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Why the US Can’t Leave the Middle East

My new essay in the print edition of World Affairs is now available online:

America is in a bad mood.

In the midst of the worst economy since the 1970s, we’re on the verge of losing the war in Afghanistan, the longest we’ve ever fought, against stupefyingly primitive foes.

We sort of won the war in Iraq, but it cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and Baghdad is still a violent, dysfunctional mess.

The overhyped Arab Spring has been cancelled in Egypt. Liberating Libya led to the assassination of our ambassador. Syria is disintegrating into total war with bad guys on both sides and the US dithering on the sidelines, worried more about saving face at this point than having any significant effect on the facts on the ground.

A majority of American voters in both parties have had it. They’re just flat-out not interested in spending any more money or lives to help out. Even many foreign policy professionals are fed up. We get blamed for every one of the Middle East’s problems, including those it inflicts on itself. How gratifying it would be just to walk away, dust off our hands, and say you’re on your own.

But we can’t.

Actually, in Egypt maybe we can. And maybe we should.

Hosni Mubarak was a terrible leader and a lukewarm ally at best, but until the Egyptian army arrested him in 2011, Cairo had been part of the American-backed security architecture in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean ever since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, junked Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union.

The election of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in the wake of the Arab Spring, though, moved Egypt into the “frenemy” column. It’s still there under the military rule of General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the new head of state in all but name since the army removed Mohamed Morsi.

Sisi is no less hostile to Washington than Morsi was. As Lee Smith put it shortly after the second coup in three years, Egypt’s new jefe “sees the United States as little more than a prop, a rag with which he burnishes his reputation as a strongman, a village mayor puffing his chest and boasting that he is unafraid to stand up to the Americans.” 

Sisi knows his country and what it takes to appeal to the masses. The whole population—left, right, and center—is as hostile toward the United States as it ever was. Never mind that Americans backed the anti-Mubarak uprising. Never mind that Washington sought good relations with Egypt’s first freely elected government in thousands of years. Never mind that the Obama administration refuses to call the army’s coup what it plainly was in order to keep Egypt’s aid money flowing. None of that matters. The United States and its Zionist sidekick remain at the molten center of Egypt’s phantasmagorical demonology.

Bribing Egypt with billions of annual aid dollars to maintain its peace treaty with Israel and to keep a lid on radical Islam makes even less sense today than it did when Morsi and the Brotherhood were in charge. Morsi needed that money to prevent Egyptians from starving to death. He had a major incentive to cooperate—or else.

But now that the Brothers are out of the picture, partly at the behest of the Saudis, Riyadh says it will happily make up the difference if Washington turns off the aid spigot.

Turn it off then, already. Our money buys nothing from Sisi if he can replace it that easily. If he gets the same cash infusion whether or not he listens to the White House, why should he listen to the White House? He isn’t our friend. He’s only one step away from burning an American flag at a rally. He’s plenty motivated for his own reasons to keep radical Islamists in check since they’re out to destroy him. And his army is the one Egyptian institution that’s not at all interested in armed conflict with Israel because it would suffer more egregiously than anything or anyone else.

We’re either paying him out of sheer habit or because Washington thinks it might still get something back from its investment. Maybe it will, but it probably won’t.

Either way, Sisi instantly proved himself more violent and ruthless than Mubarak when he gave the order to gun down hundreds of unarmed civilians. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood “retaliated” by burning dozens of churches, murdering Christians at random, and shooting policemen does not make what he did okay. He was, for a few days at least, no better than Bashar al-Assad. Giving him money and guns will make us no friends but plenty of enemies, especially when his regime proves itself no more capable of halting Egypt’s freefall than the last one.

Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations put it this way in the Los Angeles Times: “It is no coincidence that both Osama bin Laden and [al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-] Zawahiri hailed from US-allied nations that repressed their own citizens. Both men were drawn to the conclusion that the way to free their homelands was to attack their rulers’ patron. It is reasonable to expect that a new generation of Islamists in Egypt, now being taught that the peaceful path to power is no longer open, will turn to violence and that, as long as Washington is seen on the side of the generals, some of their violence will be directed our way.”

Even if the Egyptian army faces the kind of full-blown Islamist insurgency that ripped through Algeria in the 1990s—which is unlikely, but possible—Cairo will still get all the help it needs from the Gulf, not because the Saudis oppose radical Islam, but because they view the Muslim Brotherhood as the biggest long-term threat to their rule.

The case for walking away from Egypt and dusting our hands off is sound.

Read the whole thing.

From Tehran to Cairo

The Middle East is as trashed right now as I’ve ever seen it. The Syrian conflict has killed more people than the Bosnian war. Iran is moving ahead on its nuclear weapons program while convincing fools in the West that it’s playing nice and reforming. Egypt is in its worst shape since the Nasserist era, and the Saudis are pitching the biggest fit since the Arab oil embargo in the 70s.

