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Pivot to Asia

I’m heading overseas this week, but don’t wander off. The blog won’t go fallow. I’ve been preparing some long-form material in advance that I can publish while I’m out in the field.

Should be an interesting trip, especially now that the Mekong River and the South China Sea are Asia’s new battlegrounds. I’ve been looking long and hard at East Asia the last couple of months and I understand now why the White House wants to “pivot” there. See especially Robert Kaplan’s new book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.

But it’s not a zero sum game. The Middle East will still demand attention from the president, and it will demand attention from me. We don’t get to quit a troublesome part of the world just because it’s exhausting.

Let me know in the comments what you’d like me to look into while I’m over there. I have my own ideas, but I’m sure I have not thought of everything.

Syria's Bogus Election

Syria is holding a presidential “election” today and Bashar al-Assad will win, probably with 99 percent of the “vote.”

Not even the world’s biggest political idiot will believe this is authentic, so why even bother? It’s happening because the United States is the world’s only superpower.

The international community, such as it is, expects elections to be held just about everywhere, and that’s because the United States expects elections to be held just about everywhere. Because the US is dominant, our preferences are the mainstream.

If you doubt it, ask yourself if democratic elections would be expected everywhere if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan won World War II and were to this day unreconstructed. Germany and Japan wouldn’t control every inch of the earth, but they’d certainly set the tone internationally.

And ask yourself if the international community would expect democratic elections if the Soviet Union won the Cold War. What if it was the United States that collapsed? And what if, instead of NATO’s eastward expansion, the Warsaw Pact extended all the way to Britain and France? Would elections be expected all over the world? I don’t see why they would. Countries that weren’t already invaded and conquered by Moscow or subverted by its proxies would do everything they could to avoid such a fate just as Armenia and Kazakhstan are doing right now.

In the world we live in, however, where the world’s only superpower is a liberal democracy, elections are considered the norm. Political freakshows like Moammar Qaddafi didn’t even pretend to believe in elections (he argued in his ludicrous Green Book that elections allowed 51 percent of the country to oppress 49 percent), and look at what happened to him. His regime was finally bombed into oblivion, and not by a cowboy like George W. Bush but by the dovish Barack Obama.

Even blood-soaked tyrants like Bashar al-Assad think they’ll benefit at least somewhat by pretending to adopt our political structure. Russia might even pretend to believe Syria’s election results. The Iranian regime and its state-run media will surely pretend to believe.

It does us no good at all that a monster like Assad goes through the motions of democracy. But how much fun would it be to live in a world where pleasing one or two totalitarian empires was the international standard instead?

“Tell Morsi to Leave or Egypt will Burn”

I finally got around to watching Vice magazine’s mini documentary about Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi. It packs a hell of a punch, especially with the benefit of hindsight.

Maybe I’m experiencing hindsight bias here rather than benefit, but it seems obvious, watching this, that something big and terrible was going to happen in Egypt.

Exactly what was going to happen could not have been obvious in real-time, but no country can withstand the eruption of mass anger and rage the Brotherhood triggered without somebody swinging a gigantic game-changing sledgehammer.

The Vice crew clearly knew it in real-time. Nobody knew the sledgehammer would be wielded by Egypt’s coup leader and military pharaoh General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but somebody would wield one. That was for damn sure.

The last words in this short little film, spoken by Egyptian economist Ahmed el-Naggar, were prophetic. “The social revolution will be huge,” he said, “and it’ll come to completion in the near future. It will be an apocalypse.”

Everybody should watch this. It’s riveting viewing. It’s educational if you want to know at least one set of ingredients that can precipitate a military coup. And it casts serious doubt on the idea that radical Islamist government is inevitable in the Arab world.

The episode is 29 minutes long and split into halves. (The first is about the enormous ghost cities in China.) The Egypt segment begins at 13:45.

The End of an Era

For more than two decades Ukraine did its best to have good relations with both the West and Russia, sometimes veering a little more in one direction than the other.

That will no longer be possible. If Russia were a good neighbor, sure, it would be easy. Having good relations with both would be no more difficult than having good relations with Canada and the United States simultaneously. But not once in its history has Russia been a good neighbor.

Russia’s bloodless annexation of Crimea was bad enough, but now there’s fierce fighting in the eastern city of Donetsk between the Ukrainian military and separatists who wish to join Russia.

It’s hard to say for sure when a nation crosses the threshold from unrest to civil war. Ukraine is in the murky in-between zone right now. This might get wrapped up quickly enough that the history books will register this conflict as “fighting” rather than “war.” But it could so easily escalate, especially if Vladimir Putin can’t resist staying out of it, and it could also drag on for years.

