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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!

The Fall of Tunisia's Islamists

Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamist party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been forced from power by an overwhelming secular opposition.

I didn’t know this was going to happen, but I had a pretty strong sense that it would. Tunisia is a modern, pluralistic, civilized place. It’s striking liberal compared with most Arab countries. A person couldn’t possibly show up in Tunis from Cairo and think the two are remotely alike. Egypt is at one extreme of the Arab world’s political spectrum, and Tunisia is at the other.

The Islamists won less than half the vote two years ago, and the only reason they did even that well is because Ennahda ran on an extremely moderate platform. They sold themselves to voters as Tunisia’s version of Germany’s Christian Democrats.

It was a lie, of course, and once Tunisians figured that out, support for Ennahda cratered.

The assassination of leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi this summer pushed the country over the edge. Ennahda didn’t kill the guy. A Salafist terrorist cell did the deed. But Ennahda has been playing footsie with the Salafist fringe while the rest of the country recoils in horror, so Ennahda is getting blamed too.

Unlike in Egypt, the Islamists weren’t thrown out by force. Tunisia doesn’t have an Egyptian-style military that’s big and powerful and ideological enough to occupy the country and rule it through a junta. Also unlike in Egypt, Tunisia has a critical mass of secular citizens who won’t put up with even a whiff of theocracy.

The other reason Ennahda’s partial victory was possible two years ago is because they had an organizational advantage after the dictator Ben Ali fell. They had the mosques while the secular parties had nothing. And since the Islamists were smart enough to pretend to be moderates, they managed to get moderate people to vote for them.

That’s over now. In the meantime, the liberal and leftist parties have had a lot more time to get organized and merge into larger entities so they can avoid the vote splitting that hurt them so much last time. When a single religious party squares off against dozens of secular parties, it doesn’t take a political or mathematical genius to figure out which will get the most votes.

Tunisia is the one and only Arab Spring country that I’ve been cautiously optimistic about. Libya is too much of a mess, Egypt was a lost cause begin with, and Syria is in worse shape than Bosnia in the mid-1990s. Tunisia, though, is doing as well as could be expected.

And get this: now that Ennahda is out, not a single post-Arab Spring country is ruled by Islamists. All of them are secular now.

Postscript: Only a few days left in my Kickstarter campaign. If you'd like an e-book version of my dispatches from Cuba, pitch in and you shall have it. My first dispatch pack from a communist country will never be available anywhere else.

On the Radio

I was on the John Batchelor Show again today to discuss everyone’s favorite problem right now: Syria.

Scroll down to the very bottom of the page and you can stream the interview. I come in at 10:50.

Beware Persian Leaders with Masks

Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke on the phone for a couple of minutes on Friday, and NBC News breathlessly reported that this was “the first time leaders from the U.S. and Iran have directly communicated since the 1979 Iranian revolution.”

That’s not exactly true. Hassan Rouhani is not Iran’s leader.

Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is Iran’s leader. He is the head of state—the dictator—and the one who makes all sovereign decisions. And of course Rouhani is loyal and does what he’s told. Khamenei and his hand-picked Guardian Council vetted him thoroughly. Otherwise he wouldn’t be president.

Iranian expat Sohrab Ahmari summed it up bluntly, and aptly, in The Wall Street Journal after Rouhani won the presidential show election in August. “This is what democracy looks like in a theocratic dictatorship. Iran's presidential campaign season kicked off last month when an unelected body of 12 Islamic jurists disqualified more than 600 candidates. Women were automatically out; so were Iranian Christians, Jews and even Sunni Muslims. The rest, including a former president, were purged for possessing insufficient revolutionary zeal. Eight regime loyalists made it onto the ballots. One emerged victorious on Saturday.”

It is still historic than Obama spoke on the phone to a second-tier regime official, but it’s not like Richard Nixon going to China and meeting with Mao Zedong. Nor is this the beginning of the kind of détente Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev established near the end of the Cold War.

For that, the President of the United States would need to meet with the Supreme Guide of Iran. And the Supreme Guide of Iran would need to be reasonable. He would need to pull the kind of reversal of Iranian policy that Anwar Sadat did in Egypt after the Yom Kippur War. None of those things are happening. I wish they were, but they’re not.

So let’s not get carried away.

Seriously, getting excited about Rouhani is a like foreign heads of state swooning when the United States gets a new Senate Majority Leader.

Plenty of Middle Easterners, Arab and Israeli alike, are alarmed at Washington’s naiveté here. I can understand where the naiveté comes from. Most Americans severely underestimate how ruthless and cunning Middle Eastern leaders have to be to survive. We have a hard time imagining it because our own political experience here at home is so much milder. Kevin Spacey’s ruthless and cunning fictional member of Congress Francis Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards isn’t even a bat boy in the league the Middle East plays in.

Look, I’d like to see friendly and normal relations between the United States and Iran as much as everyone else. It’s bound to happen sooner or later. The Iranian people are much less hostile to the United States and the West than the regime is, and all dictatorships eventually fall. Often they’re replaced with new dictatorships, but that seems much less likely in Iran than in, say, Egypt. Iranian culture is much more advanced.

