Cuba’s Dig Out from Hurricane Irma Could Take a Generation

It’s going to take a long time for Texas and Florida to fully recover from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—years, more likely than not—even though the United States is one of the world’s richest and most capable countries. God only knows how long it’s going to take Cuba and its people to fully recover after Irma cut through the island like a buzz saw. Probably not until after the Communist Party is long out of power.

I visited Cuba a little more than three years ago and wrote the following description of its capital city Havana in a dispatch for City Journal.

Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of the city looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. [Emphasis added.] Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It’s eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I walked for miles through an enormous swath of destruction without seeing a single tourist. Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city—tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.

The city has been collapsing on top of itself in slow motion ever since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and transformed its once-robust economy into an imbecilic emergency room case. That photo you see above was taken before Hurricane Irma tore through the ruins.

Cuba’s government controls almost every aspect of the economy in crushing detail, and it has been unable or unwilling (or both) to prevent its own capital city from falling apart due to the simple passage of time, the slow inexorable processes of wind and weather and entropy that has its way with every structure in every city on earth.

The island bottomed out after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Moscow’s subsidies. Journalist and Cuba resident Mark Frank described that period in chilling detail in his book, Cuban Revelations. “The lights were off more than they were on, and so too was the water. . . . Food was scarce and other consumer goods almost nonexistent. . . . Doctors set broken bones without anesthesia. . . . Worm dung was the only fertilizer.” A nurse told him that Cubans “used to make hamburgers out of grapefruit rinds and banana peels; we cleaned with lime and bitter orange and used the black powder in batteries for hair dye and makeup.” “It was a haunting time,” Frank wrote, “that still sends shivers down Cubans’ collective spines.”

If the Cuban government can’t manage to repair roofs as they collapse slowly, one at a time, over a period of decades, how on earth will it be able repair hundreds or even thousands of roofs that blow away or collapse on the same day?

Even if the government could repair the physical damage to its homes and cities in a reasonable amount of time, which it can’t, many of the people who lives in those homes and cities will still be deprived of the most basic possessions indefinitely. If your mattress was destroyed by floodwaters, what are you going to do? You can’t just go down to the mattress store. There are no mattress stores in Cuba. There are virtually no stores in Cuba that sell anything at all.

Aside from those who work in the tourist economy and are allowed to keep tips, everyone lives on a ration card and a Maximum Wage of 20 dollars a month. No one could possibly save enough money to buy a mattress (or anything else) even if such items were available, which they aren’t. I stayed in two different hotels in Havana, and the mattresses in both my rooms were as hard as cement. They almost certainly dated back to the Batista era before Castro took over. If the government can’t manage to replace ancient mattresses in the tourist economy, which is its cash cow, how on earth will it be able to replace thousands of mattresses destroyed by flood waters?

Hardly anyone will be able to replace much of anything that was lost, nevermind a whole house.

Repairing devastated cities like Houston and Key West will require a Herculean effort on the part of the American citizens, construction companies, insurance agencies, logistics professionals and government officials. Returning to the status quo ante in Cuba, however, without an extraordinary amount of foreign assistance, will be as impossible for the foreseeable future as terraforming the moon.

Turkey Can Forget About EU Membership

Turkey will never become a member of the European Union, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally said so in public. “The fact is clear that Turkey should not become a member of the EU,” she said in an election debate with her opponent, Martin Shulz. “I'll speak to my colleagues to see if we can reach a joint position on this so that we can end these accession talks.”

The only thing surprising here is that it has taken so long, but Merkel is at last willing to effectively call a dictatorship a dictatorship now that Turkey is imprisoning German citizens, including journalists and human rights activists, and accusing them of belonging to terrorist organizations and attempting to overthrow the regime. Western countries refer to such people as “political prisoners,” and European Union states are emphatically not allowed to keep political prisoners.

The notion that Turkey might conceivably fit inside the EU has always been a bit of a stretch, and it has been especially ludicrous since last summer when a botched coup attempt triggered a Stalinist spasm in Ankara. Within just a couple of weeks, Erdogan fired more than 20,000 private school teachers and almost 10,000 police officers. He suspended nearly 3,000 judges and arrested more than 10,000 soldiers. He canned tens of thousands of officials from the Ministry of Education and ousted 1,500 university deans. He closed more than 100 media outlets and suspended more than 1,500 officials in the Ministry of Finance.

