The Man Who Punched Christopher Hitchens

Adonis Nasr, the Lebanese facsist who attacked me and Christopher Hitchens on the streets of Beirut in 2009, has been killed fighting for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Nasr was an intelligence officer in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, an imperialist gang of Assad enthusiasts who brazenly sport a spinning swastika on their flag and wish to conquer Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Cyprus and forcibly attach them all to Damascus.

Here’s my account of what happened when Hitchens and I violently encountered Nasr and his goon squad in Beirut.

A Syrian-sponsored militia once attacked me and Christopher Hitchens on the streets of Beirut.

Yes, that Christopher Hitchens. The famous polemical journalist who went after Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and even God himself with hammer and tongs. Many considered him the greatest living writer in the English language before esophageal cancer killed him in 2011.

He and I were traveling together in Lebanon with our mutual British friend Jonathan Foreman. The three of us set out from our hotel, the Bristol. Christopher needed a new pair of shoes. Jona­than needed a shirt. I needed a coffee. And I led the way as the three of us strolled down to Hamra Street, where we could buy just about anything.

Christopher hadn’t been to Beirut since the civil war ended in 1990 and Jonathan had never visited. I used to live there, though, between the Beirut Spring in 2005 and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

My old West Beirut neighborhood of Hamra wasn’t the same anymore. It looked the same on the surface, but it had been violated. Hezbollah invaded the previous May, in 2008, with its two sidekick militias, Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The city’s most cosmopolitan and international district felt much like my house once did after a burglar had broken in. What happened to Hamra, though, was much worse than a mere breaking and entering. Hezbollah and its militant allies shot the place up and killed people.

On our way down to the main shopping street I told Christopher and Jonathan how the Syrian Social Nationalist Party had a serious presence there now. During the invasion in May, its members had placed their spinning swastika flags up on Hamra Street itself. Those flags stayed there for months. No one dared touch them until Prime Min­ister Fouad Siniora ordered city employees to take them down.

It was a warning of sorts—or at least it would have been heeded as such by most people. I didn’t go looking for trouble, Jonathan was as mild-mannered a writer as any I knew, but Christopher was brave and combative, and just hearing about what had happened riled him up.

When we rounded a corner onto Hamra Street, an SSNP sign was the first thing we saw.

“Well, there’s that swastika now,” Christopher said.

The militia’s flags had been taken down, but a commemora­tive marker was still there. It was made of metal and plastic and had the semipermanence of an official No Parking sign. SSNP member Khaled Alwan shot two Israeli soldiers with a pistol in 1982 after they settled their bill at the now-defunct Wimpy cafe on that corner, and that sign marked the spot.

Some SSNP members claimed the emblem on their flag wasn’t a swastika, but a hurricane or a cyclone. Many said they couldn’t be National Socialists, as were the Nazis, because they identified instead as Social Nationalists, whatever that meant.

Most observers did not find this credible. The SSNP, according to the Atlantic in a civil war-era analysis, “is a party whose leaders, men approaching their seventies, send pregnant teenagers on suicide missions in booby-trapped cars. And it is a party whose members, mostly Christians from churchgoing families, dream of resuming the war of the ancient Canaanites against Joshua and the Children of Israel. They greet their leaders with a Hitlerian salute; sing their Arabic anthem, ‘Greetings to You, Syria,’ to the strains of ‘Deutsch­land, Deutschland über alles’; and throng to the symbol of the red hurricane, a swastika in circular motion.”

They wished to resurrect ancient pre-Islamic and pre-Arabic Syria and annex Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, and parts of Turkey and Egypt to Damascus. Their vision clashed with Hezbollah’s, but the two militias had the exact same list of enemies and they were both Syrian proxies, so they worked together.

Many Lebanese believed members of the SSNP were the ones who carried out many, if not most, of the car-bomb assassinations in Lebanon on behalf of the Syrians since 2005. In December of 2006 some of their members were arrested by the Lebanese army for storing a huge amount of explosives, timers, and detonators amid a large cache of weapons. Then-party leader Ali Qanso responded, saying, “We are a resistance force, and we use different methods of resisting, among which is using explosives.”

Christopher wanted to pull down their marker, but couldn’t. He stuck to his principles, though, and before I could stop him, he scribbled “No, no, Fuck the SSNP” in the bottom-right corner with a black felt-tipped pen.

I blinked several times. Was he really insulting the Syrian Social Nationalist Party while they might be watching? Neither Christo­pher nor Jonathan seemed to sense what was coming, but my own danger signals went haywire.

An angry young man shot across Hamra Street as though he’d been fired out of a cannon. “Hey!” he yelled as he pointed with one hand and speed-dialed for backup on his phone with the other.

“We need to get out of here now,” I said.

But the young man latched onto Christopher’s arm and wouldn’t let go. “Come with me!” he said and jabbed a finger toward Chris­topher’s face. These were the only words I heard him say in English.

Christopher tried to shake off his assailant, but couldn’t.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” he said.

We needed to get out of there fast. Standing around and trying to reason with him would serve his needs, not ours. His job was to hold us in place until the muscle crew showed up in force.

“Let go of him!” I said and shoved him, but he clamped onto Christopher like a steel trap.

I stepped into the street and flagged down a taxi.

“Get in the car!” I said.

Christopher, sensing rescue, managed to shake the man off and got into the back seat of the taxi. Jonathan and I piled in after him. But the angry young man ran around to the other side of the car and got in the front seat.

I shoved him with both hands. He wasn’t particularly heavy, but I didn’t have enough leverage from the back to throw him out. The driver could have tried to push the man out, but he didn’t. I sensed he was afraid.

So my companions and I got out of the car on the left side. The SSNP man bolted from the front seat on the right side. Then I jumped back in the car and locked the doors on that side.

“He’ll just unlock it,” Jonathan said.

He was right. I hadn’t noticed that the windows were rolled down on the passenger side. The young man reached in, laughed, and calmly unlocked the front passenger door.

I stepped back into the street, and the young man latched once again onto Christopher. No one could have stopped Jonathan and me had we fled, but we couldn’t leave Christopher to face an impending attack by himself. The lone SSNP man only needed to hold one of us still while waiting for his squad.

A police officer casually ambled toward us as though he had no idea what was happening.

“Help,” Christopher said to the cop. “I’m being attacked!”

Our assailant identified himself to the policeman. The officer gasped and took three steps back as though he did not want any trouble. He could have unholstered his weapon and stopped the attack on the spot, but even Lebanon’s armed men of the law feared the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

A Lebanese man in his thirties ran up to me and offered to help.

“What’s happening?!” he said breathlessly as he trembled in shock and alarm.

I don’t remember what I told him, and it hardly matters. There wasn’t much he could do, and I did not see him again.

“Let go of him!” I said to the SSNP spotter and tried once more to throw him off Christopher.

“Hit him if you have to,” I said to Christopher. “We’re out of time, and we have to get out of here.”

“Back to the hotel,” Christopher said.

“No!” I said. “We can’t let them know where we’re staying.”

Christopher would not or could not strike his assailant, so I sized the man up from a distance of six or so feet. I could punch him hard in the face, and he couldn’t stop me. I could break his knee with a solid kick to his leg, and he couldn’t stop me. He needed all his strength just to hold onto Christopher, while I had total freedom of movement and was hopped up on adrenaline. We hadn’t seen a weapon yet, so I was pretty sure he didn’t have one. I was a far greater threat to him at that moment than he was to us by himself.

Christopher, Jonathan, and I easily could have joined forces and left him bleeding and harmless in the street. I imagine, looking back now, that he was afraid. But I knew the backup he’d called would arrive any second. And his backup might be armed. We were about to face the wrath of a militia whose members could do whatever they wanted in the streets with impunity. Escalating seemed like the worst possible thing I could do. The time to attack the young man was right at the start, and that moment had passed. This was Beirut, where the law of the jungle can rule with the flip of a switch, and we needed to move.

I saw another taxi parked on the corner waiting for passengers, and I flung open the door.

“Get in, get in,” I said, “and lock all the doors!”

Traffic was light. If the driver would step on the gas with us inside, we could get out of there. Christopher managed to fling the man off him again. It looked hopeful there for a second. But seven furious men showed up all at once and faced us in the street. They stepped in front of the taxi and cut off our escape.

None wore masks. That was an encouraging sign. I didn’t see any weapons. But they were well built, and their body language sig­naled imminent violence. We were in serious trouble, and I ran into the Costa Coffee chain across the street and yelled at the waiter to call the police.

“Go away!” he said and lightly pushed me in the shoulder to make his point. “You need to leave now!”

This was no way to treat a visitor, especially not in the Arab world, where guests are accorded protection, but getting in the way of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party could get a man killed, or at least beaten severely. Just a few months before, the SSNP attacked a journalist on that very street and sent him bleeding and broken to the hospital in front of gaping witnesses. A Lebanese col­league told me he was brutally assaulted merely for filming the crew taking down the SSNP flags as the prime minister had ordered. “He didn’t do anything to them,” she said. “He just filmed their flag.”

Christopher was encircled by four or five of them. They were geared up to smash him, and I reached for his hand to pull him away. One of the toughs clawed at my arm and left me with a bleeding scratch and a bruise. I expected a punch in the face, but I wasn’t the target.

Christopher was the target. He was the one who had defaced their sign. One of the guys smacked him hard in the face. Another delivered a roundhouse kick to his legs. A third punched him and knocked him into the street between two parked cars. Then they gathered around and kicked him while he was down. They kicked him hard in the head, in the ribs, and in the legs.

Jonathan and I had about two and a half seconds to figure out what we should do when one of the SSNP members punched him in the side of the head and then kicked him.

Christopher was on the ground, and Jonathan and I couldn’t fend off seven militiamen by ourselves. I was reasonably sure, at least, that they weren’t going to kill us. They didn’t have weapons or masks. They just wanted to beat us, and we lost the fight before it even began. I could have called for backup myself, but I didn’t think of it—a mistake I will not make again in that country.

Then the universe all of a sudden righted itself.

Christopher managed to pull himself up as a taxi approached in the street. I stepped in front of the car and forced the driver to stop. “Get in!” I yelled. Christopher got in the car. Jonathan got in the car. I got in the car. We slammed down the locks on the doors with our fists. The street was empty of traffic. The way in front of the taxi was clear. The scene for our escape was set.