I caught up with my old friend and colleague Lee Smith, whom I met in Lebanon during the Beirut Spring when it was still possible for both of us to be optimistic about the region. If you haven’t yet read his book, The Strong Horse, consider it your required reading this month.

MJT: Let’s start with a tough one. If Barack Obama invited you to the White House and asked what you think he should do about Syria, what would you tell him?

Lee Smith: The Syria debate is beside the point. In effect, there is no longer a debate over Syria policy. Whatever I or other critics say, whatever dissenting voices in the administraion say, is immaterial because Obama has made up his mind. The president believes that the most important thing—the only thing—is making a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. We don’t know what that deal will look like, but those who are worried about it—like myself—think the president will be happy to walk away with a piece of paper and kick the problem off to the next administration. He’ll want to obscure the fact that the Iranians will likely be moving toward breakout capability, and so one question is whether or not Tehran will cooperate on that issue and not embarrass Obama by showing he never had a deal in the first place.

People who are much more optimistic—and I would argue much more unrealistic—believe the administration can actually make a deal, that the Iranian economy is hurting so much that the Iranians will happily seek relief and will indeed make a deal. I don’t think that can happen at all, but the reason I’m bringing this up when you’re asking me about Syria is because we need to understand regional issues in the context of Iran.

Obama has frustrated so many of his allies. The Saudis, for instance, are furious. They’re concerned about Egypt, but that’s a problem of a different order, at least for now.

The Saudis are worried about Syria and most worried about Iran’s nuclear program.

The White House wants to disengage from Syria. So to come back to your original question, it doesn’t matter what advice I might have because the administration has turned a deaf ear to Syria. There was a long, detailed, and excellent article in the New York Times on October 22 about the administration’s deliberations. One constant is the president—he has been, as the Times writes, “impatient” and “disengaged.” He’s not listening to anyone about Syria. He hasn’t been listening for two and a half years, so he’s not going to listen to me.

MJT: The White House is in line with public opinion. Most Americans are rightly suspicious of the Syrian opposition, so they’re taking a “pox on both their houses” view of the conflict. They’re basically channeling Henry Kissinger during the Iran-Iraq war when he said it’s too bad they can’t both lose.

A lot of people take the same tack between Iran and Saudi Arabia and argue that since they both suck—and they do both suck—that we shouldn’t choose sides. To hell with Assad and to hell with the Free Syrian Army, and to hell with Iran and to hell with the Saudis. That’s mainstream public opinion right now.

Lee Smith: I can make an argument for backing the Syrian rebels, but it can’t be for humanitarian reasons alone. I can make the argument that we should do it for strategic reasons.

And yes, a lot of people are making that kind of argument about the Saudis, saying a pox on them, how dare they complain. The Saudis from time to time make an awful lot of noise and at other times they cross us. And of course there were fifteen Saudi nationals on the planes on 9/11. And yet Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States for more than sixty years. The reason for that isn’t because we share cultural or political values—although some of the elites really are pro-American.

The reason we’re allied with Saudi Arabia is because they have the world’s largest known reserves of oil. This is a vital American interest, perhaps the most vital American interest after the security of our fifty states. So the idea that we can just blow off the Saudis because we’re tired of the Middle East is nonsensical.

I don’t mean to knock everyday Americans who feel this way. They’re tired of turning on the TV and hearing about some further outrage in the Middle East, another conflict, another terror attack. But the foreign policy professionals who are making this case need to check the historical record and the definition of strategic interests—the stability of world energy markets is one of them.

MJT: You live in Washington DC, so tell me: what do people in the capital make of the Saudis threatening to downgrade relations over Iran and Syria?

Lee Smith: First, what does it mean to downgrade relations? The United States has been protecting the Persian Gulf for decades. The Roosevelt administration got close to ibn Saud in 1944. Martin Kramer calls the Persian Gulf an American lake for good reason. The Russians can’t cover the Gulf like we do, and the Chinese aren’t capable either. We’re the only ones who can do that job. So part of this threat is empty. It’s hollow.

But there’s another part that needs to be taken seriously. If you’re a superpower, you have allies all around the world. Some of them won’t be entirely to your liking, but there are reasons you have allies all around the world. And the Saudis are one of our allies.

We have similar strategic interests with the Saudis, so to brush this off entirely is absurd. There’s no reason. It doesn’t take that much keep the Saudis on side. The main problem the Saudis have with the White House is the same problem the Israelis and a lot of other countries have: Iran. No one believes the president of the United States when he says “all options are on the table.” No one.

MJT: I certainly don’t.