And from there, it only got worse. In April, Turkish voters narrowly decided to scrap their parliamentary system and replace it with one that gives vast new powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, making him an elected dictator in all but name. Erdogan, writes Turkey expert Claire Berlinski, “who would wield power not vested in Turkish leaders since the sultans, is actually a neo-Ottoman.”

The European Union officially accepted Turkey as a membership candidate in 2004. Europeans hoped a huge Muslim-majority nation could “Westernize” itself fully after Mustafa Kamal Ataturk’s partial “Westernization” following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and turn itself into an example of sorts for the greater Middle East. One Westerner after another convinced themselves that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was a Western-style social conservative capitalist party, an Islamic version of Germany’s Christian Democrats or the Republicans in the United States. (Many of the same people made the same mistake about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its ill-fated president Mohammad Morsi.) “After 9/11,” Berlinski continues, “a lot of people in the West got Islam, Islamists, and the like on the brain to the exclusion of nearly everything else. So it followed, sort of, that many came to see that the most significant thing about the AKP was its ‘moderately Islamist’ character. Many were perhaps so thrilled that they didn’t begin hanging homosexuals from cranes that they uncritically accepted the rest of the AKP’s story about itself: It was opening up an ossified system that was, in its words, ‘radically secularist.’”

The “everything else” part of the equation was hard for some people to see for a while, but it’s not anymore. No, Erdogan isn’t even in the same time zone as ISIS. He is, however, in the same time zone as Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez, minus the Bolivarian socialism, and as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. All are (or in Chavez’s case, were) authoritarian demagogues with just a veneer of democratic legitimacy, the kind of rulers often produced by nations that are influenced in part by the West while at the same time standing outside it.

European officials almost certainly know, to a person, that Turkey can never join Europe after what happened last year. Its largest city, Istanbul, is in Europe, but its capital is in Asia, as are most of its people. Some quarters of Turkish cities look and feel European, for sure, especially compared with the vast majority of Arab cities, but Turkey is a cultural hybrid. Like Lebanon, Armenia, and even Russia, it’s a place where the East melds with the West into an alloy. Westerners can and do feel at home there in ways they never can in a country like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but the cultural overlap is only 50 percent at the most, and Turkey’s political overlap under Erdogan is withering.

Westerners kidded themselves about Erdogan and Turkey for years. That ended a while ago. What’s new here is that at least one European head of state is willing to bury the story we told ourselves once and for all. Others will almost certainly follow.

America’s Longest War Is Hardly Its Worst

Just about everyone in America is sick of the war in Afghanistan, especially our Gold Star families who’ve lost sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Clocking in at nearly sixteen years, this is the longest we’ve ever fought, yet President Donald Trump, after railing against it for years, is ordering 4,000 more troops into war.

“Let’s get out of Afghanistan,” he wrote on Twitter long before he was elected. “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.”

President Barack Obama said almost the exact same thing over and over again. “After more than a decade of war,” he said, “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” That was five years ago.

Trump is no more able to extricate Americans from the Afghan morass than Obama was. The running score is Reality 2, Hopes and Promises 0.

The president took a deep breath, straightened his tie, sucked in his gut, stepped in front of the television cameras and admitted he was wrong. War does that to people, especially to foreign policy makers. Prematurely ending a war can be as catastrophic as getting sucked into one that never should have been started.

If we lose the war in Afghanistan—and make no mistake, that’s exactly what will happen if we leave before it’s concluded—ISIS could very well take over the country. It’s what ISIS does. It takes over failed states. If Afghanistan does not fall to ISIS, it will certainly fall to something that looks enough like it that you can’t tell the difference no matter how hard you squint at it. The Taliban doesn’t have the global ambitions that ISIS has (not yet, anyway), but the Taliban did align itself with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda while they hatched and executed the most spectacular terrorist act in world history, and ISIS is just a rebranded branch of Al Qaeda anyway.