“Go!” I said to the driver.

“Where?” the driver said.

“Just drive!” I said.

One of the SSNP guys landed a final blow on the side of Chris­topher’s face through the open window, but the driver sped away and we were free.

I don’t remember what we said in the car. I was barely scathed in the punch-up, and Jonathan seemed to be fine. Christopher was still in one piece, though he was clearly in pain. Our afternoon had gone sideways, but it could have been a great deal worse than it was.

“Let’s not go back to our hotel yet,” I said. I covered my face with my hands and rubbed my eyes with my palms. “In case we’re being followed.”

“Where do you want to go?” our driver said.

“Let’s just drive for a while,” Jonathan said.

So our driver took us down to the Corniche that follows the curve of the Mediterranean. He never did ask what happened. Or, if he did, I don’t remember him asking. I kept turning around and checking behind us to make sure we weren’t being followed.

“Maybe we should go to the Phoenicia,” Jonathan said.

The Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel was one of the priciest in the city. Management installed a serious security regime at the door. This was the place where diplomats and senators stayed when they were in town. I doubted the guards would allow thugs from any organization into their lobby.

“He deserves a huge tip,” Jonathan said as our driver dropped us off.

“Yes,” I said. “He certainly does.”

The three of us relaxed near the Phoenicia’s front door for a few minutes. We would need to change cars but first had to ensure we hadn’t been followed.

“You’re bleeding,” Jonathan said and lightly touched Christo­pher’s elbow.

Christopher seemed unfazed by the sight of blood on his shirt.

“We need to get you cleaned up,” Jonathan said.

“I’m fine, I think,” Christopher said.

He seemed to be in pretty good spirits, all things considered.

“The SSNP,” I said, “is the last party you want to mess with in Lebanon. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you properly. This is partly my fault.”

“I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “But I would have done it anyway. One must take a stand. One simply must.”

Even after being forced out during the Beirut Spring of 2005, Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus still wielded some of its occupation instruments inside Lebanon. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party was one of those instruments, and it counted the regime as its friend and ally. The geographic “nationalism” of the SSNP differed from the racialist pan-Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Baath Party, but it conveniently meshed with al-Assad’s imperial for­eign policy in the Middle East. It logically followed, then, that the SSNP was also allied with Hezbollah.

The SSNP was first and foremost a Syrian proxy, and Hezbollah was first and foremost an Iranian proxy, but during the previous May when various militias invaded Beirut, the SSNP established itself simultaneously as a de facto Hezbollah proxy.

I still shudder to think what might have happened to Christo­pher, Jonathan, and me if we were Lebanese instead of British and American.

“If you were Lebanese,” said a longtime Beiruti friend, “you might have disappeared.”

The next morning I awoke to find more than a dozen e-mails in my inbox from friends, family, and acquaintances, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in a long time, asking me if I was okay.

None of us had written about the incident yet, so I wondered what on earth must have happened while I was asleep. Did another war just break out? Did another car bomb go off? I hadn’t heard any explosions or gunshots.

As it turned out, the incident on Hamra Street with the SSNP made the news on at least four continents, and possibly six.

Great, I thought. Now I’m the story. Christopher was the nearest thing the journalism world had to a celebrity, so pretty much every­thing he did was news.

Every single reporter without exception got the details wrong. In one version, we got in a bar fight. In another, we were attacked by foppish shoe shoppers. In almost every version, Christopher was drunk or had been drinking. Not one of the reporters who wrote up the story bothered to ask any of us who were actually there what had happened. Some even claimed they had “confirmed” this or that detail, but all they were doing was publishing rumors. It made me think, not for the first time, that first-person narrative journalism, whatever its faults, was far more reliable than the alternative.

Some of my politically connected Lebanese pals were furious when they heard what happened. One friend, whom I’ll just call Faisal so he won’t get into trouble, said it was time to retaliate.

“They attacked guests in our country,” he said as his blood pres­sure rose, “and they can’t get away with it.”

I appreciated that my friends were looking out for me, but I felt distinctly uneasy about where he was going with this. A retaliation could easily end badly and might even escalate. Still, I couldn’t dis­suade him, and he called his bosses and asked for a posse.

Party leaders turned him down, which disappointed him but relieved me. And it occurred to me later that what Faisal had in mind was likely much more serious than tit-for-tat payback.

“What, exactly, did Faisal mean by retaliate?” I asked a mutual Lebanese friend.

“He wanted to shoot them, of course,” she said.

He wanted to shoot them!

I later sat down with Christopher over coffee in the hotel lobby and asked him to reflect on the recent unpleasantness.

“When I told you that I should have warned you,” I said, “that I take partial responsibility, you said. . .”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said. “Thank you, though, for giving me a protective arm. I think a swastika poster is partly fair game and partly an obligation. You don’t really have the right to leave one alone. I haven’t seen that particular symbol since I saw the Syrianization of Lebanon in the 1970s. And actually, the first time I saw it, I didn’t quite believe it.”

“You saw it when you were here before?” I said.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “But it was more toward the Green Line. I did not expect to see it so flagrantly on Hamra. Anyway, call me old-fashioned if you will, but my line is that swastika posters are to be defaced or torn down. I mean, what other choice do you have? I’d like to think I’d have done that if I had known it was being guarded by people who are swastika fanciers. I have done that in my time. I have had fights with people who think that way. But I was surprised first by how violent and immediate their response was, and second by how passive and supine was the response of the police.”

The men of the SSNP had to use force to maintain a hold in West Beirut. Many of its members were Orthodox Christians, as was its founder Antun Saadeh, while most West Beirutis were Sunni Muslims. They would hardly be any less welcome in Tel Aviv. If its enforcers didn’t jump Christopher in the street, their commemorative sign would not have lasted.

“But I was impressed,” Christopher said, “with the response of the cafe girls.”

“What was their response?” I said. “I missed that.”

“Well,” he said, “when I was thrown to the ground and bleeding from my fingers and elbow, they came over and asked what on earth was going on. How can this be happening to a guest, to a stranger? I don’t remember if I was speaking English or French at that time. I said something like ‘merde fasciste,’ which I hope they didn’t misinterpret.”

I did not see the cafe girls. Or, if I did, I don’t remember them. Once the actual violence began, it was over and done with in seconds.

“By then,” Christopher said, “I had become convinced that you were right, that we should get the fuck out of there and not, as I had first thought, get the hotel security between them and us. I thought no, no, let’s not do that. We don’t want them to know where we are. The harassment might not stop. There was a very gaunt look in the eye of the young man, the first one. And there was a very mad, sadistic, deranged look in the eyes of his auxiliaries. I wish I’d had a screwdriver.”

“You know these guys are widely suspected of setting off most or all of the car bombs,” I said.

“They weren’t ready for that then,” he said.

“They weren’t,” I said, “but they’re dangerous.”

“Once you credit them like that,” he said, “you do all their work for them. They should have been worried about us. Let them worry. Let them wonder if we’re carrying a tool or if we have a crew. I’d like to go back, do it properly, deface the thing with red paint so there’s no swastika visible. You can’t have the main street, a shopping and commercial street, in a civilized city patrolled by intimidators who work for a Nazi organization. It is not humanly possible to live like that. One must not do that. There may be more important problems in Lebanon, but if people on Hamra don’t dare criticize the SSNP, well fuck. That’s occupation.”

“It is,” I said, “in a way. They have a state behind them. They aren’t just a street gang; they’re a street gang with a state.”

“Yes,” Christopher said. “They’re the worst. And also a Greek Orthodox repressed homosexual wankers organization, I think.”

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party spokesman denied the attack ever took place. He lied.

Postscript: My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.

You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

New Book Release

My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.

Here’s the description from the back of the book.

Prize-winning author and award-winning foreign correspondent Michael J. Totten returns with a riveting tour of some of the worst places on earth in the early 21st century.

From crumbling Havana, Cuba—still stubbornly communist decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall—to a comparatively upscale Hanoi, Vietnam, still struggling to free itself from Chinese-style authoritarian rule.

From a nightmarish Libya under the deranged Moammar Qaddafi, to an exhausted, polarized and increasingly fanatical Egypt before the Arab Spring finally ripped the region to pieces.

From the Lebanese border during the devasting war between Israel and Hezbollah, to Iraq in the grips of an insurgency mounted by the murderous precursor to ISIS.

Partly a collection of Totten’s best previously published work, Dispatches includes plenty of new material from Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the dysfunctional quarters of Europe. He goes to rough places so you don’t have to, and his dispatches are by turns entertaining, harrowing and occasionally even hilarious despite the dark subject matter. Whether you're an established fan or discovering the author for the first time, this one is not to be missed.

“Totten…practices journalism in the tradition of Orwell: morally imaginative, partisan in the best sense of the word, and delivered in crackling, rapid-fire prose befitting the violent realities it depicts.” Sohrab Ahmari, Commentary

“It is extremely rare to read such an accurate account of anything to which one was oneself a witness.” – Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great

“One of America’s premier foreign correspondents.” – Damien Penny, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Of all the journalists now alive and writing in English, ther are few whose reporting interests me more than Michael Totten’s—in fact, none that I can think of offhand.” – Claire Berlinski, author of Menace in Europe

“Michael J. Totten is one of a rare breed. Moving from front to front, he brings experience and context and the willingness to go where few men dare.” – Michael Yon, author of Moment of Truth in Iraq

You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

Moscow on the Tigris

My latest long-form piece is in the Winter issue of the print edition of World Affairs, and it’s now available online.

Here’s the first part.

America is tired of being America, so Russia is being Russia again.

While an exhausted and burned out United States wishes international migraines like the Syrian civil war would just go away, Russia is energized by the prospect of filling the vacuum and thus once again playing a major role on the world stage. Aggressively intervening on behalf of his ally in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad, and projecting force well beyond even the frontier states in his“near abroad,” Vladimir Putin audaciously aims to change political outcomes in a region that has been out of his country’s sphere of influence for a generation.

The telegram to President Obama has arrived: “The Iranian-Syria-Hezbollah axis—by far the world’s most powerful terrorist nexus and the bane of American servicemen and policymakers for more than three decades—is now officially the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Details to follow.”