Either way, it will be impossible for anyone elected to Ukraine’s highest office to win the approval of people on both sides of these barricades. And it will be impossible to move toward the European Union and NATO while simultaneously moving toward Russia’s anti-Western Eurasian Union as Putin insists. These are differences that can no longer be split.

Whatever happens, whether it’s a little bit bloody or epic, the borderland between Russia and the West will be contested and tense. And the post-Cold War era, at least in Eurasia, is over.

So Much For All That

Last week I noted that an opposition newspaper run by the terrific author and blogger Yoani Sanchez was about to debut. I wondered aloud if the Cuban government was trying to fool its useful tools in the West again by pretending to respect free speech, but even that pessimistic assumption was too optimistic.

The government shut her newspaper down mere hours after her launch and is  redirecting readers on the island to a hysterical propaganda page.

The Battle for the South China Sea

Furious mobs fire-bombed Chinese-owned factories in Vietnam in retaliation for China placing an oil rig in what Vietnam claims are its territorial waters. Hanoi is cracking down on “hooligans” and even peaceful demonstrations, but Beijing still decided to evacuate thousands of its citizens.

Earlier this month the Vietnamese and Chinese navies squared off with each other in the South China Sea over the very same issue.

This is just the beginning of what could be a very long conflict. Vietnam and China both claim the Spratly Islands, as do Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei.

Nobody lives permanently on any of them. They’re a dispersed archipelago of specks, many of which are underwater at high tide, that in aggregate only make up one-and-a-half square land miles. They don’t have any resources per se, but maritime borders are extensions of land borders, so whoever claims the Spratlies can claim the waters around them. And the waters around them are valuable, hence the oil rig and Vietnam’s violent reaction.

Rioters spared at least one factory because it flies the American flag. Don’t be surprised. Vietnam’s people are no more angry at Americans right now than Americans are angry at the Vietnamese. The war between our two countries is almost forty years old, as far back in history as World War II was in 1984. Most of Vietnam’s negative energy is directed at China, which it has struggled on-and-off against for centuries. A Vietnamese diplomat put it into perspective: “China invaded Vietnam seventeen times. The US invaded Mexico only once, and look at how sensitive Mexicans are about that.”

Vietnam’s perception of China is more like Poland’s view of Russia than Mexico’s of the US. “This threat posed by China toward Vietnam comes not only from geographical proximity,” wrote Le Hong Hiep at East Asia Forum in 2011, “but also the asymmetry of size and power between the two countries. China is 29 times larger than Vietnam, while Vietnam’s population, despite being the world’s 14th largest, is still only equivalent to one of China’s mid-sized provinces.

The South China Sea will be contested for a long time. The United States has naval dominance now, and it aggravates the Chinese for the same reason Americans would be aggravated if Beijing had naval dominance in the Caribbean or off the coast of New York or California. There’s a difference, though, and it’s huge. The Caribbean is peripheral, but more than half the world’s merchant shipping passes through the South China Sea.

China naturally wants to push the US out of its yard, but the other states in the region don’t want the US navy to leave because they’d be overwhelmed at once by the Chinese. The Guardian quotes a Vietnamese café owner in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) who says, “I worry that if we didn't have the support of the West, we would definitely be at war with China, and we would lose.” Even with American dominance, China’s navy has confronted not only Vietnam’s, but also that of Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia,  and Brunei.

Robert D. Kaplan’s latest book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, describes maritime Southeast Asia as a major upcoming theater of conflict. “The composite picture,” he writes, “is of a cluster of states that, with problems of domestic legitimacy and state-building largely behind them, are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores. This outward collective push is located in the demographic cockpit of the globe; it is here in Southeast Asia, with its nearly 600 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian Subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. And the geographic meeting place of all these states is maritime: the South China Sea.”

Don’t expect these confrontations to be as harsh as those between Russia and its neighbors. Russia is more paranoid and aggressive than China, and it’s a land power. Water tends to stop or at least slow military expansion. (Does anyone think Taiwan would be independent today if Chinese soldiers could drive there in tanks?) But water doesn’t stop all projections of strength. That’s what navies are for. And China’s is the fastest-growing on earth.

Wars are rarely fought over resources anymore. Most modern conflicts are about power and ideology. (Some of the wars I’ve covered were also about identity. Syria’s civil war has elements of all three.) The contest over the South China Sea, though, is old school. Perhaps it will be bloody and perhaps (mostly) not. Nobody knows. But Vietnam and China are both becoming stronger and more prosperous, and Beijing is ramping up its naval power at the same time the Washington is scaling back.

The region began heating up less than two months after Asia’s Cauldron was published, and we have not heard the last from this part of the world. As Walter Russell Mead put it even before Vietnam’s riots, the battle for the South China Sea is officially on.