Either way, Iran’s next revolution will almost certainly be anti-Islamist since the Islamists have ruled over and ruined everything for the last 34 years. There is no one to rebel against except the Islamists. Iranian writer Reza Zarabi put it this way a few years before the failed Green Revolution broke out. “The name Iran, which used to be equated with such things as luxury, fine wine, and the arts, has become synonymous with terrorism. When the Islamic Republic government of Iran finally meets its demise, they will have many symbols and slogans as testaments of their rule, yet the most profound will be their genocide of Islam, the black stain that they have put on this faith for many generations to come.”

There is another possibility that would also be welcome. The regime might partially reform itself after Khamenei dies, and Khamenei is an old man. Even the most ideologically deranged regimes are capable of reform when leaders pass on. China changed drastically after Mao. Vietnam changed as much after Ho Chi Minh. Burma (Myanmar) may be in the process that sort of change now.

But Iran isn’t there yet. Khamenei is still alive and unwavering. He is still the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, and he's still perfectly willing to murder Americans. Just a few weeks ago Iran’s Revolutionary Guards plotted terrorist attacks against the American Embassy in Baghdad—and that was after Rouhani was elected. The regime still has no respect whatsoever for civilized norms of international politics and still, more than thirty years after the hostage crisis, views diplomats and their support staff as military targets.

The only thing that has changed in Tehran is the mask.

Hassan Rouhani, Holocaust Revisionist

I hate to rain on everybody's good time, but Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani is getting a lot more credit than he deserves for supposedly condemning the Holocaust.

First of all, Middle Eastern politics are in awfully bad shape if uttering something so basic and obvious will earn a man plaudits all over the world.

Second, he may not have said what everyone thinks he said.

Here is the full text of Christian Amanpour's interview with Rouhani at CNN.

Here is some criticism from Fars News agency, an official propaganda organ of the Iranian government, which insists CNN got the translation wrong and that Rouhani didn't actually say what Western media are reporting.

And here's a third piece in the Wall Street Journal:

Our independent translation of Mr. Rouhani's comments," the Journal writes, "confirms that Fars, not CNN, got the Farsi right.

So what did Mr. Rouhani really say? After offering a vague indictment of "the crime committed by the Nazis both against the Jews and the non-Jews," he insisted that "I am not a history scholar," and that "the aspects that you talk about, clarification of these aspects is a duty of the historians and researchers."

I don't speak or write Farsi, so I'm not going to weigh in on which translation is best.

For a second, though, let's assume, for the sake of discussion, that CNN's more benign translation of Rouhani's remarks is the most accurate, that Fars is trying to take back what the president said.

Even according to CNN, Rouhani said this: "I have said before that I am not a historian personally and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust as such, it is the historians that should reflect on it."

Holocaust revisionists have been peddling this line for years. They acknowledge that a few Jews were killed by the Nazis while arguing that the "dimensions" of 6 million dead is an exagerration or lie.

I'm not a historian either, but I've known about the Holocaust since 7th grade. Denying it happened is a crime in Germany, the country actually responsible for the Holocaust. Suggesting that maybe it happened and maybe it didn't, that maybe it was big but perhaps it was small, may not be denial, per se, but it smells like denial and, either way, shouldn't earn anyone any points, not even when grading on a curve for the Middle East.

But Washington will continue pretending Rouhani is Mr. Reasonable anyway like it used to do with Bashar al-Assad. The truth doesn't matter.

Al Shabab Strikes Back

Al Shabab, Somalia’s franchise of Al Qaeda, killed at least 68 people and wounded more than 175 when it seized control of the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall and took hostages in Nairobi this weekend.

The Westgate looks like a mall anywhere in the West. It could be in Los Angeles or Cincinnati or Poughkeepsie.

President Uhuru Kenyatta says one of his nephews and his fiancée are among the 68 dead. Canadian diplomat Annemarie Desloges was also killed

The attackers went to the mall to murder non-Muslims, so Muslims were allowed to go free. Non-Muslims who tried to escape were ordered to name the mother of the Prophet Mohammad. Those who did not know the answer were killed.

Mohammad’s mother, by the way, was named Aminah bint Wahb.

Al Shabab was part of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union until it lost a war against the Somali and Ethiopian governments in 2006. The diehards broke off to form their own organization so they could resume battle. They’ve spent the last couple of years kidnapping and murdering aid workers because that’s how they roll, and they even managed to run parts of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu for a while until ANISOM—the African Union Mission in Somalia—dislodged them in 2011 with help from the Kenyans.

That’s what this attack in Nairobi was ostensibly for: revenge for Kenya’s defeat of Al Shabab in next-door Somalia.

The group posted several messages on Twitter while all this was happening. The account has been suspended, but someone saved the Tweets and posted them on Wikipedia.