Syria became a Russian client state in 1966 when the Arab Socialist Baath Party seized power in a coup d’état, overthrowing the relatively moderate Aflaqites and establishing a far more brutal regime influenced heavily by Marxism-Leninism.

The relationship atrophied, of course, after the Soviet Union collapsed. For a long time, Moscow could barely hold its own country together, and Syria found its international support from the Islamic Republic of Iran and its terrorist army in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

But Russia is back on its feet again, Assad needs some help, and four and a half years into the Syrian civil war, it’s obvious that the United States is largely uninterested in any serious attempt to resolve the conflict one way or another. Russia can do whatever it wants.

So in early September, Moscow began shipping military personnel and tons of matériel, including battle tanks and mobile artillery pieces, on huge Antonov-124 Condor flights into the Bassel al-Assad International Airport outside the Mediterranean city of Latakia.

According to at least one American defense official, as of September 14th—two weeks before the intervention officially began—Russia’s deployment was already the largest since the Soviet days. In late September, Moscow began launching airstrikes against the smorgasbord of Syrian rebels fighting the government in and around the cities of Homs and Hama, well outside territory held by ISIS, supposedly the target of the intervention. And by early October, Russia was launching cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and coordinating its attacks with Hezbollah.

Putin offered the prospect of a coalition against terror. But while the US and Russia agreed to a memorandum of understanding to avoid accidentally shooting each other out of the skies over Syria, Washington and Moscow otherwise aren’t cooperating.

“We’re not able at this time to associate ourselves more broadly with Russia’s approach in Syria because it is wrongheaded and strategically shortsighted,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said. “It attempts to fight extremism while not also at the same time working to promote the political transition” away from Assad.

Putin doesn’t care about Assad personally. Assad visited Moscow in late October for a meeting that according to all reports was as frosty as the temperature outside. Putin only cares about the Baath regime, its institutions, and its armed forces. It makes no difference to him which personality sits at the top of that structure. If some military commander were to shove Assad aside and rule like General Sisi in Egypt, Russia wouldn’t even blink.

The US is right to oppose both ISIS and the Assad regime. Syria’s government has sponsored terrorism not only against every single one of its neighbors, but also against the United States in Iraq. But let’s be honest: There will be no nonviolent political transition in Syria. The regime is overwhelmingly dominated by members of the non-Muslim Alawite minority, who will never negotiate with jihadists who want to impale them as infidels, nor with the ragtag “democratic forces” (now largely driven by Kurdish fighters) theoretically backed by the US.

Whatever is left of the moderate Sunni Muslim community would probably go along with a smooth transition of some sort, as long as it’s genuine. It’s what they wanted at the very beginning before the nonviolent protest movement escalated to war. But the regime wouldn’t be negotiating with passive moderates who have fled the country or are hiding under their beds. If there were negotiations, they would have to be with the men who have guns, almost all of whom at this point are battle-hardened extremists.

A proper transition to an inclusive and even quasi-civilized government in Damascus would first require the destruction of both the regime and the extremists, and right now no one is making any attempt to bring that about.

Fighting an insurgency with airstrikes, artillery, and cruise missiles is for losers. The US has been pinpricking ISIS from the skies for more than a year now with little to show for it. The Israelis thought they could beat Hezbollah from the air in 2006 and failed even more spectacularly.

Want to fight an effective counterinsurgency? Call General David Petraeus. He pulled it off smashingly in Iraq, but it required billions upon billions of dollars, tens of thousands of ground troops, substantial support from the local population, and years of determined effort and battlefield casualties.

And his gains evaporated almost instantly after he and his fellow soldiers went home.

Vladimir Putin is not going to call David Petraeus. At least for now, he’s only interested in a low-risk, low-budget intervention. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Moscow Times newspaper, Russia’s Syrian campaign is costing $4 million a day. That’s just $1.5 billion a year. Which sounds like a lot until you consider that the United States spent roughly $1.4 trillion in Iraq—a thousand times as much.

Will Russia be able to pacify an entire country while spending just a fraction of a percent as much as the US spent to pacify Iraq only temporarily? Probably not.

But no matter. Putin has three goals in Syria, and none of them involve permanent pacification.

First and most immediately he wants to prop up Russia’s sole ally in the Arab world.

The second goal is announcing that he wants America’s job as the world’s superpower now that we’re sick of it.

Putin wants America’s job because, why not? Russia is not Belgium, and it is not Canada. It was one of only two superpowers until the Soviet Union imploded under the weight of its own belligerent imbecility, and it has been wallowing in a post-imperial funk—“malaise” in Jimmy Carter’s lexicon—ever since.

It could theoretically regain some of its lost power as the West’s partner, but being one of many is not how Russia rolls. Whenever Washington makes a friendly overture to Moscow, Russians interpret it the way Luke Skywalker heard Darth Vader say, between bouts of heavy mechanical breathing, “Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”

Because he’s instinctively paranoid, as well as filled with ressentiment for what happened to his country after 1989, Putin does not trust the West, not even remotely. He is sure that NATO is coming to get him.

It sounds nuts from our point of view, and it is, but look at it Putin’s way. When he was still a lieutenant colonel in the KGB’s Directorate S, Europe was more or less evenly divided between NATO in the west and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in the east. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and NATO gobbled up just about everything in the old Communist bloc except Serbia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Imagine how it would look from the West’s point of view if the Warsaw Pact rolled westward in the 1990s and swallowed up everything except Britain, Ireland, and the Netherlands. Would we believe Russia if it said he wasn’t coming to get us?

Nope. And we’d be right not to.

Putin is projecting his own ideas and values onto us. He’s asking himself what he’d do in our place, and doing it.

His third reason for intervening in Syria is because it’s good for him personally. During the Communist era, many Russians took pride in the fact that their nation was powerful even though it was poor. Putin can’t raise Russian living standards to Western levels, but he can revive some of the motherland’s former glory, and he can do it without the slave labor camps. The man is no Joseph Stalin. Secretary of State John Kerry was right to compare Putin to a 19th-century czar born two centuries late. His ratings are far better than those of any Romanov: Shortly before Halloween, less than a month into his Syrian bombing campaign, Putin’s approval ratings in Russia exceeded 90 percent.


What is the US take after Russia’s intervention? Shortly after it began, President Obama told 60 Minutes that it was a “sign of weakness.” He bristled when interviewer Steve Kroft insisted Putin was challenging American leadership. “If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in,” he said, “in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.”

But like it or not, Putin is taking the lead in Syria. He’s the chief power broker. Everything has to go through him.

Sure, he might fail. (He’s plunging headfirst into the Middle East, after all.) And he may well run Russia’s economy into the ground before he’s finished, but since he’s doing the whole thing on the cheap, on a lousy $4 million a day, he probably won’t.

A weak nation couldn’t even consider doing what he’s doing. Only strong nations can project hard power beyond their own borders. Belgium can’t do it. Canada and Mexico can’t do it. None of the Arab states can do it.

Aside from running guns and money to various proxy militias, the Arab states can’t do anything about Syria, even the ones right there on Syria’s borders. Lebanon and Iraq can’t even handle the militias in their own countries let alone in somebody else’s, which is why they’ve spent the last four and a half years wringing their hands on the sidelines of the Syrian catastrophe and asking for American help.

But America isn’t interested, so Russia is “helping” instead. And the Obama administration is responding by carping at itself.

“We’re just so reactive,” one current official complained to Politico anonymously. “There’s just this tendency to wait.” Another one said of the Pentagon: “They’re on their back feet. It’s not like we can’t exert pressure on these guys, but we act like we’re totally impotent.”

Feeling a little defensive, US Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney told a stunned audience of Syrian-Americans that the “Russians wouldn’t have to help Assad if we didn’t weaken him.”

“He should be on Saturday Night Live,” Republican Senator John McCain told the Daily Beast in response. “I strongly recommend it. I guess if Russia takes all of Syria and Iraq, then that shows they’re really weak. It’s ridiculous. . . just delusional.”

The administration has had trouble with Russia right from the start, beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s much lampooned “reset” with Moscow, which seemed to treat Putin’s intransigence as a hangover from the Bush administration.

The “reset” obviously failed. Badly. Putin is who he is. George W. Bush didn’t make him that way. The Soviet Union and the KGB made him that way. Any viable “reset” would have to come from the Russian side. The idea that Putin would play well with others if we simply acted nice and smiley was as delusional as calling Assad a reformer.

The problem begins at the top. In January of 2014, Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick that he didn’t need a grand new strategy, adding that where Russia was concerned he didn’t “really even need George Kennan right now.”

But with Putin in the Kremlin, Kennan is exactly who the United States needs. As a US diplomat (later ambassador) in Moscow during the Truman administration, Kennan first advocated the policy of “containment,” writing that the Soviet Union should be “contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may have been wrong in 2012 when he said Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe. Given the fact that ISIS didn’t exist at the time, Iran would have fit the bill better. Never mind, though. In hindsight it’s clear that Obama was a little too dismissive when he said, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”

Yes, the Cold War is over, and yes, Putin is spectacularly unlikely to ever attack the American homeland or any of America’s allies in NATO or elsewhere. But it’s obvious—isn’t it?—that Russia is brazenly expanding its role in the world, and that it’s doing so at America’s expense.

Read the whole thing.


No, Iran is Not a Democracy

Vox magazine just published a video on YouTube narrated by Max Fisher that supposedly explains how the next Iranian election could make history.

He starts by saying that Iran is confusing because it has “an unelected Supreme Leader at the top” and a president who is chosen in “far from perfect” elections. “So is Iran a dictatorship, or is it a democracy?” he asks before answering, “as it turns out, it’s both.”

No, it’s not. Max Fisher answered the question correctly before he answered it.

The head of state isn’t elected.

And his description of the elections as “far from perfect” is the kind of condescending euphemism that’s only ever used to describe somebody else’s problems.

Let’s leave aside the blatant vote-stealing in Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in districts that opposed him as overwhelmingly as San Francisco opposes Dick Cheney. Nevermind that disgraceful episode.

Elections in Iran are rigged even when they aren’t rigged.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hand-picks everybody who runs for president. Moderates are rejected routinely. Only the less-moderate of the moderates—the ones who won’t give Khamenei excessive heartburn if they win—are allowed to run at all. Liberal and leftist candidates are rejected categorically.

