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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

J.M. Heinrichs

Van Q. Tran

Larry Boeskool

Paul Bailey

Mark Garbowski

Matthew Berger

William Slattery

Gary Rosen

Jon Jewett

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Dan Weintraub

Michael Cole

Eva Zukotynski

Sylvia Adams

Joseph Blankier

Vincent Hodgson

Frank Turner

Christopher Loud

Tom Veal

Louis A Freeman MD

Patrick S Lasswell

David Eiche

Perry The Cynic

Greg Barnes

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Michael Ravine

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Paul Dunmore

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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.

Vladimir Putin's Next Move

If Vladimir Putin invades Poland, I’ll eat my hat.

It’s not going to happen.

Even so, American ground troops are being deployed there as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. This is the West telling him STOP. He’s not going to invade a European Union or NATO state either way, but we’d end up sending a crazy-weak signal if all we did was collectively shrug.

Ukraine still isn’t in NATO, however, and probably never will be, so it’s still vulnerable. Putin can slice it and dice it all over again. The US won’t physically stop him for the same reason he won’t invade Poland. Nobody wants to blow up the world, especially not over this.

So Ukraine’s vulnerable. Pro-Russian militiamen are occupying dozens of government buildings, city halls, and police stations in the eastern part of the country where many ethnic Russians live. It’s hard to say for sure if Putin is egging these people on or if they’re acting on their own, envious of their cousins in Crimea who got to go “home” without moving. Either way, they’re serving Putin’s agenda.

By annexing Crimea, he proved to the world that he’s willing to mutilate Ukraine when it displeases him, which it very much did when it cast off his vassal, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.

He doesn’t need, and probably doesn’t want, to do it again. What he needs in Ukraine now is leverage, and the best way to get it is to hang another potential Russian invasion over Kiev like a Sword of Damocles.

Putin could take Eastern Ukraine, but it would do him no good. It’s the poorest part of the country and would turn into an instantaneous money pit for him, akin to the United States annexing Tijuana in Northern Mexico. He can’t possibly want that, not if he has any sense.

He’d lose all his leverage over Kiev. Even an unspoken threat of invasion, occupation, and annexation is enough to make Ukraine act with tremendous caution toward Moscow, but if Putin pulls the trigger, Kiev would have nothing left to lose.

And the odds that Ukraine, shorn of nearly all its ethnic Russians, would ever again elect a president who’s soft on Moscow would be virtually nil. Ukraine would slip from Putin’s sphere of influence so utterly that the only way he’d be able to get it back into his orbit would be by invading and conquering the whole country.

Never mind the price he’d pay internationally for that kind of stunt; invading and occupying the largest country in Europe would require more than a half-million troops and God-only-knows how much money. And for what purpose? Ukraine poses no national security threat whatsoever to Russia.

Still, a fight broke out with a pro-Russian militia in the far-eastern city of Sloyvansk yesterday, leaving at least three militiamen dead. The mayor is asking Putin to send peacekeepers, something the militiamen would almost certainly welcome. This sort of thing could easily get out of hand, especially if the pro-Russian militias decide to wreak as much havoc as possible to draw Putin in even if he’d rather stay home. Wars break out all the time that aren’t wanted or planned for.

It’s no big deal that Poland is asking for American ground troops. That’s just predictable, and prudent, geopolitical posturing. If Ukraine asks, though, that would be the time to start getting nervous.

To Embargo or Not

It's impossible to visit and write about Cuba without mentioning the US embargo, so I wrote a piece about it for the print edition of World Affairs. It's available online now. Here's the first part.

Aside from the Arab boycott against Israel, American sanctions against Cuba have lasted longer than any other embargo in the modern era.

The sanctions were imposed in stages in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro began economic warfare against the United States by nationalizing private US property on the island. Cuban communism survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, so in 1993 the purpose of the embargo was modified by the Cuban Democracy Act, stating that it will not be lifted unless and until the government in Havana respects the “internationally accepted standards of human rights” and “democratic values.”

For years now, the embargo has appeared to me as outdated as it has been ineffective. The Chinese government, while less repressive nowadays than Cuba’s, likewise defies internationally accepted standards of human rights, yet it’s one of America’s biggest trading partners. And the embargo against Cuba gives the Castro regime the excuse it desperately needs for its citizens’ economic misery. As ever, it is all the fault of the Yanquis. Cuba’s people are poor not thanks to communism but because of America.

After spending a few weeks in Cuba in October and November, however, I came home feeling less certain that the embargo was an anachronism. The ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his less ideological brother Raúl a few years ago, and the regime finally realizes what has been obvious to everyone else for what seems like forever: communism is an epic failure. Change is at last on the horizon for the island, and there’s a chance that maybe—just maybe—the embargo might help it finally arrive.