There is no good time to lose a war, but losing one just as ISIS is finally on the verge of destruction in Iraq is enough to make any new president of any political party lose sleep. Talking about ending a war that everyone hates is one thing. Signing your own name to our surrender is something else.

“Decisions are much different,” Trump said, “when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” That’s for damn sure. I’ve never sat behind that desk, and unless your name is Jimmy Carter, George Bush or Barack Obama, you haven’t either. It doesn’t take a political rocket scientist, though, to imagine how much different these kinds of decisions must look and feel when you have to make them rather than bleat about them on Twitter. So the president reversed himself and neverminded the consternation from beleaguered progressives and the populists over at Breitbart.

Nobody—nobody—likes the war in Afghanistan, but how about a little perspective? The United States has lost 2,271 people there over 16 years. It barely even counts as a war at this point. It’s more of a police action, really. Believe it or not, we lose more police officers on American streets every year than we lose troops on the front lines of Afghanistan. Between 1990 and 2010, an average of 164 police officers were killed in the United States compared with a yearly average of 141 troops in Afghanistan.

The war there may be the longest we’ve ever fought, but it’s also, on a per-year basis, the least deadly. Compare how many people we’re losing right now to how many we’ve lost in the past. 

  • American Revolutionary War – 25,000
  • American Civil War – 750,000
  • World War I – 116,516
  • World War II – 405,399
  • Korean War – 36,516
  • Vietnam War – 58,209
  • Iraq War – 4,497
  • Afghanistan War – 2,271

The loss of 2,271 troops in Afghanistan isn’t small. Losing even one is tragic, and it’s everything for the fallen’s immediate family no matter the size of the overall number. We have to compare that number, though, to how many people might be killed in the future if we lose. More Americans were murdered at home by the enemy side on one day—September 11, 2001—than in the entire war that has followed so far.

What about the financial cost? Wars are staggeringly expensive. As of last week, the United States has spent 1.07 trillion dollars in Afghanistan. An enormous number. And yet (and you had to know an “and yet” was coming), the 9/11 attacks cost us 3.3 trillion, more than three times as much. (CORRECTION: War costs make up almost two-thirds of the costs of 9/11, two-thirds of which were spent in Iraq. So while the 9/11 attack was more expensive than the war in Afghanistan, it was not three times as expensive.)

Saying the war in Afghanistan is the longest in our history suggests that it’s the worst, but it is a very long way from being from the worst. It’s even relatively low-key by Afghanistan standards. We are not reliving the Russian experience there in the 1980s. Almost five times as many Russians died in their own doomed war, and they fought there for a much shorter period. Most of the country resisted the Russians, whereas Afghans by the tens of thousands are willing to fight and die alongside Americans against the Taliban.  

Our experience there is nearly as demoralizing as it was for the Russians, though, because we have no path to victory. Afghanistan today is like a Rubik’s Cube that some trickster messed with by moving the stickers around to make it unsolvable. The best we can do is hold the line and make enough incremental improvements that a solution, at some point in the future, might finally snap into place, that the Afghans take hold the line for the rest of the world by themselves. If we were to leave now, we’d only have to go back, and whatever progress we’ve made in the meantime will have been lost. Every single person in Afghanistan would know that we’d pull out again when we got tired of it, and we’d get tired of it a lot quicker the second time than we did the first.

If there’s no military option in North Korea, there’s no non-military option right now in Afghanistan. The price is high, but the price of pulling the pin and leaving is higher.

The Kurds Are About to Blow Up Iraq

Next month, on September 25, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil will hold a binding referendum on whether or not to secede from Iraq. It will almost certainly pass. More than a decade ago, the Kurds held a non-binding referendum that passed with  99.8 percent of the vote.

No one knows what’s going to happen. Iraq is the kind of place where just about anything can happen and eventually does.

Kurdish secession could go as smoothly as a Scottish secession from the United Kingdom (were that to actually happen) or a Quebecois secession from Canada, were that to actually happen. It could unfold like Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, where some countries recognize it and others don’t while the Serbs are left to stew in their own juices more or less peaceably.

This is a serious business, though, because Iraq is not Britain, and it is not Canada. And there’s a potential flashpoint that travelers to the region would be well advised to stay away from for a while.