“The attacks are just retribution for the lives of innocent Muslims shelled by Kenyan jets in Lower Jubba and in refugee camps”

“What Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military, albeit largely miniscule in nature”

“Since our last contact, the Mujahideen inside the mall confirmed to @HSM_Press that they killed over 100 Kenyan kuffar & battle is ongoing”

“For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it’s time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land”

“The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders”

“The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia”

“Kenyan government shall be held responsible for any loss of life as a result of such an imprudent move. The call is yours!”

“Kenyan forces who’ve just attempted a roof landing must know that they are jeopardising the lives of hostages.”

The army did manage to free most of the hostages. At least that’s what it claims. Fortunately the soldiers didn’t go in there and kill most of the captives like the Russian and Algerian armies did at various times during the last couple of years when similar groups captured innocents and held them at gunpoint. I’m hardly an expert on Kenya—I’ve never even been there—but I did not expect an Algerian-style ending.

One of my journalism colleagues traveled to South Sudan shortly after it declared independence from Khartoum. The place is an epic disaster, the worst he’s ever seen, and he ran into people from all over Africa who were there to help out. The Kenyans he met seemed to him “incredibly competent” compared with others from East Africa. Kenya is, after all, the regional power on that part of the continent.

International war correspondent and Washington Post African bureau chief Sudarsan Raghavan has seen all kinds of mayhem all over the world, but he never thought he’d encounter Syria- and Iraq-style horrors in Nairobi.

I never expected to see two bullet-riddled corpses at the steps by the entrance I frequently passed through to visit an ATM or enjoy a cappuccino. I never expected to see cars pocked with bullet holes, their doors wide open, along a street I drove on several times a week. I never expected to call my wife while I was in Nairobi to tell her I was safe, or feel my eyes burning from tear gas when police tried to disperse onlookers. Or to consider donning my flak jacket and helmet at a place where I often wore nothing more than shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.

This happens in Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia — not near my house.

But it did happen near his house. My old street in West Beirut was likewise turned into a war zone shortly after I moved away. It can happen almost anywhere in the world these days, and that’s not going to change. 

A Bipartisan Autopsy Report

America’s Middle East policy died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the feet. Scholars Tom Nichols John Schindler co-wrote the bipartisan autopsy report for The National Interest.

We write as two scholars and former national-security practitioners who agree on almost nothing else regarding Syria: one is a traditional realistwho opposed military action against Assad, and the other is a recent arrival in the camp of the post-Cold War liberal internationalistswho supported striking the Syrian regime. We come not only from diverging views but also from different academic disciplines (history and political science), and while both of us have served in positions relevant to American foreign and security policy, we speak on our own behalf, especially since we ourselves are otherwise so deeply divided about U.S. intervention overseas.

We share, however, a background in the study of Russia, and it is here that we find the outcome of the Syrian crisis to be so disastrous. For nearly seven decades, American efforts in the Middle East have been based on a bipartisan consensus—one of the few to be found in U.S. foreign policy—aimed at limiting Moscow’s influence in that region. This is a core interest of American foreign policy: it reflects the strategic importance of the region to us and to our allies, as well as the historical reality Russia has continually sought clients there who would oppose both Western interests and ideals. In less than a week, an unguarded utterance by a U.S. Secretary of State has undone those efforts. Not only is Moscow now Washington’s peer in the Middle East, but the United States has effectively outsourced any further management of security problems in the region to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

We both deplore the hyperpartisanship that has required too many Republicans and Democrats to support or oppose this new agreement based on domestic political calculations. We recognize, however, that more sincere defenders of the September 9 deal see great virtue in it. They argue, for example, that it will avert the need for military force (a threat most Americans did not want carried out anyway), that it will strip Assad of his chemical arms without fighting, and that it will force Putin to take ownership of the WMD question in Syria and thus obligate Russia to live up to better standards of global citizenship.

We find these to be optimistic and hopelessly naïve interpretations. It will be nearly impossible to move chemical weapons anywhere in the midst of a pitched civil war; moreover, the idea that the Putin regime cares anything for international norms or global citizenship beyond its own crudely defined interests is laughable on its face. By gaining American certification of the most important role Moscow has ever played in the Middle East, Putin has achieved in a week what no Soviet or Russian leader managed to do in a century. There should be little wonder that Putin pressed his advantage with a shameless lecture to America in the pages of The New York Times in one of the most appalling and hypocritical public relations stunts by a Kremlin boss since the Soviet era.

Mission Impossible in Syria

I live near an enormous former stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. It isn’t walking distance from my house, but I can drive there between breakfast and lunch without exceeding the speed limit.

From 1962 to 2011, the US Army stored nearly four thousand tons of VX, Sarin, and HD blister agent (commonly known as mustard gas) at the Umatilla Chemical Depot along the Columbia River two and a half hours east of Portland, Oregon.

In 1993 the US signed a treaty forbidding the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and eleven years later, in 2004, the Army was finally ready to begin destroying Oregon’s stockpile.

They did it by incinerating the chemical agents in a 2,700 degree furnace. And they did it in a thinly populated part of the peaceful Pacific Northwest under the complete control of the United States Army.