Lee Smith: There are a few Democratic activists and administration mouthpieces who make that case, but foreign officials don’t take it seriously. They can’t afford to swallow White House messaging as geopolitical reality.

The administration clearly wants to make a deal with Iran. All options are not on the table. Maybe the Iranians won’t decide to go for a nuclear breakout before Barack Obama leaves office and rub his nose in the dirt, although everyone else has rubbed his nose in the dirt for the last five years. Vladimir Putin does it and gets away with it. Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani did it and got away with it when he disdained to meet with the Commander-in-Chief after the White House sought a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting.

This is the main problem. Everyone knows the president is bluffing. No one thinks all options are really on the table. 

MJT: Does the White House actually believe they can cut a deal with Iran? I rather doubt it myself. The idea is ludicrous. For at least a year now I’ve suspected that the Iranians and the Obama administration are both just trying to buy time—the Iranians so they can keep moving forward and the White House so the president doesn’t have to make tough decisions over a problem he’d rather ignore.

Lee Smith: A lot of people see it that way, including me, but I think some people have deluded themselves into thinking there’s a deal to be had. So it’s hard to say. But it looks like the US deal with Russia over Syria is a way to sweep the problem under the rug and make it go away, and I think that is a likely pattern for negotiations with Iran, as well. They want to have a piece of paper and for the problem to go away until January 2017, when someone else has to deal with it.

MJT: It looks like the US is going to withhold some of Egypt’s aid. Do you think that’s the right call?

Lee Smith: I actually agree with the administration on this one.

MJT: I do, too.

Lee Smith: I think it’s a good idea, but they’ve been so unclear about it. They need to explain why we need to withhold, or suspend, some of the aid.

MJT: You and I agree, but I’m curious what your reasons are.

Lee Smith: We’re withholding tanks and fighter jets and others things the Egyptians don’t need right now because they’re not going to war against another nation-state. However, we’re also withholding Apache helicopters which the Egyptians apparently need for their counterinsurgency against the jihadis in the Sinai, and the conflict is growing there. So I’m not sure why we’re cutting that off.

But in general I think it’s a good idea to cut aid as a matter of principle. General Sisi gave an interview to the Washington Post and insulted and threatened the United States and I think that’s outrageous. We need to remind him who he is and who we are.

He is the general who overthrew the elected president of an Arab state. That’s who he is.  We’re the United States of America. He needs to understand that.

I’m not a huge fan of this administration, but the United States is my country and Barack Obama is my president, and I don’t want an Egyptian general threatening him or us. So that’s one thing. And let’s face it. What Sisi did was a coup.

MJT: Of course it was.

Lee Smith: And the response of outraged Egyptians reminds us how extremely damaged Egypt’s political culture is. Maybe the Egyptians in all sincerity believe Sisi is a great man who is preserving Egyptian democracy—and our Secretary of State unfortunately said something similar—but that’s nonsense. It’s absolute nonsense.

If there are people who want to take a position against Obama and say he is wrong for cutting off aid and that the Brotherhood is evil, fine, but what Sisi did was still a coup.

If we continue to give the Egyptians money it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’ll have influence. If we condition the money and aid we’ll have a better chance to influence that government. Maybe we won’t, but if we keep on handing them money no matter what they do, we definitely won’t have any influence. It will just convince Sisi he can do whatever he wants and we’ll keep paying out.

And besides, compared with the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Kuwaitis, the US isn’t paying that much. Our aid is important because it’s for the military, but it’s not an Egyptian priority right now. With what we give, we should indeed be conditioning it to maximize whatever influence we have with the regime.

MJT: The Saudis have said they’ll replace whatever we cut. Our money won’t buy us anything if it can be replaced that easily.

Lee Smith: The Saudis don’t like the Brotherhood, which is fine, and Egypt is in big trouble. The amount of money they’re pouring in now is going to delay the inevitable, but it’s not going to prevent the inevitable. At a certain point, some Gulf leader is going to ask how much longer they need to pay out so the Egyptians can have bread, rice, flour, and gasoline.

The Arabs are being generous at the moment. Sure, they’re also pursuing their own interests, but they’re keeping the country from going under. Egypt is in a lot of trouble.

MJT: I haven’t tracked Egypt’s finances that closely. Do you know how much of Egypt’s economy is based on aid from abroad? What would happen to Egypt if it found itself all alone?

Lee Smith: Without Qatar’s money before the coup, Egypt would have been in very big trouble. Now the Egyptians are throwing it back in Qatar’s face and saying they only paid out to help Morsi and the Brotherhood, but that money put food on more plates than just Morsi’s. After the coup, without this money from the Gulf, Egypt would be up against a very tough wall. It’s not going to get an IMF loan. How long are donors going to keep kicking in money? Egypt will almost certainly not be able to satisfy the conditions for an IMF loan because they’ll not be able to cut the subsidies.