*

“I fully support the embargo and the travel ban,” Cuban exile Valentin Prieto says, “and am on record calling for it to be tightened and given some real teeth instead of allowing it to remain the paper tiger it is. The United States of America is the bastion of democracy and liberty in the world. Not only should we not have normal relations with repressive regimes, it is our moral obligation to ensure, by whatever means possible save for military action, that we in no way promote, fund, assist, ignore, or legitimize said repressive regimes.”

Professor Alfred Cuzán at the University of West Florida offers a counterpoint. “One argument in support of keeping the embargo,” he says, “is that it gives the United States leverage to force the Castros to make liberalizing changes. I think that argument has some merit. And Cuba did confiscate and expropriate American property. But I don’t think the embargo is effective. The regime can still get whatever it wants from Canada, from Europe, and so on. The US embargo is something of a myth.”

He has a point. The United States is Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner after Venezuela, China, Spain, and Brazil. Cuba gets more of its products from the United States even now than from Canada or Mexico. Sanctions are still in place—Cuba cannot buy everything, and it must pay in cash—but the embargo is hardly absolute.

The United States, however, purchases nothing from Cuba. Americans are for the most part prohibited by US law from traveling there. You can’t just buy a plane ticket to Havana and hang out on the beach. You have to go illegally through Mexico or book an expensive people-to-people tour through the mere handful of travel agents licensed to arrange such trips by the US Treasury Department. Journalists like me are exempt from these regulations, but I am still not allowed to buy Cuban rum or cigars and bring them back with me.

The embargo does harm the Cuban economy—after all, that’s the point—but the bankrupt communist system inflicts far more damage, and in any case the decision to break off economic relations was made not by the United States but by Fidel Castro.

“Cuba is ninety miles across the Florida Straits,” said Professor Cuzán, “and was increasingly integrated in the American market for a hundred years. Then Castro severed economic and commercial ties completely and shifted the entire economy toward the Soviet Union. That was insane. Then he tried to forge cultural ties with the Soviet Union and force Cubans to learn Russian. It was a crazy project and it ruined the country.”

Cuba isn’t yoked to Moscow any longer, now that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, but its economic system is still mostly communist. The government owns all major industries, including what in normal countries are small businesses like restaurants and bars, so the majority of Cubans work for the state. Salaries are capped at twenty dollars a month and supplemented with a ration card.

I asked a Cuban woman what she gets on that card. “Rice, beans, bread, eggs, cooking oil, and two pounds of chicken every couple of months. We used to get soap and detergent, but not anymore.”

Doctor and hospital visits are free, but Cuba never has enough medicine. I had to bring a whole bag full of supplies with me because even the simplest items like Band-Aids and antibiotics aren’t always available. Patients have to bring their own drugs, their own sheets, and even their own iodine—if they can find it—to the hospital with them.

Cuba is constantly short on food too. I was told in October that potatoes won’t be available again until January. That can’t be a result of the embargo. Cuba is a tropical island with excellent soil and a year-round growing season perfectly capable of producing its own potatoes. But the potato shortage is no surprise. I saw shockingly little agriculture in the countryside. Most fields are fallow. Those that still produce food are minuscule. Cows look like leather-wrapped skeletons. We have more and better agriculture in the Eastern Oregon desert, where the soil is poor, where only six inches of rain falls every year, and where the winters are long and shatteringly cold.

I heard no end of horror stories about soap shortages, both before and after I got there. A journalist friend of mine who visits Cuba semi-regularly brings little bars of hotel soap with him and hands them out to his interview subjects.

“They break down in tears when I give them soap,” he told me. “How often does that happen?” I said. “A hundred percent of the time,” he said.

Read the rest!

Vietnam is Funded

I’ve raised the money I need to get to Vietnam later this spring. Thanks so much to everybody who pitched in on Kickstarter.

I owe everyone a personal thank-you, but I should wait until the 30-day period ends to make sure I don’t miss anyone.

Your regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly.

We’re at 70 Percent. Let’s Get to 100.

I’ve raised around 70 percent of the money I need to get to Vietnam later this spring, but I won’t get any of it unless the project is 100 percent funded.

I’d like to get this wrapped up as soon as possible so I can plan my trip properly and get the prep work taken care of. I’ve already started that process, but I don’t want to move ahead at full speed until I know for sure I can go.

So if you haven’t pitched in yet, let’s get this done.

The toughest part about completing a successful Kickstarter campaign is getting the word out. I can reach lots of people with my blog, Twitter, and Facebook, but it will help if I can reach even more. There are thousands of people out there who would pledge a little money if they knew this project existed.