It still took them eight years. Toxic munitions must be destroyed very slowly and very carefully. A single drop of this stuff will kill you, and the facility is located right on the Columbia River which runs through Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. And though Umatilla County is fairly remote, the Los Angeles Times reported that “disaster scenarios suggested that a major earthquake at the facility, followed by fire, could send a plume of poisonous residue as far as Portland, Seattle or Spokane.”

If you live in the Midwest, you may be used to hearing the blaring sound of air raid sirens when the local authorities test the tornado warning systems. We have a similar setup on the Oregon coast to warn residents and tourists of an incoming tsunami if a Hawaiian volcano falls into the Pacific or if the Cascadian Subduction Zone ruptures. And in three counties in Eastern Oregon, yet another one of those systems was set up in case something at the Umatilla death trap exploded.

So people who live in that area felt a sense of relief when the Army finally finished destroying the stockpiles on October 25, 2011.

The Chemical Weapons Convention was drafted in New York and Paris. The United States signed it in 1993.

Syria agreed to sign it three days ago. A plan is now being put together to rid Syria of its chemical weapons

Considering all of the above, which I’ve been all too familiar with for many years now, you can color me more than a little bit skeptical.

The whole thing was Vladimir Putin’s idea. Not because he cares a whit about chemical weapons or how many people are horribly killed by them, but because he needs to stick up for his one Arab ally and he needs to stick his thumb in America’s eye. 

Barack Obama likes the idea, though, because it means he doesn’t have to do anything about Syria even though Bashar al-Assad crossed the “red line” and used poison gas against humans. Assad likewise likes the idea because, now that the international pressure is off, he can kill another 100,000 humans with conventional weapons and the only people who will say boo about it are human rights organizations and journalists.

Disposing of VX and mustard gas was slow and dangerous work in Oregon. I can only imagine how much more difficult the job will be in a Middle Eastern country that’s ripping its own guts out while Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are loose and running wild.

For those reasons alone, I imagine it is impossible. As Jeffrey Goldberg added, “Assad is a lying, murdering terrorist, and lying, murdering terrorists aren’t, generally speaking, reliable partners, except for other lying, murdering terrorists.”

Let’s say, though, just for the sake of discussion, that the process goes just as smoothly in Syria as it did in Oregon, that it will take precisely the same amount of time to destroy Assad’s arsenal, and that they (whoever they are) can get started tomorrow.

They won’t finish until 2021. Because that’s how long it took down the road from my house.

But there’s no chance destroying this stuff will happen as swiftly and smoothly in Syria as it did in Oregon. That wouldn’t be good enough anyway. It would need to happen more swiftly and smoothly. And the only thing that happens more swiftly and smoothly in Syria than in Oregon is the deployment of car bombs.

I suppose Syria’s thousand tons of chemical weapons could be driven to the airport (!) and flown out, but the only country I can think of that would want guardianship of Assad’s weapons of mass destruction is Iran (unless Lebanon’s Hezbollahland counts as a country), and I doubt many would allow flights containing Assad’s arsenal over their air space.

Furthermore, I doubt a single high-level person involved in this international performance will ever even try to make it work. Because it’s damn near impossible and everyone knows it. It doesn’t matter, though, because this is about face-saving status quo maintenance.

Everybody at the top wins. Putin doesn’t want to lose his one Arab ally, and now he doesn’t have to. Obama never did want to bomb Syria, and now he doesn’t have to. Assad does not want to stop bombing Syria, and now he doesn’t have to.

Vladimir Putin's Reset with America

Here are two pieces that should be read together.

First up is Lee Smith in The Weekly Standard on Vladimir Putin’s victory in the Middle East:

Give Vladimir Putin his due. With his proposal to put Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons under international control, he proved he was more than a mere thug who expresses his self-regard by posing bare-chested, dating teenage gymnasts, and wrestling wild game. In showing his subtlety and cunning, Putin reminded us that his professional training as an intelligence officer (not to mention his judo hobby) taught him to zero in on human vulnerabilities and exploit them. Obama is vain. Putin saw that the American president always needs to look good. 

Thus, after years of denigrating the president and his staff, Putin spared Obama a devastating defeat on Capitol Hill by repackaging humiliation as a diplomatic win for a president whose motto is that he came to end wars, not to start them. It mattered little to Putin that the White House claimed credit for the initiative, that administration spokesmen said Obama officials had broached the subject with Moscow over a year ago, that the Obama team pretended it was the president’s threat of force that had prompted the diplomatic breakthrough. Let Obama boast of another beautiful victory: Putin knew that he had exposed an American president too timid to fire a dozen cruise missiles into the Syrian desert as indecisive, unreliable, and weak. To American allies, a president who makes good on neither his promises nor his threats is a liability.

Astonishingly, Putin won with a weak hand. Russia is not China, never mind the Soviet Union. Her economy is run like a criminal enterprise and depends on a monopoly in European energy markets; Russian society is in a demographic tailspin; and the only way for Putin to shore up his domestic legitimacy is through a steady diet of anti-Americanism and posturing meant to signal Russian strength. If the Americans can’t keep Putin in line, our allies are wondering, who else might start punching above their weight, and at us?