MJT: I mean, good God, how could they cut bread subsidies without massive upheaval?

Lee Smith: Right. And it’s not just about cutting subsidies. They need to open up the Egyptian market. The biggest cash industry is tourism.

MJT: And it’s dead.

Lee Smith: Who is going to visit Egypt right now?

MJT: Nobody.

Lee Smith: That might change if things settle down and if people get cleared off the streets and the fighting in the Sinai doesn’t spread too often to Cairo and Alexandria, but who knows? Tourism may return, but it’s not right now.

MJT: It might not be a bad time to visit the pyramids, actually, because you’d get less hassled.

Lee Smith: Or you might get more hassled. [Laughs.] Because you’d be the only poor sucker there.

MJT: [Laughs.]

Lee Smith: And let’s not ignore what’s going on in Turkey right now. There’s a media campaign against the Turkish intelligence service and Prime Minister Erdogan. The intelligence chief is reportedly backing Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria, and he gave up ten Israeli agents in Tehran to the Iranian government. These are damning stories. They’re meant to show that Turkey is not trustworthy right now, and I think that’s true.

Turkey is causing a lot of trouble for itself. Erdogan’s policy of having zero problems with neighbors has created nothing but problems with all of its neighbors. It’s almost laughable. Turkey has problems with all of its neighbors.

MJT: It sure does.

Lee Smith: Erdogan is a fantasist. He believed he was actually capable of leading the region.

Look, Turkey is a NATO ally and a longstanding American ally. And I think it’s the job of the United States to take wayward allies—as Turkey is right now—by the hand and guide it. Apparently the Turks don’t know what to do on their own.

We’re always eager to tell the Israelis what to do. And the Turks right now are reckless. I don’t know why we can’t give them some guidance and say here’s what we want and need from you. Turkey is still an ally and can be extremely useful, but Erdogan can be extremely dangerous to Turkish interests as well as American interests. And it’s going to get worse if we don’t take the matter in hand.

MJT: What would you suggest Erdogan do if he asked you?

Lee Smith: I’d tell him to abandon this absurd zero problems with neighbors policy and pay attention to what the Turkish national interest is. For instance, why does Erdogan keep supporting Morsi? As we said before, the US should suspend some of its aid to Egypt, but that hardly means we’re pro-Muslim Brotherhood.

MJT: Of course we’re not pro-Muslim Brotherhood.

Lee Smith: But Erdogan keeps beating a dead horse. Morsi is in detention. He’s finished. All Erdogan is doing is getting the Egyptian army mad, he’s getting the Saudis mad, and he’s getting the Emiratis mad.

Erdogan needs to be much more circumspect in Syria. I agree with him that Bashar al-Assad needs to come down. However, Erdogan is the leader of a country on Syria’s border. He’s causing domestic problems for himself. Public opinion is against his Syria policy. They don’t like the refugee problem. They’re worried about more retaliatory terrorist attacks from Iranian and Syrian agents like they had a few months ago on the border. And they’re worried about the influx of Sunni militants who are affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Turkey can’t dictate terms. It isn’t a superpower. It’s a regional power. It’s not the United States. The bizarre thing, however, is that under this administration the United States seems to be shriking. Indeed, Obama seems to be shrinking us out of the Middle East. Maybe that’s a good thing, but I’d like to hear the rationale for it.

The Saudi-American Rupture

The American-Saudi alliance is in danger of collapsing.

The Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is by far the largest threat to both Saudi and American interests in the Middle East now, yet the Obama administration is buddying up with Vladimir Putin on Syria and allowing itself to be suckered by the Iranian regime’s new president Hassan Rouhani.

Never mind the fact that Rouhani obviously isn’t a moderate and is powerless to negotiate sovereign issues in any case. The White House is so desperate to cut a deal with America’s enemies that the president will go along on even a farcical ride. As a result, the Saudi government is threatening to drastically “scale back” the relationship.

 “I’ve worked in this field for a long time,” says Brooking Institution expert Mike Doran in London’s Telegraph, “and I’ve studied the history. I know of no analogous period. I’ve never seen so many disagreements on so many key fronts all at once. And I’ve never seen such a willingness on the part of the Saudis to publicly express their frustration. Iran is the number one issue — the only issue for Saudi policy makers. When you add up the whole Middle Eastern map — Syria, Iraq, Iran — it looks to the Saudis as if the US is throwing Sunni allies under the bus by trying to cut a deal with Iran and its allies.”

