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No Proxy War Against Russia

Senator Ted Cruz thinks the United States should arm Ukraine so it can beat Russian-backed separatists in the east. As much as we’d love to help plucky Ukraine resist the giant bear to the north—and we have a solid precedent under our belts—it’s a terrible idea.

Backing the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s worked smashingly well. Moscow learned the hard way that it could no longer project enough hard power to shield its vassal states from local uprisings and everything fell apart almost instantly.

Afghanistan was hardly the only country in the Soviet sphere disgruntled with communist rule. Eastern Europeans never acquiesced to it in the first place. They had it imposed on them by the victorious Stalin atop the ashes of the Nazi regime. The Hungarian Revolution in 1956, which began as a seemingly harmless student revolt, brought down the local Russian puppet state. Moscow panicked, deployed thousands of soldiers and tanks, and reimposed the brutal old order. It did the same during the Prague Spring in 1968.

But after the debacle in Afghanistan, Russia lacked the resources and will to repeat it. Nothing could hold back the rising tide of mass discontent in Europe, and barely six months later the Berlin Wall fell.

But Ukraine isn’t Afghanistan, and it is not Hungary. It’s where Russian civilization was born, as the medieval state Kievan Rus in the 10th century. For Russians, losing Kiev to Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union was a bit like Jews losing Jerusalem. Their toleration of a sovereign Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet system was always conditional on Kiev taking orders from Moscow. As soon as that ended with the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych last year, so did its independence.

Russia will no sooner surrender to American-backed forces in Ukraine than we would surrender to a Russian-backed insurgency in Vermont. The situation is hardly analogous—unlike Vermont, Ukraine is a country—but from Vladimir Putin’s point of view it’s precisely analogous.

This is all about NATO expansion which scares the daylights out of the Russians. It shouldn’t, but it does, and it’s not hard to understand why. Just ask yourself how the British would feel if the USSR won the Cold War and the Warsaw Pact expanded to Paris and Brussels. London would feel like it’s “next.” London would have cause to feel like it’s “next.” That’s exactly how it looked from Moscow’s point of view when former vassals like Lithuania and Estonia joined up with Germany and France—and the United States.

It’s a paranoid analysis, but Russia has always been paranoid.

“I believe the Russians are mobilizing right now for a war that they think is going to happen in five or six years,” said US Army Commander in Europe Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges. “Not that they’re going to start a war in five or six years, but I think they are anticipating that things are going to happen, and that they will be in a war of some sort, of some scale, with somebody within the next five or six years.”

The solution from Russia’s point of view—as always—is to either control or destabilize as many “buffer” states as it can. Any of its smaller neighbors that get a little too uppity will find themselves undermined from within or outright invaded, and in the modern era they’re likely to find scraps of territory “annexed” by Moscow to indefinitely prevent them from joining NATO. No one in NATO wants to admit a nation as a new member state that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. It’s dangerous. That’s ultimately what Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was about, and it’s the main reason Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year.

Putin has already achieved his primary objective and doesn’t need to do much else at this point except not lose the rest of the war. If the United States gets even indirectly involved, he’ll just ramp it up. He needs to win in Ukraine far more than we do, and unlike us he’s more than willing to deploy his own forces directly.

There is no chance Ukraine could ever win a total war against Russia. All it can do is make continued Russian intervention too costly. While it may appear that arming Ukraine will make Russian intervention too costly, it will only inflame Moscow’s anxiety and make losing Ukraine too costly for Russia.

Maybe—maybe—if Kiev wins the war in the east on its own and cedes lost territory to Russia, a Ukrainian rump state could join NATO and prevent something like this from happening again in the future, but that’s only remotely possible if Putin doesn’t feel like he must best the West in his own “near abroad” or lose everything.

ISIS Meets Steel

The idea that what happens in Syria stays in Syria is as dead as Saddam Hussein, but ISIS is meeting steel as it expands. 

The Lebanese army is facing as many as 3,000 fighters in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains along the Syrian border and Nicholas Blanford reports a war of attrition is taking place there. In late January the army “roasted” ISIS with artillery, according to a military advisor he spoke to, then picked up “the smoking remains.”