Second is Matthew Continetti’s piece in the Washington Free Beacon on America’s long withdrawing roar:

What happens when the sea recedes? The shoreline is exposed. Sand crabs and sea gulls and seaweed appear on the beach: Iranians and Saudis, Russians and Taliban. They come to fill the void left by the vacating American tide. The lower the tide becomes, the more daring the actions of the creatures liberated by its wake.

For several years now Americans have been comfortable in the delusion that the benefits, such as they are, of a global economy and of a world where war is a rarity can be enjoyed without cost. We can look inward, slash defense spending, gut the Navy, pull out from theaters of combat and from strategic bases, ignore the political character of Islamism, and otherwise pretend that at heart all human beings share the same feelings and want the same things, and life will go on as usual. And perhaps life will go on as usual, for most people, in most places in the country. After all: America is huge, protected by two oceans, and at peace with its neighbors.

But inevitably there will come a time when a lack of maintenance causes the international structure that America has built over decades to fall apart; when inwardness and self-preoccupation and “nation building here at home” exacts a cost of its own; when the flotsam and jetsam left behind by the receding tide, the sand crabs and seagulls and seaweed, begin to take over the shore.

Cuba is Funded

You know what’s awesome? Kickstarter.

You know what’s even more awesome? Everyone who pitches in for my travel expenses on Kickstarter.

I’ve raised the money I need for Cuba, so it looks like I’m going. Most likely in November when it’s slightly less hot and I’ll be more prepared. Working there will be challenging and I need to work out some things in advance.

Thanks so much to everyone who is backing this project. I’m going to send personal thank-you notes, but I want to wait until the fundraising period is finished and do it all at once if that’s okay with everybody.

Let's Go to Cuba

I just launched a Kickstarter project to raise money for a trip to Cuba this fall. I’m not asking for donations. I’m asking for funding and will give something back in return. Check out the 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.

As I mentioned here earlier, I don’t want to stop writing about the Middle East. What I want to do is get out of my rut and add more places to write about.

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 24 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.

These vestigial regimes may not be long for this world. China and Vietnam have already transitioned half-way to something else. But the other three are living museum pieces, frozen in the brutal mid-20th century when totalitarianism held sway over whole swaths of the planet.

I intend to visit them all. I’ll have enough material for another book at the end.

Cuba is first. Traveling there is banned for most Americans under the Trading with the Enemy Act, but journalists are exempt. Scrutiny from abroad is always bad for police states.

Working as a journalist in unfree countries is tricky, but I’ve poked around under the noses of dictators in the past and I know the workarounds.

Fidel Castro retired. He isn’t likely to last very much longer. His brother Raul took his place, but he’s only a couple years younger. Big changes might be coming to the island and fast. No one can know for sure, but I’m going over there to take a look and report on what things are like now.

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.

I’ve published four books so far, and my best-seller is Where the West Ends, a fusion of travel writing, journalism, and history in post-communist Eastern Europe and Western Asia. 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 Cuba this fall—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 just 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 Cuba.

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Click through to my Kickstarter project, pledge a bit of money, and let’s make this happen. I can’t go anywhere without your support.

No Confidence

It’s not Barack Obama’s fault that Syria is an epic disaster, nor is it his fault that it’s a lose-lose situation for the United States no matter what he decides to do about it, including the do-nothing option. But the particular bind he’s in right now is the result of an unforced error of his own making.

Here’s Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest:

An effective leader would have consulted with key people in Congress and made sure of his backing before making explicit threats of force. Now the President is twisting lonesomely in the wind, and the question is whether Congress will ride to the rescue. If it doesn’t, it will be the closest thing the American system has to a parliamentary vote of “no confidence”, where Congress explicitly declares to the world that the President of the United States does not speak for the country.

That would be very dangerous. Foreigners will no longer know when and whether to take anything this President says as representing American policy rather than his own editorial opinions.

[…]

Considered in the abstract, the planned attacks on Syria may or may not be smart. But thanks to this latest round of “smart diplomacy,” if bombs don’t fall on Syria, President Obama will have bombed his own credibility into oblivion.

He is now at the mercy of forces beyond his control. Congress will either authorize war or it won’t. And if it doesn’t, he’s finished on the world stage. We’ll have President “present” for the next three years, which in all likelihood is enough time for Iran to complete a nuclear weapon if it decides not to hold back. God only knows how many more people will die in Syria during that time frame and how badly it will tear apart the rest of the region.

Apparently the reason the US hasn’t bombed Syria yet is because the president lost his nerve.

Here is the AP’s Josh Lederman:

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama was ready to order a military strike against Syria, with or without Congress' blessing. But on [last] Friday night, he suddenly changed his mind.

Senior administration officials describing Obama's about-face Saturday offered a portrait of a president who began to wrestle with his own decision – at first internally, then confiding his views to his chief of staff, and finally summoning his aides for an evening session in the Oval Office to say he'd had a change of heart.

