The "Snap Back" Delusion

“Snap back.” That's the term used by officials in Washington to describe an automatic re-imposition of multilateral sanctions on Iran if it violates a deal with the United States to scale backs its nuclear weapons program.

“We will retain the ability to snap back multilateral sanctions architecture back in place, without Russian or Chinese support,” Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said earlier this week to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

She says she can't explain how this would work, exactly, but Russia and China aren't the only potential obstacles we need to worry about.

The World National Oil Companies Congress conducted a full-day briefing in London this week about the massive amounts of money that can be made in Iran after sanctions are lifted.

“The fact that the whole sanctions structure is weakened is true,” Ellham Hassanzadeh said to Sohrab Ahmari at the Wall Street Journal. “Everybody’s just ready that once it really crumbles to go back to the country and put down the money.”

Chevron was there. Siemens was there. Big companies from Australia and Singapore were there, along with so many other.

And they're all ready to “put down the money.”

What's going to happen if, a year or so later, Iran says to hell with it and starts cheating? Sanctions can only “snap back” into place if the nations imposing the sanctions are willing to admit that Iran has been cheating and are willing to act accordingly. Is that really going to happen after gigantic companies from all over the world have invested hundreds of millions—perhaps even billions—of dollars?

Chevron won't be in charge of what happens, nor will any other multinational corporation, but we're kidding ourselves if we think government officials won't flinch at the thought of flushing that kind of cash down the toilet.

Forget the conspiracy theories about corporations running the world. Governments run the world. But nearly all governments outside communist and quasi-communist countries like North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela take their nation's economic health into account. They have to, especially if they're democratically elected and are held accountable by their citizens and financial backers.

It's hardly a stretch to suggest that policymakers might get a little weak in the knees when it's crunch time. There's no need to be cynical about it. We're all capable of lying to ourselves, especially when our paychecks and livelihoods depend on it.

Would you acknowledge that Iran is cheating if it obligated you to set your house on fire? Your mind would innocently twist itself into all kinds of contortions before admitting that, yeah, it's time to pour a gallon gasoline onto the living room floor and drop a lit match.

The West's will is already sapped even without billions of dollars in cash on the table. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the State Department is three years behind its own Iranian sanctions implementation.

“Our analysis,” reads the report, “demonstrates that State is falling further and further behind in providing the reports and is now juggling a backlog of draft reports at different stages of that process. The imposition of sanctions no sooner than 3 or more years after the transfer occurred may diminish the credibility of the threatened sanction.”

We haven't even reached the point yet where money is on the table.

Last week a panel of United Nations monitors released a report complaining that both the US and Europe have been deliberately ignoring Iranian sanctions violations.

“The current situation with reporting,” the report says, “could reflect a general reduction of procurement activities by the Iranian side or a political decision by some member states to refrain from reporting to avoid a possible negative impact on ongoing negotiations.”

It's not just the United States that isn't reporting Iranian misbehavior to the United Nations. No country is reporting Iranian misbehavior to the United Nations, not even misbehavior that's unfolding, as Sangwon Yoon put it in Bloomberg, in plain sight.

“There's a direct correlation between this administration not wanting to sanction anyone or any violation and their lack of reporting on those violations,” said US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “And it's sending a signal to the international community that the United States is not serious about any of our sanctions, that if you talk to the right folks at certain agencies and get a pass.”

Is any of this going to change after the sanctions are lifted? No one can know for sure, but the real question is, why would it?

Al Qaeda's Bogus Apology

The Nusra Front accused members of the Druze minority of blasphemy in Syria's Idlib Province and massacred twenty innocent people, prompting a ludicrous headline in the Christian Science Monitor.

Syrian Druze massacre: Can jihadists salvage their image?

What image? They're terrorists. They're the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. And they're identified right there in the headline as jihadists.

Some of us seem to be forgetting what jihadists are. How about we let them define themselves in their own words? “Jihad,” Abu Bakr Naji wrote in Al Qaeda's handbook, The Management of Savagery, “is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [people], and massacring.”

This isnot a description of Al Qaeda's behavior in New York City and Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001. This is a description of Al Qaeda's behavior in the Middle East and its treatment of Middle Easterners.

Apparently, though, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda thinks it does have an image to bolster. So the leaders apologized and sent a delegation to the village of Qalb Lawzah to smooth everything over.

It's bogus.

Even if we'd never heard of Al Qaeda and had no idea that they have a long and sordid history of mass murder and brutal totalitarian rule over every scrap of land they control, we'd still know this apology is bogus and that Al Qaeda is no better than ISIS. (Let's not forget that ISIS is simply the new name for Al Qaeda in Iraq.) We'd know this because Nusra Front “emir” Abu Mohamed al-Jolani said his army would protect minorities who “leave their religion and leave (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad.”

The Druze have to leave their religion!

That kind of protection is worth less even than mafia-style “protection.” Nusra wants the Druze to erase their religion and culture or die. The likes of Tony Soprano just wanted money.

The Saudis Team Up With Israel

Saudi and Israeli diplomats jointly announced that they've held five meetings in secret since early last year in India, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

The reason? Iran. The Israelis and the Saudis have a common enemy in Tehran, and they're increasingly relying on each other now that the United States, contrary to the interests of both, might ease sanctions if a nuclear deal gets hammered out later this year.

Retired Saudi general Anwar Majed Eshki and Israeli diplomat Dore Gold shook hands in front of the cameras during their announcement at the Council on Foreign Relations—a bigger deal than it seems. Not because it suddenly means that Israel and Saudi Arabia are best friends forever—fat chance of that ever happening—but because shaking hands with or even saying hello to an Israeli is a crime in some Arab countries, even in Lebanon which is more open-minded and cosmopolitan than the lot of them.

But bigotries can fade in even the most reactionary countries over time and under the right circumstances, and it's actually happening in Saudi Arabia.

