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Lebanon's Pro-Hezbollah Government Collapses

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati—who was selected by Hezbollah as the country’s premier—has resigned, bringing his cabinet and the government with him.

Armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites have since resumed in the city of Tripoli, the country’s second largest after Beirut. The Syrian government continues striking targets in the Bekaa Valley and in the north. Ransom kidnappers run wild. The threat of a serious internal war between Hezbollah and Sunni backers of the Free Syrian Army hangs heavily over the country.

It’s rather extraordinary that it hasn’t already started since Lebanese Shias and Lebanese Sunnis are currently killing each other just across the border in Syria.

And now Lebanon is without a government—again.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Since Hezbollah picked the prime minister, is it any great loss that he’s gone?

Actually, maybe it is. Najib Mikati is not a Hezbollah member. And if the leaders of the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group thought they could use him as a tool, they were wrong, at least for the most part. They’re the reason he got the job in the first place, but they’re also—at least according to Reuters—the reason he quit.

Mikati has been pressing for Lebanese neutrality in the Syrian war, but Hezbollah wants Lebanon to side with Bashar al-Assad. What's the point of seizing power in Lebanon if Beirut won’t back Hezbollah’s allies in Tehran and Damascus?

He looked like a Hezbollah ally on the surface, but only if you squinted hard and didn’t watch what he did or listen to the things that he said. He acted and sounded like an independent, and sometimes even like he was aligned with the anti-Syrian “March 14” bloc. Some of my Lebanese sources and friends said that’s exactly what he wants me to think, but others I trust and know just as well told me he is, in fact, quietly aligned with March 14 and is therefore “one of us.”

The man has not been easy to read, and it’s important not to get suckered when Middle Eastern politicians say things you want to hear just to get you on side. This sort of thing happens. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood knows exactly what to say to Westerners to trick them into believing the organization is moderate and democratic. They’re completely and utterly full of it, but that hasn’t stopped an embarrassingly huge number of journalists, analysts, and diplomats from getting fooled by an organization that has always been theocratic and authoritarian.

Najib Mikati, though, is  a Sunni while Hezbollah is Shia. Mikati isn’t a Sunni Islamist, either. He’s a businessman, a tycoon. He’s the richest man in the country.

There are a couple of reasons Hezbollah picked Mikati for prime minister. Primarily because he is not Saad Hariri, son of the slain Rafik Hariri whose assassination in downtown Beirut kicked off the anti-Syrian Cedar Revolution in 2005.

Second, their pickings were slim. They couldn’t select one of their own. The Lebanese constitution mandates that the prime minister be from the Sunni community. (The president, meanwhile, must be a Christian while the speaker of parliament is reserved for the Shias.) And the number of competent Sunni politicians in Lebanon who sincerely support Hezbollah is zero. Syria has a small number of Sunni allies—and Mikati made his money in Syria—but Hezbollah doesn’t have any.

Mikati was the best they could get.

And he wasn’t that great from their point of view.

A Wikileaks cable published in 2011 quotes him describing Hezbollah as “cancerous” and saying he wishes to see their Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist statelet destroyed.

Hezbollah must have been furious when that came to light. The day that he would resign (or be otherwise removed or even killed) over a conflict with Hezbollah was all but inevitable.

I asked Ed Gabriel what he thinks of Mikati. He’s a former US ambassador to Morocco and the founder of the American Task Force for Lebanon. He’s from the United States, but his family is from Lebanon and he knows everyone over there. He has known Mikati for years. And I trust his judgment.

“He was elected to parliament in Tripoli as an independent allied with March 14,” he says. “He agreed to become prime minister in January 2011 because he wanted to avoid a clash over the issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.”

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or STL, is the international court set up by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute Hariri’s assassins. The STL is fingering Hezbollah for the crime.

“It was presumed that Mikati had made a tacit agreement to withdraw Lebanese government support for the STL to become prime minister,” Gabriel says, “but Mikati used a clever mechanism to pay Lebanon’s STL obligations for 2011 and 2012. Although he previously had business interests in Syria, Mikati is smart enough to have avoided going to Syria since the outbreak of violence. March 14 seemed willing to accept a Mikati government until the assassination of Wissam El Hassan on October 19, 2012, when they accused the Mikati government of tolerating murderers. Meaningfully, and with the support of Mikati, a Lebanese military court charged Mahmoud Hayek, a Hezbollah security official, on February 1 with the attempted assassination of prominent March 14 politician Boutros Harb. In my opinion, Mikati has proven his skeptics wrong.”