An Opposition Newspaper in Cuba?

Dissident, author, and blogger Yoani Sanchez is starting an opposition newspaper in Cuba. I’d like to say that’s terrific and that the Castro regime is finally beginning to liberalize politically, but several of her reporters have already received warning calls from State Security, so let’s not get excited just yet.

One of two things is happening here. Old habits die hard and State Security can’t help itself. Or the regime plans to allow a token, bullied, and censored opposition paper so it can say it respects freedom of speech when it fact it does not. 

The Last Communist City

My final dispatch from Cuba is now available online at City Journal. Here's the first part.

Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 science-fiction film Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, takes place in Los Angeles, circa 2154. The wealthy have moved into an orbiting luxury satellite—the Elysium of the title—while the wretched majority of humans remain in squalor on Earth. The film works passably as an allegory for its director’s native South Africa, where racial apartheid was enforced for nearly 50 years, but it’s a rather cartoonish vision of the American future. Some critics panned the film for pushing a socialist message. Elysium’s dystopian world, however, is a near-perfect metaphor for an actually existing socialist nation just 90 miles from Florida.

I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba—not because I’m nostalgic for a botched utopian fantasy but because I wanted to experience Communism firsthand. When I finally got my chance several months ago, I was startled to discover how much the Cuban reality lines up with Blomkamp’s dystopia. In Cuba, as in Elysium, a small group of economic and political elites live in a rarefied world high above the impoverished masses. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto, would be appalled by the misery endured by Cuba’s ordinary citizens and shocked by the relatively luxurious lifestyles of those who keep the poor down by force.

Many tourists return home convinced that the Cuban model succeeds where the Soviet model failed. But that’s because they never left Cuba’s Elysium.

I had to lie to get into the country. Customs and immigration officials at Havana’s tiny, dreary José Martí International Airport would have evicted me had they known I was a journalist. But not even a total-surveillance police state can keep track of everything and everyone all the time, so I slipped through. It felt like a victory. Havana, the capital, is clean and safe, but there’s nothing to buy. It feels less natural and organic than any city I’ve ever visited. Initially, I found Havana pleasant, partly because I wasn’t supposed to be there and partly because I felt as though I had journeyed backward in time. But the city wasn’t pleasant for long, and it certainly isn’t pleasant for the people living there. It hasn’t been so for decades.

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. 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.

Marxists have ruled Cuba for more than a half-century now. Fidel Castro, Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara, and their 26th of July Movement forced Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959 and replaced his standard-issue authoritarian regime with a Communist one. The revolutionaries promised liberal democracy, but Castro secured absolute power and flattened the country with a Marxist-Leninist battering ram. The objectives were total equality and the abolition of money; the methods were total surveillance and political prisons. The state slogan, then and now, is “socialism or death.”

Cuba was one of the world’s richest countries before Castro destroyed it—and the wealth wasn’t just in the hands of a tiny elite. “Contrary to the myth spread by the revolution,” wrote Alfred Cuzan, a professor of political science at the University of West Florida, “Cuba’s wealth before 1959 was not the purview of a privileged few. . . . Cuban society was as much of a middle-class society as Argentina and Chile.” In 1958, Cuba had a higher per-capita income than much of Europe. “More Americans lived in Cuba prior to Castro than Cubans lived in the United States,” Cuban exile Humberto Fontova, author of a series of books about Castro and Guevara, tells me. “This was at a time when Cubans were perfectly free to leave the country with all their property. In the 1940s and 1950s, my parents could get a visa for the United States just by asking. They visited the United States and voluntarily returned to Cuba. More Cubans vacationed in the U.S. in 1955 than Americans vacationed in Cuba. Americans considered Cuba a tourist playground, but even more Cubans considered the U.S. a tourist playground.” Havana was home to a lot of that prosperity, as is evident in the extraordinary classical European architecture that still fills the city. Poor nations do not—cannot—build such grand or elegant cities.

But rather than raise the poor up, Castro and Guevara shoved the rich and the middle class down. The result was collapse. “Between 1960 and 1976,” Cuzan says, “Cuba’s per capita GNP in constant dollars declined at an average annual rate of almost half a percent. The country thus has the tragic distinction of being the only one in Latin America to have experienced a drop in living standards over the period.”

Communism destroyed Cuba’s prosperity, but the country experienced unprecedented pain and deprivation when Moscow cut off its subsidies after the fall of the Soviet Union. Journalist and longtime Cuba resident Mark Frank writes vividly about this period 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.” He quotes a nurse who tells 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.”

Read the rest at City Journal.

