramilitary fighters are shown dragging wounded men out the back of a van and shooting them in the torso and in the head. The video could be a frame job, but Middle East experts across the political spectrum think the men in this footage belong to Hezbollah. They speak Lebanese-accented Arabic, they use specific Hezbollah phrases, and they’re wearing Hezbollah’s yellow arm bands.

Resisting the Zionist Entity is the Party of God’s ostensible raison d'être, so murdering Muslims in Syria might seem a peculiar thing for its fighters to be doing. But killing Jews and Israelis has been from the beginning only one of Hezbollah’s violent pastimes.

Some of the organization’s first victims—let’s not forget—were Americans.

When all the bodies are counted, however, most of Hezbollah’s victims will likely be Muslims. That has been true so far of all Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. Eventually it will be their undoing.

The World's Deadliest Road Trip

I have a moderately high tolerance for dangerous situations, but war correspondent David Axe’s is higher than mine. He just returned from a journey you couldn’t pay me enough to take—a road trip into Syria

“Our little tour of Hell was a lot of fun,” he writes. “Except when it wasn’t.”

Riven with conflict, prowled by kidnappers, seemingly awash in lethal gasses, half-occupied by America’s unhappiest “allies,” for journalists Syria is a difficult place to cover. And many journalists aren’t even willing to try. “I would suggest that anyone thinking of independently covering the conflict in northern Syria, to seriously consider re-evaluating their plans and avoid the area entirely,” said Javier Manzano, a freelance photographer.

The naysayers tried to stop me from going, too. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” one Beirut-based writer told me before detailing some of the terrible things that could happen to me “on the inside”—reporters’ in-vogue euphemism for Syria.

I went anyway.

A Big Thanks to My Biggest Donors

I sent out individual thank-you emails to everybody who pitched in for my Cuba project, but I want to publicly thank my biggest donors right here.

A special thanks goes out to:

Ashish J. Shah

Glenn Reynolds

Chris Hoecke

Josh Mitchell

Grahame Lynch

Joseph Sturkey

Brad Nail

Carlton Wickstrom

Timothy Scott

J.M. Heinrichs

Steve Dye

Carl Geier

William Slattery

Keith Mitchell

Rob Hafernik

Amanda Scott

Joseph Blankier

Dee Grant

James Davis

David Freeman

Bruce Moorhead

David Eiche

Sherman Stacey

Whit Chapman

Paul Bailey

Herbert Jacobi

David Herr

Chuch Herrick

Mike McGinn

Robert J. Hansen

Greg Barnes

Elias Torosion

Gene Mitchell

Asher Abrams

Richard M. Shirley

Signe Johnson

Michael Whittemore

Daniela Dixon

Christopher Frautschi

Kirk Parker

Kevin (last name unknown)

Will Gaston

James King

Terry Josiah

David (last name unknown)

Meir Kohn

Timothy M. Smith

Paul Sullivan

Michael Taylor

Barbara Berman

Victor Patterson

I couldn’t do this without you folks, so many sincere thanks.

Libyan Prime Minister Kidnapped

This can’t be good: Terrorists just kidnapped Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from the luxury hotel in Tripoli where he and many other government officials live.

Seems they grabbed him to retaliate against an American Special Forces raid greenlit by the Libyan government against suspected Al Qaeda member Abu Anas al-Libi.

If this isn't unprecedented, it's close. I don’t recall ever hearing about a prime minister being kidnapped from any country.

This comes right after the fall of the last Islamist government in North Africa, so I guess the region was due for some bad news. Good news streaks don’t tend to last very long in that part of the world.

Here is a picture of him in captivity (scroll down). I doubt this will end quickly or well, but Libya is a strange and unpredictable place.

UPDATE: Okay, so it did end quickly and well, sort of. I went to bed and Zeidan was kidnapped. I woke up and he was free.

This incident is all but certain to change things in Libya. In which direction, though, is anyone's guess. It could mark the beginning of the end of the militias, or the beginning of their takeover of the civilian government. Kidnapping the prime minister is not going to just be a blip that everybody forgets ever happened.

My Latest Wall Street Journal Book Review

My latest book review for the Wall Street Journal is up. This one is about Matthew Levitt’s Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.

Until 9/11, no terrorist organization had killed more Americans than Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group: From the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, which killed 241 Marines, to the 1996 detonation of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen, Hezbollah's anti-American curriculum vitae was long and bloody. Today it remains an efficient global terror operation, having executed bombings on four continents, built a presence on six and even branched out to drug trafficking.