Imagine Dick Cheney as the overlord of America allowing us to choose which one of his friends will be in the co-pilot’s seat. That’s not democracy. That’s not even a fake democracy.

The Iranian system is worse, though. The president isn’t even the co-pilot.

He’s not quite a figurehead. He can tinker with a few things around the edges. But the country is run by the unelected Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is officially designated as a terrorist organization.

Fisher thinks the upcoming election may be a game-changer, though, because the so-called Assembly of Experts is an elected body, it will choose the next Supreme Leader, and the current Supreme Leader acknowledges that he’s likely to die soon. Therefore, if “moderates” win the election, the next Supreme Leader will almost certainly be a moderate.

That would be great. Really, it would. I’d pop a champagne cork. Iran would still be a dictatorship/democracy hybrid in Fisher’s formulation, but at least it would be a less extreme one. It could be like post-Maoist China, perhaps, or post-Soviet Russia. Unfree, but no longer totalitarian. It would be progress. No doubt about it.

But “moderates” in the Iranian regime aren’t moderate by any objective international definition. Everyone who gets to run in the election for the Assembly of Expert will be hand-picked by the Supreme Leader. And every single one of them will be an Islamic theologian. That’s what the Assembly of Experts is. A theocratic institution of Islamic theologians.

None of the “experts” are atheists. None of them are secularists. None of them are agnostic. None of them are liberals under any conceivable definition of the word liberal. Certainly none of them are Christians, Jews or Baha’is. They’re all Islamic theologians or they wouldn’t even be in the Assembly of Experts.

So let’s run another thought experiment here. Let’s say Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson is the dictator-for-life in America. He’s more powerful than the White House. We get to vote for the president even though he isn’t our head of state, but Pat Robertson decides all by himself who’s on the ballot. And he chooses Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. Those are our options.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio is unemployed, Hillary Clinton is under house arrest and Bernie Sanders is languishing in an orange jumpsuit at the Camp X-ray prison in Guantanamo Bay. Liberal activists who complain in the streets vanish into dungeons forever.

Meanwhile, Pat Robertson is going to die soon, so he hand-picks hundreds of Evangelical Christians that we get to vote for or against. The winner will choose who replaces him.

Does that sound even remotely like a democracy? Like a system that has authoritarian elements alongside democratic elements?

Not to me, it doesn’t. And I’d bet my bottom dollar that Max Fisher wouldn’t think so either if he had to live in such a distorted version of America. He’d call it fascist, or something similar, and he would be right.

Vox uploaded the video to Facebook as well as to YouTube, and the comments are overwhelmingly hostile. Huge numbers of Iranian grownups are chiming in and schooling the Vox kids. It's fascinating and educational—hopefully for Max Fisher as well as the rest of us. 

Hezbollah Devours Lebanon

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared victory last week in Lebanon.

He has made plenty of empty bombastic victory boasts in the past, most notoriously after the Israelis served his own ass to him on a kabob skewer during the 2006 war, but this time, thanks to the now-unchecked rise of Iranian power, Hezbollah really is winning.

“Iran can do anything it wants in Lebanon without any political opposition or challenges,” Hanin Ghaddar writes in NOW Lebanon. “And now Iran can focus to win what it needs in Syria, while everyone is busy making business deals with the ‘new Iran.’ Lebanon, on the other hand, is going to pay a very high price for all these deals and compromises, more so as Iran, Russia and the Assad regime are scoring more gains in Syria.”

Before Osama bin Laden destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001, Hezbollah killed more Americans than any other terrorist organization in the world. Its killing spree began, not long after the Iranian hostage crisis, in 1983 with the destruction of the US Embassy in Beirut and the Marine barracks near the international airport with suicide truck bombers.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps created Hezbollah from scratch during the chaos of Lebanon’s civil war in 1982, and the so-called Party of God has been the most successful export of the Iranian revolution ever since. Hezbollah is, in effect, the Lebanese branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. It answers to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei and their flags are almost identical.

Iran spent roughly 100 million dollars a year on Hezbollah before the war in Syria started. Now that the nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran is going into effect, the Iranian government has 100 billion dollars worth of previously frozen assets to play with. That’s a thousand times as much as its baseline Hezbollah budget.

And that 100 billion only includes previously frozen assets the United States returned a little more than a week ago. It doesn’t take into account all the additional wealth the Iranian government will be able to produce now that the sanctions are gone.

Hezbollah is already the most advanced terrorist army in the world. ISIS is larger and holds more territory at the moment, but ISIS doesn’t have a terrifying arsenal of missiles that can turn an entire nation into a kill zone. Hezbollah does. And if the Iranian regime decides to pull out all the stops, there’s no telling how much of a menace Hezbollah could become in the future.

The Syrian and Iranian governments have never stopped backing these guys to the hilt, and Hezbollah is repaying the favor by fighting in Syria on behalf of its beleaguered co-patron Bashar al-Assad, who is supported now not only by Iran but also by Russia.

So Hezbollah is part of an extremely powerful geopolitical bloc while leaders of Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah “March 14” coalition have seen every single one of their friends shrug and say, you’re on your own.

Lebanon has been politically deadlocked and without a president for almost two years now, but the anti-Hezbollah coalition can’t hold the line anymore. They’ve completely surrendered. In late January, two of March 14’s most prominent leaders finally threw in the towel and nominated pro-Assad and pro-Hezbollah figures to fill the vacancy.

Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces—a former Christian militia that was allied with Israel during the 1975-1990 civil war—made amends of sorts with his old nemesis, Michel Aoun, who has been angling for the presidency and backed by Assad and Hezbollah for a little more than a decade.

At the same time, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri whom the Syrians and Hezbollah assassinated with a truck bomb in 2005, nominated Marada movement leader Suleiman Franjieh for the presidency. Franjieh, like his father and grandfather before him, is so close to the House of Assad he may as well be a blood relative. He spent his teenage years in Syria as the protégé of Bassel al-Assad.

“Within March 14,” Hezbollah leader Nasrallah said last week and smiled, “one essential member supports Aoun, while another essential member supports Franjieh. Is this a loss for us, or a gain?”

Hariri and Geagea aren’t throwing their support behind their old foes because they suddenly think Assad, Hezbollah, the Iranian regime and Vladimir Putin are awesome. They don’t have much of a choice. The West doesn’t have their back anymore, so what else are they supposed to do? They can’t possibly take on the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah-Russian axis all by themselves. They tried for a while and got nowhere, and it’s finally over.

The US government saw this coming, of course, even while trying to downplay it, so Congress struck preemptively with the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, which will impose sanctions on any foreign banks that do business with Hezbollah.

Iran can do business with Hezbollah without using banks, of course, first and foremost by continuing to transfer an unlimited amount of sophisticated weapons as it has been doing all along anyway. Even if Iran were to use the international banking system, you can bet your bottom dollar that the US will pretend it’s not happening, at least for a while, to prevent the painstakingly negotiated nuclear deal from unraveling.

Lebanon may not be the most crucial country according to narrowly defined American interests, but like Tunisia, it’s one of the few Arab countries that has had a real shot at building something resembling a democratic system during the last couple of years. Lebanon is divided against itself, though, as it always has been, and Syria and Iran are aggressively and even violently backing the anti-Western and anti-democratic side. With no one supporting Lebanon’s pro-Western and pro-democratic side, there was ever only one possible outcome.

The West’s current mood of conflict avoidance is perfectly understandable, and it’s all-too human, but it’s no more effective than conflict avoidance in interpersonal relationships. The problem is not being resolved. It’s left to fester and worsen instead.

Weak states like Qatar have no choice but to engage in perennial conflict avoidance, but since ancient times Foreign Policy 101 has demanded that great powers reward their friends and punish their enemies. Leaders who cleverly attempt to defy gravity will deserve everything they’re going to get.

Iran Gets its Blackmail Money

The Iranian sanctions are over. The United States has now officially returned 100 billion dollars in frozen assets to the Iranian government as required by last year’s nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington.

“These assets…have fully been released and we can use them,” said government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht.

If you’re negotiating a deal with a hostile party, it behooves you to ask who’s having who for breakfast.

The United States, as the world’s sole remaining superpower, should have had the Iranian rulers for breakfast. We should have eaten their lunch, too, while we were at it, but nope. Iran gets 100 billion dollars and we get…nothing.

Oh, sure, we get “promises” from the Iranian government that it won’t build nuclear weapons, and inspectors get limited access to old nuclear facilities, but even if Iran never cheats and never builds a bomb, the best we can say is that we paid Iran off so it wouldn’t do something horrible.

The word for that is blackmail. Blackmail is a crime for a reason—because the blackmailed person or party gets robbed.

A good deal with Iran would have required the government—at minimum—to cease and desist all funding of international terrorist organizations. Instead, this deal enables the regime to dramatically increase its support for international terrorist organizations.

But okay, let’s be super optimistic here and assume Iran will use 99 percent of its treasure chest for peaceful purposes and economic development. Only one percent goes to terrorists.

Iran’s baseline funding for Hezbollah, its most powerful terrorist proxy in Lebanon and Syria, is at most 200 million dollars a year. If it earmarks just one percent of its 100 billion dollars to Hezbollah—just one billion dollars—that would boost Hezbollah’s cash infusion by a factor of five.

If Iran earmarks ten percent of its treasure chest to terrorism, it could send fifty times as much money and weapons to Hezbollah or its other murderous playthings as it has in the past.

Let me say that again. If Iran uses 90 percent of its releases assets peacefully, it could still spend fifty times as much money on terrorism as it used to.

A lot of people were worried about this, not just in the United States, but also in Israel, the Arab world and even in Europe. Secretary of State John Kerry tried to downplay it.

“Sanctions relief will pour lots of money into Iran,” James Robbins said to him during an interview with the BBC last summer. “There must be a considerable risk they’ll spend at least some of that money supporting extremist terrorist groups who they’ve supported in the past.”

“What Iran has done for years with Hizballah does not depend on money,” Kerry said.

Let’s stop right there for a second. Can any serious person actually believe that? Iran isn’t giving Hezbollah moral support the way, say, the United States used to give moral support to Cubans languishing under the Castro regime. No. Iran gives Hezbollah sophisticated weapons and money. Obviously that depends on Iran having money. There is no way around this. Kerry would be right if Iran simply grandstanded impotently on the sidelines, but Iran not only supports Hezbollah, it created Hezbollah with money, weapons and training. All of which costs money.