The Rise of Boko Haram

Boko Haram—the Taliban of Nigeria—finally seized the world’s attention this month, first for kidnapping hundreds of little girls and threatening to sell them, and again for indiscriminately massacring 336 people last week in the town of Gamboru Ngala. A ramp-up in attacks actually began back in February when its suicide bombers and gunmen struck 21 times, but we’re not yet numb to the kidnapping of hundreds of children, and last week’s atrocity was the deadliest yet.

Noah Rothman at Mediaite thinks it’s strange that Boko Haram is getting so much coverage all of a sudden. “Why did the press spring to action when young women were kidnapped, but were virtually unmoved when it was young boys who were being slaughtered and burned alive?”

There’s nothing sexist about it, if that’s what he’s implying. The boys are dead and the girls still might be saved. There’s a sense of urgency when victims’ fates are up in the air. The mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 sucked all the oxygen out of the media atmosphere for the same reason.

The real reason, though, is the staggering number of victims—both the dead and the missing. All but one of Boko Haram’s previous attacks claimed dozens of victims, but the last three in a row reach into the hundreds.

Any terrorist attack anywhere in the world that claims 200 or more victims will make international news, and any terrorist organization that pulls those kinds of numbers in rapid succession will really find itself under the spotlight.

Whatever the reason, it’s about time. Africa is far too often ignored by the rest of the world.

Nigeria is a large country and Boko Haram is a small organization, but it has everyone rattled. “So vast and mysterious is the carnage,” reports National Geographic, “many otherwise sane Nigerians have come to believe Boko Haram possesses supernatural powers. Its name has taken on an incantatory power. It has become a kind of national synonym for fear.”

Now that it’s in the spotlight, reporters are explaining the basics to a wide audience for the first time, and the meaning of the organization’s name is getting lost a bit in translation. “Boko Haram” is frequently translated as “Western education is sinful,” but that’s off.

“Haram” is an Arabic loan word that means sinful, but “Boko” is not the word for Western education. “Boko,” according to linguist Paul Newman, means inauthenticity or fraud in the Hausa language of central Nigeria. “Boko originally meant ‘Something (an idea or object) that involves a fraud or any form of deception’ and, by extension, the noun denoted ‘Any reading or writing which is not connected with Islam.’” It also refers to the Latin alphabet when used to write Hausa. So the name sort of implies that Western education is sinful, but that’s not what it says.

Let’s get something else clear. Boko Haram is not some popular armed grassroots movement from the Muslim community like Hezbollah is for the Shias of Lebanon, nor is it a sectarian Iraqi-style militia. Boko Haram coordinates and has pledged solidarity with Al Qaeda, and as always for such organizations, everybody, Muslims included, is a potential target.

Somehow this is lost on certain observers. An article last August in the Christian Science Monitor began with a curious headline: Boko Haram attacks Muslims and kids, puzzling everyone.

Really? Is everyone puzzled, or just the Christian Science Monitor? I’m included in “everyone,” and it doesn’t even occur to me to be puzzled.

When Islamists seized power in Northern Mali in January of 2012, everybody they terrorized, murdered, and killed was a Muslim. The overwhelming majority of the Taliban’s victims are Muslims. Islamist insurgents ignited a nearly apocalyptic war in Algeria in 1991 which killed around 150,000 people, and with just a handful of exceptions, everybody they slaughtered was Muslim. Nearly all the civilian victims of Iraqi death squads and terrorist organizations were Muslims.

In the case that baffled the Christian Science Monitor—and, apparently, some unnamed “Africa watchers”—Boko Haram shot 44 men inside a mosque while they were praying. That might baffle someone who has paid little or no attention to violent Islamists over the last decade or so, but the article itself (which the headline writer must not have read) includes a perfectly obvious motive for Boko Haram attacking a mosque. “On a recent trip to Maiduguri, most imams refused to speak of Boko Haram after several of them had been assassinated for criticizing the group. One imam said the militants attacked mosques and Muslims because they were not devoted to Boko Haram’s extremist cause.”

I can’t definitively nail down whether the kidnapped girls are Muslims or Christians. They’re occasionally described as Christian girls in the media, perhaps for the same reason some people are baffled that Boko Haram would shoot up a mosque, but here is a picture purportedly of some of the missing girls’ mothers. All are wearing Islamic abayas. If that photo and caption are accurate, at least some of Boko Haram’s so-far most-famous victims are Muslims.

But Boko Haram also murders Christians for no reason other than the fact that they’re Christians. And they’ve kidnapped Christians and forced them to convert to Islam at gunpoint.

Per Rothman at Mediaite, that the group is getting so much attention all of a sudden isn’t what’s strange. What’s strange is how long Boko Haram managed to murder and pillage under the radar. Regional experts have known about Boko Haram for more than a decade, but most Westerners didn’t hear the first thing about them until last week.