A new Web site called Kickdriver will allow me to reward those of you who have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts of your own if you tell your friends and followers what I’m up to. You can collect rewards from my past Kickstarter projects and even get complimentary electronic copies of my books that are for sale commercially.

It's easy. If you’re interested, sign up at Kickdriver and let’s get this done for our mutual benefit.

Most important, though, please pitch in if you haven’t already.

Thanks, everybody!

I Need a Kickstarter Boost

My Kickstarter project is 54 percent funded and I will only get money if it’s 100 percent funded.

Help me out, folks. You need me out of the office just as much as I need to get out of the office, but I can’t do it without resources. The journalism industry used to cover travel expenses, but that’s a thing of the past.

Vladimir Putin and the Zombie Apocalypse

I’m on the Ricochet podcast again this week. James Lileks, Peter Robinson, and Rob Long interviewed me about Vladimir Putin’s general malfeasance and my new book, Resurrection: A Zombie Novel, which is still selling well and getting great reviews.

I come in at 18:15.

Botching North Africa

The United States government is putting another alliance at risk—this time with Morocco, which is a little like screwing up Canada. The White House is partly to blame, but the main culprit here is the State Department, the one institution that should be the least likely to drop the ball diplomatically since managing diplomatic relations is its job. 

Morocco’s main foreign policy problem is its Cold War with next-door Algeria which backs the Polisario—a communist guerilla army hatched by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Moammar Qaddafi. The Polisario claims the Western Sahara region in the south of Morocco, vacated by Spanish imperialists the same week its long-time dictator General Franco finally died in 1975. Most Americans have never heard of the Western Sahara, but wrapping up this holdover conflict from the Cold War is at the top of Morocco’s agenda, and there’s no excuse for the State Department—and especially its diplomats in Morocco—to blow it off like everyone stateside.

Yet State is blowing it off. And State is straining the US relationship with Morocco not only with its flippant attitude that the Sahara doesn’t matter but also with its nonsense-on-stilts belief that North Africa is some kind of Arab-Muslim Las Vegas, that was happens there stays there. On the contrary, the region is a conduit for guns, drugs, and human trafficking into Europe. It’s also an incubator for terrorists with a global outlook and global ambitions.

Libya is on the verge of disintegrating into a failed militia state like Somalia. In 2012 Al Qaeda-linked terrorist seized power in Northern Mali and posed a big enough threat that France saw little choice but to invade. Egypt is a darker and more sinister place today than it was when Hosni Mubarak ran it. Algeria’s Syrian-style civil war never did fully wind down and could mushroom again at any moment. All this is happening in a region so close to Europe that from one point—in and around Tangier in Morocco—you can see Europe.

Tunisia is doing sort of okay, but it’s tiny. Morocco is effectively the only stable place in North Africa. It’s also our only true ally.

Morocco has been allied with the United States for more than 200 years—longer than Canada. Morocco has never done anything bad to America. The United States has never done anything bad to Morocco. It was the first country to recognize our independence from Britain. It sat out the North African Barbary wars, the US Marine Corps' first major foreign engagement. It was a close ally of the United States throughout the Cold War, and it works more closely with Washington against the scourge of Islamist terrorism than any other nation in the Arab world with the possible exception of Jordan. The Bush administration upgraded Morocco to a Major Non-NATO Ally alongside Israel and Japan, and the Obama administration upgraded the alliance yet again with the Strategic Dialogue.

Western Sahara is not America’s most important problem in that region, but it is the most important problem for Morocco, partly because Rabat sees it as a threat to the nation’s territorial integrity, but also because—like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it prevents other states in the region from working together on the kinds of problems that concern the United States and Europe directly.

Most Americans don’t know a disputed territory called Western Sahara even exists. Fewer still understand it. Partly that’s because the Western Sahara conflict isn’t exploding like Syria, and partly it’s because the Sahrawis aren’t suffering in ways that make headlines. Those who actually live in Western Sahara are doing just fine. The Moroccans have invested huge amounts of money to make it livable. They’ve done a good enough job that the coastal city of Dakhla is a hot spot for tourists from Europe. But the tens of thousands of Sahrawis who live in the Polisario’s refugee camps in Algeria—which are really more like concentration camps—have been held hostage for almost as long as I’ve been alive.

It would be a relatively easy problem to wrap up if the United States prioritized it. There is no chance the Moroccans will ever cede territory to a gang of thugs sponsored by Castro, nor is there any chance the Polisario will force out Morocco. Rabat will no sooner “withdraw” from the Sahara than Washington will “withdraw” from Alaska and hand it over to Russia. So there’s no point, really, in pretending that the outcome is open to question. It isn’t.