Meanwhile, the Jordanian air force flew devastating sorties over the Islamic State’s “capital” of Raqqa in Syria yesterday to retaliate for the gruesome murder of its fighter pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh.

Farther afield, ISIS attacked and killed at least 30 Egyptian security men in the Sinai and killed 10 at a hotel in the Libya’s capital Tripoli.

It should have been obvious from the very beginning that a terrorist army like ISIS threatens the entire region and points well beyond, but somehow it wasn’t. The prevailing view in the West held that ISIS and the Assad regime might somehow cancel each other out (as if war has ever worked that way in the past), but even right next door a large percentage Jordanians opposed their country’s involvement in this fight. Yet after ISIS put al-Kaseasbeh in a cage, burned him alive, and uploaded the video onto the Internet, everything changed. The mood in the capital Amman is eerily similar to that in New York City and Washington DC shortly after September 11, 2001. “These criminals aim to stamp out life and rights everywhere,” King Abdullah said. “Their hate and murder has reached Asia, Europe, Africa, America and Australia.”

Lebanon is also findings its spine. The army is entirely useless when the country’s various communities slug it out with each other. Everyone fears—correctly, I should add—that the army might fragment into opposing militias if the leadership takes one side or another in a sectarian conflict. It happened during the civil war and could easily happen again. But Lebanon isn’t Syria, and ISIS is opposed almost monolithically in Lebanon, even among their “natural” Sunni constituency.   

ISIS is expanding its deadly operations at an alarming rate, but it’s also finding out the hard way that not every country in the Middle East and North Africa is as soft a target as Syria and Iraq. Libya might be. It has been precarious, to say the least, ever since Moammar Qaddafi was lynched outside Misrata in 2011. But taking on Egypt, Jordan, and the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq is almost as perilous for ISIS as taking on the Israelis.

Lebanon is more vulnerable—its soldiers are not especially competent—but ISIS would require a diabolical miracle to make any headway in the parts of Lebanon where Christians, Shias, and Druze live. Every family in the country has at least one rifle in the closet, and they’d correctly see ISIS as a potentially genocidal threat to their existence.

Washington’s backing of anti-ISIS proxies in Syria may be a fool’s game this late in the war, but the Kurds, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Lebanese—and maybe even the Libyans—should receive all the help from the Pentagon they can get.

Moscow is Still Churlish About the Loss of East Germany

The Russian government is considering a proposal to condemn the “annexation” of East Germany by West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Even Vladimir Putin knows the only reason East Germany ever existed as a separate political entity is because the Russians occupied it an imposed a totalitarian puppet regime on its subjects.

The Russians are just mad that the rest of the world won’t recognize their annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, and Germany has been their favorite Euro punching bag since Hitler invaded the Motherland. 

Walter Russell Mead explained Putin’s psychology vis-à-vis Germany last week in The American Interest.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, western power in Europe rests on two platforms. There is the global American hegemony, and then there is Germany, which has emerged as America’s sub-hegemon in Europe. Putin thinks that the Germans aren’t wise enough to rule Europe well, strong enough to rule it by force, or rich enough to rule it through economics and that Washington doesn’t understand that or, if it does, that Washington itself is too distracted or too weak to care. Either way, from Putin’s point of view, Germany’s position is much, much weaker than either Berlin or Washington understands.

[…]

Putin sees Germany as the weaker, nearer, and, in the short term, more dangerous obstacle to his ambitions than the United States. His current policy is aimed incrementally at reducing American hegemony; it is directly aimed at disrupting what Putin sees as Germany’s attempt to create a new post-1990 order in its image and under its aegis.

Germany, of course, doesn’t threaten Russia even remotely. No nation threatens Russia right now even remotely. But Russians are conditioned to fearing neighbors beyond the buffer states they control, and they don’t control much of anything in Eastern Europe anymore except Belarus and Transnistria. Its enormous flat geography has left it vulnerable to invasions from every direction but the Arctic for centuries.

Russia is no more likely to do anything about West Germany’s “annexation” of East Germany decades ago than Germany or the U.S. will reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year. This silly rhetorical stunt is just a healthy reminder that—nevermind the geography—Russia is not part of Europe.