“What Iran is doing,” Kerry continued, “and by the way, they’re fighting ISIL and helping Iraq in many ways, but that has not depended on money. So sure, something may go additionally somewhere. But if President Rouhani and his administration do not take care of the people of Iran, they will have an enormous problem.”

Fighting ISIS costs money. “Helping” Iraq with Shia militias costs extraordinary amounts of money.

It’s true, of course, that the Iranian government will have an enormous problem if no money goes into the Iranian economy. But Iran could pour 90 percent of its sanctions relief into the Iranian economy and still have an amount left over that’s 50 times greater than the baseline Hezbollah budget. The government is not facing an either-or proposition here. Not even close. It’s easy to do lots of different things if you suddenly find yourself 100 billion dollars richer.

John Kerry is more honest about this today. He might as well be. The deal is done. No point obfuscating the obvious anymore.

“I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] or other entities,” he said during a recent interview in Davos, Switzerland, “some of which are labeled terrorists. You know, to some degree, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that every component of that can be prevented.”

The United States won’t be able to prevent any “component of that,” as Kerry put it, not even by breaking the deal and reimposing sanctions all over again, because Iran already has its assets back.

One could make the case that this is nevertheless an improvement over the status quo ante, that it’s better to have a powerful terrorist-supporting Iran than an Iran with nuclear weapons, and it’s better than the cost of a huge war to cripple of remove the Iranian government.  

And maybe that’s true. But where does that leave us?

The Iranian government has been a malignant force since the day it seized power in 1979. It has taken diplomats hostage, destabilized one neighboring state after another—beginning with Lebanon, then moving to Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen—and created terrorist armies that have killed Americans, Israelis, Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians and—yes—even Argentines.

The Iranian government has done all this without nuclear weapons. The only reason it wasn’t able to wreak even more havoc is because it was crippled by sanctions.

That’s over now. 

Even if this nuclear deal “works,” if Iran never develops nuclear weapons, the Iranian government will be able to a far more destructive role in the Middle East than it ever has in the past. And it’s already by far the most troublesome.

“Right now,” Kerry said, trying to make everyone feel better, “we are not seeing the early delivery of funds going to that kind of endeavor at this point in time.”

Of course not. Iran is only just now getting the 100 billion. Iran hadn’t even received it yet when he said that. We can’t track every dollar it spends anyway, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we could. The Iranian government can allocate funds however it wants. It doesn’t matter if Iran uses the 100 billion in sanctions relief to fund terrorism directly or indirectly. Iran is going to do it one way or another.

It’s not even controversial anymore. Kerry himself says it’s going to happen.

“If we catch them funding terrorism,” he said, “they are going to have a problem with the United States Congress and other people, obviously.”

Why should we have to catch them? We already know it’s going to happen. Iran has been funding terrorism for decades. Iran hasn’t stopped funding terrorism for even five seconds since the day it started.

We can safely assume that since Iran funded terrorism yesterday, and that since the sun came up this morning, Iran is still funding terrorism today. And unless the government is overthrown before midnight tonight, it’s safe to assume that Iran will continue funding terrorism tomorrow.

Iran’s rulers haven’t even pretended to stop, so let’s just cut through the b.s. and assume we’ve already “caught” them so we can figure out what we’re going to do about it.

Life on the Bottom

(Photo by Eric Pouhier)

A few months I spent a month researching and writing about a problem much closer to home than usual—chronic long-term homelessness in America. For a variety of reasons, my hometown of Portland, Oregon, like other cities on the West Coast has a bigger homelessness problem than most of the country.  

I wrote a long feature essay about it for City Journal, which is available now in the Winter issue, though the piece isn’t online yet. The LA Times adapted a shorter version of the essay and published it on the op-ed page.

Here’s the first part:

My hometown, Portland, Ore., has a serious homelessness problem. Portland is often called the City of Bridges — more than a dozen cross the Willamette and Columbia rivers — and beneath almost all, at one time or another, one sees miserable-looking camps constructed of tents, plastic tarps, and shopping carts. It's impossible to avoid running into homeless people downtown, where ragged people sleep on park benches and in doorways.

Some activists believe there's an easy solution: All the city needs to do is fund social services generously enough to treat the root causes — such as addiction and mental illness, get the homeless some job training and move them into affordable housing. But what if a significant portion of Portland's homeless people won't accept that kind of assistance? One local charity, Union Gospel Mission, offers a program that includes addiction treatment, counseling, work therapy and free room and board for up to two years, but it recently had 10 spaces available that nobody wanted.

“They don't want to stop using drugs,” explains Doug, a formerly homeless young man in the program who will be soon starting college and majoring in psychology. “It's hard for some of them to deal with other people and structure.”

“What they want is to live the way they've been living, only inside and for free,” says David Willis, the program's homeless services director. “Most of them don't want to change.”

If this argument is right, then Portland should strive to mitigate, rather than eradicate its homelessness problem; and it may have inadvertently hit upon an ingenious way to do just that.

Back in 2000, a group of homeless people, tired of getting rousted from doorways downtown, pushed their shopping carts together under a bridge, pitched some tents and called the place home. The city chased them from that spot, so they moved to another bridge and got tossed out again. Realizing that these people weren't going away, the city finally relented and allowed them to pitch their tents on a city-owned lot near a drainage canal — across from the Columbia River Correctional Institution, a state-run prison, and on the other side of the fence from Portland International Airport. From Portland officials' point of view, the location was perfect. They wouldn't hear complaints from the neighbors because there weren't any neighbors.

The homeless campers dubbed their site Dignity Village, with the motto, “Out of the Doorways.”

When I drove out to visit, I expected Dignity Village to look like a cross between a refugee camp and a slum — but it doesn't. After the residents found themselves with a permanent location, they upgraded their accommodations by scrounging together as much money as they could — from donations and panhandling to odd jobs and recycling bottles and cans — to purchase cast-off and recycled materials for the construction of what Portlanders call “tiny houses.” Although the houses aren't fancy, many sport some style — Victorian spindles and moldings on the front porches, properly pitched roofs, decorative paint jobs, and climbing ivy growing up the exterior walls.

Read the rest in the LA Times.


Iran’s Hostage Victory

During Sunday’s Democratic primary debate, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that it’s time to bring Iran in from the cold. “I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran,” he said.

If Iran had a representative government, if it wasn’t ruled by Ayatollah Khamenei, his dark theocratic Guardian Council and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the United States and Iran would restore normal relations almost as a matter of course.

Iran would, in all likelihood, take its proper place as one of America’s premier allies in the Middle East alongside the Kurds and the Israelis. The extreme and often fantastical anti-Americanism so endemic in the Arab world is far weaker among the Persians, Azeris and Kurds who make up the Iranian nation.

Iran right now is like Poland under the Warsaw Pact—a would-be friendly nation occupied and ruled by a hostile regime. Good and proper relations will have to wait until the government is overthrown or reformed out of all recognition like Vietnam's current communist-in-name-only government.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton takes a harder line than Sanders, naturally. “We’ve had one good day over 36 years, and I think we need more good days before we move more rapidly toward any kind of normalization.”

She was referring to the release of three American citizens—journalist Jason Rezaian, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini and former Marine Amir Hekmati—whom the Iranians held hostage until a couple of days ago.

It’s not at all clear that their release counts as a good day. It’s terrific for the freed prisoners, obviously, and it’s almost as terrific for their friends, family and colleagues, but the ransom was insanely steep.

First the United States had to release seven Iranian criminals who were convicted of sanctions violations in a properly functioning judicial system. Second, Washington had to scrub the names of 14 Iranians from an Interpol watch list. And third, the United States is kicking 100 billion dollars in frozen assets back to the Iranian government.

A fair swap would have been three innocent prisoners for three innocent prisoners, but the United States doesn’t randomly grab foreign nationals off the streets to use as bargaining chips, so that was never an option.

If the Iranian government had released innocent people because they’re innocent like it’s supposed to—then we could say we had a good day. But that’s not what happened. That’s not even close to what happened.

It could have been worse, though. Secretary of State John Kerry said he thought he’d secured these peoples’ release months ago, but the deal fell apart because the Iranian government wanted the United States to release convicted murderers.

That demand shouldn’t surprise anyone. Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah convinced the Israelis to release convicted murderers like the notorious Samir Kuntar in exchange for  the bodies of kidnapped soldiers who weren’t even alive anymore, who had in fact been mutilated by Hezbollah.

That’s how Iran and its proxies roll, but the US doesn’t cave like the Israelis.

And at least the US got something out of the deal. At least our people are still among the living when they come home. Jason Rezaian is one of my colleagues. I don’t know him personally, but it will be good to have him back all the same. He holds dual Iranian-American citizenship, but he was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and was the Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post when the Iranians grabbed him 18 months ago on trumped up espionage charges.

It was instantly obvious to almost everybody that he wasn’t snatched because he’s some kind of a spy. He was simply the latest hostage taken by the government that made a name for itself on the world stage by taking hostages. No doubt he’ll write some very interesting articles, and perhaps even a book, when he gets settled in and recovers.

Anthony Bourdain interviewed him in Tehran shortly before he and his wife were dispatched to Evin Prison. (She was later released.)

“I miss certain things about home,” he said. “I miss my buddies. I miss burritos.” He laughed and added, “I miss having certain beverages with my buddies and burritos in certain types of establishments.”

He missed booze and bars, in other words, both of which have been banned in Iran since the 1979 revolution. (Contrary to popular belief, Iran is one of only a small minority of Muslim countries that actually ban alcohol.)

“I love (Iran) and I hate it, but it’s home,” he said. “It’s become home.”

It’s not home for him anymore. That’s for damn sure. He’s on his way back to his real home in America where he was born.

Iran committed three criminal acts against American citizens and paid no price. We put kidnappers in prison for a very long time in this country, but the Iranian government was rewarded.

What’s to stop that government from doing it again?


Why should the Iranian government stop? Kidnapping and ransoming hostages works. And the regime is already gearing up to do it again.

In October of last year they grabbed Siamak Namazi, one of the founders of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). He’s still being held hostage despite the prisoner swap.