Eli Lake covered the event for Bloomberg and described the Saudi general's speech this way:

He laid out a brief history of Iran since the 1979 revolution, highlighting the regime's acts of terrorism, hostage-taking and aggression. He ended his remarks with a seven-point plan for the Middle East. Atop the list was achieving peace between Israel and the Arabs. Second came regime-change in Iran. Also on the list were greater Arab unity, the establishment of an Arab regional military force, and a call for an independent Kurdistan to be made up of territory now belonging to Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Arab unity is a castle in the sky. Never mind hopeless cases like Syria and Iraq. Not even the tiniest Arab countries like Lebanon and Bahrain can manage to unify themselves locally. An Arab regional military force wouldn't require absolute unity (see NATO), but at the very least it requires participating states to be on good terms with each other. The Arab states right now, though, are as fractious as ever. The yearning for unity in that part of the world is so strong because the lack of it is as painful as it is destructive.

But take a look at the other points Eshki made.

He says Saudi Arabia's number one priority is peace between Israelis and Arabs. Read that sentence again and let it sink in. Saudi Arabia's number one priority is peace between Israelis and Arabs. Not between Israelis and Palestinians, but between Israel and the entire Arab world.

Try not to be overly skeptical. It's true that the history between Muslims and Jews is long and unpleasant, but the history between Muslims and Christians is equally long and unpleasant, yet Saudi Arabia has normal relations with every Christian nation on earth. The only Arab countries that don't have normal relations with the United States right now are Syria and Sudan. American relations with Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan are outstanding. Jordan's relations with Israel are outstanding. Morocco also has cordial, albeit quiet and semi-secret, relations with Israel.

Officially, the Saudis don't recognize Israel's right to exist, but at least they acknowledge the reality of Israel's existence, and they're increasing recognizing that the two nations have common interests and common real enemies.

Israel is not a real enemy. It's not even a competitor. It's a country the Saudis find distasteful for real and imagined reasons.

The Israelis are not going to attack Saudi Arabia, ever. The Iranians probably won't either, but they very well may back proxies Shia militias inside the country. They've been doing it for years in Lebanon and Iraq, and now they're doing it in Syria and Yemen.

Iran is to Saudi Arabia what Russia was to the United States during the Cold War. But declaring Israel an enemy of Saudi Arabia makes no more sense than declaring Peru an enemy of the United States.

So what if the Saudis find Israel distasteful? They find the United States distasteful, too, but we can work together well enough without rancor when our interests overlap. It's strange, but true: Saudi Arabia is like a watered-down version of ISIS domestically and Britain internationally.

Riyadh did propose a peace deal with Jerusalem in 2002. They'll recognize the Jewish state if the Israelis withdraw to the 1967 borders, accept a Palestinian state, and allow the right of return to all the children of all the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. That's not going to happen, of course. Israel has no room for millions of Palestinians, the overwhelming majority of whom have never set foot inside the country. But the Saudi proposal could at least be a starting point for negotiations. Either way, the Saudis made it clear more than a decade ago that they'll be willing to recognize Israel's right to exist in the future under certain conditions. The current hostility—which is clearly not what it used to be anyway—need not be eternal.

It's not just the Saudi government that's coming around. Saudi citizens are viewing the region more realistically, too. A recent poll conducted by the IDC Institute for Policy and Strategy found that only 18 percent of Saudis view Israel as their principal enemy. 22 percent said that distinction belongs to ISIS while a whopping 53 percent fingered Iran.

Much of the Middle East seems stubbornly resistant to positive change, but history is a river, not a statue. All things eventually pass.

“What we think here in Israel about the Saudis is not exactly what they are,” said the IDC's Alex Mintz. The same goes double for the Saudi view of Israelis, of course, but as retired Israeli general Shimon Shapira told Lake, “we discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers.”

When Selfies Kill

It looks like some members of ISIS are on the JV team after all.

From Gizmodo:

Many of us know the feeling of posting a regrettable pic or two online. But while your thoughtless photos might be an embarrassment, they (typically) aren’t offensive enough to merit a US Air Force strike. If you’re a terrorist, on the other hand, a wee bit more discretion is probably advised.

ISIS didn’t post dick pics, but in hindsight that might have been a better call for the Islamic State militants who instead allowed selfies taken in front of a secret headquarters to surface on their social media. The photos caught the attention of US Air Force Intelligence, who, 22 hours later, took the entire building out with three JDAM-equipped bombs.

The survivors should watch Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's sort-of true story about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

After the CIA team finds bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the character George, played by Mark Strong, says “this is a professional attempt to avoid detection. Real tradecraft.”

And he still got whacked by SEAL Team Six.

The great thing about this, aside from an ISIS headquarters getting vaporized from the skies, is that ISIS is going to be a hell of a lot more paranoid from now on. And paranoid organizations and regimes tend to shrink down and chew off their own legs.

The Second-Most Megalomaniacal Dictator on Earth

Everyone knows the world's most megalomaniacal dictator. That would be Kim Jong Un of the North Korean hermit kingdom, also known as “The Precious Leader,” son of the “The Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, is still known today as “The Great Leader" for being the man who invented inventing things.

Funny that hardly anyone has even heard of the second-most megalomaniacal dictator on earth. We're all groaningly familiar with the likes of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Russia's Vladimir Putin, and Iran's “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei because they all enjoy blowing things up in other people's countries, but not even Putin is as full of himself as Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedov.

I can't pronounce his name either.

He's the ruler of—where else?—one of the 'Stans.

Turkmenistan, to be exact, where the post-Soviet period is exactly like its Soviet period.

Berdimuhamedov just erected a 69-foot statue of himself in the center of Ashgabat, the capital. He's up there on a golden horse atop an enormous slab of marble that looks like an iceberg.