Even the State Department blew off Boko Haram until recently. Foggy Bottom under Hillary Clinton—against the advice of the Justice Department, the FBI, and the CIA—resisted branding Boko Haram a terrorist organization. The State Department under John Kerry, at least, plugged that hole last November.

Patrick Meehan, chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, told Josh Rogin at The Daily Beast why State dragged its feet. “At the time, the sentiment that was expressed by the administration was this was a local grievance and therefore not a threat to the United States or its interests. They were saying al Qaeda was on the run.”

Osama bin Laden is dead, but Al Qaeda is global, and it’s on the offensive, not on the run. One of their franchises took over Northern Mali. Another controls large swaths of Syria. Chunks of Libya could degenerate into Al Qaeda statelets if we’re not careful. Another franchise is active in Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb would like nothing more than to re-ignite the civil war in Algeria.

Some terrorists really are local—the Kurdish PKK in Turkey, for instance, and the Basque ETA in Spain—but Al Qaeda is and always has been global in its reach and ambition. It makes no difference if Boko Haram never intends to attack the United States directly when it’s affiliated with a larger network that already has and surely plans to do so again.

In any case, Nigeria is one of the most pro-American countries in the world and could use a little help from its friends. If wouldn’t matter, though, if Nigerians hated our guts. No people on earth have this sort of scourge coming. 

Instapunditry

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ON BOKO HARAM: "The death toll is usually claimed to be in the thousands, but no one has an accurate tally, in part because the Nigerian government misreports incidents and in part because in its hapless pursuit of Boko Haram, the government has killed so many people itself, many if not most of them civilians. The Nigerian armed forces claim that they kill only terrorists, yet the terrorists' ravages become more frequent and more vicious with every such claim. So vast and mysterious is the carnage, many otherwise sane Nigerians have come to believe Boko Haram possesses supernatural powers. Its name has taken on an incantatory power. It has become a kind of national synonym for fear."

 

LEE SMITH on George Clooney’s future in-laws in the Druze mountains of Lebanon. “Abdul-Latif’s husband, the non-Druze journalist Hussain Abdul-Hussain, also has some advice for Clooney. “The upside” of marrying a Druze, jokes Abdul-Hussain, “is that if he is worried about having to learn a new religion, he won’t. Most of the Druze themselves know nothing about their faith, so he doesn’t have to fear awkward moments at holiday celebrations like Passover or Christmas, because there aren’t any holidays.”

 

ROGER L. SIMON: Will the State Department’s refusal to declare Boko Haram a terrorist organization harm Hillary Clinton?

It certainly isn't going to help.

 

THE CHINESE AND VIETNAMESE NAVIES got into a bit of an altercation yesterday, and Walter Russell Mead says the battle for the South China Sea is officially on.

It is. And it won’t be resolved any time soon as Robert Kaplan makes clear in his worthwhile new book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.

 

HMM: Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu says Turkey has “substantially” overcome its problems with Israel.

 

PROBABLY NOT A BAD IDEA: NATO troops in Eastern Europe could be permanent after Crimea crisis.

 

BOKO HARAM commits another massacre in Nigeria. “The latest attack, on Monday, followed a classic Boko Haram pattern: Dozens of militants wearing fatigues and wielding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers descended on the town of Gamboru Ngala, chanting “Allahu akbar,” firing indiscriminately and torching houses. When it was over, at least 336 people had been killed and hundreds of houses and cars had been set on fire.”

Can we please not call people who do this sort of thing “militants?” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a militant. It depends on the context. You could say the fighters of the French Resistance were militants. They were not, however, terrorists. They did not just randomly shoot people.

If you don’t want to call Boko Haram terrorists for some nonsensical reason, how about “mass-murderers” and “slave-raiders?”

 

SYRIAN REBELS evacuate the capital of the revolution.

 

ELLIOT ABRAMS: Will the army save Egypt’s economy? The Egyptian military runs much of the economy like a plantation, and that’s not going to change, so the answer is no.

 

THE SULTAN OF BRUNEI imposes harsh Islamic criminal code.

The law applies to those of all religions in the sultanate, where Muslim Malays constitute a 70% majority of the country's 400,000 citizens, the news agency reported. Non-Muslim Chinese account for about 15% of Brunei's population.

A second phase of the law, which will come into force later this year, provides for severing of limbs and flogging for property crimes. A third phase set for late 2015 will allow the justice system to sentence offenders to death by stoning for crimes including adultery and gay sex.

Travel companies are responding by boycotting Brunei-owned hotels, and the Bererly Hills city council voted unanimously to divest. Who wants to be the first to impose sanctions?