He has indeed proved his skeptics wrong. He also proved Hezbollah wrong since they thought they could use him.

And they couldn’t.

Now the country is without a government. Mikati has called for a “caretaker government” to take over until the next elections are held. Maybe Lebanon will get one and maybe it won’t. Either way, the country is closer now to collapse than it has been at any time since the civil war ended.

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Hanging with King Abdullah

Jeffrey Goldberg has a fun new piece in The Atlantic about Jordan’s King Abdullah, with whom he got to spend some quality personal time.

It is not necessarily good to be the king of a Middle Eastern country that is bereft of oil; nor is it necessarily so wonderful to be the king during the turmoil and uncertainty of the Arab Spring. It is certainly not good to be the king when the mystique that once enveloped your throne is evaporating.

But when a squadron of Black Hawk helicopters is reserved for your use, and when you are the type of king who finds release from the pressures of monarchy by piloting those Black Hawks up and down the length of your sand-covered kingdom—then it is still good to be the king.

[…]

It was obvious to me that King Abdullah was looking forward to flying his helicopter—but not so much to the meeting that awaited him in Karak. “I’m sitting with the old dinosaurs today,” he told me.

The men he would be meeting—a former prime minister among them—were leaders of the National Current Party, which had the support of many East Bankers of the south, and which would almost certainly control a substantial bloc of seats in the next parliament. What the party stood for, however, beyond patronage and the status quo, was not entirely clear, even to the king. Shortly after the eruption of the Arab Spring, the king told me, he met with Abdul Hadi al-Majali, the leader of the party. “I read your economic and social manifesto, and it scared the crap out of me,” the king said he told Majali. “This makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re going to reach out to the 70 percent of the population that is younger than me, you’ve got to work on this.” The party manifesto, the king told me, “didn’t have anything. It was slogans. There was no program. Nothing.” He went on, “It’s all about ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I’m in his tribe.’ I want this guy to develop a program that at least people will begin to understand.”

[…]

The 30 or so men (and one woman, a daughter of one of the tribal leaders) sat on couches against the walls. Tea was served. The king made a short plea for economic reform and for expanding political participation, and then the floor was opened. Leader after leader—many of whom were extremely old, many of whom merely had the appearance of being old—made small-bore requests and complaints. One of the men proposed an idea for the king’s consideration: “In the old days, we had night watchmen in the towns. They would be given sticks. The government should bring this back. It would be for security, and it would create more jobs for the young men.”

I was seated directly across the room from the king, and I caught his attention for a moment; he gave me a brief, wide-eyed look. He was interested in high-tech innovation, and in girls’ education, and in trimming the overstuffed government payroll. A jobs plan focused on men with sticks was not his idea of effective economic reform.

As we were leaving Karak a little while later, I asked him about the men-with-sticks idea. “There’s a lot of work to do,” he said, with fatigue in his voice.

We boarded the Black Hawk and took off. I was seated behind the king. He asked me whether I wanted to make a detour: “Have you ever seen Mount Nebo from the air?” He flew northwest, toward the mountain from which, the Bible tells us, God showed Moses the Land of Israel. The Dead Sea shimmered just beyond. I suggested a quick detour to Jerusalem, which was 30 miles away. “The cousins like to have more warning,” one of his aides said with a smirk. “The cousins” are the Israelis.

Read the whole thing.

Americans Give Up on Middle East Peace

According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, American public opinion favors the Israelis over the Palestinians by a six-to-one margin. Only nine percent of the country sympathizes more with the Palestinian Authority.

As some would have it, the American left sides with the Palestinians while conservatives support Israel, but obviously this is wrong. Even if all nine percent of pro-Palestinian Americans are on the political left, they make up less than a fifth of those who voted for Barack Obama. Conservatives are more likely to support Israel, but the bipartisan consensus is iron-clad.

At the same time, an overwhelming majority think the United States should take a pass on leading peace negotiations. I can’t read the minds of hundreds of millions of people, but I’m pretty sure most recognize that peace talks are futile right now, so why should we take the blame when they fail again? There is nothing Barack Obama can do to make the two sides sign a deal. Not a thing. And it isn’t his fault. He might as well try to halt gravity.

The United States should mediate peace talks if and when both sides are serious. This might actually happen after the regimes in Syria and Iran are overthrown or reformed out of existence.

