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A Dispatch from South Sudan

My sometimes traveling companion Armin Rosen (he went with me on reporting trips to Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring) visited the world’s newest country—the Republic of South Sudan—when it declared independence after its long bloody struggle with the regime in Khartoum that costs the lives of more than two million people.

Armin has written for us an astonishingly literary and detailed portrait of a place most people still don’t realize even exists.

In [the capital] Juba itself, you expect to see graves. A friend who visited Sarajevo once told me that the city offered little evidence that a war had been fought there less than two decades earlier—only cemeteries that blanketed the surrounding hills, visible from virtually any sector of the city, serve as testimony to some horror or another, though they are silent as to which horror. And while you expect to see the residue of war, ruined buildings and charred vehicles and craters, you’ll in fact see none of these things in Sarajevo. But death, or at least the fact of some recent mass death, nevertheless beams from grey reservations of the newly and prematurely dead, a ubiquity that makes grim demands on the imagination, inflicting the image of a hecatomb upon the same physical space as a city that suddenly appears unnervingly normal.

But in Juba there aren’t even graves, or at least there weren’t any that I saw. The war dead are somewhere; disturbingly, that somewhere isn’t obvious or apparently visible. Neither did I see ruined buildings, nor all that many charred vehicles (that wrecked fighter notwithstanding), and I certainly didn’t see any craters. I didn’t see any formal war memorials, no ostentatious public displays of triumphalism or regret, no murals or statues, no eternal flames surrounded by wreaths.  At the roundabouts there are already-fading posters from the previous July’s Martyr’s Day—exhortations to remember “the 2.5 million whose sacrifice formed our national foundation”—along with very occasional propagandistic reminders that “the SPLA stands on guard for the nation.” These reminders are weather worn and admirably discreet, considering that the country’s origins lie in violent revolutionary struggle, and that its government ministers and even its president began their careers as guerilla fighters rather than politicians, per se. A traveler arrives in a city already at odds with an unfathomable and bloody recent past, a past that commands no subjective, physical presence, at least not immediately, not in those first confused hours of choking humidity and flickering cell-phone signals. But already emerging is the sense of a city half-finished, a place whose atrocities remain guiltily archived in the darker regions of the visitor’s mind, even as they’re given few tangible reference points in the external world, where exhortations to proper health and hygiene far outnumber state-sanctioned reminders of the war. “New country, new beginning,” read several large billboards. “Have an HIV test today.”

Yet the war endures in subterranean form: figuratively, in mind and memory; and literally, in the tens of thousands of landmines that ring the city. Bombs of either variety lie buried under the dominating facts of the city’s physical existence: the smattering of high rises encased in scaffolding, white Land Cruisers (NGO and UN, mostly) clogging smooth and newly-paved streets, pop-up shanty-neighborhoods of freshly-arrived migrants, palm-shaded riverside hotel bars where Dutch consultants and Ugandan businessmen gather to waste their evenings—all of it evidence of a place exploding into a novel and unfamiliar normality.

[…]

In Juba, muddled geography is a tyranny in the sense that any basic, seemingly insurmountable fact is a tyranny. One morning at a nearly-empty hotel bar I met a South Sudanese man who had fled to Kenya during the civil war and then moved on to Australia, where he became a successful computer engineer. When the war ended he had no desire and no conceivable reason to return to a homeland that was still in a state of violent transition, but when independence came, he felt pinched by obligation, and his conscience could not allow him to simply enjoy a comfortable life in a borrowed corner of the earth. So for the last few months he had been on a consultancy with the Ministry of Tourism. In the deep south, down near the Kenyan border, are grasslands that rival the Serengeti in diversity—there are elephant herds and even lions, and each spring, antelopes migrate there, thousands of them, fur and hunched spines stretched to the horizon. It was the largest land migration in the world before the war scared them away—nature, it seems, has an instinct for human troubles. But it’s been seven years, and they’re beginning to come back. Had there been many tourists in South Sudan since independence? No, he said, chuckling and shaking his head.

Another thing about the deep south, he added: pineapples grow in the wild there. You don’t even have to try to cultivate them. Just dig them out of the ground. The land in our country is the most fertile in Africa.

Later in the day I found myself at yet another hotel bar (for a western visitor, Juba is a city of hotel bars). Remembering what the man had told me, I ordered a pineapple juice. I was given a can of Rani brand pineapple juice, from Yemen.

In all likelihood, the can had been taken by container ship from Yemen—thirsty, suffering Yemen—through the piratical waters of the Gulf of Aden, then to Kenya, then trucked through Uganda along miles of maraudering clay roads. It was a paragon of wasted effort and wasted local capacity, and in this respect, the humble can of pineapple juice was not alone: There is a national airline, but its planes are supposedly registered in Kenya. There is a national beer (White Bull—a Toast to a New Nation), but there are whispers that it’s owned by a Kenyan company as well. There’s an excellent weekly newspaper called The New Nation—but it’s a project of a European NGO, and its editor in chief is Belgian (even though most of its writers and columnists are locals). The woman who sold me phone cards at a roadside stall was Kenyan. The bartender at the Bedouin is Ugandan. What about the man scanning a fully-uniformed Bangladeshi UN peacekeeper’s groceries at the JIT Mart? It’s well known that the JIT Mart—the only “western” style grocery store in town, and as fine a place as any to spend $9 on a box of Frosted Flakes—is owned by Kenyans (or possibly South Africans), and the man looks as if he could be from India or Pakistan, which in this part of the world means he’s probably from Kenya, which means that he, like virtually every other laborer and businessman and piece of commercial produce in Juba, is not from anywhere that’s even particularly near Juba.