New Audio Book Available

My first book, The Road to Fatima Gate, is now available as an audiobook from Audible and Amazon.com.

It is narrated by the fantastic Steven Roy Grimsley who also narrated the audio versions of Where the West Ends and Resurrection.

The Truth About American Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s new film, American Sniper, is a blisteringly accurate portrayal of the American war in Iraq. Unlike most films in the genre, it sidesteps the politics and focuses on an individual: the late, small-town Texan, Chris Kyle, who joined the Navy SEALs after 9/11 and did four tours of duty in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad. He is formally recognized as the deadliest sniper in American history, and the film, based on his bestselling memoir, dramatizes the war he felt duty-bound to fight and his emotionally wrenching return home, with post-traumatic stress.

The movie has become a flashpoint for liberal critics. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore dismissed the film out-of-hand because snipers, he says, are “cowards.” “American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds,” comic actor Seth Rogen tweeted, referring to a fake Hitler propaganda film about a Nazi sniper, though he backtracked and said he actually liked the film, that it only reminded him of Nazi propaganda. Writing for the Guardian, Lindy West is fair to Eastwood and the film but cruel to its subject. Kyle, she says, was “a hate-filled killer” and “a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people.”

The Navy confirms that Kyle shot and killed 160 combatants, most of whom indeed had brown skin. While he was alive, he said that he enjoyed his job. In one scene in the movie, Kyle, played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper, refers to “savages,” and it’s not clear if he means Iraqis in general or just the enemies he’s fighting.

But let’s take a step back and leave the politics of aside. All psychologically normal people feel at least some hatred for the enemy in a war zone. This is true whether they’re on the “right” side or the “wrong” side. It’s not humanly possible to like or feel neutral toward people who are trying to kill you. Race hasn’t the faintest thing to do with it. Does anyone seriously believe Kyle would have felt differently if white Russians or Serbs, rather than “brown” Arabs, were shooting at him? How many residents of New York’s Upper West Side had a sympathetic or nuanced view of al-Qaida on September 11, 2001? Some did—inappropriately, in my view—but how many would have been able to keep it up if bombs exploded in New York City every day, year after year?

Kyle had other reasons to hate his enemies, aside from their desire to kill him. In American Sniper, we see him in Fallujah and Ramadi fighting Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, the bloody precursor to ISIS. His immediate nemesis is “the Butcher,” a fictional character whose favorite weapon is a power drill. The Butcher confronts an Iraqi family who spoke to Americans and says “if you talk to them, you die with them.” He tortures their child to death with his drill.

Kyle kills a kid, too, but in a radically different context. The boy is running toward Americans with a live grenade in his hand. “They’ll fry you if you’re wrong,” his spotter tells him. “They’ll send you to Leavenworth.” He’s right. Kyle would have been fried, at least figuratively, if he shot an innocent, unarmed civilian—regardless of age—with premeditation. In a later scene, he has another child in his sights: the child picks up a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and aims it at an American Humvee. “Drop it,” Kyle says under his breath from far away. He doesn’t want to pull that trigger. He’ll shoot if he must to protect the lives of his fellow Americans, but the kid drops the RPG and Kyle slumps in relief. How different he is from the Butcher, who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing children to death—not even children of the American invaders, but Iraqi children.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Too Little Too Late in Syria

The US military is gearing up to train moderate Syrian rebels this spring, but there’s virtually no chance this is going to work by itself.

The US spent years training the Iraqi Army, and for what? Baghdad’s forces turned out to be no more effective in the face of the ISIS onslaught than the French were when Hitler invaded.

Had ISIS been nipped in the bud at the beginning this might not have happened, but they’ve had years to build themselves up and grow stronger while an isolationist White House did nothing and let everything fester.

President Obama’s advisors warned him that the Syrian civil war could explode well beyond its borders and even wash up in Europe and the United States if it dragged out long enough, and that’s exactly what happened.

The Iranian-Hezbollah-Assad axis is still entrenched in its part of the country, and ISIS—one of the most formidable terrorist armies in history—controls the other half of the country, along with an enormous swath of Iraq. There is virtually no chance that a ragtag band of lightly trained “moderate” rebels can compete with the Assad regime and ISIS at the same time if the much-better trained and equipped Iraqis can’t handle ISIS alone. 