Sunni Arab governments haven’t waged a war against Israel for forty years. The 1973 Yom Kippur War was the last time it happened. Only the region’s non-Sunni governments in Syria and Iran, along with their Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist proxies, have bothered to keep the war going. Who knows what might happen when Damascus and Tehran have changed? Without patrons, Hamas and Hezbollah will feel an unprecedented amount of pressure to make deals with their enemies. Even if they refuse, they’ll be shadows of their current selves. Then the United States should consider getting involved again.

The so-called “linkage” theory, which places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the center of the Middle East’s Gordian knot, is ludicrous. Syria’s civil war won’t be resolved with a peace treaty, nor will Iran’s nuclear weapons program be put on ice, nor will tensions abate between  the region’s Sunnis and Shias, nor will secularists and Islamists achieve a modus vivendi in unstable post-Arab Spring countries like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. But all that said, it’s still in the United States’ interest to see peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and it will be worth pursuing the minute it’s viable.

In the meantime, conflict management rather than conflict resolution is the best we can reasonably hope for.

The next American president might see an opportunity where Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have failed. The next American president might think he or she is more clever than the last three and can pull it off with some stroke of genius. Such is the hubris that accompanies election to the White House. The American public, however, will surely remain skeptical and will laugh at jokes like the one in Adam Sandler’s ridiculous film, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. “They’ve been fighting for 2,000 years,” says the lead character’s mother. “It can’t be much longer.”

Last Chance to Pre-order an Autographed Copy

 

UPDATE: Orders are now closed. The book will be released in April, so you can buy a trade paperback or electronic version at that time from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, Kobo, iTunes, etc.

Syrians Protest Al-Nusra

Syria's war against Bashar al-Assad is merely stage one.

Anti-regime activists took to the streets of rebel-held Mayadeen in eastern Syria on Wednesday for a third straight day to demand that jihadist Al-Nusra Front fighters leave the town, a watchdog said.

"For the third day in a row, protests erupted in Mayadeen calling on the Al-Nusra Front to leave the town," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Protests erupted after the Islamist Al-Nusra Front -- blacklisted in December by the United States as a "terrorist" organization -- set up a religious council in the east of Deir Ezzor province, where Mayadeen is situated, to administer affairs in the area.

[...]

"The protests are an important indicator that people in eastern Syria -- where people do not have a culture of religious extremism -- do not welcome the imposition of religious law," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

When Assad falls—and fall he will, at least eventually—the Free Syrian Army will go to war with Jabhat al-Nusra. There is not enough room in that country for al-Nusra and everyone else.

The North is Ready to Blow

BEIRUT – Lebanon always looks and feels like it's ready to erupt into armed conflict, but today it's more ready than usual. The Syrian civil war next door weighs heavily on this place. Sunnis and Alawites are fighting round after round with no end in sight in the city of Tripoli, and now the Northern Bekaa Valley, between Mount Lebanon and the Syrian border, is likewise gearing up to explode.

Lebanese citizens in that region are already killing each other. The only reason their part of the country hasn't yet turned into a war zone is because they're killing each other on the other side of the border, which lies a mere handful of miles from where they reside. They're crossing into Syria to shoot at each other before hunkering down in an unnerving balance of terror when they return home.

The two sides are composed of Sunni and Shia Muslims. “Both communities,” Nicholas Blanford wrote in Beirut's Daily Star, “are rooted in strong tribal traditions, have a general disdain for the authority of the state, are fiercely independent, have a history of militancy, are well armed and, most pertinently, have chosen to actively back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war raging just across the border.”

Lebanon's Sunnis by and large support the Free Syrian Army while most of Lebanon's Shias support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah's second-tier patron after Iran.

Most residents of the Northern Bekaa are Shias, and most of them support Hezbollah. Yet there's a Sunni enclave up there, as well, centered around the town of Arsal in the Anti-Lebanon mountains between the floor of the Bekaa and the Syrian border. Since Arsal is so remote and so near the frontier, it is turning into a hub for the Free Syrian Army. People and weapons are smuggled over the border through there in both directions.

Meanwhile, the town of Hermel—the local Hezbollah hub—is just a few couple of miles away.

The fighting is taking place in the region of Qusayr, immediately north of the border and just south of the Syrian city of Homs. Hezbollah will desperately need control of that area if the Assad regime falls so it can continue receiving weapon shipments by ground from the Iranian government.

A couple of days ago I drove up there to look around. It's the only part of the country I hadn't seen before. I never had a reason to go there. Nothing much used to happen, and besides, it's controlled by Hezbollah and therefore better avoided.

Friends in Beirut warned me not to get out of the car. “You're obviously an outsider,” said one. “If you think Hezbollah's guys in the south [along the Israeli border] are tough, you really don't want to encounter the ones in the north.”