That was but the tiniest sample. Be sure to read the whole thing.

Welcome to Cuba

Fidel Castro made a liar out of me.

Okay, I didn’t have to lie to immigration, customs, and security officials at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. I could have just applied for a journalist visa and hoped they’d approve me. But colleagues warned I’d have to wait months for an affirmative, and the authorities wouldn’t tell me if the answer was no. They’d simply toss my application into the trash if they thought I’d write anything “negative.” Six months, nine months, a year would finally pass and I’d still be waiting and wondering if I’d ever hear from them.

I have a job to do. I can’t wait six to twelve months in bureaucracy hell. So I lied.

“Tourism” I said when the nice woman at Passport Control asked what I was doing there.

The Cubans knew I was coming. My name was on the flight manifest. If anyone Googled me, they’d find out at once that I work as a journalist. And if they checked their records they’d know I didn’t have the right visa. Reporters who work in Cuba on tourist visas are arrested, interrogated, and deported. It makes no difference whether or not off-the-books journalists are friendly to the government. They must register with and—more important—get permission from the proper officials.

I had to stay off their radar. Freedom House ranks Cuba as the sixth worst country in the entire world for journalists. The Castro government creates a more hostile working environment than even the Syrian and Iranian governments. The only countries on earth that repress reporters more ruthlessly are, in order, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, and Belarus. All are either communist or post-communist in-name-only.

Some of my colleagues in the media weren’t sure I’d get away with it. “You’re pretty high profile,” said one. “And it’s not like you can hide.”

Several who have worked in Cuba in the past warned me not to bring a laptop. “That alone will be a red flag,” said one. “They’ll put you under surveillance.”

I’d also have to hide my notebook.

“Cuban security agents from the Ministry of Interior will sweep through your hotel room,” warned a veteran American visitor to Cuba, “so lock all your note-taking materials up in your room safe.”

“The Castro government already knows who you are and what you’ll be doing,” said Valentin Prieto, a Cuban exile in Miami and founder of the blog, Babalu. “And make no bones about it, the KGB, Stasi, et al have nothing—and I mean nothing—on the Cuban security apparatus. It may seem primitive, but it is highly effective. You will be monitored from the moment you step on the tarmac. You will never be alone while on the island, even in your hotel room if not especially so. Be careful and keep in mind that you are in a very closed society whose fuel is fear.”

So I tensed up a bit when the nice woman at Passport Control typed my name into her computer. Something appeared on her screen. Her eyes tracked back and forth as she read.

What did it say? What did they know about me? Had they looked me up in advance? Prieto’s concerns to the contrary, I figured they probably hadn’t or I wouldn’t have bought a plane ticket and entered the country this way, but I couldn’t know for sure they’d let me in unless they actually let me in. If they kicked me out on arrival, my entire project would be axed and I’d be out thousands of dollars.

It was an absurd moment. I was standing there sweating while trying to sneak into a police state that hundreds of thousands of people have risked their lives to escape from.

“Stand back, please,” the Passport Control lady said. “And look into the camera.”

They had a web cam mounted over the counter. It dropped down from the ceiling. I grinned at the thing like a stupid tourist on holiday. It clicked.

She finally stamped my passport and smiled. “Welcome to Cuba.”

I smiled back. Suckers.

*

Wait.  I was not yet in the clear.

While waiting for my suitcase to arrive on the Baggage Claim belt, a young policemen seized my passport and would not give it back. “I need you to answer some questions.”

Shit. 

“What are you doing here?”

I lied.

“Where are you staying?”

But told him the truth about that.

“Which parts of Cuba will you be visiting?”

Havana, of course.

I'll also be visiting the Bay of Pigs, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara to see Che Guevara’s memorial.

“What do you do for a living?” No choice but to lie.

“What’s the name of the company you work for?” I had to lie about that one, as well. I hated having to do it, but overcontrolled police states make liars of everyone.

“Are you planning to visit any schools or medical facilities?” he said.

“I hope I don’t have to visit a medical facility,” I said to lighten the mood.

He smiled and laughed. “Yes. Let’s hope not.”

He was so unfailingly friendly and polite that I didn’t worry he’d catch me. And he didn’t drill down into granular details or ask any follow-up questions. He just dutifully wrote down my answers.

They had no idea I’m a journalist or that I intended to write about Cuba, and they weren’t going to find out. That was clear. And when the policeman finished questioning me, he did something unprecedented in all my years of crossing borders.

He returned my passport and said “sorry about that” with a sheepish look on his face.

He was sorry? Really?

“I hope you have a nice time in Cuba.”

Yes, he really was sorry. He meant it. I could tell. He felt bad about questioning me. He’d rather leave people alone.

Does that say anything about the revolutionary commitment of Castro’s security people? I have no idea.

*

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara overthrew the squalid and bloody dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 with support from a broad swath of Cuban society. I would have supported the revolution, as well, if I were living there at the time because here’s the thing: it wasn’t communist. Castro described himself as a freedom fighter and promised political liberalism.

“Democracy is my ideal, really,” he said in 1959. “There is no doubt for me between democracy and communism.” That first sentence was a lie, but the second sentence sure wasn’t. 

Even after he took power and formed a new government, even as Che Guevara lined thousands of men and boys against the blood-soaked walls of La Cabaña and had them executed by firing squad, Castro kept his communist designs to himself. Later, however, he boasted about it with a terrifying ferocity.