But this might work if the air campaign against ISIS is expanded dramatically.

So far the air strikes are barely containing ISIS, let alone degrading it, but that’s partly because it’s so half-assed. Occasional pinprick strikes won’t finish off ISIS any more than occasional terrorist attacks in the US would cause Washington DC to implode.

Fighting a terrorist organization or an insurgency with air strikes is a fool’s game, but ISIS is much more than that. It’s not hiding in alleys and shadows and safe houses. It controls a chunk of territory the size of Syria. Its “state” isn’t formally recognized by any real nation, nor does it appear on any atlases, but it has most of the attributes of a state in the making and can be weakened and degraded and destroyed from the skies just like Moammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya was weakened and degraded and eventually destroyed from the skies.

The US-led coalition might be able to do this. It wouldn’t mean the end of ISIS any more than destroying the Taliban regime in Afghanistan spelled the end of the Taliban, but it would end ISIS as a “state” and force it to revert to its previous status as a shadowy terrorist organization.

Then it just might be possible for a US-backed force to move into the vacuum. Fighting would continue indefinitely, and the US might have to remain involved to an extent, but at least the Islamic State could be downgraded into a wannabe state that has a much more difficult time recruiting new members. Though I wouldn’t expect a tidy resolution any time in the next decade—it’s far too late for that now—it would be better than watching ISIS expand.

But if we’re just going to train a few thousand people and hope for the best while sending them into a meat grinder without any serious backup, we’re better off staying home and they’re better off being refugees.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

The Iranian Regime and Charlie Hebdo

As Washington continues its vain quest for a good faith nuclear deal with Tehran, the Iranian regime continues behaving like the gunmen who massacred French cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo earlier this month in Paris.

Here’s Mojtaba Safari in The Daily Beast:

Many in the West talk of the “moderation” of Iran’s regime. Foreign Minister Mohamed Zarif flies around the world claiming that Iran is committed to peace, justice and human rights. That would come as news to the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Iranian jail for nothing more than advocating freedom and democracy.  

Soheil Arabi is one of those activists whose Facebook posts landed him on death row. What was Arabi's great "crime"? He is charged with "spreading corruption on Earth," (mofsed-e-filarz), punishable by death in Iran. 

Soheil was first arrested and sentenced to death in November 2013 on the charge of "insulting the Prophet" (sabb-e-nabi). Article 262 of the Islamic Penal Code of Iran explains:

Anyone who swears at or commits qazf  [false accusation of sexual offenses] against the Great Prophet [of Islam] (peace be upon him) or any of the Great Prophets, shall be considered as sāb ul-nabi [a person who swears at the Prophet], and shall be sentenced to the death penalty.

Safari is an Iranian blogger. The only reason he’s alive and free is because he’s living in Canada.

The fact that the Iranian regime behaves this way at home does not by itself make a deal with Iran impossible. The United States has a transactional alliance with Saudi Arabia despite its government being no less grotesque. But the geopolitical interests of Washington and Riyadh overlap while the geopolitical interests of Washington and Tehran are entirely at odds with each other.

At some point this is all going to change. Iran will eventually get a new and more civilized government that more accurately represents the political views of its citizens who are far less anti-American and anti-Israel than the regime. Then our two countries will be able to have decent relations.

Iranians are not the natural enemies of the West, nor are they the natural enemies of Jews and of Israel. There is little history of hostility between Persians and Jews. There is, however, a long history of unbroken hostility between Persians and Arabs. A democratic Iranian government will be friendlier to the West, but its relations with the countries on the other side of the Persian Gulf will be just as fractious as they right now.

When that day finally comes, our transactional alliance with Saudi Arabia will likely be slowly phased out in favor of a genuine alliance with Iran. In the meantime, both nations will continue using the instruments of the state to commit crimes against humanity that only terrorists are willing and able to carry out in the West.

Son of Notorious Hezbollah Commander Killed in Syria

Jihad Mugniyeh, son of notorious Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh, was just killed by an Israeli airstrike in Syria near the Golan Heights.