Lots of journalists have been “arrested” by Hezbollah and kicked out of the area, but Nicholas Blanford has lived in Lebanon for decades and is better connected than just about anyone. He managed to speak to a few people up there. A businessman in Hermel told him, “We are very worried about the Salafists coming here and attacking us. We all support Hezbollah here. They are our only guarantee of protection.” A Lebanese Sunni who fights with the rebels and lives a mere walking distance away from Hezbollah territory said, “When we are done there [in Syria] we are going after Hezbollah here. The Free Syrian Army will come and clean Lebanon.”

The Hermel Pyramid, an ancient pre-Roman monument overlooking the Syrian border, is the one place where it's sometimes okay to get out of the car—as long as you first scan the area for black SUVs with tinted windows and without any license plates. Those vehicles belong to Hezbollah. Spotters use the area as an observation post since they can see right into Syria. You can even hear the war raging in Syria if Homs is being bombarded or shelled. It's only a few dozen miles away in a straight shot across an open plain.

Look north and you can see Syria. Look to the left and you see Hermel, Hezbollah's local command and control. To the right is the Sunni enclave around Arsal. You could walk from one community to another in an hour or so. The Lebanese customs gate is just a ten minute drive from the pyramid.

How long can the people who live in this area continue to shoot at each other on only one side of an arbitrary line in the valley?

I hardly saw any Hezbollah flags. The Syrian-Iranian proxy militia is all but invisible. But it's still clear who lives in the area and who they support. Billboards on the side of the road feature Bashar al-Assad wearing sunglasses and military fatigues. Iran's dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini makes several appearances, as do Iran's current rulers Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I saw a couple of Iranian flags, but hardly any Lebanese flags. You could be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere in Iran if you didn't know better.

The Lebanese Army mans a few checkpoints in the area, but the checkpoints aren't serious. They are pure security theater. I was waved through with hardly a glance and without even stopping the car. To be sure, I didn't look even remotely like a Free Syrian Army guy or a Hezbollah member in my little rented Renault, but still. A serious army on the razor's edge of a war zone should at least pretend to be interested in who is coming or going, but Lebanon's isn't. The border area is exposed and wide open. Just about anything could come out of the Syrian crucible and into Lebanon without meeting any resistance at all. Just yesterday artillery shells from the Syrian army landed in Lebanon's Akkar region, a few dozen miles to the northwest. The Lebanese Army has done nothing about it and will continue doing nothing about it.

I met with Samy Gemayel, a current member of parliament and the son of former President Amine Gemayel. “It's a miracle a war here hasn't already started,” he said. “I don't understand it. And I don't know how long this can last.”

Neither side is interested in fighting in Lebanon,” said Michael Young, the opinion page editor at Beirut's Daily Star. No doubt that's true—otherwise a war would have started. Or, more accurately, the war would have expanded. But we're only one miscalculation, one tragic misunderstanding, or one hot-headed overreaction away.

The country is on the brink of collapse,” said Hanin Ghaddar, NOW Lebanon's managing editor. “It has been on the brink of collapse my entire life.” Indeed, the country has collapsed repeatedly during her life and mine.

It always rebounds. As someone once put it, Beirut is a city that always seems to be “back.” The reason it's always “back” is because it keeps going down.

Syria has been exporting violence for decades. The regime in Damascus has exported terrorism to every single one of its neighbors. Now it's sucking them in. Iran is involved. Lebanon is involved. The Saudis and the Qataris are involved. Even Iraq is involved. Your guess is as good as mine how much longer Turkey, the U.S., and Israel can stay out.

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An Excerpt From My New Novel

 

It is normal to give away a little of one’s life in order not to lose it all.” —Albert Camus

I had been, you know, held in the closet for two months and … abused in all manner of ways. I was very good at doing what I was told.” —Patty Hearst

Chapter One

They took me from my house in the night. Rough hands slapped duct tape over my mouth and I sat up in bed, head swirling with gray shapes and vertigo, wondering if I was dreaming, but before I could yell, before I could reach up and rip off the tape, two hundred pounds of muscle and purpose shoved me back down onto the bed.

My wife was out of town teaching a class in Seattle, and I hadn’t bothered to turn on the alarm system or the motion detector downstairs. I didn’t hear the back door open, nor did our cats alert me that dangerous strangers had entered our home. I kicked with both legs but only flailed against my own sheets and blankets. A mass of hands gripped me, flipped me onto my stomach, and jammed my face into the pillow. I could hardly breathe as steel cuffs slammed around my wrists, the metal digging hard against bone.