“They corrupt the morals of young girls!” he shouted in 1968 against Cuba’s version of hippies, “and destroy posters of Che! What do they think? That this is a bourgeois liberal regime? NO! There is nothing liberal in us! We are collectivists! We are communists! There will be no Prague Spring here!”

To this day there has been no “spring” in Havana, so I felt a bit apprehensive about showing up there, especially under false pretenses. But it’s softened somewhat by three things—by the warmth of its people, by the beauty of its architecture and setting, and by ideological tiredness.

“Cuba is gorgeous,” said my journalist pal Terry Glavin up in British Columbia when I told him where I was going. “Although I expect it's gone to shit in some respects since I was there. The regime is that much more decrepit with the absence of Daddy Warbucks in Moscow. The things you will most love about Cuba, I bet, are the Cubans and the ravaged beauty of the place. I can't imagine any people on earth putting up with such bullshit with as much grace and humor and decency as the Cubans have managed, God love ‘em. Were it not for the regime I'd happily live in Havana.”

The Cubans do seem to handle it well, though I have no idea how. “You would make a fortune,” writes Havana-based journalist Mark Frank in his book Cuban Revelations, “if you could patent as an antidepressant whatever brain chemical kept the Cubans’ spirits up through the hard times.”

I wonder, though, how much of it’s real. Val Prieto warned me that to an extent it is not. “You will most likely see many smiling faces while you’re there,” he said. “Lots of laughter and dancing, too. But there will always be something much more profound behind all the smiles and laughter. Every Cuban, regardless of how content they may appear, lives with two underlying things—sadness and fear, the latter being more prevalent. Most Cubans will not openly display it as you are a foreigner, but read between the lines when they speak to you.”

I know what it’s like to wear a false face. Not only did I have to lie at the airport, I had to conceal my identity from every single person I met in the country, including other Americans, lest someone say the wrong thing about me in public in front of the wrong person at the wrong time. I vowed to myself before I even left the United States that I wouldn’t tell a single human being in Cuba who I am or what I was doing no matter how much I felt like I trusted them. I hated having to do that, and I felt a little self-loathing because of it, but I had to be careful and consoled myself with the fact that I could be honest about everything later in writing.

Likewise I have little choice but to conceal the identities of many people I spoke to. Occasionally I can quote Cubans by name—especially if they’re in exile—but for the most part I can’t. Those on the island had no idea they were speaking to a journalist and that I might quote them, and I won’t risk their safety.

However, I will tell you this much: None of the Cubans I quote are high profile dissidents except when I cite what they’ve written for public consumption. Those who aren’t in prison live under total surveillance. The regime posts guards outside their houses and points cameras at their windows and doors. I’ve been told by reliable sources that state security agents will sometimes commandeer next-door apartments and houses to tighten the screws even more. If I were to walk into that kind of surveillance umbrella, there’s virtually no chance I’d get in and out without being questioned and tailed, and there was a strong chance I’d be arrested.

Before I could talk to anyone, though, I had to get into Havana. The international airport is located outside the city, and the ride in was a little unusual.

There is no product advertising in Cuba. Every billboard in the entire country is plastered with propaganda from the Communist Party.

The first one I saw featured a hangman’s noose and said “BLOQUEO -- El genocidio mas largo de la historia.” BLOCKADE – The longest genocide in history.

The government is referring to the embargo, or sanctions, put in place against Cuba in 1962 after Castro nationalized US property. But the sanctions are not a blockade—which is an act of war—and they certainly don’t constitute genocide.

Another billboard showed the logo of the UJC, the Union of Communist Youth, which is composed of the faces of three communist leaders—Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Julio Antonio Mella—men who are dubbed “The protagonists of our time.” The UJC’s motto is “study, work, rifle.”

I groaned to myself at these absurd slogans and images, but was delighted when I later heard Cubans dismiss it all as “state propaganda.”

Aside from the billboards on the way in, Havana doesn’t look like a communist city. It has not been transformed into a sullen drabscape of gray concrete towers like so many capitals in the former Soviet bloc. Small one-story homes in a state of mild disrepair appeared through jungle-like foliage. Hundreds of people stood on the side of the road waiting for busses or to be picked up by one of the cars that passed periodically. Once I reached the city proper, all I saw, aside from a few faded high-rises, was European architecture in every direction. Most of Havana was built before the communist era when Cuba was still a rich country.

I am not into cars, but I nevertheless grinned like a kid when I first saw the classic American Chevys and Fords from the 1940s and 1950s that Cubans manage to keep working even though they no longer have parts.

“You wouldn’t believe what they have under the hoods of those things,” said one Cuban, who was clearly not a backyard mechanic himself. “They use pieces from old Russian washing machines.”

I felt more like I was driving into a time warp than into a tropical version of the Soviet Union. But I had just entered a tropical version of the Soviet Union. And much to my surprise, some people grumbled about it in public, at least in English.

“Is there any private enterprise in Cuba?” I heard an American man in my hotel lobby say to his Cuban tour guide.

“No,” said the tour guide—which is not strictly true, but it might as well be.

I couldn’t resist butting into their conversation.

“How do people here feel about that?” I said. “Honestly.”

“We hate it, of course,” she said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it but leave.”

Like the rest of the country, Havana’s hotels are time warps. I stayed at two. The more interesting of the pair was the Habana Libre, or Free Havana, which was a five-star Hilton before Fidel Castro seized it and turned it into his headquarters. It has been under communist management ever since and has been downgraded to three stars.