Despite this record, Hezbollah (the "Party of God" in Arabic) is still viewed in some quarters as little more than a parochial Lebanese political party with an armed wing charged solely with resisting an Israeli occupation that ended 13 years ago, on May 25, 2000. It's this myth that Matthew Levitt explodes in "Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God." The author, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, narrates the full history of the organization in absorbing detail with an emphasis on its 30-year history of terrorism. While scholarly in tone and approach, Mr. Levitt's book delivers suspenseful and even terrifying blow-by-blow accounts of the most infamous of Hezbollah's attacks. He can't dramatize all of them, though, because there are too many—far more than most people realize, because until now no one had bothered to document them in one place.

Hezbollah traces its origins to Iran's 1979 revolution. The mullahs knew that unless they aggressively exported their theocratic ideology after the revolution, Iran risked becoming, in the words of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, just "an ordinary country." So the regime created Hezbollah as the overseas branch of its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—the tip of an Iranian imperial spear.

The group first coalesced in 1982 in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, as a loose confederation of Shia Islamist cells under various names. By the mid-1980s it had become a more formal organization. Lebanon, with its large Shia population, was the perfect place for Tehran to export its revolution, and the early 1980s, in the midst of civil war and Israeli occupation, was the perfect time.

Hezbollah cut its teeth in Beirut, first by destroying the U.S. Embassy in 1983, then by deploying suicide truck bombers simultaneously against American Marines and French soldiers on peacekeeping missions in October of the same year. "The Marine barracks bombing," Mr. Levitt writes, "was not only the deadliest terrorist attack then to have targeted Americans, it was also the single-largest non-nuclear explosion on earth since World War II."

Read the rest in the Wall Street Journal.

Cuba is Funded

My Kickstarter campaign to send me to Cuba has successfully funded. Here is a public thank you to everyone backing this project. I'll send personal emails to everyone shortly.


Final Kickstarter Push

Fewer than 24 hours remain in my Kickstarter campaign to send me to Cuba.

I've reached my minimum threshold, but this trip is going to cost a bit more than I expected, and money is always tight for me anyway, so if you can pitch in a few dollars I'll sure appreciated it.

Besides, if you want a full-color dispatch pack e-book from Cuba, backing my Kickstarter project is the only way to get one. It won't be available anywhere else at any other time, so it's now or never.

Many thanks to everyone who has pitched in so far!

The Fall of Tunisia's Islamists

Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamist party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been forced from power by an overwhelming secular opposition.

I didn’t know this was going to happen, but I had a pretty strong sense that it would. Tunisia is a modern, pluralistic, civilized place. It’s striking liberal compared with most Arab countries. A person couldn’t possibly show up in Tunis from Cairo and think the two are remotely alike. Egypt is at one extreme of the Arab world’s political spectrum, and Tunisia is at the other.

The Islamists won less than half the vote two years ago, and the only reason they did even that well is because Ennahda ran on an extremely moderate platform. They sold themselves to voters as Tunisia’s version of Germany’s Christian Democrats.

It was a lie, of course, and once Tunisians figured that out, support for Ennahda cratered.

The assassination of leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi this summer pushed the country over the edge. Ennahda didn’t kill the guy. A Salafist terrorist cell did the deed. But Ennahda has been playing footsie with the Salafist fringe while the rest of the country recoils in horror, so Ennahda is getting blamed too.

Unlike in Egypt, the Islamists weren’t thrown out by force. Tunisia doesn’t have an Egyptian-style military that’s big and powerful and ideological enough to occupy the country and rule it through a junta. Also unlike in Egypt, Tunisia has a critical mass of secular citizens who won’t put up with even a whiff of theocracy.

The other reason Ennahda’s partial victory was possible two years ago is because they had an organizational advantage after the dictator Ben Ali fell. They had the mosques while the secular parties had nothing. And since the Islamists were smart enough to pretend to be moderates, they managed to get moderate people to vote for them.

That’s over now. In the meantime, the liberal and leftist parties have had a lot more time to get organized and merge into larger entities so they can avoid the vote splitting that hurt them so much last time. When a single religious party squares off against dozens of secular parties, it doesn’t take a political or mathematical genius to figure out which will get the most votes.

Tunisia is the one and only Arab Spring country that I’ve been cautiously optimistic about. Libya is too much of a mess, Egypt was a lost cause begin with, and Syria is in worse shape than Bosnia in the mid-1990s. Tunisia, though, is doing as well as could be expected.

And get this: now that Ennahda is out, not a single post-Arab Spring country is ruled by Islamists. All of them are secular now.

Postscript: Only a few days left in my Kickstarter campaign. If you'd like an e-book version of my dispatches from Cuba, pitch in and you shall have it. My first dispatch pack from a communist country will never be available anywhere else.

On the Radio

I was on the John Batchelor Show again today to discuss everyone’s favorite problem right now: Syria.

Scroll down to the very bottom of the page and you can stream the interview. I come in at 10:50.


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