For a moment I thought I was being arrested, that police officers had raided the wrong house, that I’d be released soon enough—and with an apology—after they took me down to the station and realized they had the wrong guy.

The moment was fleeting. I will never forget the sound of the voice I heard next: calm, professional, and chillingly void of emotion.

Get the blindfold on him.”

The man who uttered those words, I knew, would gut me as remorselessly as he would crush a beetle under his boot.

Get the blindfold on him.

Quick and certain, with just the slightest touch of impatience.

Get the blindfold on him.

Unaccented American English from a man who couldn’t be over thirty.

Get the blindfold on him.

They tied what felt like a pillowcase over my eyes. It covered everything from my nose to my forehead. No chance I could sneak a peek over the top or under the bottom. Two hands gripped each of my thrashing limbs and hauled me off the bed and down the stairs. I heard what sounded like work boots on hardwood, but their hands on my skin felt soft, not like those of laborers. I managed to fling an arm free and knock a picture frame off the wall, but they restrained me again and dragged me out the back and into the driveway at the side of the house.

A van door slid open. As I struggled to yell through the duct tape, they dumped me onto the van’s grooved metal floor. Two men climbed in with me, each holding one of my arms. The other two hopped in front.

When I heard the ignition turn over, I arched my back and kicked one of the bastards. Either a fist or an elbow—I couldn’t be sure—slammed into my mouth, mashing lips against teeth.

I tasted blood and iron and smelled body odor—theirs—as we hurtled down surface streets, the van’s engine gunning like a getaway car, and merged onto the interstate.

*

My name is Michael Totten, and I work as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. For ten years I feared something like this might happen. It’s a hazard of my profession.

Khaled Sheikh Mohamed kidnapped my colleague Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and beheaded him on camera with a kitchen knife. Murderous drug cartels south of the border have turned Mexico into one of the most dangerous countries on earth to work as a reporter. During the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, Hezbollah kidnapped journalists and chained them to radiators. I’m always taking a risk when I leave the comforts of home to report from the unfortunate parts of the world. I was especially concerned about being snatched off the street during myseven trips to Iraq, but I had no idea I’d ever be yanked out of bed in my hometown in Oregon.

Nobody said anything as we drove. Whoever these guys were, they weren’t talking. I tried to curse them but could only groan into the tape over my mouth. All I could hear was the thrum of the engine and the vibration of the wheels at interstate speed. If I’d been congested and couldn’t breathe through my nose, I would have suffocated.

The van’s floor dug into my back. My wrists ached from the handcuffs, and a muscle in my right shoulder cramped up. I noticed the smell of sweat in the blindfold that covered most of my face and realized it was my own.

After hours had passed, we finally stopped. It felt like four hours, but it must have only been three. Surely my sense of time was distorted. At least I no longer cringed and expected to be punched or elbowed again.

The man in the passenger seat got out and unscrewed the van’s gas cap. I listened carefully. Was anyone else out there? Would a gas-station attendant see or hear me if I kicked and thrashed and made a big enough scene? Did the van even have windows? I imagined it probably didn’t.

But there was no attendant. Nobody asked how much gas or what kind we wanted. I heard the man from the passenger seat swipe a credit card and insert the nozzle into the tank.

We were no longer in Oregon then. Self-service at gas stations is illegal in Oregon. You have to wait for an attendant to fill the tank for you. So at some point in the night, we had crossed into Washington. It had to be Washington. My house in Portland is just a fifteen-minute drive to the state line, but California and Idaho are six hours away. Nevada is eight hours away. Canada is also six hours away, and there was no chance I’d missed an international border crossing.

We left the station and after another hour or so, the van slowed and turned. The tires crunched onto gravel. I braced myself. This was it. Wherever we were going, we had arrived.

The man in the passenger seat climbed out and opened the sliding side door. The scent of pine overwhelmed me at once. We were in a forest, or very near one, and we were on the dry eastern side of the Cascade Mountains rather than the wet western side, where the forests are fir. I figured we must be somewhere in the vicinity of Yakima or possibly Ellensburg, a college town in the middle of the state.

The duct tape over my mouth was ripped away stingingly.

Will you walk?” It was that voice again. The one that said “Get the blindfold on him.”

I’ll walk,” I said, “if you take off the blindfold.”

Get him in the house,” he said, and I felt myself being hoisted by my shoulders, the tops of my bare toes trailing in gravel. “Go ahead and scream if you want. No one will hear you out here.”