It’s not a bad hotel. It’s certainly better than the ghastly Soviet tower I stayed at in Borjomi, Georgia, during the Russian invasion in 2008. The Habana Libre, like the classic cars out on the streets, just hasn’t been updated since the 50s. It’s a modern-day throwback to the era of Mad Men.

The lights work, the air conditioning didn’t crap out, and the hot water heater never ran cold, but I woke every morning in pain. The mattress, like the rest of the furniture, also dated back to the 1950s and was at least half as firm as the floor.

And I felt like I was being spied on the minute I stepped into my room.

I knew I wouldn’t find any surveillance equipment, but I couldn’t help looking. I didn’t look hard, though. I didn’t want anyone to see me looking for bugs, wires, or cameras if they were watching. A colleague told me they place cameras as well as microphones in the rooms, and that the cameras point at the bed. I don’t know how he’d know that bit about cameras or if it’s even true. Perhaps it’s just a paranoid rumor. Maybe the regime started the rumor itself to make people paranoid. Who knows?

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it’s true because I had little choice but to behave as though it is true. And it affected my job. Not only did I have to leave my laptop at home, I couldn’t sit on the bed and take notes with pen and paper. I had to look and behave exactly like a tourist even in the “privacy” of my hotel room, and tourists don’t generally sit down and write for long stretches.

I had no laptop and no notebook, but I had to take notes. How?

I could have typed something up in the business center and emailed it to myself, but incoming and outgoing Internet traffic is heavily monitored, so that solution was out. I know of two people who got in trouble doing that sort of thing, and one of them really was just a tourist. All he did was criticize Fidel Castro on Facebook.

But there are other ways to take notes. If you know a month in advance that you’re heading into a situation like this, you’ll think of something. I did. And I figured out how to do it in such a way that no one would know what I was doing even if they watched me do it on a video feed, nor would I be caught if my belongings, including the images on my camera, were thoroughly searched.

I may be the only person in the history of journalism who has used this particular method, partly because it’s bizarre, partly because I used a product designed for a different purpose entirely, and partly because that product didn’t even exist until recently. (Don’t ask me how I did it. I may need to use the same system again in the future.)

Even if the business center downstairs had been a viable option, the experience is miserable by design.

Private Internet is banned. You can only get online in hotels, Internet cafes, and government offices. Regular citizens are effectively prohibited from accessing the Web by the price. It cost me seven dollars an hour to use a dial-up connection. The government caps Cuban salaries at 20 dollars a month, so it costs a citizen ten days of income just to get online for an hour. Once they do get online, the connection will be so slow that surfing around is impossible. It took me the better part of my hour to get connected, to open my inbox, and to send a single email to my wife telling her I had arrived safely and without incident.

The government strangles the Internet because it fears free information. There can be no other reason. That’s also why they vet journalists in advance and require special visas. Information can barely get in and barely get out. There can be no Twitter or Facebook revolution in Cuba’s near future.

And there are apparently no real newspapers or magazines, at least none that I saw. No International Herald Tribune. No Newsweek and Time in the dentist’s office. No Google News since there is no Google. Certainly not the Wall Street Journal or The Economist.

I hadn’t even been there a full day and I already felt umbilically severed from the rest of the planet. My awareness of the world narrowed to what I could see right in front of me. I felt as though I had lost one of my senses. I had no real access to the Internet. No CNN, no New York Times. No blogs, not even my own. Nothing at all. I could not use my iPhone. I may as well have been at the bottom of the ocean.

The only newspaper I saw was Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party. Juventud Rebelde supposedly exists somewhere, as well, but I didn’t see any copies.

That, by the way, is the most outrageously named newspaper I know of. The English translation of Juventud Rebelde is Rebel Youth—as if it’s Cuba’s version of Rolling Stone. But God, no. It’s not that at all. Rebel Youth indoctrinates young people with the zombie ideology of walking dead men. Youthful and rebellious it ain’t. It is the most tired, stale, old, and establishment “newspaper” in the hemisphere.

Want an example? Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview with Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008. It reads like an interview with the Secretary General of Hezbollah. “These 50 years have been ones of resistance,” Raul said to the journalist who doesn’t even merit a name, “years of survival, years of the determination of the people, in which we have maintained our strength, and that refers to the vast majority of the country.” He goes on and on like that for pages. “We have not had peace, we have not had tranquility. The enemy says that socialism has been a failure. Why don’t they leave us in peace to fight on equal terms? But it has not been a failure, not even under these conditions. It has been an incessant battle.”

I never heard a single human being speak that way in Cuba. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt it even happens at Communist Party meetings these days.

Granma, the newspaper aimed at adults, is sold by men standing on street corners. I never saw anyone buy it or read it.

*

I smiled the first time I stepped out for a walk. I was not supposed to be there, but nobody stopped me.

The air was warm and humid but not oppressive as long as I walked in the shade. Direct sunlight, however, made me feel like I was standing next to a bonfire on a blazing hot afternoon. Tropical sunshine is a serious force to be reckoned with, especially for someone like me whose ancestors hail from the North Atlantic and who lives now in the Pacific Northwest. The Spaniards who first settled the place without sunscreen must have looked like angry red lobsters before their bodies adjusted and their skin started producing additional melanin.

The city is reportedly safe, especially for visitors. Crimes against tourists are punished with tremendous severity. I felt secure everywhere. Not a single person looked or felt sketchy. Individuals approached and spoke to me once in a while, but they never seemed to want anything. They did not ask for money. They weren’t trying to lure me into their shop like touts in the Middle East often do. (Cuba doesn’t really have any shops.) With but a single exception, they weren’t pimping prostitutes.