Hezbollah is fighting against Sunni jihadists in Syria on behalf of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, but that doesn't mean it has abandoned its war against Israel. If the Syrian regime doesn't survive, Hezbollah won't be able to receive high-grade weapon systems from Iran anymore. It already has a formiddable missile arsenal and can now—unlike during the 2006 war—inflict signinificant damage on Tel Aviv and even Jerusalem if it dares. But with Assad out of the picture, once those missiles are gone, they're gone, and Hezbollah would be downgraded from the quasi state-conventional actor that it is now to a mere guerrilla and terrorist organization again.

It's not clear how important the now-deceased commander Jihad Mugniyeh was, but his father was a bloodthirsty psychopath with the blood of hundreds of people under his fingernails. Many of us have forgotten, but he was the most notorious anti-American terrorist in the world before Osama bin Laden usurped the position.

Mugniyeh orchestrated the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983 that killed 63 people, as well as the suicide truck bombings against French paratroopers and US peacekeepers that same year that killed 299 in one day. The attack against the Marine barracks was the single deadliest strike against the US Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima. He hijacked TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome in 1985 and executed US Navy diver Robert Stethem and dumped his body onto the tarmac. The rest of the passengers were held hostage for weeks in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.

Argentina charged Mugniyeh with murdering 114 people in Buenos Aires in 1992 by blowing up the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center.

He is also believed to have masterminded the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 20 people and wounded 372.

He was car-bombed to death in Damascus in 2008, presumably by Israeli intelligence. No one else was hurt in the incident.

And now his son, aptly named Jihad, is dead too.

Jihad was working near the Golan Heights alongside infamous child-murdered Samir Kuntar whom the Israelis released in 2008, along with four Hezbollah members, in exchange for the return of the bodies of IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser who had been captured and tortured to death at the start of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

On April 22, 1979, in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, Kuntar killed policeman Eliyahu Shahar, civilian Danny Haran, and Haran's four year old daughter Einat by placing her head on a rock and smashing her skull with the butt of his rifle.

Trading that guy for two soldiers who were already dead was a raw deal for Israel.

“If we thought the enemy was cruel to the living and the dead,” former Chief Rabbi of the IDF Yisrael Weiss said, “we were surprised, when we opened the caskets, to discover just how cruel. And I’ll leave it at that.”

Mugniyeh's son may be dead, but Kuntar is an at-large recidivist psychopath who's planning more attacks. The Israelis erred in releasing him, but if they can whack Mugniyeh they can correct it by next whacking Kuntar. The last thing they should do is arrest him again.

The ISIS of Africa

Boko Haram galvanized activists all over the world last year when it kidnapped hundreds of school girls in Nigeria and threatened to sell them into slavery, but hardly a peep has been uttered since the Al Qaeda-linked army massacred as many as 2,000 people near the Chad border last week.

“I walked through five villages,” a survivor told The Guardian, “and each one I passed was empty except for dead bodies.”

The attack in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo office sucked up most of the Western media and political oxygen—understandably so since France is a Western country—but it’s also unfortunate because it diverted out attention from the fact that Boko Haram is rapidly turning into the ISIS of Africa. These guys are not mere terrorists anymore. They’re behaving more and more like a regular army, and they now control a swath of territory in northeastern Nigeria the size of Belgium.

“The United States needs to recognize we have a problem that's second only to the problem we have with ISIS (Islamic State),” the Atlantic Council’s Peter Pham told USA Today. “We have a group holding territory and shooting down jet fighters. ... If Nigeria collapses — it is the strong state in the region — there are no strong states to contain what would happen if Boko Haram succeeds in carving out an Islamic state in that area.”

Radical Islamists are immeasurably more dangerous when they organize themselves into states or state-like entities than when they hide in the shadows and strike like serial killers with bombs. Terrorist organizations are bad enough, but radical Islamist state-like entities such as ISIS, the Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah are menacing enough to start wars.