Foreign Policy 101 dictates that you reward your friends and punish your enemies. Attempts to get cute and reverse the traditional formula always lead to disaster. Yet Barack Obama thinks if he stiffs his friends, his enemies will become a little less hostile. That’s not how it works, but the Saudis have figured out what Obama is doing and are acting accordingly. 

“They [the Americans] are going to be upset—and we can live with that,” said Mustafa Alani, a Saudi foreign policy analyst. "We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States.”

Before proceeding, let’s be clear about a couple of things. The Saudi regime is in a dimension beyond distasteful. It’s an absolute monarchy wedded to absolute theocracy. It’s worse than merely medieval. Human rights don’t exist. The regime—and, frankly, the culture—offends every moral and political sensibility I have in my being. I’d love to live in a world where junking our “friendship” with Riyadh would be the right call.

But the United States and Saudi Arabia are—or at least were until recently—on the same page geopolitically. For decades we have provided the Saudis with security in exchange for oil and stability, and we’ve backed them and the rest of the Gulf Arabs against our mutual enemies, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime and its allies.

The alliance isn’t deep. It’s transactional. It’s not at all like the American alliance with countries like Britain, Israel, Canada, and Japan. It’s based on interests alone, and that makes it temporary. If the Iranian regime were to be overthrown and replaced with even a half-assed democracy, chances are good that Washington would tilt toward Tehran and away from Riyadh. We could make the same deal with a democratic Iran that we currently have with the Gulf Arabs, only it would not be distasteful. It would be perfectly logical, and we wouldn’t have to compromise our values. I wouldn’t have to plug my nose when typing the word “ally” in same sentence as “Iran” if Iran were democratic.

But in the imperfect world we live in right now, Saudi Arabia is an interests-based ally of the United States. Or at least it was until the Obama administration all but surrendered to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis.

So the Saudis are alarmed. They’re right to be. Maybe threatening to downgrade relations will give Washington a reality check. That’s the idea, anyway.

Either way, if the Saudis want to get real, it’s time for them to suck it up and normalize relations with Israel for the same reason they forged an alliance with the United States. The Israelis and the Gulf Arabs have the exact same geopolitical interests right now. They have the exact same list of enemies. Who cares if Riyadh and Jerusalem can’t stand each other personally? Riyadh and Washington can’t stand each other personally either. That hasn’t stopped us from working together when our interests coincide.

Of course, an alliance with Israel would be a little more awkward (to say the least) while the Palestinians are still stateless, but so what? The Jordanian government worked it out and is in far better shape as a result.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has always been stupid and pointless, and at this late date it’s ludicrous. It’s a festering holdover from a previous era, and it makes progress difficult or impossible for just about everyone. If Sunni Arab governments make a peaceful and reasonable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority, something might actually happen.

It’s logical, isn’t it? Israel poses no threat whatsoever to Gulf Arabs and never has. Israel poses no threat to any Arab country that doesn’t act with belligerence first. The Jordanians figured that out a long time ago. So did the Egyptian government even if Egypt’s population remains as clueless as ever. The Tunisians figured it out. The Moroccans get along with Israel just fine under the table.

The open secret right now is that the Gulf Arabs have also figured it out even as they’re loath to admit it in public. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is not-so secretly working with all the Arab states in the Gulf region right now based on shared (anti-Iranian) interests.

Don’t be surprised. All the existing Sunni Arab governments moved on from the Arab-Israeli conflict decades ago. Aside from the Palestinian Authority during the Second Intifada, only the Iranian regime and its network of allies and proxies—Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and Hamas—have fought Israel at any time during the last thirty years or so. The only exception occurred when Saddam Hussein launched a couple of SCUD missiles at Tel Aviv during the first Persian Gulf War in an attempt to fracture the Arab-Western alliance against him.

The majority of Arab citizens would surely think my analysis is nonsense on stilts, but aside from the (non-Sunni) regime in Damascus, Arab governments are behaving precisely in line with it. They learned quite a while ago that it’s time to set the ridiculous Palestinian conflict aside and deal with real threats for a change. They’ve tried to turn it into a frozen conflict instead of resolving it, but still. At least they haven’t been poking it with a stick.

Washington is adrift at the moment, but we change administrations more often than the Middle East does, and we change policies even faster. We’ll be on the same page sooner or later.

Post-script: Don’t forget. I have books. And I have two more coming out next year. The first is a novel unlike anything I've written before, and the other is a collection of dispatches from the Middle East.

I get a royalty check every month that includes money from every single copy that sells, so please, help me pay my mortgage, fatten your bookshelf, and order some for your friends!

Why Muslims Should Love Secularism

Hussein Ibish argues in an interesting piece in NOW Lebanon that Muslims should love secularism. I’m not entirely convinced of everything he writes here--little or none of it applies to bin Ladenists, for instance--but I  know he’s right about most of it and I’ve had similar thoughts and observations myself.