What struck me most while walking around Havana for the first time is how dead and quiet it is. This was unexpected, though in hindsight I should have known. Where has communism ever been lively?

Michael Frayn visited Cuba on the tenth anniversary of its revolution and wrote an essay at the time titled “Farewell to Money.”

“No representation—but, then no taxation. No bars—but then, no drunks. No news, no institutions to protect the rights of the individual, nothing in the shops. Often no water in the pipes, occasionally no electricity in the wires. ‘No liberalism whatsoever! No softening whatsoever!’ (Castro.) Havana is the saddest sight—shabby, blank, full of nothingness.”

Little has changed. That’s the defining characteristic of Cuba since 1959. It doesn’t change. The water and electricity seem to work better, and parts of Old Havana have been fixed up for tourists, but otherwise Frayn’s description still stands.

The city feels languid, slow, inert. It is eerily quiet all the time as if it has been partly depopulated. You hardly have to look before crossing the street because there is so little traffic. Every day feels like Sunday used to feel in the United States when more people went to church and fewer establishments were open.

But Havana’s establishments are not closed. There just aren’t very many of them. You cannot go shopping. There’s nothing to buy. If you had millions of dollars, you would not be able to spend it. The city would be horrifying if were in a cold climate with dismal architecture like much of the former Soviet Union, but it didn’t strike me as horrifying. It’s just static. And vaguely post-apocalyptic.

Nobody hurries. They have all the time in the world. And it’s a good thing, too, because, as one Cuban said, “our national sport is standing in lines.”

It reminded me a bit of Libya under Moammar Qaddafi, which I visited for the first time in 2004, only Cuba is better educated, more advanced culturally, and—even though much of its architecture is thoroughly ravaged—more pleasing aesthetically.

But there’s a reason I’m comparing it to Libya under Qaddafi and to the Soviet Union. Qaddafi modeled his government on Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime in Romania. The Brother Leader of the Al-Fateh Revolution never called himself a communist; he insisted his Libyan brand of socialism was the “third way” between liberal capitalism and Soviet-style collectivism. But he was effectively a communist in all but name, and Libya at the time looked even more the part than Havana.

“Cuba looks exactly like its photos,” wrote writer and translator M.J. Porter in 2011, “and yet if feels different. I fell in love with Cuba and Cubans. Something felt like home. Completely unforeseen, however, was the weight of the totalitarian state.”

She wrote those words for the Introduction to the outstanding book Havana Real by Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez. I read it before I went to Cuba myself, and I had to wonder: How on earth could the weight of the totalitarian state not be foreseen, especially if Porter has read Yoani Sanchez? Cuba has been totalitarian for more than fifty years now. Raul Castro is liberalizing the economy slightly, but it’s still more like North Korea’s than anyone else’s, and there has been no political opening whatsoever.

I understand now. The totalitarian state does weigh heavier than expected. At least it did for me and for M.J. Porter despite having read Yoani Sanchez and so many others. Which is strange because the totalitarian state is all in the shadows.

After the revolution the State Security Department, known locally by some at the time as the Red Gestapo, recruited thousands of chivatos (rats), internal secret police who operated more or less like the Stasi did in East Germany. Repression was out in the open back then. Thousands were murdered and tens of thousands thrown into prison for political reasons.

In an essay titled “Interminable Totalitarianism in the Tropics,” collected in The Black Book of Communism by Harvard University Press, French historian Pascal Fontaine describes the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, Castro’s ruthless enforcers of ideological correctness. One was set up on each block in urban areas to keep watch on everybody. Everything about them intimidates. Next to the front door of one CDR office I saw the image of a faceless man wielding a sword above the words “Always in combat.”

Always in combat against whom, you might ask?

The neighbors.

“The surveillance and denunciation system is so rigorous,” Fontaine writes, “that family intimacy is almost nonexistent.”

Family intimacy is almost nonexistent.

Aside from the slave labor camps and the staggering body counts, I can think of no more devastating an indictment of totalitarian government than that sentence. Something broke inside me when I read it.

I certainly wasn’t intimate with anybody in Cuba—and I don’t mean physically any more than Fontaine did. I had to lie by omission every minute of every hour of every day just like the Cubans. A person could get used to this sort of thing, I suppose, but that does not make it less alienating. That’s the counterintuitive thing about totalitarian systems. They herd people into Borg-like collectives, yet every individual is savagely atomized.

I never felt so alone in my life.

Cuban state repression also functions in banal and ludicrous ways as Sanchez illustrates in her book. “Busses are stopped in the middle of the street,” she writes, “and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”

I couldn’t help feeling watched in that kind of environment, especially since everyone I know who has been there told me the hotels are bugged.

I wasn’t paranoid about it. Security personnel weren’t going to bust into my room and take me away. There was not much to fear, really. People weren’t getting shot in the streets. No one pointed a gun at anybody in my presence, nor did I see anyone get hauled off to prison. Cuba is not a war zone. It is not the Cambodian Killing Fields. Nor is it North Korea, which Christopher Hitchens once described as a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.” It’s not that bad.

But it is a total surveillance police state.

And so I felt watched, not by thugs but by yawning functionaries who probably would rather do something else like the policeman who questioned me in the airport. Maybe they were watching or listening some of the time and maybe they weren’t. I’ll never know.

Since I couldn’t see anyone watching or following me, the tingling sense of being observed was self-generated. In a way, it was all in my head. I wasn’t imagining things—the hotels really are bugged—but I still don’t know if anyone ever actually spied on me. It took me a while to figure out what to make of that, and my blood ran cold when I finally did.