If the president has no confidence in his initial decision to strike Bashar al-Assad, and if Congress has no confidence in the president, and if the public has no confidence in either, then we’d all better hope, if we do bumble our way into intervention in Syria, that Assad, the Iranians, and Hezbollah decide to just sit back and take it for a couple of days. Because if this gets even a little bit complicated—if Iran or Hezbollah strike back at the United States or its regional allies—we could really find ourselves in some trouble.

Look. There’s a solid case to be made for getting involved, and there’s a solid case to be made for staying out of it and letting events run their course. I can easily think of disastrous consequences no matter what course of action the president takes, and I could do it all day. So I’m inclined to give him plenty of slack.

But he’s hurting himself and he’s hurting America with all this wishy-washy hand-wringing and dithering.

The Debate Over Syria

America’s foreign policy makers have my sympathies, especially this week. The Syrian conflict is the kind of problem that keeps actual decision-makers awake at night, staring at the ceiling, and sweating even with the air conditioning on.

Every option—including the option to do nothing at all—is ghastly. Syria is a big bloody mess and it will continue to be a big bloody mess no matter what America does. The United States will be partly blamed for what happens no matter what. Every option is doomed to look like a screw-up in hindsight. Even if Washington selects the least worst option (whatever that is), it will still look like the wrong choice once the results are in.

I can’t know exactly what foreign policy makers themselves are thinking right now, but here’s a sample of thoughts from various analysts across the political spectrum, including some from abroad and a few from my own comments section.

I’ll start with Daniel Johnson in the Wall Street Journal on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to get parliamentary support for striking Bashar al-Assad.

In a speech on Thursday that otherwise failed to persuade, Mr. Cameron had one memorable line: The experience of Iraq, he said, had "poisoned the wells of public opinion," undermining trust in the intelligence and other evidence on which all governments must make decisions.

It will indeed be hard to rebuild that trust, on both sides of the Atlantic—even though the war crimes of the Assad regime are being committed in broad daylight. But the mistake that both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Obama are making, like their predecessors Tony Blair and George W. Bush, is to focus solely on chemical weapons.

Mr. Cameron ruled out regime change as the aim, yet it is obvious that unless he is deposed, Bashar Assad (like his father Hafez Assad before him) will continue to use the genocidal methods to destroy the rebels that have already cost well over 100,000 mainly civilian lives and displaced up to three million refugees.

The attacks now planned by the allies are thus explicitly intended to leave Mr. Assad and his regime in place, but to deter them from deploying WMD. This makes no sense. More likely, airstrikes with this limited purpose will merely embroil the West in a protracted civil war.

The lack of a clear and attainable objective in Syria was one of the main reasons why Mr. Cameron was unable to persuade many of his Conservative colleagues to support him. Another reason was suspicion that Syria's opposition groups, such as the Syrian National Council, are really Islamist front organizations, funded by the Saudis and Gulf states and infiltrated by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists. Many in the West are deeply concerned by the persecution of Christians and other minorities in Syria and across the Middle East, as evidence mounts that rebel forces have carried out ethnic and religious cleansing in the areas under their control. Clearly, any U.S.-led intervention must take precautions against the danger that one genocidal regime could be replaced by another.

Hanin Ghaddar in NOW Lebanon:

There is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad and [Hezbollah’s Secretary General] Hassan Nasrallah are today quite relieved now that Obama has decided to seek congressional approval for a limited strike on Syria. State media in Syria immediately presented Obama’s decision as a victory for the regime, in addition to the start of a historic American retreat. Hezbollah’s media in Lebanon described it this morning as a victory for the Axis of Resistance.

It is not hard to imagine how things will go from here in case a strike on Syria is called off. To reinforce this “victory” and translate it into practical terms, the Syrian regime will do whatever it takes to gain more control on the ground. This means that it may freely kill more people with whatever weapons it desires. As for the Syrian regime’s allies, Iran will gain more bargaining chips over its nuclear program and regional domination, and Hezbollah in Lebanon will regain its legitimacy as a “victorious” party.

Does the United States want this?

Of course not. (That is why Obama considered the strike in the first place). But now that the US administration is hesitating and lacks overall determination, many analysts say that the question over a potential strike will be put to congress so it dies in debate. Even if untrue, Obama has certainly demonstrated to Iran and Assad that the US does not seriously care about the Middle East, and that the supposed Resistance is free to behave as it pleases.

Lincoln Mitchell in the Huffington Post:

The most striking thing about the debate, to use that word in a general sense, regarding the possibility of the U.S. attacking Syria has not been the coalescence of the foreign policy establishment behind the president. That is to be expected in a town where being alone is far more damaging than being wrong. Rather, it is that the arguments against the proposed Obama policy from both the left and the right.

The arguments on the left revolve around a battery of issues questioning things like why the U.S. should act as the adjudicator of international law, what the longer term plan for Syria would be, and the wisdom of completely ignoring precedent from places like, for example, Iraq. Many critics on the left cannot help but notice the disturbing parallels between the sudden urgency which now characterizes the Obama administration's call for action against Syria and the tone of the Bush administration during the runup to the war in Iraq.