 

THIS IS SERIOUSLY GETTING UGLY: Boko Haram commits another mass abduction of girls in Nigeria.

 

YUPPIE, GET YOUR GUN: Harking back to the partisans of World War II, young Ukrainians train for irregular combat against the Russians.

 

WELCOME TO JIHAD CITY, SYRIA: The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Syria) is so supremely awful that even Al Qaeda condemns it.

 

AFTER A FIFTY YEAR HIATUS, Malaria returns to Venezuela.

 

VLADIMIR PUTIN signs a law that bans swearing in Russian arts and media. (Igniting a civil war next door in a fit on pique is okay, though.)

 

BOKO HARAM DELENDA EST: Al Qaeda’s Nigerian franchise Boko Haram recently kidnapped 200 girls. The leader says he’s going to sell them.

 

GORDON CHANG on China’s campaign against foreign words.

 

ALEXANDER MOTYL on Vladimir Putin’s warlords in Ukraine: “Lacking popular support in Ukraine, Putin’s warlords will do what terrorists do: seize buildings, promote anti-Semitism, imprison and kill opposition leaders, attack Roma and other minorities, take neutral observers and journalists hostage, and abuse the population of whichever cities or towns they terrorize. One especially brutal terrorist, the warlord of the Sloviansk Putinstan, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, recently told a female journalist the following: “We’ll adopt all necessary measures to prevent elections in the southeast from taking place. We’ll take someone prisoner and hang him by his balls. Got it?”

Yeah, we got it.

 

GEE, I WONDER WHO’S GOING TO WIN? Assad to Face 2 Others in Syrian Presidential Poll.

 

NORTH KOREA issues a “human rights report” about the United States. America, it says, is “a living hell as elementary rights to existence are ruthlessly violated.” New York City is reportedly stricken with famine. Pyongyang also issued a “report” about South Korea, which it says has the worst human rights record in the entire world, in part because “60% of university students cannot afford their school fees so must work.”

 

100 ICONIC PHOTOS that define the 21st century so far.

 

UKRAINE FIGHTS BACK and vows to continue its military offensive in the pro-Russian east. Everybody fights back eventually even if they’re likely to lose.

 

LEAVING UKRAINE TO ITS FATE: Leon Weiseltier in The New Republic: “Obama has concluded...that he 'will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin,' and so he has decided that he 'will spend his final two and a half years in office trying to minimize the disruption Mr. Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin.'” Ignoring the master, of course, has the consequence of ignoring the master’s victims."

The Conspiracy Theory Capital of the World

Conspiracy theories exist everywhere in the world, but they’re especially common in the Middle East and are rampant in Egypt even by regional standards. They’re generally harmless when only crackpots on the margins believe them, but when they go mainstream and infect the highest levels of government and the media—watch out.

National Geographic has the story on the latest ludicrous theory making the rounds in Egypt, this one put forward by the governor of Minya province.

Local mobs looted a museum and burned fourteen churches to the ground a while back, and he’s blaming the United States in general and the White House in particular.

“It was Obama,” he said. “And all of the American politicians who have divided all of the world. They are the only people who supported the Muslim Brotherhood because they knew that the Muslim Brotherhood would destroy all of Egypt.”

This kind of talk is typical in Egypt and has been for decades. If you don’t think so re-read the essay Samuel Tadros recently wrote about Egypt’s Jewish problem in The American Interest.

“Israel, Turkey, the United States, the European Union, and Qatar are all conspiring against Egypt, screams a self-proclaimed Egyptian liberal; the United States is working against Copts for the benefit of Jews, shouts a Coptic activist; the Brotherhood is implementing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, writes the newspaper of what was once Egypt’s flagship liberal party; Israel aims to divide Egypt into a number of smaller and weaker states, writes another; Brotherhood leaders are Masonic Jews proclaims a Sufi leader; no, it’s the coup that is working for the benefit of the Jews, declares the Brotherhood’s website. These are all symptoms of a decaying society.”

The only difference between those outrageous theories—which span the political spectrum—and the latest is that the United States rather than Israel is at its center.

First let’s get the obvious out of the way. American politicians can’t be the only people in the world who supported the Muslim Brotherhood. Their candidate Mohammad Morsi won 51 percent of the vote in the presidential election, the first and only free and fair one in history.

The Brotherhood’s support cratered, of course, after an epic bout of buyer’s remorse, but nobody—nobody—forced millions of Egyptians to vote for Morsi and his party. That’s on them.

I’m not sure why so many Egyptians think Israelis and Americans are hell-bent on destroying their country. Maybe it’s related to the spotlight effect. But for whatever reason it’s a startlingly common belief. I heard some version or another repeatedly in Cairo even, occasionally, from people who otherwise seemed semi-reasonable.