A supernova of hatred exploded inside me. If they looked like they were going to kill me, I’d fight them. And if they kept me in cuffs and held down my legs, I’d bite the bastards’ fingers off with my teeth.

*

They took me inside, dragged me into a basement, and sat my ass down in a straight-backed wooden chair no softer than the van floor. They uncuffed one of my wrists and recuffed it to a table leg. I heard heavy booted footsteps heading up wooden stairs toward the main part of the house.

I sat hunched over in absolute silence with my shoulders nearly up to my ears. I figured they’d left me alone, but when I reached up with my one free hand to take off my blindfold, I saw sitting before me a man of about thirty with blue eyes, dark curls, and light brown skin. With a face like that, he could have been from a number of places around the world. Italy, Chile, and Armenia come to mind now, but I knew at the time he was almost certainly an Arab. He could have been from Pakistan or Iran, but I doubted it.

Behind him stood a hairy bear of a man with black eyes, a long black beard, and short-cropped hair. He was the one who had punched me. I could tell. He had an I like to kick the shit out of people look on his face.

Michael,” the blue-eyed man said. “Believe me, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.”

I stared at him and tried as hard as I could to show no expression. No anger. No fear. Then I sucked my teeth hard enough to make my split lip bleed again, leaned to the side, and spit blood onto the floor.

Sorry about that,” the man said. “But you were flailing about and kicked Mahmoud here in the ribs.”

The larger man stood with his arms folded and drummed his fingers on his biceps at the sound of his name. I turned and wiped the blood off my lips and onto my shoulder.

My name is Ahmed,” the blue-eyed man said.

Ahmed what?” I said. “What’s your last name?” I’ve spent enough time in the Arab world that I can sometimes tell which country people are from by their last names.

Just Ahmed for now,” he said. “We have a job for you.”

I’m not working for you,” I said. “Shoot me if you want, but I’m not going to help you.”

I honestly didn’t know if I meant that or not. They expected me to resist and they weren’t beating me up, so what was I supposed to say? Sure, okay, I’ll do what you want?

I can understand your reluctance,” Ahmed said, “but you will do what we say.”

I looked at him and said nothing.

We aren’t necessarily going to kill you or even hurt you,” he said. "As long as you do what we say. If you cooperate, we’ll see what happens.”

He could tell by the look on my face that I didn’t buy it.

He sighed. “If I told you we’d let you go if you cooperate, would you believe me?”

No,” I said.

Okay then,” he said. “I didn’t think so. So I won’t insult your intelligence.”

What do you want with me, Ahmed?” I started grinding my teeth. I resisted clenching my hands into fists, but I couldn’t help grinding my teeth.

I appreciate that you’re pronouncing my name correctly,” he said. The h in his name is aspirated. It’s pronounced like the h in house.

Of course I know how to say Ahmed,” I said. “I’ve been working in and writing about the Arab world for ten years.”

Yes,” he said and smiled. “I know. That’s why we picked you.”

Why me?” I said.

I just told you,” he said.

No, I mean why me of all the American journalists who cover the Middle East? Why not kidnap Peter Bergen or Tom Friedman? They’re both more famous than I am.”

Because,” he said and stood up. “You have a widely read blog. And you’re going to give us the password.”

I had a blog at the Web site of The Global Weekly, where I published a weekly column, daily takes on the news of the world, and occasional long dispatches from war zones and trouble spots. I could write whatever I wanted. Unlike traditional journalism, my work was published instantly and unedited with the click of a mouse. If Ahmed had my password, he could hijack my column and publish whatever he wanted himself.

Mahmoud unfolded a four-inch Leatherman knife and flicked his thumb across the blade sideways. It took everything I had, but I resisted.

I’m not giving you the password,” I said and swallowed hard. My hands felt clammy, and it was all I could do to keep myself from shaking.

Cut off his eyelids,” Ahmed said.

Mahmoud grunted and stepped forward, the cords standing out in his neck. I spasmed as though I had just been zapped with a cattle prod.

Okayokayokay,” I said and gave up the password.

That wasn’t so difficult, was it?” Ahmed said. “You will do what we say. And it will be easier on everyone here if you immediately do what we say. Don’t ever say no to me again.”

I tried hard not to breathe too heavily, but it was difficult.

You kidnapped me just to get my blog’s password?” I said.

That’s just for backup,” he said. “For insurance, you might say.”

Against what?” I said.

Insubordination,” he said. “If you don’t do what we say, Mahmoud will cut off your eyelids, take a nice pretty picture, and upload the photograph to your blog. Even your wife and mother will get a good hard look at what’s happening to you.”