*

British philosopher Jeremy Benthem devised an ingenious low-tech system of total surveillance two hundred years ago. It would work in hospitals, schools, and mental institutions, he argued, but it would work even better in prisons.

The idea was straightforward: build a circular prison with a tower in the center so the guards can see inside any and every cell from a single location. The watchtower could even be obscured in some way so that prisoners would have no idea who the guards were looking at. Since prisoners would know they might be watched at any given moment, they’d act as though they were being watched at all moments.

Cuba's Presidio Modelo prison

“Morals reformed,” Benthem wrote, “health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened, economy seated—as it were—upon a rock, the Gordian knot of the poor-law not cut but untied, all by a simple idea in architecture!” He touted his prison as “a mill for grinding rogues honest” and “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

He called it Panopticon.

French philosopher Michel Foucault assailed it as a cruel, ingenious cage. “The panoptic schema makes any apparatus of power more intense,” he wrote. “It’s strength is that it never intervenes, it is exercised spontaneously and without noise.”

Prisoners collaborate in their own surveillance because their heads are haunted by the thought of an all-seeing eye. 

No prison was ever designed to all of Benthem’s specifications, but dozens were constructed around the world that met most of them. The one that most closely resembles Benthem’s Panoptic regime is in Cuba.

Fidel Castro didn’t build it. The Presidio Modelo complex was built in the mid-1920s when Gerardo Machado was still president.

Castro and his brother Raul were incarcerated there for a few years after attacking the Moncada military barracks in 1953 in their first botched uprising against the Batista regime. Fidel gleefully turned things around in the 1960s and used the Presidio complex to warehouse political prisoners, gays, dissidents, and those who promoted the counter-culture.

Today it’s no longer a prison. It stands now as a national monument and, like almost everything else on the island, is in a state of decay.

Why did Castro close the Presidio complex?

Because, why not? It’s superfluous.

An oblivious tourist could be blissfully unaware of all this and have a nice time in Cuba, I guess, but I was not an oblivious tourist and knew perfectly well that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara turned the entire island nation into Benthem’s Panopticon.

 

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The US-Iran Deal

I’m wrapping up a long piece about Cuba which I’ll publish later tonight, so I’m going to outsource my reaction to the US-Iran “deal” first to Mike Doran at the Brookings Institution and second to the Canadian government.

You should definitely read Doran’s entire analysis, but here’s the bottom line:

The nuclear deal will further subject the Arab world to the tender mercies of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran will now have more money — our money — to channel to proxies such as Hezbollah. Washington cannot expose the mailed fist of the Qods Force without endangering the nuclear rapprochement, so it has a positive incentive to ignore all Iranian subversion and intimidation in the region.

Whether he realizes it, Obama has now announced that the United States cannot be relied upon to stand up to Iran. Therefore, Israel and our Arab allies will be forced to live by their wits. Some actors, like the Saudis, will prosecute their proxy war with Iran with renewed vehemence. Others will simply hedge. They will make a beeline to Tehran, just as many regional actors began showing up in Moscow after the Syrian chemical weapons deal. American influence will further deteriorate.

That, in sum, is the true price that we just paid for six months of seeming quiet on the nuclear front. It is price in prestige, which most Americans will not notice. It is also a price in blood. But it is not our blood, so Americans will also fail to make the connection between the violence and the nuclear deal. It is important to note, however, that this is just the initial price. Six months from now, when the interim agreement expires, another payment to Ayatollah Khamenei will come due. If Obama doesn’t pony up, he will have to admit then that he cut a bad deal now. So he we will indeed pay — through the nose.

America’s Arab and Israeli allies aren’t the only ones who refuse to go along with this. Canada is taking a hard line, as well.

The Canadian government released the following statement: “Canada has long held the view that every diplomatic measure should be taken to ensure Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon. We appreciate the earnest efforts of the P5+1.

“Effective sanctions have brought the regime to present a more moderate front and open the door to negotiations. Today's deal cannot be abused or undermined by deception. The Iranian people deserve the freedom and prosperity that they have been denied for too long by the regime's nuclear ambitions. Until then, Canadian sanctions will remain tough, and in full force.”

Ottawa’s Foreign Affairs minister John Baird added that “past actions best predict future actions, and Iran has defied the United Nation Security Council and defied International Atomic Energy Agency. Simply put, Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt.”

UPDATE: My first dispatch from Cuba is up now if you're interested.

Blowback is a Bitch

Hezbollah fears more suicide attacks. That’s the headline in NOW Lebanon after a suicide bomber blew himself and others to pieces outside the Iranian embassy in the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs south of Beirut.

And yet Hezbollah invented the Islamic suicide bomber. It seems like this scourge has always been part of the Middle East, but it wasn't used until the 1980s when Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who has been described as Hezbollah’s “spiritual leader,” declared that suicide is not a sin after all if it is used as a weapon in war.

“This will present a threat to the security of the whole region,” a source close to Hezbollah said to NOW Lebanon. It wasn’t a threat to the whole region when Hezbollah first pioneered and then popularized this scourge of a tactic?

It was a terrible and fateful thing, what Fadlallah did. It’s entirely possible that if he hadn’t done it, nobody would have done it and that the Middle East would be a slightly less ghastly place.

Hezbollah did not invent terrorism, of course. Nor would the Middle East be stable and happy if it weren’t for its suicide bombers. But there is a karmic sort of justice at work now that a terrorist army and its biggest state sponsor are themselves victims of their own deplorable tactics.