Muslims should love secularism. But very few of them do, largely because they misunderstand what it stands for and would mean for them.

Secularism as an English term – in contrast to the French concept of laïcité – simply means the neutrality of the state on matters of faith. This bears almost no resemblance to the way in which most Arabs understand the term, whether translated as ‘almaniyya, ilmanniyya, or even dunyawiyya.

Secularism has become strongly associated in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds with atheism, iconoclasm, and anti-religious attitudes and policies. And in the process, one of the most important pillars of building tolerant, inclusive, and genuinely free Muslim-majority societies has been grotesquely misrepresented and stigmatized.

The first of these experiences was the overtly anti-religious attitude of the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which was presented as "modernization" and "secularism."

The second is the objectionable and noxious French concept of laïcité, which also tends to be more anti-religious than neutral. This association has been particularly exacerbated by "secular" laïcité laws in France and elsewhere that oppressively prevent Muslim women from covering their hair in public spaces such as schools.

The third, and perhaps most damning of all, has been the misappropriation, abuse, and discrediting of "secularism" by regimes that placed Arab nationalism at the center of their authoritarian ideology. Socialist, communist, and fascist Arab regimes oppressed, abused, and waged wars against their own peoples and each other in the name of, among other things, "secularism."

Read the whole thing in NOW Lebanon.

When Assad Apologists Attack

It’s hard to find even much black humor in the Syrian civil war, but I laughed out loud a couple of times during this screamfest on Lebanese television between one of Bashar al-Assad’s mafioso and a bemused spokesman for the Free Syrian Army.

I don’t want to ruin it by quoting the good parts, so just watch it.

Quote of the Day

This guy is a laugh riot.

“Personally, I don't see any obstacles to being nominated to run in the next presidential elections,” Assad told Syria's Al Mayadeen TV when asked if he thought it was suitable to hold the election, as scheduled, in 2014.

This was in a Reuters piece which says in its headline that Assad "mulls re-election."

Reminds me of a Syrian joke I heard in Beirut, which I believe was imported from the Soviet Union. It goes like this:

Syria holds an election. An advisor to the president Hafez al-Assad—who, of course, runs unopposed—says, “Mr. President. Great news! You won 99.9 percent of the vote!”

Assad growls under his breath.

His advisor, perplexed, says, “But Mr. President. Only 0.1 percent of the people voted against you. What more do you want?”

“Their names,” Assad says.

Will Israel Accept Syrian Refugees?

Israel is the only country in the Eastern Mediterranean that isn’t involved in the Syrian refugee crisis. It doesn’t even occur to Syrians to seek refuge in what is supposed to be an enemy state.

But what if that changed?

The Israeli Druze community is now pressuring the government to accept Syrian Druze refugees.

It’s an interesting idea. The Druze are Arabs, but they’re not Muslims. Not really. They belong to a closed minority spin-off sect that is largely secular in orientation and doesn’t accept converts. Most tenets of their religion are secret, and as minorities they have a unique take on regional politics.

The Druze don’t have the numbers to build a state of their own. Their community is split between Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. In each place they ally themselves with whoever is in power in order to keep themselves safe.

In Israel, they’re loyal Zionists. In Syria, they’ve been on side with Bashar al-Assad. On the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, they divide their loyalty between Israel and Syria. They’re partly loyally to Israel because they live under Israeli jurisdiction, but they’re also partly loyal to Syria in case the Israelis ever give the Golan Heights back. In Lebanon, under the leadership of Walid Jumblatt, they’re constantly shifting with the ever-changing political landscape.

They rarely, if ever, cause trouble for whoever’s in charge. And they’re more keenly aware than anyone else of which horse to bet on during power struggles. They have to be or they will not survive.

So if Syria’s Druze do end up seeking Israeli protection, it will only be because the power dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean are in the process of a permanent shift. Leaders in Israel’s Druze community seem to believe that’s an actual possibility or they wouldn’t even be talking about it.

The Russia Left Behind

I have not yet been to Russia, but when my friend Sean LaFreniere and I drove into a remote part of Ukraine from a remote part of Poland and hit roads so deteriorated they looked and felt like they’d been shredded to ribbons by air strikes, Sean said “we’re in Russia!” He insists that this place—outer Western Ukraine on the road to the town of Sambir—is exactly like the long dark stretch of road between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

I wrote about that journey in my book, Where the West Ends. And now Ellen Barry has written what reads like a haunting companion piece about the actual stretch of road between Moscow and St. Petersburg for The New York Times Magazine.

Her piece is extraordinary, as are her photos.

At the edges of Russia’s two great cities, another Russia begins.