Tarek Heggy, one of Egypt’s few genuinely liberal intellectuals, put it this way in Alexandria a few years ago: “Egyptians believe Israel gets up in the morning, asks itself what it can do to hurt Egypt that day, implements whatever scheme it comes up with, goes to bed, and gets up the next day and repeats.”

I didn’t swoon over President Obama’s famous speech in Cairo like some people did, but at the very least it should demonstrate that whatever the faults of the White House right now, a desire to destroy Egypt is not one of them.

Let’s clear something else up, too, while we’re at it.

American politicians didn’t support the Muslim Brotherhood so much as they were duped by the Muslim Brotherhood and their apologists into believing the organization is moderate.

Okay, yes, the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate compared with Al Qaeda, but so what? That hardly tells us anything useful. Benito Mussolini was moderate compared with Adolf Hitler. The Ku Klux Klan is moderate compared with the Spanish Inquisition. Fidel Castro is moderate compared with Pol Pot. Vladimir Putin is moderate compared with Ivan the Terrible. Colombia’s FARC is moderate compared with Peru’s Shining Path. But none of those individuals or organizations are moderate in any real sense of the word. The word “moderate” in American English generally refers to conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, not the likes of Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin. And not—not really—to the Muslim Brotherhood either.

President Obama and his advisors truly believed that if they reached out a hand to the Brothers that Islamist hostility to the United States would diminish, at least among the relative “moderates.” They believed the same thing about Russia and Vladimir Putin and to this day think the same about the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. They’re missing that hostility toward the West is based primarily on a rejection of Western ideas and culture. The Mr. Nice Guy routine that plays well in Berlin, Paris, and Ottawa fails utterly in Moscow and Cairo. It might work in Tehran when the Islamic Republic regime is no more, and it will work wonders in Havana when the Castro regime is out of power, but the only time it works with ideological hostiles is when a greater enemy that threatens us all must be confronted. (Recall the American alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.)

Americans suckered by the Muslim Brotherhood should have known better. Every Sunni Islamist terrorist organization in the Middle East is either a spin-off of the Muslim Brotherhood or a spin-off of a spin-off. There’s no excuse for getting this wrong, but making that unforced error is a long way from using the Muslim Brotherhood as a weapon in a plot to destroy all of Egypt.

Egypt can’t even begin to dig itself out of its hole until it faces up to the fact that Egyptians—not Israelis, not Americans, not the Turks, and not the Qataris—are the authors of their own tragedy. As addiction therapists like to say, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.

The country has a host of problems, but the largest, from which so many others spring, is its ideological rejection of liberal political values. The majority of Egypt’s secular parties are just as vehemently anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Israeli, and anti-liberal as the Islamists. Egypt doesn’t need to copy the West down to the last detail in order to flourish, but there’s no getting around the fact that people who reject everything the West stands for are guaranteed to live in poverty with a boot on their neck.

And it’s about time we realized that nobody in power in Egypt right now, including the most militant anti-Islamists, is our friend.

Guest-Blogging at Instapundit

Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds is taking his annual vacation and I'll be filling in for him (along with a handful of others) while he's away. So I'll see you there and here for a while.

RESURRECTION Optioned for Film

My new novel, Resurrection, has just been optioned for film.

Writer and director Chris Robert (Another You, 2014) has read the book four times and hopes to send me a draft of the screenplay by Memorial Day.

Resurrection is a zombie novel, but it belongs more to Post-Apocalyptic Science-Fiction than to the Horror genre. It’s a character-driven story about a group of mismatched survivors struggling with themselves and each other after the collapse of civilization—Lane, who stops at nothing to assert power and control over everybody who's left; Kyle, who dreams of building a new world upon the ruins of the old; Hughes, who lost the ability to feel after burying his family; Parker, who threatens to tear himself and his companions apart; and Annie Starling, who discovers a terrifying secret that could change everything, but she can’t tell a soul what is is.

“Working with Michael J. Totten is both an honor and a pleasure,” says Chris. “It’s amazing to collaborate with an author who not only likes the film business, but gets it. He has successfully infused the ever-popular zombie narrative, which is adored by fans on the big and small screen, with deep characterization. No matter the reader, or eventual audience member, I believe anyone can find themselves in one of these characters—to either their benefit or their horror.”

Most film options are never exercised, but that’s because Hollywood production companies tend to vaccuum up as many as they can get their hands so they have a whole library to pick from. I sold this option to an independent film company that isn’t interested in buying options for the sake of buying options, and they want to begin development as quickly as possible. I’ve already met Chris, the director, and AJ Shah, the producer. The three of us spent several days together in person going over this project, and I know they’re serious. The odds that the film will go into production are high.