That deplorable tactic tells us all we need to know about the perpetrators, too, by the way. Whatever Sunni faction carried out the attack, we know for damn sure they are not freedom fighters. Freedom fighters don’t murder diplomats—not even diplomats representing terrorist states like Iran who declare open season on diplomats—nor do they deliberately target civilians. They will murder anyone and everyone who gets in their way and stomp their boots on the faces of the survivors.

We’re long past time when a not-horrible outcome of the Syrian civil war—which is really a region-wide war—is even a remote possibility. 

Georgetown University to Host Key Nazi Party Member

Georgetown University is scheduled to host an event in early December on “Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy” that will include one of the key members of Egypt’s Nazi Party as a speaker.

The Washington Free Beacon has the story:

The event features a slew of speakers sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Coptic Christian Ramy Jan, who cut his teeth on the Egyptian political scene as a member of the country’s Nazi Party, according to multiple sources.

The event is scheduled to take place all day at Georgetown’s ICC auditorium and feature a keynote address by Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.).

In addition to Jan, a who’s who of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated speakers are scheduled to be flown in from Egypt to attend and participate in the forum, which includes multiple panel discussion about Egypt’s recent coup and the current state of the country’s democracy.

The current state of Egypt’s democracy is, as it has been for eternity, non-existent. No one at Georgetown University can learn a thing about democracy from the Nazi Party or the Muslim Brotherhood except how not to behave politically.

We can only hope somebody humiliates these cretins in public like an Egyptian TV host did on Cairo’s Dream1 TV back in 2011. Take a look at this video. The host puts several founding members of Egypt’s Nazi Party on camera and treats them exactly how they deserve to be treated.

“Nazism is a tyrannical fascist political ideology,” he says, “which brought ruin and destruction on the entire world…Why should we, in Egypt, adopt these tyrannical, fascist political movements and evoke them from history after they have been vomited from the entire world?”

Thus he gets them on the defensive from the very beginning. But, hey, never fear. “We have nothing to do with Hitler,” one of them says. “The one and only thing we have adopted from Nazism is racial supremacy. That’s it.”

Don’t let us down, Georgetown. See if you can demonstrate at least as much political integrity as an Egyptian TV host.

Shocking Facts About America

Almost every time I visit a new country for the first time I’m surprised by at least something that I had no idea was the case until I got there. Here’s one recent example: In Cuba I was told police officers at checkpoints want to know if you’re hiding meat, lobsters, or cheese in the trunk of your car. (Although hardly anyone in Cuba actually owns a car. I've never seen so few cars on the road in my life.)

Thought Catalog has a long and delightful list of things from sixteen different people that they could not believe about America until they moved here.

Below is just a small sample. You should really head over there and read the whole thing.

From a Muslim from Bangladesh:

Fruits and vegetables are way more expensive than meat and poultry.

That, generally speaking, the poor is more obese than the rich.

That you address your boss (and some of your professors) by some abbreviated variation of their first name. And that applies to pretty much everyone, regardless of how much older they are than you.

From a Russian woman:

Majority of things in the US aren’t controlled or regulated by the government.

President doesn’t automatically become the richest person in the country.

Philanthropy. There is no culture of philanthropy in Russia and many view American philanthropy either as a waste of money or as some intricate plot to get some additional benefits.

How open Americans are about their shortcomings and always ready for self-criticism.

Return policies and free refill.

From an American teaching in a South Pacific Island nation:

That I have never, ever, ever seen anyone firing a gun from a moving vehicle. They think this is happening constantly.

That our showers are hot water. Always. Boggles the minds.

From an anonymous person:

My Russian in-laws were shocked when they found out that we get packages left on our doorstep and no one steals them.

From a guy named John Levinster:

People tend to be very sensitive about racial and religious topics. I was embarrassed to ask a Costco employee where the white chocolate was because I was afraid she would tell me I was a racist.

The U.S. preserves its nature. I was thrilled to see how far ahead America is in preserving its beautiful nature. Absolutely terrific, kudos to you guys.

From a Swedish man:

It really is a diverse place, much more so than many foreigners really understand. A country that can produce both Snoop Dogg and Westboro Baptist Church is like no other place (seriously!).

No Woman, No Drive

Alaa Wardi has created an impressive series of music videos using only his voice. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he’s using synthizers, bass guitars, and a drum machine in some of these, but no. Only his vocal chords. 

A few weeks ago he made a spoof video about Saudi Arabia’s bizarre prohibition against woman drivers called No Woman, No Drive. I can’t promise you will laugh, but I sure did. 

Rape as a Political Weapon

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: women who travel to Egypt need to understand that rape and sexual assault are routinely used as political weapons, not just by radical Islamist groups, but by secular activists also. Phrases like “war against women” and “culture of rape” seem overblown to me in the United States, but they’re dead-on accurate descriptions of what happens in Egypt as a matter of course.

I don’t know if Egypt is the worst place in the world when it comes to violence against women, but it is by far the worst place I’ve ever been. My wife has traveled with me a few times in the past when I’ve been on assignment, but I will never take her to Egypt. Not for any amount of money. It’s never going to happen.

Every single woman I know who has been there has been aggressively harrassed at the absolutely minimum, and some have told me they get aggressively harrassed every five or ten minutes when they’re out on the street, especially when they don’t have a male body guard.

Egypt hasn’t always been like this. Leyla Doss in Verily magazine explains how Egypt got this way:

It may be hard to believe, but Egyptian streets were filled with miniskirts in the 1960s, during the time of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Older generations boast that Egypt had a greater sense of community back then: Passersby would always intervene if a woman was being publicly harassed or attacked.