He's compensating. Two years ago he fell off a horse at an official race. The only reason we even know this is because a brave person in the audience captured it on amateur video and uploaded it to the Internet. All the other riders rode past him as he lay flat on his back in the dirt, but he was declared the winner regardless and awarded an 11 million dollar prize for his “performance.”

One of the perks of absolute rulership, I guess. Nice work if you can get it, as long as you don't suffer from common ailments like a conscience or guilt.

When the statue was unveiled, students chanted “Glory to Arkadag!”

He pretends the whole thing was somebody else’s idea. “My main goal is to serve the people and the motherland,” he said, “and so, I will listen to the opinion of the people and do as they choose.”

Moammar Qaddafi used to say the same thing about his own buffoonish portraits plastered up all over Tripoli and even out in the desert.

This clown follows President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006 of heart failure. He renamed months of the year after himself and his family. He built a 60-foot statue of himself that slowly rotated so that his face was always in sunlight. Officials took it down in 2010, but rather than melting it into slag, they raised it 60 feet higher.

His face was on all the money, of course, but it was also on all the bottles of vodka.

Niyazov editedthe Qur’an so that it includes his birthday. The world's jihadists either didn't know, didn't care, or figured he wasn't a soft enough target. Not content to ban only Taliban-style long beards, he banned all facial hair, so whatever Salafists might exist in Central Asia may have rightly assumed that a guy like that won’t put up with their crap.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. He’s no cultural liberal. He banned ballet. He even banned lip-syncing, not because such activities threatened his rule, but because he didn't care for them, so why should anyone else?

Their job was to care about him. He even named a meteorite after himself.

Lots of books are banned in Turkmenistan, but not Niyazov's contribution to world literature, the Ruhnama. His government hails it as “The Answer to All Questions” and says it’s on par with the Bible and the Qu’ran, so no one ever needs to read anything else.

After all that, the country looks and feels pretty much like you'd expect.

CNN's Amanda Davies was there last week:

Shops are nowhere to be seen; nor adverts for international brands. Even people are hard to come by.

We'd been on Turkmenistan soil for 30 seconds when we glimpse our first Berdimuhamedov portrait. It took just 10 minutes from exiting the airport to be told: “You can't film that.”


Nobody we met would say anything against Berdimuhamedov. Then again we struggled to find anyone to say very much at all about anything.

The only other countries in the entire world more oppressive than Turkmenistan are North Korea and Eritrea. But Turkmenistan doesn't screw with its neighbors and there’s no pressure to reform from outside whatsoever, so its people will suffer indefinitely and, for the most part, anonymously.

Cuba Outside the Tourist Bubble

Most journalists who travel to Cuba write about how awesome the tourist bubble is.

Jonathan Ray, for instance, summed it up this way in The Spectator last year: “By the end, Havana had me in her spell. She was like a brash and vulgar party girl whom everyone adores and you can’t think why. Ten minutes in her company, though, and you too are smitten. My three nights passed in a flash and I long to return to discover more about this edgy but thrilling city.”

These kinds of articles are a genre unto themselves. They've appeared in our media for decades for a handful of reasons. Some reporters are lazy and incurious. Many, like the Spectator writer, don't stick around long enough to see past the mystique of the forbidden. A good number think they're poking “American propaganda” in the eye by being contrarian. A handful might even be true believers.

Others are concerned—with good reason—that publishing anything critical of the government or even everyday living conditions will get them arrested, deported and blacklisted. When the Wall Street Journal publishes pieces from Cuba, they often omit the reporter's name for that very reason.

Once in a while, though, journalists say to hell with all that and expose Cuba as the miserable place that it is.

Nick Miroff just did that for the Washington Post.

As one of Havana’s largest state-run retail hubs, the Supermercado 3ra y 70 is the communist government equivalent of a Target or Wal-Mart, created as a one-stop shopping center. It was designed, quite possibly, by sadists.

Customers with long shopping lists face no fewer than seven places to stand in line. One for butter. Another for cooking oil. A third for toothpaste. And so on.

He quotes a guy whose friend managed to visit the United States and misses two things above all: freedom and Home Depot.

Why Home Depot? For one thing, the lines are short. There may be seven or more lines at the checkout registers, but you only have to stand in one of them.

It's not about the lines, though, not really. They're just a symptom. Scarcity is the disease. And if you think Cuba's chronic shortages are because of American sanctions, think again. The guy that mentioned Home Depot? He makes a living selling screws and nails on the black market. He'll be sentenced to prison if he's caught, so Miroff left his last name out of the article.

Sentenced to prison. For selling nails and screws.

You'll also go to prison if you sell cooking oil or cheese. You'll go to prison if you're found in possession of a lobster whether or not you bought or sold it. Only tourists get to eat lobster, not because it's an endangered species but because the government sells them at state-run restaurants for foreigners and won't tolerate anyone challenging its monopoly.

Communism fails just as dismally in Cuba as it failed everywhere else, and for the same reasons. If you ban economic behavior, you won't have much of an economy.

That, along with the fact that the state-imposed Maximum Wage is a ration card plus a paltry twenty dollars a month, is why Cuba is poor.

It's one of the oddities of our time that most articles written about Cuba describe the island as an awesome place that's misunderstood. (Imagine if the bulk of written material about the Soviet Union during the Cold War described Moscow as though it were Prague circa the late 1990s.)

The army isn't out in the streets pointing guns at everyone's heads, but even lazy and incurious journalists must get at least a whiff of the island's oppression.

James Kirchick recently returned from there and opened his piece this way:

I've visited more than my fair share of dictatorships, but Cuba is the only one where travelers at the airport must pass through a metal detector upon entering, in addition to leaving, the country. Immediately after clearing customs at José Marti International Airport, visitors line up for a security check. Anyone found carrying contraband — counterrevolutionary books, say, or a spare laptop that might be given to a Cuban citizen — could find himself susceptible to deportation.