NIAC lobbied hard for the nuclear deal signed earlier by Washington and Tehran. Its principle founder and president Trita Parsi has been fighting even longer—since 1997—to have sanctions against Iran lifted.

One of those guys is Iran’s current hostage. Not some CIA spook. Not a wannabe revolutionary. Not even a crusading journalist. No. The regime’s current hostage is a man who worked for years to normalize relations with Iran.

Bernie Sanders wants to pick up where Namazi left off. He’ll fare no better.

North Africa Exports Rape Culture to Germany

Last week, roughly 200 women in Cologne, Germany, reported that they were sexually assaulted on New Year’s Eve in a public square by a mob of more than a thousand Arab men.

That number exploded this week. More than 600 women now claim they were assaulted, molested, robbed and even raped, and reports are coming in not only from Cologne but also from elsewhere in Germany and even elsewhere in Europe.

Europeans and especially Germans are furious, of course, not only at the perps but also at German Chancellor Angela Merkel for accepting a million refugees from Syria. That’s a staggering number. It’s as if the United States had accepted four million refugees all in one go, which is roughly the population of my home state of Oregon.

At least the United States has a long history of successfully integrating immigrants, including Arab immigrants. According to data from Cornell University, two-thirds of American Muslims earn more than 50,000 dollars a year, and a fourth earn more than 100,000 dollars a year. That’s hardly the profile of a failed immigrant group.

Europe, though, has a much harder time with this sort of thing, and Germany is in an uproar. Protests are breaking out everywhere, with demonstrators yelling “deport them” and carrying signs that say “Rapefugees not welcome” in English.

The culprits are mostly Arabs, and Merkel’s refugee policy is predictably collapsing as a result, but the rapefest in Cologne was not imported from Syria. It mostly comes from North Africa.

Women have fewer rights in the Middle East and North Africa than anywhere else in the world with the single exception of Afghanistan, and they’re abused far more often over there than anywhere in the West, but they aren’t routinely assaulted by hundreds of men in unruly mobs all at once anywhere except Egypt.

Many years ago in Cairo I struck up a conversation with an Australian woman at a restaurant who was traveling around on break from her job at the Ministry of Defense.

“This is the absolute worst place for a woman to travel alone,” she said. “Men harass me constantly. They hiss, stare, and make kissy noises.”

I told her what one of my Syrian friends once said to my wife, that if she ever goes there she should carry a spare shoe in her purse. If any man gives her trouble and she whacks him with the bottom of the shoe, a mob will chase him down and kick his ass.

The Australian woman laughed. “Syria is wonderful, though. I mean, it’s much more oppressive than Egypt. But it’s also more modern. No man ever bothered me there. No men bothered me in Lebanon, either. I was surprised. Lebanese and Syrian men are more respectful even than European men.”

I can’t know from personal experience what it’s like to walk around as a woman in the Middle East or North Africa, but I’ve spent more than a decade of my life on and off in that part of the world and have had conversations with more than a thousand people, men and women alike. Women are unanimous here: Harassment in North Africa ranges from annoying to unspeakable while it’s virtually non-existent in Lebanon and Syria. I don’t know why. That’s just how it is.

“The worst part is that Egyptian men won’t back down when I tell them to leave me alone,” the Australian woman in Cairo added.

The Cologne police department says most of the offenders come from North Africa rather than Syria, which is exactly what we should expect.

“In a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights,” Mona Eltahawy writes in her book, Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution. “More than 80 percent of Egyptian women said they’d experienced sexual harassment, and more than 60 percent of men admitted to harassing women. A 2013 UN survey reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women experience street sexual harassment. Men grope and sexually assault us, and yet we are blamed for it because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong thing.”

Sexual assault in public is so pervasive in Egypt that the authorities ban men from some cars on the subway so women can get to work in the morning without being mauled.

Foreign women get it in Egypt, too, most infamously when CBS reporter Lara Logan was brutally assaulted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the night the Egyptian army removed Hosni Mubarak from power. An enormous mob surrounded her, stripped her naked, sexually assaulted her and damn near killed her.

“I didn't even know that they were beating me with flagpoles and sticks and things,” she later said in an interview on 60 Minutes. “Because the sexual assault was all I could feel, their hands raping me over and over and over again. They were trying to tear off chunks of my scalp…not trying to pull out my hair, holding big wads of it literally trying to tear my scalp off my skull.”

She thought they were going to kill her. They probably would have if she hadn’t been rescued by Egyptian women who themselves have suffered plenty at the rough hands of their neighbors.

The same thing happened to British journalist Natasha Smith the following year, and she wrote about it in excruciating detail on her blog.

In a split second, everything changed. Men had been groping me for a while, but suddenly, something shifted. I found myself being dragged from my male friend, groped all over, with increasing force and aggression. I screamed. I could see what was happening and I saw that I was powerless to stop it. I couldn’t believe I had got into this situation.

My friend did everything he could to hold onto me. But hundreds of men were dragging me away, kicking and screaming. I was pushed onto a small platform as the crowd surged, where I was hunched over, determined to protect my camera. But it was no use. My camera was snatched from my grasp. My rucksack was torn from my back – it was so crowded that I didn’t even feel it. The mob stumbled off the platform – I twisted my ankle.

Men began to rip off my clothes. I was stripped naked. Their insatiable appetite to hurt me heightened. These men, hundreds of them, had turned from humans to animals.

Hundreds of men pulled my limbs apart and threw me around. They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way. So many men. All I could see was leering faces, more and more faces sneering and jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions.

Germany has announced that it’s changing the law to make it far easier to swiftly deport migrant criminals. Most of those involved in Cologne are apparently not Syrian refugees, but they can still be sent back to wherever it is they come from if they are not citizens.

Those who are seeking asylum from Syria and think it’s okay to rape and molest women in Europe’s most generous host country may soon find themselves deported post-haste back to where they belong—to the war zone.

The Saudi-Iranian Eruption

Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties with Iran after a mob set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, stormed the compound and trashed its offices while Iranian security personnel stood aside.

This is hardly anything new. The Iranian government has been violently contemptuous of worldwide norms of diplomacy ever since it seized power in 1979. The Iranian hostage crisis, where Islamist revolutionaries held 52 foreign servicemen and women hostage at the American Embassy for 444 days, was just the beginning.

Four years later, Iran’s terrorist proxies in Lebanon used to a suicide truck bomb to destroy the American embassy in Beirut.

Ten years later they blew up the Israeli embassy in Argentina, also with a suicide truck bomb.

In 2012, Azerbaijan arrested 22 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah for plotting attacks on the American and Israeli embassies in Baku.

Like Iran, Azerbaijan is a Shia-majority nation, but unlike Iran, its government has normal and even warm relations with the United States and Israel. And like most of the world, Azerbaijanis understand and respect the sovereignty of foreign embassies. The Iranians don’t, so the Saudis are calling everyone home and giving the Iranians 48 hours to leave the country or else.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies since the 1979 revolution, but their hatred for each other is far older than either regime. It stretches all the way back to the time of the Persian Empire.

It’s slightly amazing that they’ve had diplomatic relations at all. They have more grievances against each other—some of them reasonable, others bigoted, sectarian and hysterical—than anyone outside the region could ever keep track of.

The Iranians didn’t torch and sack the Saudi embassy just because they woke up in the morning and felt like it, though. The Saudis kicked off the latest round when they executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Nimr lived in Saudi Arabia’s enormous Eastern Province. It’s where most of the oil fields are. It’s also—inconveniently for Riyadh—the one place where Shia Muslims make up the majority in an otherwise Sunni-dominated kingdom. Nimr had been calling for democratic elections and for the Shias to secede if their rights weren’t better respected.

He was right to complain. Saudi Arabia is the most backward and medieval society in the entire world outside ISIS- and Taliban-occupied territory. Tehran is like Amsterdam compared with Riyadh despite the Iranian government’s theocratic regulations and draconian enforcers.

During a series of protests in 2011 and 2012, Nimr called on Shia demonstrators to resist the Saudi government with words rather than violence. “The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of lead,” he said.

The Saudis called him a terrorist and cut off his head.

Unless the Saudi government knows something about him that the rest of us don’t, this is pretty outrageous.

The Iranians are almost right to be furious, but not quite. They’re furious for the wrong reasons. They’d be just as furious if the guy was really a terrorist. They’d be just as furious if he’d been dispatching squads of suicide bombers to Riyadh and Medina. The Iranian regime murdered its way into power and tortures and murders to keep itself in power. It doesn’t care about human rights any more than Kim Jong-un of North Korea. 

Tehran’s rulers are just bent out of shape because Nimr was a fellow Shia who could have been useful if the global Sunni-Shia war—which Iran does everything in its power to keep ablaze—were to engulf Saudi Arabia as it has just about everywhere else Sunnis and Shias live next to each other.

Which isn’t to say the Saudi rulers aren’t violating anyone’s human rights. Of course they are. They do so as a matter of course. Their absolute monarchy isn’t drastically different from the ISIS “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq except that Riyadh plays well with others diplomatically and pushes back hard against Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Saudis do so for entirely self-interested reasons, of course. They don’t care about human rights any more than the Iranians do. They’re the world biggest proponents of hardline Sunni fanaticism. The only reason they’re bothered by ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood is because ISIS and the Brotherhood threaten the Saudi royal family’s stranglehold on absolute power.

Americans can be excused for watching the Saudis and Iranians slug it out as if they were Hitler and Stalin beating the crap out of each other in Europe.

We have to stick with the Saudis, though, like it or not, the same way we stuck with the Soviet Union against the Nazis.

The Washington-Riyadh alliance is strictly transactional. We have common enemies and common economic interests, and that’s it. There is no warmth there, no real friendship, on either side. We rightly find the Saudis distasteful. They find us distasteful, too, because they’re a thousand years behind us. They’re a thousand years behind almost everyone in the world, including much of the Arab world.

But we have to stand by them—and not just because they have oil—because they don’t actively work against us like the Iranians do despite the negotiated nuclear “deal” between Tehran and Washington earlier this year.

So: good on the Saudis for kicking the Iranians out even though the Saudis instigated the recent unpleasantness with their usual appalling behavior.

Good Riddance to Child-Killer Samir Kuntar

The Israelis killed the infamous Lebanese terrorist and child-murderer Samir Kuntar and several other Hezbollah commanders with an air strike in Syria.