But Morocco is not asking the United States to resolve it right now. Nor is Morocco asking for money. It’s only asking the United States for technical assistance and training for local government and civil society groups so the Western Sahara can govern itself and to help out with private foreign investment so the Sahrawis can wean themselves off the welfare state that exists now. The United States is good at these things. And it’s the kind of help that doesn’t make American taxpayers groan after pouring so much money into the sinkholes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet the State Department refuses to do it even though it has been the policy of the White House during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Congress recently asked State to do it, and it still refused to do anything. So last year Congress passed a law, embedded in the appropriations bill, requiring the State Department do to it, and State is still dragging its feet, despite a joint statement from President Obama and King Mohamed VI last November where they embraced a “shared commitment to improve the lives of the people of Western Sahara.”

This is partly the fault of the White House. President Obama sent an ambassador there—Minneapolis lawyer and businessman Samuel Kaplan—who had no diplomatic experience and knew nothing of Morocco or Africa. American presidents have been rewarding their friends and backers with ambassador posts for decades. This is no way for a superpower to behave, especially in unstable, dangerous, and bottomlessly complex parts of the world where the US has precious few friends. It screams unseriousness. But at least the White House and the Congress are aware that this is getting ridiculous. The question at this point is, what are they going to do about it?

Let's Go to Vietnam

I’m finished writing about Cuba, but you are not yet finished reading about Cuba. Two of my essays haven’t been published online yet except in the e-book which has been privately distributed to those who backed my fundraising project on Kickstarter. (Those essays will appear here eventually, but I sold them to magazine editors and can’t publish them anywhere else in advance. One of them has, however, appeared in the print version of World Affairs, so you can always pick up a hardcopy if you didn’t back my Kickstarter project and want to read it right now.)

In the meantime, it’s time to raise travel expenses again, so I’ve just launched a new Kickstarter project. (Why Vietnam? Keep reading.)

I’m not asking for donations. I’m asking for funding and will give something back in return, just as I did for those who supported my last project.  

Check out the new project page for all the details. With Kickstarter, you can see how much money I need and how much I’ve raised. I won’t get any money at all unless the entire project is funded, so please make sure I don’t come up short. You and I both need me out of my office, but alas traveling costs money. There’s a promo video on the Kickstarter page you can watch, but here’s the text.

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The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago. Just two short years later, the Soviet Empire collapsed. Yet communist parties still rule five nations—North Korea, Cuba, China, Laos, and Vietnam.

I intend to visit them all. I’ll have enough material for another book at the end. Cuba was first. Next is Vietnam.

The United States lost the war there, but won the argument. Vietnam is still ruled by the Communist Party, but it junked Marxist economics and leapt with both feet into the global economy. The country is eradicating extreme poverty faster than almost any other in history. And its people are enthusiastically friendly to Americans—surprising considering our history in the 60s and 70s.

The Vietnam War is a wound in the American psyche. Even though I’m too young to remember it, I feel it a little bit too. But the Vietnamese seem to have moved past it.

Why?

Is it because they realize we were right about Ho Chi Minh, Mao, and the Soviet Union from the beginning? Or is it not that at all? Perhaps there something in the Vietnamese national psyche—tragically lacking in some parts of the world—that lends itself to reconciliation with former enemies. Maybe it’s simply because most Vietnamese are too young to remember the war, or because they were more wounded by the war with each other. The Vietnamese themselves might not even know. But I’m going to try to find out.

Vietnam’s citizens no longer live in a vast prison state like the Cubans, but is that enough? Is the country taking the same path Taiwan and South Korea did earlier, or will it stagnate like Belarus, Europe’s last total dictatorship? Will Vietnam one day join the United States as a major non-NATO ally like Japan, or will it plod along as a smaller and non-imperial version of China? Is Vietnam’s government blazing a path out of totalitarianism and toward democracy, or will the country explode all over again?

I don’t know, but either way, Vietnam should provide a dramatic contrast to Castro’s hard-line police state. My first-person narrative dispatches from Middle Eastern countries at war and in the throes of revolution garnered me three blogging awards and a book prize from the Washington Institute. But I still work as a freelancer. I don’t have a salary, let alone a travel expense account.

That’s where you come in. Fund my next trip—to Vietnam this spring—so I can produce a brand-new batch of first-person narrative dispatches. You can follow along as I publish them on my blog. And at the end of the project, I’ll publish all my material as a dispatch pack—including full-color photographs—that you can read on your iPad, your Kindle, or any other tablet or reading device. And if you don’t have a tablet or reading device, you can read them on your computer. Generous backers will receive public thank-yous from me, on my blog, and in the dispatch pack when it’s published.

I’m not asking you for donations. I’m asking you to participate and will give you something back in return. Let’s go to Vietnam.

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