He spent much of his time interviewing dissidents—a risky move, for both reporter and dissident—but he also sprinkled his essay with the sort of fun facts most journalists who visit the island don't feel like communicating to the rest of us.

Few visitors bother to visit an actual Cuban home, and so you won't hear them coo about the "classic" 1950s-era refrigerators — that is, if the house is lucky enough to have one. Aside from a few carefully well-preserved plazas outside the main tourist hotels, Havana is much dirtier and more run down than I imagined. Walking down its narrow streets, I was reminded of bombed-out sections of Beirut, heaps of rubble and trash strewn about the decaying buildings. Steps from a billboard splayed with Castro's visage and some revolutionary verbiage, a woman picked through garbage. At a pharmacy, I watched a man purchase Band-Aids — individually, not by the package.

"Sometimes when you have money you want to go to the market and buy meat and there's nothing there," Berta Soler told me. "If you're able to find it, it's bad quality. We wake up every day thinking, 'What am I going to eat today?' and go to sleep thinking 'What am I going to eat tomorrow?'" I dined at a variety of Cuban establishments, from the restaurant of a moderately priced tourist hotel to a relatively upmarket café to a canteen in a small, extremely poor provincial city. Across the board, the quality of food was horrendous, and never before have I been more eager to consume airplane cuisine.

Cuba's current president Raul Castro is a little less severe than his brother, and he's reforming Fidel's imbecilic economic system one tiny rule at a time. At the current rate of change, Havana will be the Prague of the Western Hemisphere sometime around the year 2200.

In the meantime, more American tourists than ever are visiting the island now that diplomatic relations are beginning to normalize. Hopefully, some of the more curious among them will wander outside the tourist bubble for at least a couple of hours and get a glimpse of what actually existing communism looks like while it's still with us.

A Brilliant Answer to a Ludicrous Question

My Canadian pal Terry Glavin brilliantly answers a ludicrous question. “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion of Iraq?”

It seems like a reasonable question, but it's not. We don't have the benefit of hindsight in advance. If we did, my goodness. The entire world would be radically different. The entire world would be so radically different that of course we should have invaded Iraq in 2003.

Here's Glavin:

To be blessed with such magical powers of clairvoyance would have been to know which decisions not to make, from the small ones – don’t send a column of Humvees down that road, it’s mined with IEDs – to the big ones – hey, let’s not put the 320th Military Police Battalion in charge of that prison at Abu Ghraib. Even the really big mistakes could have been foreseen and avoided. The whole “De-Baathification” project and the disbanding the Iraqi military? Let’s skip that. It’ll just come back to haunt us all in the worst possible way.

We could play this game all day. Why not ask the same question about Syria? Or the wars on drugs and poverty. The decision to build public housing blocks in Cabrini-Green. Staying out of World War II until after the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Putting New Orleans below sea level. Building a house where “we now know” an F-5 tornado would touch down five years later. Electing George W. Bush president. Electing Barack Obama president. Picking Sarah Palin as a running mate. Buying a lottery ticket that “we now know” was a bust.

In real life, we make decisions with the information we have at the time.

Here's Glavin again:

In the orthodox view, “what we know now” is that everybody was wrong back then and the cost was 162,000 dead Iraqis and roughly $900 billion. The lessons we take from this? We trade the fundamental human rights of the Iranian people for the shambles of a nuclear deal with the ayatollahs. We confront the Islamic State’s rampaging barbarism with a small, mostly air-power coalition that has no intention of victory. We allow Bashar Assad, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force and Hezbollah to wage war on the Syrian people.

Total cost to date: Afghanistan survives by the skin of its teeth. Libya no longer exists. Iraq is a failed state in all but name. Khomeinist Iran has never been so confidently ambitious. In Syria alone: more than 225,000 dead, nearly 10 million homeless, three million refugees, and a reconstruction bill the World Bank last year pegged at $200 billion and counting.

All that, too, is “what we know now.” So what lessons have we learned?

Well, at least two things are perfectly clear. Horrible things happen when we go to war, and horrible things happen when we give peace a chance.

Foreign policy is hard. When it's crunch time, hundreds of thousands of people will die no matter what decision you make.

The Borg of the Middle East

My latest piece, about the fall of Palmyra to ISIS, appears in City Journal. Here's the first part.

ISIS has conquered Syria’s spectacular Roman Empire city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site long known affectionately as the “bride of the desert,” and in all likelihood is gearing up to demolish it. We know this because they’ve done it before. ISIS used hammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the ancient Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud near Mosul, and they did it on video.

“These ruins that are behind me,” said an ISIS vandal on YouTube, “they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The Prophet Muhammad took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.”

Muslims have ruled this part of the world for more than 1,000 years. All this time, they’ve been unbothered by the fact that Palmyra, Hatra, and Nimrud include pagan monuments, temples, statues, and inscriptions that predate Islam. Only now are these places doomed to annihilation. ISIS is more belligerently Philistine than any group that has inhabited the region for a millennium. The only modern analogue is the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan with anti-aircraft guns, artillery shells and dynamite in March 2001, mere months before their al-Qaida pals attacked New York City and Washington.

This attitude toward history harks back less to the seventh century than to the twentieth, when Pol Pot reset the calendar to Year Zero after the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia, and when Mao Zedong’s Chinese Cultural Revolution murdered millions in the war against everything “old.”

Maamoun Adbulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, told Reuters that the army carted hundreds of ancient statues away to safety, but of course the giant Roman columns and the museum itself aren’t going anywhere except, perhaps, underneath the jaws of ISIS bulldozers. “This is the entire world’s battle,” he said.

That’s how bad things are in Syria now. The mass-murderers, war criminals, sectarian gangsters, and state sponsors of international terrorism in Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime can plausibly tout themselves as the defenders of civilization. In this particular case and in this particular place, they’re right.