They are neither confirming nor denying that they carried out the attack, but it’s obvious that they did. No one else drops bombs from the skies on Hezbollah right now, and Kuntar committed one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in Israeli history.

On April 22, 1979, in the northern town of Nahariya, he killed policeman Eliyahu Shahar, civilian Danny Haran, and Haran's four year old daughter Einat by placing her head on a rock and smashing her skull with the butt of his rifle.

The Israelis convicted him of murder, but they released him in 2008 when Hezbollah agreed to return the bodies of captured Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

It was a bad trade.

When the bodies of Goldwasser and Regev were returned to Israel, former Chief Rabbi of the IDF Yisrael Weiss said, “If we thought the enemy was cruel to the living and the dead, we were surprised, when we opened the caskets, to discover just how cruel. And I’ll leave it at that.”

Shortly after Kuntar’s release, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as one of Hezbollah’s co-patrons, awarded him with the Syrian Order of Merit medal.

Just three months ago, in September of 2015, the United States government declared Kuntar a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224.

Perhaps letting Kuntar back into the wild seemed like a reasonable idea to Israelis at the time. Prison seemed to have changed him.

Israeli journalist Chen Kotes-Barr spent more than a year interviewing Kuntar in prison and getting to know him. I imagine she must have felt a little like Clarice Starling when she met Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs.

Lisa Goldman translated Kotes-Barr’s long story about Kuntar from Hebrew to English and published it on her blog. Here’s the first part:

For the first year, my conversations with Samir Kuntar were difficult. Our meetings, which began in February 2004, took place in the prison library – just the two of us, unaccompanied. Our conversations were open, and they lasted for hours. Samir spoke to me in Hebrew. He brought tea and biscuits, and he chain-smoked. Over the 29 years he spent in Israeli jails, I was the first and only Jewish Israeli woman he met and spoke with to face-to-face.

“I’m talking to you about reality,” Kuntar said, each time we met. “I am not trying to ingratiate myself with you.” As we slowly built up some kind of trust, we stopped talking about politics and turned to personal subjects – like prison life and his own life. “Don’t go with slogans and clichés,” he implored. “Just write the facts.” He showed me photographs of his family in Lebanon. He prepared a list of Hebrew-language books on the Arab-Israeli conflict for me.

I told him about my father, who survived Auschwitz, and about my 5 year-old son. Each time I wrap him in a towel after his bath, I told Kuntar, I think of Danny Haran and his daughter Einat. About the terror attack in Nahariya.

The girl’s death was a tragic incident, answered Kuntar. He insisted that he had not killed her. What does it matter, I told him, you shot at them. If you had not landed on the beach at Nahariya in your rubber dinghy, Einat Haran would still be alive. He never expressed any remorse.

I did not try to understand, to resolve or even to interpret. I just wanted to get to know the man. “I met the enemy,” Samir said, when I asked him how he would explain our meetings to his children. “I met the enemy and I saw that he has a face.”

Samir Kuntar’s Jewish enemy does indeed have a face, which is why Hezbollah and the Assad regime have done everything in their power to ensure that the people of Lebanon and Syria have no contact whatsoever with Israelis. It’s a bit harder to see people as a diabolical “other” after spending quality time with them.

Sending an email to Tel Aviv from Beirut or Damascus can land a person in prison. (I’ve done it hundreds of times myself, but I refuse to obey such a contemptible law, and anyway I’m not Syrian or Lebanese.) Even saying hello to an Israeli tourist on holiday in a third country like Cyprus or Greece is a crime.

Kuntar really did seem to change, and he seemed to change even before Kotes-Barr met him. Perhaps it was all a big put-on—he wouldn’t be the first person to pretend he had seen the errors of his ways in order to get out of prison—but either way he knew exactly how to tell the Israelis what they wanted to hear.

Ha’aretz interviewed him in 1995. “Theology enlists people to hate blindly,” he said, “both on the Israeli and the Arab side.

If instead of talking about the Promised Land you would find a way to introduce into the Palestinian education system – for which you are responsible – the horrors of the Holocaust, the history of Jew-hatred from the days of the Romans until the Nazi era, I have no doubt everything would be different. We never recognized Jewish suffering. We saw an entire people being thrown out, and a prosperous country thriving at its expense.


You have to accept Israel as a fact, in order to move on and not return to the cycle of losses. The message to the coming generations, especially the Palestinians, is that you have to include presenting the suffering of the Jewish people. Without this, it’s impossible to develop any empathy toward Jews.

He didn’t change, though. Or, if he did, he changed back and signed on with Hezbollah shortly after his release even though he isn’t even a Muslim. (He’s Druze.) Until the Israelis killed him this weekend, he was one of Hezbollah’s most formidable commanders and spokesmen in Syria.

He has been busy fighting Syrians lately rather than Jews. Perhaps one of these days, maybe—just maybe—the Arab world will realize that terrorists who kill Jews will turn right around and kill Arabs and that the Israelis are doing everybody a favor by zotting them from the skies.

Most Americans Now Support Using Ground Troops

The terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, earlier this month dramatically changed the American mood.

53 percent of Americans now think we should use ground troops against ISIS in Syria, Iraq or both.

I’ve been asked repeatedly over the last couple of years what I think might snap Americans out of the isolationist funk we’ve been wallowing in since the Iraq war and the economic downturn of 2008. I haven’t had the answer. I may be some kind of an “expert” on Middle Eastern affairs, but I don’t have a crystal ball that shows me the future of American politics.

I assumed a huge ISIS attack in the United States on the scale of 9/11 would change American public opinion. How could it not? Likewise, a series of smaller Paris-style attacks might do the job.

I never would have guessed that a single attack by two people who might not even have a direct connection to ISIS would swing the pendulum back to the hawkish side of the spectrum all by itself. 

Nothing has actually changed except the American mood. Using ground troops in Syria and Iraq is no better or worse an idea after San Bernardino that it was before.

The downsides are the same and at this point should be obvious. Lives will be lost, and some of them will be ours. American soldiers can’t fix what ails the Middle East. Sure, they can overthrow dictators. They can kill terrorists and push them out of territory.

But eliminating the appeal of a fascistic ideology is something else entirely. Replacing a totalitarian regime with some kind of functioning democracy in lands riven by ancient sectarian hatreds and hobbled by political and religious extremism is something else entirely.

Terrorism in the United States didn’t begin with ISIS, nor will it end with ISIS. Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik would almost certainly have taken up arms if ISIS didn’t even exist. Their desire and ability to murder American citizens was unrelated to who controls the streets of Raqqa and Mosul.

The upside of using ground troops may be a little less obvious. At least it was less obvious until recently. ISIS can be defeated militarily, at least temporarily. It has happened before.

ISIS began in the mid-2000s as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Back then, AQI, like ISIS today, controlled entire Iraqi cities. It resembled a state-within-a-state, like a more deranged Sunni version of Hezbollahland in Lebanon.

American ground troops, in an alliance with the tribes of Iraq’s Anbar Province, first destroyed AQI’s “government” in Fallujah and Ramadi, then destroyed AQI is a fighting force. It was reduced to a few dozen fugitives and an idea. Nothing more.

It came back, of course, under a new name in Syria, and then it exploded back into Iraq. The victory was temporary. The utopian jihadist idea lives on, and there are plenty of lawless and anarchic places in the Middle East and North Africa were the likes of ISIS can take root and metastasize.

You could say fighting them as like playing a game of whack-a-mole where they always pop back up somewhere else. You can say fighting them is like mowing the lawn. The grass keeps on growing relentlessly.

But that leads us to a couple of questions. Do you refuse to mow your lawn because it keeps growing? What will happen if you stop mowing the lawn? Are you better off with a weekly lawn-mowing chore or a jungle in your front yard?

Fighting these guys indeed looks and feels futile, but refusing the fight them—or refusing to fight them seriously and effectively—only allows them to grow stronger.

My guess—this is an educated guess, but it’s still a guess—is that we’re going to settle into something resembling an Israeli view of this problem. We will not indulge the fantasy that we can send in the Army and the Marines and end terrorism once and for all. It’s not going to happen. Not any time soon. But that doesn’t mean we’ll never send in the Army and the Marines, that we’ll sit back and wring our hands while one nation-state after another becomes Talibanized.

Some time is likely to pass before the American government registers the American mood shift. Barack Obama isn’t going to mount a ground invasion of Syria. Republican presidential candidates have likewise been falling all over themselves promising not to mount a ground invasion of anywhere.

It won’t last. It can't. The American public won’t let it. Neither will ISIS. As Michael Walzer once wrote, paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Samantha, Powerless: Obama’s Problem from Hell in Syria

My latest piece of longform journalism has been published in The Tower magazine. Here’s the first part.

It’s hard to imagine a greater foreign policy failure than the American response to the conflict in Syria, which has mushroomed into one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War.

What started as a series of peaceful demonstrations for democratic and civil society reform in 2011 has since degenerated into a brutal multi-front conflict involving the Assad regime in Damascus, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a smorgasbord of mostly Islamist rebel groups including al-Qaeda, secular left-wing Kurdish militias, and, of course, ISIS—the most psychopathic army of killers on the planet.

Rather than live up to his earlier and undeserved reputation as a “reformer,” President Bashar al-Assad has proven himself the most violent dictator in the Middle East since Saddam Hussein.

ISIS, meanwhile, rather than living up to U.S. President Barack Obama’s description as al-Qaeda’s “JV team,” has evolved from a ragtag terrorist organization to a full-blown genocidal army massacring its way through Syria, Iraq and beyond.

The American response so far is only a tad more robust than the sound of chirping crickets.

Perhaps no one is as chagrined at all this as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. She began her career as a war correspondent in Bosnia during the near-apocalyptic civil war there, and she was so shocked and appalled at what she saw—first the mass-murder and ethnic cleansing waged by Serb genocidaires in the heart of Europe, and second the near-total paralysis of the Clinton administration—that she dedicated years of her life to researching and writing her first book, A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

Her conclusion: despite the cries of “never again” after the Holocaust, the international community, including the United States, nearly always stands aside when mass-murderers go to work.

After Power finishes her current stint as a diplomat, she’ll need to update her book with a new chapter on Syria. Only this time she’ll have to blast the very administration she works for.