Shortly after ISIS invaded Iraq from Syria in 2014, the Kurdistan Regional Government effectively annexed the oil-rich governate of Kirkuk. Ethnic Kurds made up a plurality of the population, with sizeable Arab and Turkmen minorities, before Saddam Hussein’s Arabization program in the 1990s temporarily created an artificial Arab majority. Since then, Kurds have been returning to the city en masse while many Arabs, most of whom had no history in the region before Saddam put them there, have left. No one really knows what the demographics look like now.

It’s a tinderbox regardless of the actual headcount. Some of the Arabs who still live there could mount a rebellion at some point, either immediately or down the road. If they do, they might engage in the regional sport of finagling financial and even military backing from neighboring countries.

Then again, Arabs have been trickling north into the Kurdistan region for years because it’s peaceful and quiet and civilized. It’s the one part of Iraq that, despite the local government’s corruption and inability to live up to the democratic norms it claims to espouse, works remarkably well.

I’ve been to Iraqi Kurdistan a number of times. It’s safer than Kansas. My only real complaint is that it gets a bit boring after a while. If you’re coming from Baghdad or Mosul, it’s practically Switzerland.

Kirkuk Governate, though, is—or at least recently was—another story. The three “core” Kurdish governates—Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleimaniyah—have been free of armed conflict since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but Kirkuk was down in the war zone. I went there ten years ago from Suleimaniyah and was only willing to do so under the armed protection of Kurdish police officers. Had I wandered around solo as I did farther north, I would have risked being shot, kidnapped or car-bombed. I still could have been shot or car-bombed alongside the police, but at least kidnapping was (mostly) off the table. The very fact that Kirkuk was a war zone at a time when the Kurdish governates to the north were not suggests that the Kurds may be swallowing more than they can digest.  

Kirkuk has oil, though, while the governates to the north mostly don’t, so of course the Kurds want it. Baghdad, of course, wants to keep it for the same reason. Will Iraq’s central government go to war over it? Probably not. Saddam Hussein lost his own war against the Kurds in the north, and he had far more formidable forces at his disposal than Baghdad does now. Still, it’s more likely than a war between London and Edinburgh, or between Ottawa and Montreal.

The biggest threat to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan comes not from Baghdad but from Turkey. The Turks have been fighting a low-grade counter-insurgency against the armed Kurdish separatists of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since the 1970s that has killed tens of thousands of people, and they’re deathly afraid that a free and independent Kurdish state anywhere in the world will both embolden and assist their internal enemies.

While Turkey is no longer likely to invade Iraqi Kurdistan on general principle if it declares independence—a going concern shortly after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—the Turkish government is making it clear that it is supremely unhappy with the KRG including Kirkuk in its referendum. “What really concerned us,” a spokesperson for Turkey’s president said in June of this year, “was that Kurdish leaders want to include Kirkuk in this process while according to the Iraqi constitution Kirkuk is an Iraqi city and is not within Kurdish boundaries … If any attempts will be made to forcefully include Kirkuk in the referendum question, problems will be made for Kirkuk and its surrounding areas.”

One can sympathize with Turkey’s fears. The Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party is, without question, a terrorist organization. Even so, nations have a right to exist even if they are inconvenient to Turkey—especially considering that Iraq’s Kurds are not terrorists.

Rather than terrorists, Iraq’s Kurds are America’s only reliable allies in the entire country. They’re as pro-American as Texans, they’re the only ones who didn’t take shots at us during and after the overthrow of Saddam, and they were, for a time anyway, the only ones willing and capable of taking on ISIS directly and winning. They do not align themselves with Iranian-backed militias as the central government in Baghdad does, and they certainly aren’t on side with Hezbollah and the Kremlin like the Syrian government. They are as allergic to political Islamism as Americans are. They view it, with some justification, as an alien export from the Arab world.

The Trump administration opposes Kurdistan’s bid for independence. It could, says the White House, be “significantly destabilizing.” Perhaps. But it’s a bit rich for Americans, of all people, to say no to people who want to break away from a country that smothered them beneath a totalitarian regime, waged a genocidal extermination campaign against them, and then convulsed in bloody mayhem for more than a decade. We Americans mounted a revolution for our own independence against a government far more liberal and enlightened than Iraq’s. And we support at least the notion of a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli state, the only properly functioning democracy in the entire region, despite the fact that the Palestinians have mounted one terrorist campaign after another for their own independence while the Kurds of Iraq never have.