In the seventies and eighties, increasing urbanization from rural areas, economic crises, and a rise in slums all helped to corrode that sense of community while increasing grievances between diverse populations. As the quality of state services declined, Islamic religious groups filled the vacuum of a failed welfare system by providing services and charities. Quite naturally, people turned to the faiths that cared for them and adopted the conservative beliefs and practices of these sects. “Many turned to religion and began to dress more modestly,” Heltne says. Egyptians who returned after migrating to ultraconservative Arab Gulf States during oil crises in the seventies and eighties also increased conservatism in Egypt.

“Religious ultraconservative groups advocated strict gender roles by promoting the idea that women should remain in the domestic sphere,” Heltne explains. Yet, with this shift toward ultraconservative conceptions of women in some segments of the population, there occurred a concomitant movement for women’s emancipation. “Women,” according to Heltne, “were increasingly defying these [ultraconservative mores] and filling Egypt’s workplaces and streets and even managerial positions.” A clash was inevitable. Many Islamic religious groups attempted to pressure women to return to traditional roles—pressure that could manifest as coercion, intimidation, and assault.

Worth noting, however, is that Egypt’s war against women and its culture of rape are trans-partisan.

Secular activists committed the infamous assault against CBS correspondent Lara Logan a couple of years ago. Hosni Mubarak’s secular regime and nominal US ally used rape squads against dissidents, as did the Egyptian Army between the Mubarak and Morsi presidencies.

I don’t want to tell women they should not visit Egypt—I get tired of hearing from various people that I shouldn’t visit dangerous places like Lebanon, Iraq, etc.—but nobody should go in there blind.

Somebody Has to be the Bad Cop

I’m still getting caught up on the Iranian nuclear negotiations. I missed a lot while I was cut off from most of the human race down in Cuba, and now that I’m back I’m mostly struck by the rather odd fact that France is the hardliner in the Western camp.

It’s double strange when considering that France had a conservative president—Jacques Chirac—during its most recent dovish phase, while the current hawkish president is from the Socialist Party.

Here is Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times:

The history of the west’s failed efforts to block a North Korean bomb, along with its various unsuccessful rapprochements with Iran over the years, suggest the sceptics may have a point.

In 2005, the powers negotiating with North Korea reached a deal that promised a package of economic and diplomatic incentives in return for the North Koreans abandoning their nuclear weapons programme. But the deal was a dud; in 2006 North Korea staged its first successful nuclear test. The weapon first tested by the North Koreans was a plutonium-based nuclear bomb, rather than one based on enriched uranium. France’s insistence that an early Iran accord should deal not just with uranium enrichment but also with the plutonium plant being developed at Arak is therefore particularly important. There are already signs that this tougher approach is bearing fruit, with Iran suggesting that it might ease its position on international inspections of Arak.

It can be argued that Iran would be more likely to stick to a nuclear deal than the endlessly duplicitous North Koreans, whose totalitarian system is probably better adapted to accept the extreme poverty and isolation that flows from being a nuclear pariah. But no outside power can pronounce with confidence on the balance of power between hardliners and moderates in Iran. And even conservative western leaders have been seduced by the illusory hope of a breakthrough with Iran before. Remember Ronald Reagan’s emissaries showing up in Tehran, carrying a key-shaped cake, that was meant to open the door to better relations with the sweet-toothed mullahs?

The transformation of France’s diplomatic profile in the Middle East over the past years is striking. Just a decade ago, France’s opposition to the Iraq war led to its denunciation by American rightwingers, who famously labelled the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. Now France is, temporarily, the toast of neoconservative Washington, while it is the Iranians who come out with the colourful insults. The Fars news agency denounced the French as “gun-slinging frogs”. (Perhaps there is room for compromise, in which the French assume a settled identity as cheese-eating frogs?)

For anyone following the “Iran dossier” (to use diplo-speak), it has been noticeable for some years that France is the most hardline of the western powers. Quite why this should be the case puzzles even French diplomats.

I suspect one reason the French are being hardliners right now is because somebody has to and the United States cares more about getting a deal than about what’s in it. We all instinctively understand that negotiations need “bad cops” as well as “good cops.” If John McCain were president of the United States instead of Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande likely would not be compelled to bang his fist on the table and say “no” because somebody else would already be doing it.

Home From Cuba

I spent the last several weeks in Cuba and have just returned to the United States. That is one truly strange place. It’s right there alongside Libya under Moammar Qaddafi in the bizarro department. I’m glad I went, but I’m even more glad to be out of there.

Working in a communist country as an unauthorized journalist is complicated, to say the least. I had little choice but to slip in clandestinely on a tourist visa, which limited my ability to conduct formal interviews. So I’m still working on that from this side of the border. Cubans who left the island and live in the United States are willing and able to speak much more freely than those left behind. I can interview them without putting them in danger and without getting myself arrested and deported.

So I’m not ready to start writing about Cuba just yet. I need to interview some more people and transcribe the interviews I already have. But I hope to be ready soon enough. In the meantime, I can attend to the blog again—as soon as I can get caught up on what’s happening in the world.

I’ve been living the last few weeks in a near-total information blackout. Hardly any information whatsoever trickles into or out of Cuba. I was a mere 90 miles from Key West, Florida, but I may as well have been on the dark side of the moon. So bear with me.

And thanks again to all my Kickstarter backers for sending me there. It has been a real education, that’s for sure.

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.

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