Critics on the right have argued that the type of small-scale limited strike against Assad will accomplish little, especially given that the administration has said that it will not seek to bring down Assad's regime. These arguments raise the question of what the Obama administration hopes to accomplish by a limited strike and what the President will do the day after the strike when Bashar al-Assad is still in power and still committing atrocities against his own people. It is quite possible that surviving a limited strike will not, as the Obama administration hopes, send a message to Assad that continued use of chemical weapons will lead to more attacks, but instead will allow Assad to turn to the rest of the region and argue that he has stood down Obama and the U.S.

Both the left and the right, generally speaking, make very strong arguments, but these arguments lead to very difficult policy recommendations. The left arguments suggest either doing nothing or seeking some kind of either non-military or multi-lateral solution, while the arguments on the right often call for a broader military intervention than the one proposed by the president. It is flabbergasting that while the war in Iraq is still going on, there are those who think another large intervention in the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, to address an issue that is not directly related to US national interest is a good idea. Promises that there will be no boots on the ground notwithstanding, a long involvement in Syria would be a disaster. Perhaps conservative policy makers and kibbitzers don't see or want to believe that, but the American people do.

Elliot Abrams in National Review:

As it becomes increasingly obvious that President Obama has decided to attack Syria with cruise missiles and perhaps a bit more, those of us who have been urging a stronger stand on Syria for two years should be very pleased. This is what we’ve asked for, isn’t it?

It isn’t, and I can’t muster more than one or one and a half cheers. Why not?

Two things have been notable about the Syrian civil war. First, real American security interests are at stake in Syria and have been from the start. Iran and the terrorist group Hezbollah, which together have an enormous amount of American blood on their hands, have sent troops to Syria to win a war there. Russia has provided a constant flow of arms to the regime. They all consider their control of Syria important, and they are right: If they lose the control they have through Bashar Assad, their position in the entire Middle East is badly weakened — and ours is strengthened. This is a proxy war, with them on one side, and American allies — Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — on the other. It is in the interest of the United States to win this fight, and we should want Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to lose.

I’ve been in Israel this week, and found universal the sense that America is receding in the region — and seeking to recede. I know from previous travel, and many conversations with Arab leaders, that our Arab friends in the Gulf share this view. A couple dozen cruise missiles landing on chemical-weapons warehouses will not change that perception, and indeed will raise questions about our odd priorities on both the humanitarian and strategic levels.

Mario Loyola in National Review:

The U.S. must think backwards from the Middle East that it wants to achieve. That means, first and foremost, diminishing Iran’s pernicious influence and, eventually, expelling that influence from the eastern Mediterranean altogether. The Islamic Revolution of Iran has been successful nowhere outside of Iran except in Lebanon, and has reached into that country only because of Iran’s alliance with Syria, which has provided a strategic bridge to the Levant. But Syria is not a Shiite country, nor is anyone in Syria, including Assad, a true believer in the Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. Cutting Iran off from its crucial Syrian ally is not only possible, it is probably only a matter of time.

[…]

The first step towards capitalizing on our opportunity in Syria is for Congress to ensure that any strikes on Syria serve the Obama’s administration’s own diplomatic goals: changing the momentum on the ground and eventually removing Assad from power in a negotiated settlement.

If the Syria resolution cannot be modified to meet these goals, then military strikes will be pointless by design, and should be opposed.

Max Boot in Commentary on how the president’s vacillations appear in the rest of the world.

It is perfectly appropriate to debate whether U.S. military action is justified; there are strong arguments against (especially against the kind of tepid and symbolic cruise missile strike that Obama seems to be contemplating). But the time to have that debate is before the president and secretary of state tell the entire world that the U.S. is about to strike.

Michael Young in NOW Lebanon:

Pity Hezbollah. After years of hearing earnest observers tell you what a quintessentially Lebanese party it was, and a revolutionary one at that, now we can plainly see that it is merely the Foreign Legion of the Iranian leadership—there to march or die at Tehran’s behest—as well as, more recently, cannon fodder for Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

With the United States intending to attack Syria for the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta east and west of Damascus, Hezbollah may again be placed at the forefront of a retaliatory plan.

Iranian parliamentarians have warned that any attack would provoke a response against Israel. “In case of a U.S. military strike against Syria, the flames of outrage of the region’s revolutionaries will point toward the Zionist regime,” Mansur Haqiqatpur, an influential parliamentarian said on Tuesday. Hossein Sheikholeslam, who heads the Iranian parliament’s international affairs committee, warned that “the first victim of an attack on Syria will be the Zionist regime.”

Most analysts, however, see such statements in the context of implicit red lines set by the Iranian regime. They also note that threats made by parliamentarians, even important ones, do not necessarily have the same impact as those issued by senior security or political figures, perhaps buying Iran a margin of maneuver.