An independent Iraqi Kurdistan is far more likely to be stable with American backing than without it, but the Kurds are going forward regardless. As Jack Nicholson’s character Frank Costello said in Martin Scorsese’s scorching film, The Departed, “no one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

North Korea Leaves Us With Only One Good Option

Twenty-eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States once again faces the real possibility of nuclear war with a communist state. Because as of this week, American intelligence agencies believe North Korea has developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can be squeezed into one of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The intelligence is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure—if North Korea can’t nuke the United States now, it will be able to soon enough. Sanctions won’t convince Kim Jong-Un to give up his arsenal, nor will pressure from China. Becoming a nuclear power is an existential issue for him after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi, which leaves the United States with only one option.

That option is obvious if we game everything out. Last month, Mark Bowden wrote a sobering essay in The Atlantic as long as an epic poem where he carefully examines four basic options, all of which are terrible: prevention, turning the screws, decapitation and acceptance.

There are actually seven options rather than four, but we’ll get to the other three later. First, let’s look at Bowden’s.

And let’s start with, prevention, which he defines as “a crushing U.S. military strike to eliminate Pyongyang’s arsenals of mass destruction, take out its leadership, and destroy its military.” We’d win the war. No question about it. The United States military is capable of destroying anything it puts in its crosshairs. But North Korea will fight back as surely as any other country under attack would fight back. Millions would die, and they’d die within weeks, days, possibly even hours. Kim has thousands of artillery pieces buried in mountains and hillsides that could destroy South Korea’s capital Seoul as effectively as a volcano erupting right underneath it. Even if Kim doesn’t touch his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, more people could be killed on a per-day basis than during any other war ever fought. A full-blown Korean war would be, as Bowden says, one of the greatest catastrophes in human history.

We could try turning the screws, so to speak, with limited pinprick strikes that fall far short of all-out war. The North Korean regime, though, is famously paranoid and could easily perceive a limited strike as the opening salvo of a regime-change operation and, if so, would respond with an all-out attack of its own. And if Kim did realize that nothing more than pinprick strikes were coming his way, the odds that they’d be effective are negligible. We’re not sure where his stockpiles are, we can’t erase the scientific knowledge his government already has, and bombing him is as likely as not to make him even more committed than he already is.

Decapitation—assassinating Kim and the leadership circle around him while sparing everyone else—is a lot more appealing and seems a lot less dangerous. The problem is that we’d have to recruit inside help, which is nearly impossible, and in any case his military is already under orders to ignite a total war if we try. Even if it did work, Kim’s replacement could be more paranoid and belligerent, and removing the next guy would be even harder.

Bowden’s fourth option is acceptance. (And keep in mind that accepting something isn’t the same thing as liking it.) If the cost of stopping North Korea from becoming a world-class nuclear power is catastrophically high, some form of acceptance may be all that remains. The cost of acceptance, though, may also be catastrophically high.

Russia and China have been capable of striking the United States with nuclear weapons for decades now, but hardly anyone has been losing much sleep over it since Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. Kim Jong-Un is no Gorbachev, though. He rules as brutally at home as the Soviet Union’s worst tyrant Josef Stalin did, and he seems as comfortable with brinkmanship as Saddam Hussein was—a terrifying combination. He is already capable of killing millions in Seoul and thousands of American soldiers stationed along the so-called demilitarized zone on the border. Soon enough, he’ll be able to do the same to Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Washington.

Asking Americans to accept this is like asking us to swallow razor blades while maniacs hold guns to the heads of our friends. We don’t have to swallow anything, but our friends will get their brains blown out if we don’t. We don’t have to accept North Korea as a nuclear power, but millions of people will die if we don’t, including thousands of ours.