This will not be apparent at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, nor is it visible from the German-engineered high-speed train. It is along the highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg — a narrow 430-mile stretch of road that is a 12-hour trip by car — that one sees the great stretches of Russia so neglected by the state that they seem drawn backward in time.

As the state’s hand recedes from the hinterlands, people are struggling with choices that belong to past centuries: to heat their homes with a wood stove, which must be fed by hand every three hours, or burn diesel fuel, which costs half a month’s salary? When the road has so deteriorated that ambulances cannot reach their home, is it safe to stay? When their home can’t be sold, can they leave?

Clad in rubber slippers, his forearms sprinkled with tattoos, Mr. Naperkovsky is the kind of plain-spoken man’s man whom Russians would call a “muzhik.” He had something he wanted to pass on to Mr. Putin, who has led Russia during 13 years of political stability and economic expansion.

“The people on the top do not know what is happening down here,” he said. “They have their own world. They eat differently, they sleep on different sheets, they drive different cars. They don’t know what is going on here. If I needed one word to describe it, I would say it is a swamp, a stagnant swamp. As it was, so it is. Nothing is changing.”

Driving the highway, the M10, today, one finds beauty and decay. There are places where wild boars roam abandoned villages, gorging themselves on the fruit of orchards planted by men.

There are spots on this highway where it seems time has stopped. A former prison guard is spending his savings building wooden roadside chapels, explaining that “many souls” weigh on his conscience. A rescue worker from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl is waiting, 27 years later, for the apartment the Soviets promised him as a reward. Women sit on the shoulder, selling tea to travelers from a row of samovars. Above them, pillars of steam vanish into the sky, just as they did in 1746, the year construction on the road began.

This part of Russia should not be the back of beyond. It’s the single stretch of road between the country’s two largest cities. The road from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean is in better condition than this. (I know, I’ve driven it.)

It’s not just the roads in rural Russia that have fallen apart. The society itself seems to have slipped back into the 18th century.

What struck me most about Ukraine is how it looks like the West, but it’s not. It’s like an alternate universe version of the West, what our civilization might have looked like had history gone another direction. Russia and Ukraine actually went that direction.

Hezbollah's War Crimes

Hezbollah is guilty of more than just terrorism. Lebanon’s so-called Party of God also commits war crimes, especially nowadays against civilians in Syria.

If you can stomach it, take a look at the latest video evidence. It’s extremely graphic—one of the nastiest incidents I’ve seen on film from the Syrian conflict—so you might want to pass if you’re squeamish.

Paramilitary fighters are shown dragging wounded men out the back of a van and shooting them in the torso and in the head. The video could be a frame job, but Middle East experts across the political spectrum think the men in this footage belong to Hezbollah. They speak Lebanese-accented Arabic, they use specific Hezbollah phrases, and they’re wearing Hezbollah’s yellow arm bands.

Resisting the Zionist Entity is the Party of God’s ostensible raison d'être, so murdering Muslims in Syria might seem a peculiar thing for its fighters to be doing. But killing Jews and Israelis has been from the beginning only one of Hezbollah’s violent pastimes.

Some of the organization’s first victims—let’s not forget—were Americans.

When all the bodies are counted, however, most of Hezbollah’s victims will likely be Muslims. That has been true so far of all Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. Eventually it will be their undoing.

The World's Deadliest Road Trip

I have a moderately high tolerance for dangerous situations, but war correspondent David Axe’s is higher than mine. He just returned from a journey you couldn’t pay me enough to take—a road trip into Syria

“Our little tour of Hell was a lot of fun,” he writes. “Except when it wasn’t.”

Riven with conflict, prowled by kidnappers, seemingly awash in lethal gasses, half-occupied by America’s unhappiest “allies,” for journalists Syria is a difficult place to cover. And many journalists aren’t even willing to try. “I would suggest that anyone thinking of independently covering the conflict in northern Syria, to seriously consider re-evaluating their plans and avoid the area entirely,” said Javier Manzano, a freelance photographer.

The naysayers tried to stop me from going, too. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” one Beirut-based writer told me before detailing some of the terrible things that could happen to me “on the inside”—reporters’ in-vogue euphemism for Syria.

I went anyway.

A Big Thanks to My Biggest Donors

I sent out individual thank-you emails to everybody who pitched in for my Cuba project, but I want to publicly thank my biggest donors right here.