The United States isn’t directly involved in all these wars—Israel battles Hamas and Hezbollah, and the French took out the proto-Islamic state in Northern Mali—but if a huge swath of Africa collapses and Boko Haram metastasizes fully into an ISIS-linked entity with staying power, what happens in Sub-Saharan Africa may no longer stay in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Christopher Hitchens on Today’s Paris Massacre

Gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar” attacked the offices of French satirical newspaper named Charlie Hedbo and killed twelve people, including journalists and two policemen.

Radical Islamists apparently don’t share the paper’s sense of humor.

What good is legal freedom of speech if violent enforcers of a different, older, and foreign set of laws take it upon themselves to punish you extrajudicially?

This is not a new problem, not in the Middle East and not in the West. A few years ago I spoke with Christopher Hitchens about it and here’s what he said.

Hitchens: Let's do a brief thought experiment. I tell you the following: On New Year's Eve, a man in his mid-seventies is having his granddaughter over for a sleep-over, his five-year old granddaughter. He is attacked in his own home by an axe-wielding maniac with homicidal intent. Your mammalian reaction, your reaction as a primate, is one of revulsion. I'm trusting you on this. [Laughs.]

MJT: Oh, yes. You are correct.

Hitchens: Then you pick up yesterday's Guardian, one of the most liberal newspapers in the Western world, and there's a long article that says, ah, that picture, that moral picture, that instinct to protect the old and the young doesn't apply in this case. The man asked for it. He drew a cartoon that upset some people. We aren't at all entitled to use our moral instincts in the correct way.

[…]

MJT: The current president of Ireland said Muslims have the right to be offended by Westergaard's cartoons. I suppose that's true as far as it goes, that everybody has the right to be offended by anything, but why…

Hitchens: Ah yes. This is not new. I've written about this many times. It's reverse ecumenicism. It first became obvious to me when the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989. The reaction of the official newspaper of the Vatican was that the problem wasn't that the foreign leader of a theocratic dictatorship offered money, in public, in his own name, to suborn the murder of the writer of a book of fiction in another country, who wasn't an Iranian citizen. The problem was not that.

You and I may have thought, bloody hell, this is a new kind of threat. But it's an old level of threat. Blasphemy is the problem. That was also the view of the archbishop of Canterbury. The general reaction of the religious establishments to that and to the Danish case—and, by the way, of our secular State Department in the Danish case—was to say the problem was Danish offensiveness. A cartoon in a provincial town in a small Scandinavian democracy obviously should be censored by the government lest it ignite—or as Yale University Press put it, instigate—violence.

Instigation of violence can only mean one thing. I know the English language better than I know anything else.

MJT: Instigate means it's on purpose.

Hitchens: These people are saying the grandfather and granddaughter were the authors of their own attempted assassinations. These are some of the same people who say that if I don't believe in God I can't know what morality is. They've just dissolved morality completely into relativism by saying actually, occasionally, carving up grandfathers and granddaughters with an axe on New Year's Eve can be okay if it's done to protect the reputation of a seventh century Arabian man who heard voices.

MJT: It's hard to psychoanalyze other people, but I sometimes suspect that blaming Salman Rushdie and Kurt Westergaard, as many writers have, for bringing down the wrath of these maniacs from Somalia and Iran, may be a way of convincing themselves they'll be safe as long as they don't cross the same line. Any writer or graphic artist must, at least for a second, think oh fuck, they could come for me if I don't watch out. They can say to themselves they'll be fine if they don't cross that line.

Hitchens: But the line will never stop shifting.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Erasing Israel From the Map

The Iranian clerical regime has repeatedly vowed to erase Israel from the map, but American publisher HarperCollins actually did it.

The company released an atlas of the Middle East for English-speaking students in the Persian Gulf region, and Israel isn’t on it. The West Bank and Gaza are on it, which is entirely appropriate since they exist and are not part of Israel, but Israel itself is just…absent.

The Tablet newspaper in Britain originally reported the story, and HarperCollins has since recalled the atlases and promises they will be pulped. Executives at the company headquarters are embarrassed and say they sincerely apologize.

Lower level employees, however, thought they did the right thing.

Collins Bartholomew told The Tablet that putting Israel on the map would have been “unacceptable” in the Middle East and that “local preferences” had to be respected.