Palmyra is more than 2,000 years old. It began as a humble caravan stop in the second century B.C., but Rome eventually annexed it and turned it into a dazzling and prosperous metropolis. Lying in an oasis in modern-day Homs Governate, during Rome’s time it served as a crucial hub linking Europe to Persia, India, and China.

The ruins sprawl over a vast area, preserved in the desert, away from the dense and overbuilt coastal areas of modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Unlike most Roman ruin sites, this one includes nearly intact buildings, some of them enormous. The architectural style is a delightful blend of Roman, Greek, and Persian. Some of the standing columns bear inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic. It’s a magnificent place, the Levantine melting pot at its finest, a startlingly beautiful crossroads where the East meets the West, where everything and everybody is blended.

But now it has been overtaken by a totalitarian death cult that uses mass murder and heavy weapons and machinery to transform everything and everyone into a single block-like structure, with itself at the center. ISIS is the Borg of the Middle East.

Read the rest in City Journal.


The Muslim Brotherhood Takes Off its Mask

ISIS is threatening to kill judges and security personnel in Egypt after a Cairo court sentenced former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi to death while, at the same time, what's left of the Muslim Brotherhood is promising a revolution that “exterminates all the oppressors.”

So much for the Muslim Brotherhood being moderate.

Human beings are naturally compelled to violently resist violent repression regardless of their ideology, but the Brotherhood's ostensible moderation was always limited to its strategy. Its members largely refrained from violence because they believed a peaceful path to their radical Islamist utopia may have been open to them. Now that that's off the table, the mask and the gloves have come off.

And that word, “exterminate.” This is not the language of freedom fighters. Thomas Jefferson and Vaclav Havel never threatened to exterminate anyone. This is the language of ISIS, Al Qaeda and Pol Pot. 

Most of the world's Sunni Arab terrorist organizations are spin-offs of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Al Qaeda. ISIS, meanwhile, is a spin-off of Al Qaeda. Hamas in the Gaza Strip isn't even a spin-off. It's the Muslim Brotherhood's Palestinian branch.

The ideologies of all these groups scarcely differ. They all want a Sunni theocracy, and they're all hostile to secularists, minorities, and the West. The differences lie only in their severity, but the Brothers are looking and sounding less moderate by the day, and there's no reason to be the least bit shocked that ISIS views them as their comrades and is threatening revenge on their behalf.

Egypt's young Muslim Brotherhood leaders exiled themselves to Istanbul to get clear the severe government crackdown which has so far killed more than 2,500 and imprisoned more than 16,000. And from there they mounted an insurgency against the regime and the relatively tepid leadership of their own organization.

As Eric Trager and Marina Shalabi write in Foreign Affairs, they “rebelled against the group’s older leaders, blaming them for 'misanalyzing' the political situation leading up to Morsi’s overthrow and then mismanaging the post-Morsi period. They further rejected their leaders’ calls for a patient, long-term struggle against Egypt’s military-backed government. They advocated instead for revolutionary—and violent—tactics to destabilize the government sooner rather than later.”

A few years ago, after the removal of Hosni Mubarak but before the election of Morsi, Western optimists argued that the Brothers were going to change, that the younger generation was more moderate than the dinosaurs, that it was only a matter of time before their less-conservative views dominated the organization.

It's easy, especially in hindsight, to see the fatal flaw in that analysis. Younger generations in the West are often more liberal than their parents and grandparents, at least in some ways. The majority of Republicans in the United States under the age of 30, for instance, support gay marriage. Almost half of Republicans under the age of 50 support gay marriage. Times here are changing.

But the Muslim Brotherhood is not the Egyptian Republican Party. Nor is General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's military regime the Democratic Party of Egypt. The only thing Egypt has in common with the United States politically is that it's more or less divided into two partisan camps—those who want a religious dictatorship and those who want a military dictatorship.

This is not new. I noticed it the first time I visited Cairo back in 2005. I met a handful of genuine political liberals at the time, but they were all too keenly aware that the percentage of Egyptians who agreed with them was in the high single digits at best.

You can't have democracy without democrats. And when the overwhelming majority want one kind of dictatorship or another, they're guaranteed to get one kind of dictatorship or another.

Historically, Egyptians haven't been prone to civil war the way the Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese are, but if the Muslim Brotherhood takes the next logical step and actually teams up with ISIS, watch out.

Egypt's Former President Sentenced to Death

Former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi has been sentenced to death.

His political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not half as “moderate” as its apologists claim. One of his last acts as president was appointing a member of Gamaa Islamiya, a terrorist organization responsible for murdering dozens of tourists in 1997, as the governor of Luxor—the very place where those tourists were massacred.

Few in the West liked or trusted him, and plenty of Egyptians who voted for him suffered spasms of buyer's remorse, but he was nevertheless the first and only freely elected president in the entire history of Egypt.

And now he has been sentenced to death by a court controlled by the nation's military strongman, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi has declared total war on the Brotherhood. The man is not content to simply keep his opponents out of power. He won't tolerate them as a non-violent dissident force. He can't even tolerate the former president drawing breath in a dungeon.

This is Middle Eastern “strong horse” politics at its finest (or worst), but you know what? This sort of thing works until it doesn't. Nothing's stopping Sisi from going full Assad and creating a North African version of Syria's Baath Party regime, but not even a total surveillance police state is enough to put down the armed Sunni Islamist insurrection in Syria, not even with Iran and Hezbollah on side.

It's not hard to see where this is heading. Whatever's left of the Muslim Brotherhood will almost certainly abandon its mostly non-violent strategy to transform Egypt into an Islamic utopia and take up rifles and car bombs.

If you're planning a Nile River cruise or a trip to the pyramids, wait.

UPDATE: Right on schedule, two judges and a prosecutor were just shot and killed.