A special thanks goes out to:

Ashish J. Shah

Glenn Reynolds

Chris Hoecke

Josh Mitchell

Grahame Lynch

Joseph Sturkey

Brad Nail

Carlton Wickstrom

Timothy Scott

J.M. Heinrichs

Steve Dye

Carl Geier

William Slattery

Keith Mitchell

Rob Hafernik

Amanda Scott

Joseph Blankier

Dee Grant

James Davis

David Freeman

Bruce Moorhead

David Eiche

Sherman Stacey

Whit Chapman

Paul Bailey

Herbert Jacobi

David Herr

Chuch Herrick

Mike McGinn

Robert J. Hansen

Greg Barnes

Elias Torosion

Gene Mitchell

Asher Abrams

Richard M. Shirley

Signe Johnson

Michael Whittemore

Daniela Dixon

Christopher Frautschi

Kirk Parker

Kevin (last name unknown)

Will Gaston

James King

Terry Josiah

David (last name unknown)

Meir Kohn

Timothy M. Smith

Paul Sullivan

Michael Taylor

Barbara Berman

Victor Patterson

I couldn’t do this without you folks, so many sincere thanks.

Libyan Prime Minister Kidnapped

This can’t be good: Terrorists just kidnapped Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from the luxury hotel in Tripoli where he and many other government officials live.

Seems they grabbed him to retaliate against an American Special Forces raid greenlit by the Libyan government against suspected Al Qaeda member Abu Anas al-Libi.

If this isn't unprecedented, it's close. I don’t recall ever hearing about a prime minister being kidnapped from any country.

This comes right after the fall of the last Islamist government in North Africa, so I guess the region was due for some bad news. Good news streaks don’t tend to last very long in that part of the world.

Here is a picture of him in captivity (scroll down). I doubt this will end quickly or well, but Libya is a strange and unpredictable place.

UPDATE: Okay, so it did end quickly and well, sort of. I went to bed and Zeidan was kidnapped. I woke up and he was free.

This incident is all but certain to change things in Libya. In which direction, though, is anyone's guess. It could mark the beginning of the end of the militias, or the beginning of their takeover of the civilian government. Kidnapping the prime minister is not going to just be a blip that everybody forgets ever happened.

My Latest Wall Street Journal Book Review

My latest book review for the Wall Street Journal is up. This one is about Matthew Levitt’s Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.

Until 9/11, no terrorist organization had killed more Americans than Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group: From the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, which killed 241 Marines, to the 1996 detonation of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen, Hezbollah's anti-American curriculum vitae was long and bloody. Today it remains an efficient global terror operation, having executed bombings on four continents, built a presence on six and even branched out to drug trafficking.

Despite this record, Hezbollah (the "Party of God" in Arabic) is still viewed in some quarters as little more than a parochial Lebanese political party with an armed wing charged solely with resisting an Israeli occupation that ended 13 years ago, on May 25, 2000. It's this myth that Matthew Levitt explodes in "Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God." The author, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former FBI counterterrorism analyst, narrates the full history of the organization in absorbing detail with an emphasis on its 30-year history of terrorism. While scholarly in tone and approach, Mr. Levitt's book delivers suspenseful and even terrifying blow-by-blow accounts of the most infamous of Hezbollah's attacks. He can't dramatize all of them, though, because there are too many—far more than most people realize, because until now no one had bothered to document them in one place.

Hezbollah traces its origins to Iran's 1979 revolution. The mullahs knew that unless they aggressively exported their theocratic ideology after the revolution, Iran risked becoming, in the words of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, just "an ordinary country." So the regime created Hezbollah as the overseas branch of its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—the tip of an Iranian imperial spear.

The group first coalesced in 1982 in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, as a loose confederation of Shia Islamist cells under various names. By the mid-1980s it had become a more formal organization. Lebanon, with its large Shia population, was the perfect place for Tehran to export its revolution, and the early 1980s, in the midst of civil war and Israeli occupation, was the perfect time.

Hezbollah cut its teeth in Beirut, first by destroying the U.S. Embassy in 1983, then by deploying suicide truck bombers simultaneously against American Marines and French soldiers on peacekeeping missions in October of the same year. "The Marine barracks bombing," Mr. Levitt writes, "was not only the deadliest terrorist attack then to have targeted Americans, it was also the single-largest non-nuclear explosion on earth since World War II."

Read the rest in the Wall Street Journal.

Cuba is Funded

My Kickstarter campaign to send me to Cuba has successfully funded. Here is a public thank you to everyone backing this project. I'll send personal emails to everyone shortly.

Cheers!

Final Kickstarter Push

Fewer than 24 hours remain in my Kickstarter campaign to send me to Cuba.

I've reached my minimum threshold, but this trip is going to cost a bit more than I expected, and money is always tight for me anyway, so if you can pitch in a few dollars I'll sure appreciated it.

Besides, if you want a full-color dispatch pack e-book from Cuba, backing my Kickstarter project is the only way to get one. It won't be available anywhere else at any other time, so it's now or never.

Many thanks to everyone who has pitched in so far!

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