Iran’s red line, evidently, is this: If the United States limits its attacks both in time and scope and does not undermine the Assad regime, then the Iranians will not retaliate, or ask Hezbollah to retaliate. However, if American action takes longer than a few days and is seen as tipping the balance in favor of the rebels, then Iran and its allies will widen the war, most probably by firing rockets at Israel.

Vali Nasr in the New York Times:

Syria, or chunks of it, could be ruled by radical Islamists associated with Al Qaeda — producing new and unwelcome threats to global security that could invite an even larger American intervention down the line…It is in America’s strategic interest, then, to take decisive action to mortally wound the Assad regime. Ensuring that Syria does not become a haven for Al Qaeda — a legitimate fear — would have to immediately follow.

Render, in my own comments section:

A tremendous waste of money and risk to men and expensive equipment to do little more then make already existing and empty rubble bounce. A waste which will not undo the effects of Assad's chemical weapons or bring back those already dead and is rather unlikely to effect the morale of the Alawite community, who are already locked in a no quarter civil war for their very survival.

Craig, in my own comments section:

I'm a non-interventionist at heart but nothing bothers me more when it comes to foreign policy than the fact Khomeini declared open season on Americans more than 30 years ago and the IRI and its proxies have been targeting innocent Americans ever since, and nothing has ever been done about it. Nothing. If we do strike at Assad, it will be the very first time those evil sons of bitches have ever gotten the response from the US that they deserve for their crimes against us.

The Looming Strike Against Syria

I’ve wanted to watch Syria’s Bashar al-Assad get his clock cleaned for eight years, so it feels rather strange that I’m a bit ambivalent all of a sudden now that it looks like the United States might actually take action against him. Before we get into that, though, let’s look at how we got to this point and what we might expect in the near future.

The Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus and killed at least hundreds of civilians and possibly more than a thousand.

“We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks,” President Barack Obama said to NewsHour. “We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out.”

I can’t verify that, but I’ll accept it as most likely for now. The administration has access to hard intelligence data the rest of us can’t see. And anyway it’s not hard to believe that a war criminal who owns chemical weapons would commit a war crime with chemical weapons. No one’s fingering the King of Belgium for the deed.

It’s possible that Al Qaeda or the Free Syria Army got a hold of these weapons and did this themselves, but the thousands of survivors are certain the government did it.

So are the Israelis.

They could be wrong. Everyone could be wrong. It happens. But it’s spectacularly unlikely that everybody is lying. Conspiracy theories and convoluted explanations are almost never correct. Straightforward explanations are the right ones 99 percent of the time.

I don’t believe everything the government says, but lies about this sort of thing are much less common than lies about, say, the opposing candidate’s tax plan during campaign season. And anyway, why would the White House lie about this? The idea that Barack Obama is ginning up a fake excuse to bomb Syria makes no kind of sense. He has clearly been against getting involved if he can help it. He ran as the opposite sort of president from George W. Bush and he wants to govern that way. It must drive him crazy that he’s weighing an intervention against an Arab Baathist dictatorship over weapons of mass destruction, but that's what's happening.

So now there’s talk of cruise missile attacks that will last a couple of days at the most. We’ll have to wait and see if that pans out, but that’s the word from “senior US officials” as of late Wednesday. Assad’s forces are evacuating what they suspect are the target sites, so this might not even turn out to be a big deal.

This isn’t about regime-change. Not at this time, anyway. “I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change.” That was Jay Carney, the White House spokesman. Americans can rest assured that they’re safe from another long war—at least for now—and Assad can rest assured that he's safe as well.

This is about enforcing Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons. He told Assad there’d be hell to pay if he used them, and if he doesn’t enforce it, he’ll lose credibility. It’s really not okay if a state sponsor of international terrorism thinks he has a green light to use weapons of mass destruction against civilians. It’s not okay if anyone does. Even if you don’t care a fig about Syrians, well, they aren’t the only ones within range.

If Obama doesn’t enforce this, he’ll also lose credibility on the other red line he’s drawn in the Middle East—the one against Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

He desperately wants to convince Iran to abandon that program without going to war. The only way that’s even remotely possible, however unlikely, is if the Iranian government believes he’ll declare war if it doesn’t stop at some point. So if Assad gets to step over his red line, Tehran’s rulers will have every reason to believe they can step over theirs.

That’s the theory, anyway. That’s what this is about. I am not going to get in the way (not that it would make any difference), and I am not going to protest.

But a much better case could be made that the very existence of these chemical weapons stocks pose a threat not only to Syrians, but also to Syria’s immediate neighbors and even to people in more distant parts of the world. Because if Assad is overthrown by the rebels, that country will disintegrate into absolute chaos. Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are already running around, and without the government in place to secure its stockpiles of weapons, anybody could go in there and get them and use them against whoever they feel like using them against.

The US, however, isn’t making that case and apparently plans to do nothing about it. So nothing on the ground is likely to change. Military action should be used to advance some kind of strategic objective, but unless the White House is keeping its plan a secret from everyone, it doesn’t look as if that’s going to happen.

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