The Middle East's Nuclear Arms Race is On

President Barack Obama hoped a nuclear deal with Iran would prevent an arms race in the Persian Gulf region, but the Saudis don't trust what's coming any more than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does, and they're no longer shy about saying so. And they promise to match the levels of enrichment capacity the Iranians get to keep.

“Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too,” said Prince Turki bin Faisal, the New York Times reports.

Prince Turki argued that the United States was making a “pivot to Iran” that was ill advised, and that the United States failed to learn from North Korea’s violations of its nuclear deals. “We were America’s best friend in the Arab world for 50 years,” he said, using the past tense.

The Saudis were never America's best friends in the Arab world. That designation goes to Morocco, which has been a genuine ally for more than 200 years. The American-Saudi alliance was always strictly transactional, and it makes large majorities of people in both countries uncomfortable.

Aside from the fact that the House of Saud can play well with others to a certain extent, at home the regime is only fractionally less draconian than ISIS. Beheadings in Riyadh's “Chop Chop Square” are as ho-hum and routine as speeding tickets on  American freeways.

But whatever. The Saudis no longer feel, or no longer wish to at least say, that they're our best friends. It's common knowledge even in Washington that they oppose the Iranian regime and its nuclear weapons program as stridently as the Israelis do. The fallout in relations was as predictable as it was inevitable.

A democratic Iran would be a natural ally of the United States while the Saudis, with their popularly backed medieval system, are natural enemies. At some point the US will pivot, and the pivot will likely be permanent, but until the clerical regime in Tehran reforms itself out of all recognition or is overthrown from below, we're stuck with the awkward and ailing alliance we have. Let's try not to squander it further.

Raúl Castro’s Papal Publicity Stunt

Cuban dictator Raúl Castro flew to the Vatican, met privately with Pope Francis, and says he’s returning to church.

“I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction,” he said after the meeting on television. “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I’m not joking.”

Fat chance.

The man is 83 years old and has been an atheist and a communist since the Season One premiere of Leave it to Beaver. His regime once outlawed religion entirely and to this day has its boot on the neck of the island’s priests.

There’s always a chance, I suppose, that, unlike Christopher Hitchens, he’s changing his heart and mind about God near the end of his life. It’s far more likely, however, that he’s trying to burnish his image abroad now that the United States is normalizing relations.

Even if he goes back to church every Sunday and starts praying in front of the cameras, few will believe he’s sincere. Politicians do this sort of thing all the time. Does anyone seriously believe that America’s Congress critters are even half as churchy in real life as they appear? Raúl is a lower form of life even than they are. He’s only a “politician” when he leaves the island and hobnobs with his betters. At home he helms a police state.

At least he got to see Europe with his own eyes when he flew to the Vatican. Italy is hardly the most high-functioning and prosperous nation in Europe—it looks and feels like Greece or even Egypt compared with Switzerland and Germany—but compared with Cuba it’s Canada.

Cuba’s natural beauty is undeniable, and it’s easy to see Havana’s former grandeur through the rot and decay, but even the refurbished part of the capital in the tourist quarter looks and feels surreal and blank. It’s like a Disneyfied version of Cuba. Clean and well-maintained, to be sure, and pleasant enough on the surface, but there’s no real economy there aside from some token high-end restaurants for tourists that locals can’t afford to eat in on their 20-dollars a month Maximum Wage. 

Some of your friends have been to Cuba, I know, and some of them say it’s great. It can be great if you stay inside the tourist bubble, but leaving that bubble and interacting with the rest of Havana is like getting thumped in the stomach by a cop wielding a truncheon. More than half the capital’s population lives on a ration card and a salary smaller than a child’s allowance in an urban disaster area that looks like it was bombed during a war. 

Rome had to have made an impression on Raúl Castro. He knows what a nation with a market economy looks like, and that’s good. He can’t possibly go home and believe his own propaganda about “socialism,” which in Cuba is actually communism, but he hasn’t believed that nonsense for years anyway. Now that his more-hardline brother Fidel is out of the picture—is he still even alive, or is it Weekend at Bernie’s down there?—Raúl has implemented microcapitalist reforms and will likely continue moving, though perhaps at glacial speed, toward a Latin American version of the Chinese and Vietnamese model.

He should aim for the Chilean model, but he won’t, not even after visiting Europe. Seeing what a properly functioning country looks like and feels like isn’t enough for the power mad. North Korea’s Jim Jong Un went to school in Switzerland. He knows damn well what a civilized country looks like and can’t possibly believe that the prison state he inherited is doing the best it possibly can. He hasn’t been to Seoul, but surely he’s seen pictures on the Internet and can contrast his vibrant neighbor with the soul-crushing totalitarian anthill of Pyongyang. Absolute power, though, corrupts absolutely, and the tyranny of the Kim family probably even creeps out the Castros at this point.

It’s not entirely meaningless that Raúl is telling Westerners what they want to hear. It’s cynical, sure, and it won’t amount to much in the end, but unlike the boy king of the underworld over in Pyongyang, he seems to be tiring of his isolation.

The Iranian Leader's Bizarre Twitter Feed

Want a trip into bizarroland? Take a look at the Twitter feed for Iran's “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Khamenei.

It's ridiculous that even though US President is black, still such crimes agnst US blacks continue to occur. #BlackLivesMatter #FreddieGray

No, his Twitter feed hasn't been hacked by Al Sharpton. Nor is this a spoof site. It's the real online megaphone for the Iranian dictator.

This pasty old man doesn't give a flying fork about black people, especially those who live in the United States. When he and his underlings chant “Death to America,” they don't mean death to white America. They're talking about the whole country, from our black president at the top to undocumented immigrants on the bottom and everyone in between.

Here are a few of his tweets for May Day.