He isn’t imaging those local preferences. I’ve seen plenty of Arab maps that don’t include Israel. Sometimes it’s labeled as Palestine. Sometimes it’s a blank space. Sometimes it’s there and labeled correctly. It depends on the map and, to an extent, which country produced it. Some Arab nations are less hung up on this than others.

Companies that want to sell products to customers really do need to think about what would and would not be acceptable or they won’t turn a profit. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just basic business. 

But the map HarperCollins produced is a lie. Right there on its atlas cover are the words, “Learn with maps” in English. But kids can’t learn real geography from fake maps. Setting aside the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the product fails to live up to its own description.

Let’s get back to politics, though. People who hate a country so intensely that they can’t bear to see its existence on maps have a serious problem. I detest North Korea and wish it didn’t exist. So much better if it were joined to democratic South Korea like East Germany merged with the west after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But for God’s sake, I don’t require the maps in my house to show North Korea as blank. If I did, I’d have a problem and I’d need some help.

There isn’t much Westerners can do to change reactionary attitudes on the other side of the planet, and publishers aren’t generally in the political-emotional therapy business, but pandering to a denial of reality only perpetuates it.

If Middle Eastern customers will only buy a map if it lies, they can make their own damn maps. And if HarperCollins, or any other publishing company, actually wants kids over there to “Learn with maps” as it says, then the local delusional bubble needs to be punctured. 

Cuba: To Embargo or Not

It was bound to happen eventually: The United States and Cuba have decided to restore diplomatic relations after treating each other as enemy states since the 1960s.

Some are elated and some are despondent. Both sides can make a strong case.  

I visited Cuba near the end of last year and returned home with mixed feelings about the US embargo. Cuba is in no way a strategic or military threat to the United States. If diplomatic relations hadn’t already been severed a long time ago, Washington would have no reason to suddenly sever them now. In that sense, the embargo is an anachronism, a leftover from a now-distant past and a different era of history.  

On the other hand, Cuba has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere. Allowing the regime in from the cold gives it a patina of legitimacy it has done nothing whatsoever to earn, and it exhausts whatever scraps of leverage the United States had to convince the island’s overlords to free their people and share power like most other governments in the region.

So is restoring diplomatic ties the right call? I have no idea. I thought I’d return home from Cuba and take a firm stand one way or another, but some things in politics and in life are ambiguous.

What follows are my thoughts as originally published in World Affairs in March, 2014, before this decision was made.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I too brought soap with me to the island—full-size bars from the store, not small ones from hotels—but I didn’t want to make people cry wherever I went, so I left them discreetly for hotel staff, waiters, taxi drivers, and so on. And I tipped everyone as generously as I could since the government refuses to pay them.

None of this economic impoverishment is the result of American policy. The United States is hardly the world’s only soap manufacturer, for instance. Cuba can buy it from Mexico. Or Canada. Or the Dominican Republic. Cuba can make its own soap. It fact, it does make its own soap. The reason the country does not have enough is because the government historically hasn’t cared if the little people can’t wash. Soap is just one item among thousands that is strictly for the elite, for the “haves,” and for those lucky enough to find some in the shops before it runs out.

In a non-communist country where such a basic product is in short supply, somebody would mass-produce it and sell it. Soap-making doesn’t require nuclear physics. You can make it at home. Google “soap recipe” and you’ll see how easy it is. But Cuba is a communist country where private commerce is banned. If you make stuff and sell stuff, you might become “rich” and “bourgeois,” and the authorities will send you to prison.

That’s why Cuba is poor. Lifting the embargo would have little or no effect on such tyrannical imbecility.

Click here to read the rest of the essay.


The Sydney Gunman’s Failed Message

A radical Islamist seized hostages in a café yesterday in Sydney, Australia. Sixteen hours later police shot him dead. At least two of his captives died and several others are seriously injured.

Shortly after he took over the café, he forced some of the hostages to hold a black flag up to the glass for news cameras to photograph. It is known variously as the black standard, the jihad flag, and the Salafist flag. It’s similar in some ways to the Saudi flag. It’s also similar to the black flag of the Abbasid caliphate.

Anybody who flies it is potentially dangerous.