Thanks to All Kickstarter Donors

My Kickstarter project for Vietnam is now funded, so I'm officially going.

I have some prep work to do before I can head out and I still need my visa from the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington. Most likely I'll fly to Hanoi in June, spend some time there, then take the train down to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

I sent everyone a thank-you email, and I also want to thank my biggest donors here on the blog.

Nick Wade

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David

Egypt's Jewish Problem

Egypt is by far the most anti-Semitic country I’ve ever visited. It’s off the charts even compared with the rest of the region.

Everyone who posseses even a passing familiarity with Egyptian politics knows this is a serious problem, but the reasons why aren’t as widely understood as they should be. The three main theories—that Egypt’s Jewish problem is a result of the Islamic religion, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and state propaganda to deflect anger away from the government—are partly correct, but they don’t adequately explain what’s actually happening. There are other deeper reasons that should be more widely known than they are.

Egyptian scholar Samuel Tadros, whose book Motherland Lost I reviewed last year for the Wall Street Journal, gets down to the nuts and bolts in The American Interest.

His essay is long and complex, so be sure to read the whole thing. Here is but a taste.

To understand the roots of anti-Semitism in the Arab world in general and Egypt in particular, we must look much deeper. We must explore both the crisis of modernity in the Arab world and the importation of European ideologies and ideas.

The crisis of modernity in the Arab world began with the sudden realization of the West’s advancement and the miserable state of Arabs and Muslims by comparison. Isolated for centuries from developments in Europe, Egyptians—first their rulers and intellectuals but later on the general population as well—were shocked to discover that the Frenchmen led by Napoleon who had landed on their shores were not the same Franks they had defeated during the Crusades. The shock of the discovery of Western technological, material, and military superiority shattered the existing political order and demanded a response. The initial approach of simply importing and copying Western technology proved inadequate, as the gap between Egypt and the West grew wider. Occupation by European powers only aggravated the crisis. The crisis revolved around two questions: What went wrong, as Bernard Lewis accurately framed it; and how can we catch up.

For a while, copying the West in practice and appearance carried the day. This was the triumphant moment for modernization, liberalism, and Westernization in Egypt. Ahmed Lutfi El Sayed formulated an Egyptian nationalism, and the struggle for independence from Britain united the nation. But cracks started to appear. Egypt never managed to catch up to the West; the West, represented in Britain, proved unwilling to uphold democratic and liberal values in Egypt; and most importantly modernization was tearing society apart with little to show for it. The introduction of mass education, industrialization, and urbanization was breaking up traditional society, while modern society had not yet been created. Thousands were coming to the cities in search of a better future only to be shocked by the lack of opportunities available to them. This was the generation of Nasser, a generation described in Egyptian historiography as “the new Effendis.” The last straw was Western disillusionment with the promises of liberal democracy and the rise of communist and, more importantly, fascist regimes in Europe.

[…]

The Nazi efforts had a lasting impact on Egypt. Nasser and his fellow officers belonged to those organizations and movements from the Muslim Brotherhood to Young Egypt that had collaborated with the Nazis and were greatly influenced by them during their formative years. Following the military coup in 1952, anti-Semitism moved from the state of appealing ideology to State-sponsored ideology. While some scholarly attention has been given to the role of German scientists in building the Egyptian rockets program, less attention has been given to the role of Nazi ideologues in shaping educational and propaganda efforts in Egypt. “In 1956, Nasser hired Johann von Leers, one of the Nazi regime’s leading anti-Semitic propagandists, to assist the Egyptian Ministry of Information in fashioning its own anti-Semitic and anti Zionist campaigns” (Herf, Nazi Propaganda).

[…]

Those hopeful that the Arab Spring would introduce a breath of fresh air in the region, and especially on the question of anti-Semitism, were soon mugged by reality. Instead of becoming less appealing, anti-Semitism has become the lingua franca of politics in Egypt. Faced with tremendous political, social, and economic upheaval, the Egyptian political class and the general population have found an answer in the Jewish conspiracy. Israel, Turkey, the United States, the European Union, and Qatar are all conspiring against Egypt, screams a self-proclaimed Egyptian liberal; the United States is working against Copts for the benefit of Jews, shouts a Coptic activist; the Brotherhood is implementing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, writes the newspaper of what was once Egypt’s flagship liberal party; Israel aims to divide Egypt into a number of smaller and weaker states, writes another; Brotherhood leaders are Masonic Jews proclaims a Sufi leader; no, it’s the coup that is working for the benefit of the Jews, declares the Brotherhood’s website. These are all symptoms of a decaying society.

Read the whole thing.

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