It's not just a complement that the #Prophet kissed the hands of #workers, it's a lesson to all of us. #WorkersDay

Govt must not buy from outside #Iran its consuming goods which can be produced domestically. This is an example of honoring Iranian workers.

This one, though, is my favorite:

US Police kill people over any excuse; this type of power doesn't ensure security but leads to insecurity. #Baltimore

When Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon murdered former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with a gigantic bomb in downtown Beirut, did that lead to security or insecurity? Did Iranian-backed death squads in Iraq lead to security or insecurity? How about the Iranian-sponsored Houthi takeover of Yemen? How's that going?

And what about Khamenei's Basij militia cracking heads during the Green Revolution and torturing activists in prison?

Ok, perhaps I'm being unfair. Wallowing in whataboutery is for college students, not serious analysts. Maybe Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders could come over here and teach American police officers about cultural sensitivity. The plainclothes Basijis could train our undercover police officers so incidents like this don't happen again. Iranian judges who sentence gay people to death by hanging from cranes could be guest lecturers at American law schools. Perhaps MSNBC could invite the warden of Evin Prison to host one of their shows in the next season's line-up.

Then again, maybe not. Washington Post journalist Jason Resaian—who is an American citizen, by the way—is languishing in Evin Prison right now. He was arrested last year and has been slapped with the ludicrous charges of “espionage” and “conducting propaganda against the establishment.”

I long ago lost track of how many times paranoid Middle Easterners thought I was a spy while I was working over there—many of them think every journalist in the world is a spy—but I can't remember the last time I took it seriously.

That second charge, though, “conducting propaganda against the establishment” is something every journalist who works in the Middle East has to be wary of. Almost every Middle Eastern country is a police state of one kind or another that can and will arrest anyone for any reason or no reason at all.

In 2005, a spokesman for Hezbollah—the Lebanese terrorist organization founded, funded, and controlled by the Iranian regime that is now tweeting “black lives matter”—called me at home and said, “we know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live.” He accused me of “propagandizing against the party” because I cracked a joke about Hezbollah on my blog. I even made it clear in that very same blog post that it was a joke, so there was no misunderstanding.

From Hezbollah's and Iran's point of view, anything that doesn't precisely conform to the party line is propagandizing against the establishment or the party. Making sure everyone knows it, and knows there may be terrible consequences for anyone foolish or brave enough to give them the finger, is part of their mission statement.

And we're supposed to believe that the man who's in charge of all this cares even a whit about police violence in the United States or worker's rights on May Day?


Khamenei has 120,000 Twitter followers but only follows five people himself. Wondering who are the lucky five, I clicked to find out and discovered that three of them are his other accounts, one of them is from the ghost of his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the last is some random Islamic Twitter feed.

Twitter is a one-way conversation for this guy. Following other people? That's for teachable folks who might learn something from somebody else, or at least for those of us who are passively interested in what somebody else has to say.

Iran's ruler is doing what the Soviet Union used to do and what Hugo Chavez did more recently. Both used the West's language of human rights as weapons against the West while resisting everything Western human rights activists stand for. Partly they were just being cynical, and partly they were pointing out the West's supposed hypocrisy.

You could argue that I'm just doing what Khamenei is doing by saying the other guy has no clothes, but there's a difference, and it's crucial. I actually care about human rights, not just for Americans, but also for Iranians and everyone else. Plenty of Iranians care about human rights, too, but it's safe to say that pretty much none of them are fixtures in the Iranian government.

The most foolish among us might be convinced that tyrannical dictators on the other side of the planet care more about such things than we do. That's the theory, anyway. Hey, maybe the Iranian leader is one of us! Maybe everything our own government says is a lie!

Every village has its idiot. Moscow managed to sucker some of us during the Soviet era, at least for a while, with this sort of shtick. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez tricked a handful, as well. For years the Bolivarian Republic's embassy in Washington flooded my inbox with press releases that read like they were written by Elizabeth Warren.

The communist bloc was an unspeakable prison house spanning more than one continent, but its utopian ideals appeared lofty to a small percentage of Westerners who couldn't be bothered to look at the details. The utopian ideals of Iran's revolutionary regime, though, will never gain traction among those of us who aren't Shia Muslims.

Iran's tyrant will not pull this off, but it's fun watching him try.

Under the Black Flag

I reviewed ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan for Commentary. Here's the first half.

ISIS isn’t a terrorist organization. It’s a transnational army of terror. The CIA claims it has as many as 31,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, thinks the number may be as high as 200,000. When ISIS fighters conquered the Iraqi city of Mosul last year, they stole enough materiel to supply three fighting divisions, including up-armored American Humvees, T-55 tanks, mobile Chinese artillery pieces, Soviet anti-aircraft guns, and American-made Stinger missile systems. ISIS controls a swath of territory the size of Great Britain and is expanding into Libya and Yemen.

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, paints a gripping and disturbing picture of this new “caliphate” in the Levant and Mesopotamia. In the most comprehensive account to date, the authors chronicle ISIS’s roots as the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda under its founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, its near defeat at the hands of Americans and Iraqi militias in Anbar Province, its rebirth during the Syrian civil war, and its catastrophic return to Iraq as a conquering army last summer.

The book is personal for both authors. Hassan was born and raised in the Syrian border town Al-Bukamal, right in the center of ISIS-held territory. Weiss is an American journalist who reported from the Aleppo suburb of al-Bab, back when it had a burgeoning democratic civil-society movement and wasn’t the “dismal fief ruled by Sharia law” it is today. Anger and disgust are at times palpable on the page, but emotion never distracts from the richly detailed narrative—based in part on interviews with ISIS commanders and fighters—that forms the backbone of their book.