*

If you want to read the rest, you'll have to purchase a copy. The book will be released in April, so you can buy a trade paperback or electronic version at that time from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, Kobo, iTunes, etc.

Belmokhtar Killed in Mali

I'm in Beirut and will have some fresh material shortly, but in the meantime Al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar was reportedly whacked in Mali by Chad.

Good for Chad. Chad needed a win. When was the last time Chad had a win?

And the rest of the world had to be rid of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He was the Al Qaeda-linked gangster terrorist behind the recent hostage drama at a gas plant in Algeria that ended with dozens of innocents dead.

Thanks, Chad.

My New Book is Available for Pre-order

You can now pre-order autographed copies of my new book, Taken, which is my first novel. The book will be published in April. If you order from me directly, you'll receive a signed copy in March before it's available anywhere else.

Here are the front and back covers:

 

 

Here's the book description: Prize-winning author and journalist Michael J. Totten’s debut novel features a fictional version of author and journalist Michael J. Totten who is taken from his home in the night by terrorists and hauled bound and gagged to a remote house in the wilderness. So begins a harrowing journey across three states with a ruthless band of killers and sadists, and after all escape attempts fail, Totten faces a terrible question: what if the only way out is to join them?

 

Most of you don't know this, but I was a fiction writer long before I became a journalist. I'm a product of the English Department, not Journalism School, and I spent my entire early adulthood developing and honing skills as a short story writer and novelist. I expect that a few years from now I'll have more novels than non-fiction books published, but for now, this is my first.

UPDATE: Orders are now closed. The book will be released in April, so you can buy a trade paperback or electronic version at that time from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, Kobo, iTunes, etc.

This is No Way to Behave

The British parliament’s national embarrasment George Galloway (MP-Gaza) belatedly discovered in front of a live audience at Oxford that his debate opponent is an Israeli citizen, so he stormed out in a bigoted huff. Watch the video. It’s really something.

I suppose he’ll get “resistance” points in some circles for his theatrics, but Mahmood Naji, who organized the debate, condemned Galloway for his boorish behavior. I should also add that I learned of this video from a Muslim friend of mine who sent me the link with the words "George Galloway -- massive racist" in the subject line.

Free Syrian Army Threatens Hezbollah in Lebanon

Syrian rebels are (again) threatening to attack Hezbollah targets in Lebanon to retaliate for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.

They’ve said this before and it was just talk. I assume it’s still only talk. I don’t expect this will actually happen. But who knows? Lebanon is the kind of place where just about anything you can imagine eventually happens at some point.

If the Free Syrian Army does go after Hezbollah, things will get…interesting. Hezbollah is formidable when it fights a guerrilla war against a conventional army, but counterinsurgency is extraordinarily difficult, even for the American and Israeli armies, two of the best in the world.

Hezbollah is scary good at insurgency, but counterinsurgency is emphatically not a skill in its toolbox. That’s one of the many reasons the organization has never tried to conquer the rest of the country. It can’t. It can only push people around from its own corner.

I’ll have a much better sense of what to expect in the Levant soon enough because I’m heading to Lebanon myself later this week. Stay tuned.

Israel to Treat Wounded Syrians

The Israel Defense Forces plans to put up a military field hospital on the Syrian border to help refugees seeking assistance.

I would not expect Syrians to approach the Israeli border and ask for help, not after having their minds poisoned for so long by the violent propaganda of the Assad regime, but apparently some wounded refugees did just that a couple of days ago.

Hardly anyone knows it, but the Israelis do this sort of thing as a matter of course.

Quote of the Day

“Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or Khuzestan [in western Iran], the priority for us is to keep Syria….If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”-- Senior Iranian cleric Mehdi Taeb in a speech to the regime's Basij militia

The Grand Universal Illusion

North Korea just tested a nuclear weapon. The test was successful. We know this because the explosion triggered a unique kind of earthquake and South Korea picked up the seismic waves.

Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times thinks the Obama administration and every American administration before it has failed to resolve this problem because they've had the wrong approach. “Isolating N Korea doesn't help,” he wrote on Twitter. “China has a plausible strategy for N Korea: use investment, exchanges to encourage opening and reform.”

Sorry, Nick. While it’s true that isolation and sanctions haven’t normalized North Korea’s politics or behavior, China’s strategy hasn’t worked any better.

First of all, North Korea has isolated itself. Its people are as cut off from the rest of the world as the most remote tribes of Papua New Guinea. Even a country as walled off from the rest of us as Saudi Arabia is vastly more plugged in and integrated into the 21st century.