For the better part of a century, American leaders have repeatedly failed to stop the world’s monsters from turning swaths of the globe into killing fields. It’s not a uniquely American problem, nor should policing the world be a uniquely American burden, but nevertheless the United States has, as Samantha Power notes, inverted Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy doctrine, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” to “speak loudly and look for a stick.”

The change, she argues, was deliberate and bipartisan. “Contrary to any assumption I may have harbored while I traveled around the former Yugoslavia,” she writes, “the Bush and Clinton administrations’ responses to atrocities in Bosnia were consistent with prior American responses to genocide. Early warnings of massive bloodshed proliferated. The spewing of inflammatory propaganda escalated. The massacres and deportations started. U.S. policymakers struggled to wrap their minds around the horrors. Refugee stories and press reports of atrocities became too numerous to deny. Few Americans at home pressed for intervention. A hopeful but passive and ultimately deadly American waiting game commenced. And genocide proceeded unimpeded by U.S. action and often emboldened by U.S. inaction.”

Before building her case, she tells the story of Raphael Lemkin, the architect of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Lemkin was a Jewish lawyer from Poland who came to the United States in 1941, two years after Nazi Germany invaded his native country. It was Lemkin who coined the word “genocide” in the early 1940s to describe what he called the “race murder” of Jews, but of course the Nazis hardly invented the crime. Josef Stalin’s peacetime genocide in Ukraine—the Holodomor, or hunger-famine—took place during the previous decade, and the Turkish genocide against Armenians during World War I only two decades before that.

Lemkin campaigned tirelessly in the United Nations to get the international community to agree on the definition of genocide, to recognize it as a crime, and to spell out the measures for its prevention and punishment. It finally did so through UN General Assembly Resolution 260, which went in force in 1951.

In Article 2 of the resolution, genocide is defined as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

• Killing members of the group;
• Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
• Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
• Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
• Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

After providing the historical background, Power follows with a series of case studies that expose how the United States largely failed to prevent or punish one genocide after another, from Bosnia and Cambodia to Rwanda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Her case studies of the American reception to these atrocities follow the same pattern: Warning, Recognition, Response and Aftermath.

Admirers of Power’s work were thrilled when President Barack Obama appointed her ambassador to the United Nations in 2013. Finally, they thought, we might be in for a course correction. She’s only one person in a large administration and she can’t set foreign policy all by herself, but one could presume that the president must at least partly agree with her. Otherwise, why appoint her in the first place?

But the Syrian civil war and America’s epic-sized non-response have proven the optimists wrong. The Assad regime is perilously close to crossing the genocidal line—if it hasn’t already—and ISIS has clearly already crossed it with its brutal assaults on minorities like Christians and Yezidis. Meanwhile, the United States, in keeping with the precedents patiently described by Power, dithers impotently on the sidelines.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are ideological opposites. ISIS is brutally Islamist and theocratic, while the Assad regime is avowedly secular and at least nominally “Leftist.” Nevertheless, and despite ISIS harking back to a previous millennium, they’re both totalitarian political movements in the classic 20th-century mold.

All such movements, despite their variety, share the same basic set of ideas which Paul Berman spelled out in his landmark book, Terror and Liberalism. And the potential to commit genocide is baked into every single one of them.

“There exists a people of good who in a just world ought to enjoy a sound and healthy society,” he writes. “But society’s health has been undermined by a hideous infestation from within, something diabolical, which is aided by external agents from elsewhere in the world. The diabolical infestation must be rooted out. Rooting it out will require bloody internal struggles, capped by gigantic massacres. It will require an all-out war against the foreign allies of the inner infestation—an apocalyptic war, perhaps even Apocalyptic with a capital A. (The Book of the Apocalypse, as André Glucksmann has pointed out, does seem to have played a remote inspirational role in generating these twentieth-century doctrines.) But when the inner infestation has at last been rooted out and the external foe has been defeated, the people of good shall enjoy a new society purged of alien elements—a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single, blocklike structure, solid and eternal.”

Read the whole thing in The Tower.

Don't Bother Talking to ISIS

Jonathan Powell, formerly the chief of staff of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has done the impossible. He has written an article for The Guardian that is almost entirely correctly yet utterly wrong.

Bombing ISIS is not enough—we’ll need to talk to them too.

That’s his headline.

But he’s not a fraction as naïve as you might think. He gets pretty much everything right until he asserts that we’ll have to talk to ISIS eventually.

He’s not the kind of guy who thinks wars can be ended on the Dr. Phil show. He doesn’t believe diplomacy will ever convince a genocidal terrorist army that’s massacring innocent people on three continents to join the civilized mainstream.

He recognizes that bombing ISIS is necessary.

He also realizes destroying ISIS will require boots on the ground. But whose? Kurdish militias do very well in battle, but they’re neither equipped nor willing to conquer or liberate the vast swaths of Arab territory.

And Powell realizes that Iranian-backed Shia militias like Hezbollah are out of the question for entirely different reasons. Unlike the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, Iranian militias are themselves terrorist organizations.

Sunni militias in Syria, meanwhile, are mostly unwilling to fight ISIS until they first drag Bashar al-Assad out of his palace in Damascus.

So he thinks we’ll have no choice but to talk to ISIS at some point.

What on earth would we say?

Well, he acknowledges that we have nothing to say to each other right now, but he thinks we’ll eventually think of something once everyone realizes there is no military solution.

He’s wrong.

Look. It’s true that there is no viable military solution right now. The West could in theory send tens of thousands or even hundreds of ground troops to Syria and Iraq and smash the ISIS “caliphate” in short order, but it’s not going to happen for a very simple reason:

We don’t want to.

There is virtually zero appetite in the West right now to launch any kind of a rerun of the Iraq war. 

Another 9/11-style attack could change public opinion in an instant, of course. A series of Paris-style attacks in New York City or anywhere else in America might have the same effect over time. But in the meantime, we’re in a holding pattern.

The thing about holding patterns is that they’re temporary. At some point, something is going to change even if it takes a l-o-n-g time.

Perhaps Assad will be overthrown and Sunni wrath in Syria will shift from the capital and toward the deranged “caliphate” out in the desert. Perhaps the civilian population in ISIS-held territory will finally say enough and fight the bastards themselves. Maybe Russia will say eff it and go in there whole hog.

Maybe something totally unpredictable will happen. It’s the Middle East we’re talking about, after all.

Even if the holding pattern lasts years, we still won’t be able to resolve the ISIS problem by talking to ISIS because we’ll have no more to say at that time than we have today.

ISIS is a genocidal army. It murders Yezidis, Shia Muslims, Christians, Alawites and Westerners not because of anything they’ve done but because of who they are. There is no conceivable political solution to be had with these kinds of people. They will continue to kill until they are no longer able to kill.

That’s how it always is with genocidaires.

“It is important to understand that talking to terrorists is not the same as agreeing with them,” Powell writes. “The British would never have discussed a united Ireland at the barrel of a gun against the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland. But when we sat down with the IRA, its leaders wanted to talk about legitimate subjects like power-sharing and human rights. The same will be true of Isis. No one is going to talk to them about a universal caliphate, but we can talk about Sunni grievances and a way of ending violence.”

ISIS is not the Irish Republican Army. It is not even Hezbollah. It has far more in common with the Nazis. And we didn't resolve the Nazi problem by talking.

The IRA was at least somewhat interested in human rights. Obviously ISIS is not. Nor are its leaders and fighters interested in “ending violence.”

Abu Bakr Naji, one of ISIS’s intellectual architects, made it abundantly clear what they’re interested in when he published The Management of Savagery. “Jihad,” he wrote, “is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [people], and massacring.”

That’s what ISIS wants. They're not even trying to hide it.

“I am not arguing that talking is an alternative to fighting,” Powell writes. “Unless there is military pressure the armed group will never be prepared to talk. But judging by history, fighting is unlikely to provide an answer by itself.”

History has proven over and over again that fighting can provide an answer all by itself. Not always. But sometimes. And sometimes there’s no other option.

The Nazi regime no longer exists. The Empire of Japan no longer exists. Moammar Qaddafi’s regime no longer exists. Saddam Hussein’s Arab Socialist Baath Party no longer exists. Thanks to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1977, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government no longer exists.

At some point—lord only know when—ISIS will no longer exist. And it won’t happen because anybody talked them out of existence.

Belgium Terrorizes Itself

Brussels has been in full lockdown all weekend, and it’s going to remain in full lockdown at least through Monday while the police mount raids against suspected terrorist cells planning Paris-style attacks.

“The threat is imminent, precise,” said Vice Prime Minister Didier Reynders. “We're talking about possible attacks by several individuals, heavily armed, so obviously in parallel we are looking for one and more individuals with weapons, explosives.”

Schools are closed. Universities are closed. The trains haven’t been running all weekend, nor will they be running into the work week. Streets near Grand Place square are closed off. Armored vehicles are out in the streets. Helicopters are flying over the city. The US Embassy is advising American citizens living there to stay home.

The whole place looks and feels not only thoroughly terrorized but also like some kind of a war zone.

It’s a cliché to say the terrorists win when this sort of thing happens, but it’s a cliché because it’s true.

Why put the capital into lockdown for just a couple of days? Unless the police are damn sure they’ll capture the suspected terrorists right away, there’s no point.

And the police can’t be sure they’ll capture the suspects right away. Maybe the authorities think they know where the suspects are and are preparing to capture (or kill) them, but they can’t know in advance that they’ll succeed. Their intelligence could be off. They might hit the wrong house. The suspects could flee.

Any number of things can go wrong and often do.

If a handful terrorists are planning an imminent attack and don’t get rolled up even more imminently, all they have to do is wait until Tuesday when the city is back to “normal” to strike.

The authorities certainly aren’t wrong to raise the alert level, but locking down an entire city is ill-advised. Terrorists get a small victory even if they end up captured or killed before hurting anybody. It teaches distant terrorists who aren’t even in Europe that they can terrorize Belgium in the future any time they want just by putting fake threats into the air. And it could lull everybody who lives there into a false sense of security when the lockdown is inevitably lifted even if no danger has passed.

Look. Terrorists have been killing people in Western cities for decades. They are not going to stop any time soon. The worst attacks always take everyone by surprise. They cannot be forecast like weather. Shutting everything down every time something might happen just hands the bastards more power than they already have.

Stop it.


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