Like all good historians, they start at the beginning. ISIS began its life as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after the United States demolished Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. The Bush administration saw Arab democracy as the solution to the Middle East’s woes, and Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad didn’t want to be the next Saddam. Assad waged a proxy war to convince Washington that participatory politics in the region would be perilous. Weiss and Hassan quote former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, who says candidly that “[Assad] started to work with the mujahideen.” He dispatched Syria’s homegrown jihadists to fight American occupation forces, and most of those jihadists would sign up with AQI. Assad pulled off a win-win scheme, purging Syria of potential enemies while teaching both the American government and citizenry a lesson they still haven’t forgotten: Occupying and democratizing an Arab land is a far messier and bloodier business than most in the West are willing to stomach.

It worked so well in Iraq that Assad would eventually replicate it inside his own country. When the uprising against him began in 2011, he framed the conflict as one between his secular regime and Islamist terrorists, even when the only serious movement against him consisted of nonviolent protests for reform and democracy. Few in the West bought Assad’s line at the time, so he then facilitated an Islamist terrorist opposition. His loyalists like to present a choice: “Assad or we burn the country.” And they are not kidding.

As Weiss and Hassan detail, Assad opened the jails and let Islamist prisoners free as part of an ostensible “reform” process, but he kept democracy activists in their cages. He knew perfectly well that those he let loose would cut a burning and bleeding gash across the country, casting him as the only thing standing between the rest of us and the abyss. That was the point. “Après moi, le déluge,” as Louis XV used to say.

The first thing ISIS does when conquering a new city or town is set up the grisly machinery for medieval punishments in town squares. “Letting black-clad terrorists run around a provincial capital,” Weiss and Hassan write, “crucifying and beheading people, made for great propaganda.” It was all Assad could do to ensure the Obama administration wouldn’t pursue a policy of regime-change as it had in Libya and as the previous administration had in Iraq.

There was a precedent for this perverted Baathist-Islamist alliance. Osama bin Laden had declared the “socialist infidels” of Saddam’s government worthy allies against Americans, and the remnants of Iraq’s ancien régime—what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld mistakenly called the dead enders—felt the same way. As a result, Weiss and Hassan note, “most of [AQI’s] top decision-makers served either in Saddam Hussein’s military or security services.”

Read the rest in Commentary.


Kurdistan Thrives Despite War With ISIS

A suicide-bomber blew himself up and killed three people—the terrorist himself, along with two Turkish citizens—in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, at a popular café just down the street from the US Consulate.

ISIS is taking credit, of course, and there’s no reason to doubt it since they’re in the midst of a hot war with the Kurds. And the front line is just 30 miles away—an easy morning commute—from Erbil's city center.

The attack took place in Ainkawa, however, a lively and prosperous Christian suburb of Erbil that was once geographically separate but has, in the last couple of years, been absorbed into the sprawl thanks to an explosive infilling construction boom.

The death toll is low, but it’s fair to say this was an attack against Christians, Kurds, and Americans simultaneously.

We know already that ISIS has genocidal intentions toward the region’s Christians, Shia Muslims, Yezidis, and Alawites. Late last year they murdered and raped thousands of members of Iraq’s Yezidi minority, and just yesterday they frog-marched a large group of  Ethiopian Christians down to a beach in Libya and beheaded them on camera. (No doubt they’d try to kill all the Jews if Israel wouldn’t bust out the doom hammer.)

My friend Asher Abrams is in Erbil right now—as a tourist. He expected “an interesting but uneventful visit for a couple of weeks,” but then, boom. Not 24 hours after he landed, while he was still recovering from his flight, he heard a loud explosion followed by what sounded like firecrackers. He looked out the window of his hotel room and saw a rising column of smoke.

“People appeared to be mostly going about their business,” he wrote on his blog. “If I was expecting mass panic, it was not to be found.”

Yeah, well, the Kurds are indefatigable. An occasional car bomb now and then is nothing compared to what they went through a couple of decades ago, when almost 200,000 were murdered, some of them with chemical weapons, during Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal Campaign.

In any case, Erbil is a tough place for ISIS to operate. The Kurds are no more enamored of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's legion of genocidaires than Americans are, and they're currently fighting much harder. Their intelligence networks are state of the art, and anyone who doesn't speak locally accented Hawleri Kurdish stands out at once.

The world's nastiest army is banging on the door, but these people are doing such a good job keeping the wolf away that the place is booming despite it all. Middle class and elite housing is going up everywhere, most famously in the area known as Dream City which includes a replica of the White House.

KFC is in Kurdistan now. So is TGI Fridays. Pizza Hut has been there for a while. Starbucks might even open a store in one of the brand-new malls.

Call it crass consumerism if you want, but it's an extraordinary thing inside the borders of Iraq. After so many years of isolation from the rest of the human race—first under the boot heel of Saddam Hussein, then international sanctions followed by the Iraq war—having international chains makes the Kurds feel like they are part of this world, like they're no longer living in some alternate dimension.

Last time I was there, in the late 2000s, they didn't even have international banks. Credit cards weren't accepted anywhere. Nor were ATM cards. I had to bring huge pocketfuls of cash or I'd find myself stranded and broke. The locals were mostly unaffected by this, of course, but they knew they were cut off and they wanted international chains. I saw one fake franchise after another—at least three McDonald's knockoffs with names like “MaDonal,” and a bogus Dominoes Pizza outlet that went ahead and called itself Dominoes Pizza and even put a trademark-infringed logo on the banner outside.

The Kurds don't need that kind of fakery anymore. Their autonomous region is alas still part of Iraq, but it's also part of the world. I wouldn't call it the Dubai of Iraq just yet, but every day it looks and feels more like Jordan and less like the howling wilderness of poisoned mass graves that it used to be.

One of these days, the Kurds will enjoy independence and join not only the rest of the world but also the United Nations as a member state and the roster of robust American allies. ISIS might be able to dent that progress a little with an attack here and there, but it can't stop what's coming. Neither, for that matter, can Baghdad.


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