Second, China flat doesn’t care if North Korea opens up or reforms. The Chinese government is spectacularly uninterested in the internal characteristics of its allies as long as its own needs are met. Beijing’s rulers are no more sentimental about human welfare and rights—especially abroad—than the Algerian military that recently killed a bunch of hostages while taking out a terrorist cell at a natural gas plant in the Sahara.

Kristof assumes the Chinese government is at least marginally interested in opening and reforming Pyongyang because he, like plenty of Americans—myself included—wish to see reform in non-democratic countries aligned with the United States. He’s projecting our own psychology onto Beijing.

This is what Professor Richard Landes calls cognitive egocentrism. “The act of empathy,” Landes explains, “can often become an act of projecting onto another ‘what I would feel if I were in their shoes,’ rather than an attempt to understand how the person with whom one is empathizing has reacted to their situation, how they read and interpret events.”

People do this sort of thing all the time. We do it to our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. It’s hard not to. We also do it to foreign people, and they do it to us.

Look at the naïve early predictions about the Arab Spring. Cognitive egocentrism explains at least part of it. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was routinely described in the Western press as a party of mainstream religious conservatives who deeply believed in democracy and free markets, as if they were Egypt’s version of the Republicans in the United States. Likewise, the kids in Tahrir Square were seen as Egypt’s Democrats. Both assumptions were outrageously wide of reality.

Middle Easterners do the same thing to us. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard the American government described in hysterically phantasmagoric terms that would make even Noam Chomsky blush. A Syrian friend of mine in the United States used to describe the British and American governments as snakes (his word), not because he’s inherently anti-American but because he was raised on propaganda by the house of Assad and because for the first thirty years of his life he suffered under a regime that really was like a snake. For him, suffering under a predatory snake-like government was a perfectly normal state of affairs. He had never known anything else and assumed people everywhere were no different. (I should add that he has been here long enough now that he no longer thinks of the American government in these terms. A few months ago he even said he misses George W. Bush, something I’d sooner expect Nancy Pelosi to say.)

Plenty of the Middle East’s ridiculous anti-American conspiracy theories are produced by this sort of thinking. The Middle East is a place where real conspiracies actually happen. Military coups, palace coups, secret police, assassinations by unknown shadowy figures, election fraud, and massive official disinformation are part of the everyday scenery. Because these things are tragically normal over there, people feel helpless and paranoid. They also assume these things are normal for everyone else, that the American government (along with every other government in the world) is just as venal and corrupt and self-serving and murderous as the governments of Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Moammar Qaddafi. These people are projecting their own experiences of the world onto us. They assume their experiences are universal. Until recently in human history, their experiences were practically universal.

Russians have done it to us, too. That’s why they were so afraid of NATO expansion.

Russia is a huge country with historically dangerous neighbors that could and did invade from just about every direction without any natural land barriers to stop them. That’s one of the reasons they became expansionist, why George F. Kennon, America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, said, “Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” Russia was especially expansionist during the Soviet period. It sponsored insurgencies even in Africa.

So when the Warsaw Pact collapsed in Eastern Europe and one former Soviet vassal after another joined NATO, plenty of Russians assumed it meant exactly the same thing it would mean if former NATO members were absorbed into the Warsaw Pact. They thought the United States was coming for them. They felt the way Americans would feel if first West Germany, then France, and then Britain became Soviet vassals. It didn’t even occur to some Russians that Americans had no interest whatsoever in conquering Moscow. During the Soviet days, communist imperialists really did want to take over the world. Many assumed we did, as well. Cognitive egocentrism.

This is what Kristof is doing when he says China is engaging North Korea in order to encourage opening and reform. But that’s not what’s happening. That’s what America would do if we engaged North Korea, but Beijing isn’t Washington.

There’s not much we can do to prevent foreign people from projecting their psychology onto us, but we should at least resist doing to the same thing to them.

Postscript: The Kindle version of my new book, Where the West Ends, is currently on sale for just 7.99.

Photo Credit: Ryuugakusei

Egypt's Refuseniks

Here’s something you don’t see every day:

Hundreds of low-ranking policemen in Egypt are holding protests to demand they not be used as a tool for political oppression in the country's ongoing turmoil.

Dozens of policemen rallied Tuesday outside local security administration headquarters in at least 10 provinces. Some of them carried signs reading, "we are innocent of the blood of the martyrs."

These little demonstrations aren't likely to have much, if any, effect, but they're still nice to see. More, please.

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