There are three more options available, though, starting with this: The United States could threaten to nuke North Korea and hope Kim stands down. Mark Bowden and the military and foreign policy professionals he consulted didn’t consider that as a serious option for reasons that are probably obvious. Barack Obama never would have done it, nor would George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter certainly wouldn’t have done it. But they seem to have forgotten who currently works in the White House.

Donald Trump effectively did it on Tuesday when he said, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” What is that if not a threat to drop a hydrogen bomb on top of Pyongyang?

It might work, but we’d better not count on it. All Kim has to do is threaten the United States one more time, and if Trump doesn’t enforce his own red line, Kim will know it’s a bluff. He probably already knows it’s a bluff because the State Department has already dialed it down. “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said within hours of the president’s threat, “would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

If bluffing North Korea doesn’t work, the United States could actually nuke North Korea. Whether the US military would obey an order to pre-emptively use nuclear weapons against another country is an open question. (And whether Congress would allow a president who gave such an order to remain in the White House is another.) We could speculate all day about the terrible consequences that would result from instantly killing tens of millions of people in the most violent moment of our species’ history. A man who would give such an order almost certainly wouldn’t correctly anticipate the convulsive reaction, both at home and abroad, that would result, or how history would remember him. No sober-minded foreign policy professional on any point on the political spectrum would ever recommend this course of action.

The final option is related to Bowden’s fourth option but a little less terrible. It starts with acceptance, but it doesn’t end there.

Think about it: why does Kim Jong-Un want nuclear weapons? He is not Osama bin Laden, and he is not ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He isn’t even Iran’s Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei. He doesn’t want to incinerate the United States any more than the Soviet Union did. He simply wants his regime to survive, and he’s already kept in check with something worse than Mutually Assured Destruction. John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev could have nuked us all into oblivion and brought about a planetwide near-extinction event, but this is not that bad. Kim will probably never be able to destroy every American city, but we can already kill every living thing, with the possible exception of a handful of cockroaches, inside North Korea.  

Mutually Assured Destruction would probably work, but it guarantees mutual perpetual angst. So let’s trade. We can give Kim what he wants and he can give us what we want. He just wants to survive. We want to live without a Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

The Korean War killed millions and only technically paused with an armistice agreement in 1953. It never formally ended. Rather, we have been enjoying a very long lull, one that has lasted longer than most of us have been alive. We’re all so accustomed to it that it seems like the natural order of things.

But it’s not. All wars eventually end, and they don’t have to end with regime-change. The Vietnam War wound down decades ago, and the United States has excellent relations with the same government we used to fight in Hanoi. The Vietnamese Communist Party reformed itself out of all recognition, for sure, but we settled that conflict years before it happened.

We could do the same thing in Korea. We could negotiate a formal end to the conflict and sign a mutual non-aggression pact. What do we have to lose? If the US were to start (or resume) a war on the Korean Peninsula, it could easily rank as the worst foreign policy decision in American history. It would be an even bigger mistake if Kim were to do it. So why not put it in writing?

The only reason Kim wants nuclear weapons is because, after Libya and Iraq, he doesn’t feel safe. The truth, though, is that he has been safe all along. The north’s hardened artillery pieces pointed at Seoul guaranteed his safety long before he took power. We will never send our army in there just because we don’t like him. His problem, and ours, is that he either doesn’t know it or doesn’t believe it.

In an ideal world, we’d take him out with a drone strike and watch the two Koreas unite like the two Germanys did after the Cold War. In the real world, Kim Jong-Un sits on top of a doomsday machine and we can’t remove him without setting it off. The question is, how do we want him to feel while he sits there? If we’re not going to take him out—and if we are, we should do it today, not tomorrow—far better for everyone’s sake if he feels secure enough not to turn himself into the world’s largest suicide bomber.

Russia Threatens Poland Over Decommunization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress Makes Russian Sanctions Trump-proof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran Takes Another American Hostage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warmbier was Jewish.

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

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

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

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

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

Works every time. Sometimes the answer actually spooks people.

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

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

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

Ukraine’s Risky Bid to Join NATO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Liberation, Will Mosul Fall to Iran?

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

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

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

Now comes the hard part.

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

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

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

Congress Considers Banning Tourism to North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assad Still Must Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

What the Qatar Blockade is Really About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest in The Atlantic.


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