Salafism is a relatively recent Islamic ideology (less than 150 years old) that arose as a reaction against 19th century Western imperialism in general and the liberal Western ideas that began percolating into the Middle East at the time, which was not ruled by Western imperialists but mostly by the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire.

Salafists wish to remove all modern “innovations” from Islam and to bring back the 7th century version as practiced by Mohammad. They also wish to build a caliphate—a state—based on the 7th century model. Some of them would be content to do this non-violently, but others are a little less, shall we say, patient.

So an individual won’t necessarily be violent just because he’s a Salafist—especially not in the Persian Gulf region where their numbers are huge—but Al Qaeda and ISIS are the armed wings of the Salafist movement.

When the Australian gunman forced his hostages to hold that flag up to the glass, he was identifying himself as a Salafist. But no one in media seemed to know what that flag is. Reporters just described it as “a flag with some Arabic writing on it,” as if it’s just some random flag from anywhere that could have meant anything.

The guman sent a message, but it wasn’t received. And we know he was monitoring the news in real time. He was directly across the street from an Australian news channel. He wanted attention, but he was not getting the attention he wanted. Reporters couldn’t even figure out who he was when he clearly identified himself and his ideology.

Hours into the standoff, he demanded an ISIS flag in return for the release of one of the hostages. CNN anchors wondered aloud why, if he wanted an ISIS flag, he didn’t just bring one with him in the first place. But he did bring a Salafist flag. He must assumed that at least somebody would recognize it and explain it to the audience. I recognize it because I’ve been working in the Middle East for ten years, but news anchors are generally not experts in anything in particular except presenting information on television. They’re generalists.

Would the standoff have ended better if the man had more quickly succeeded in delivering his initial message without all the mounting frustration of being misunderstood? Probably not. Obviously, since he took hostages at gunpoint, he was not from the non-violent wing of the Salafist movement. Nevertheless, it’s time for Westerners who aren’t Middle East experts to know who the Salafists are and what they’re insignia looks like. They’ve been at war with us now for a long time.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Al Jazeera’s Scurrilous Attack on Morocco

Some people and organizations who claim to champion human rights don’t give a flying fork about the genuine article and would rather slam Western democracies and their allies than take an unflinching look at those who binge on anti-Westernism who, not coincidentally, include most of the worst human rights abusers on earth. The U.S. and Israel are the most abused targets, but Arab countries can get hit with it too.

The latest example came over the Thanksgiving weekend when Morocco hosted the second annual World Human Rights Forum in the city of Marrakech. (The first was held last year in Brazil.) I was invited to participate—I was not paid to be there, but travel expenses were covered—along with almost 7,000 others, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. 

Al Jazeera published a report about the conference before it even began and described it as a “masquerade” right in the headline. The forum, it says, was “designed to deceive Western political and business partners about the North African kingdom's 2011 political reform project.”

This is nonsense on stilts. The forum had nothing to do with Morocco or its internal affairs. It just happened to take place in Morocco. It was sponsored by an international institution concerned with human rights all over the world. Next year’s forum will be held in Argentina.

But Morocco is a pro-Western country, one of America’s major non-NATO allies, and a source of stability instead of “resistance,” so in certain quarters it’s suspect.

Al Jazeera’s hit piece describes the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, which boycotted the event, as the country’s “foremost civil rights activists,” but it’s actually a motley collection of hardcore leftists and far-right Islamists well outside the Moroccan mainstream.

The organization has some legitimate complaints, though, to be sure. Morocco’s emergence from authoritarian rule is incomplete, and the Ministry of the Interior has shut down some of its meetings in hotels. Using instruments of the state to bust up meetings only gives them more things to complain about.

Robert M. Holley, a former diplomat at the US Embassy in Morocco, attended the conference. He knows the AMDH well and has little patience for them even if they are right about some things. “They have been especially adamant critics of the government for jailing people who have been rounded up on allegations of connections with jihadi groups here seeking to aid ISIS,” he told me. “They won a high profile lawsuit in the Moroccan courts against the Ministry of Interior for interfering with its organizational activities. I think that is clear evidence that the system they are protesting against seems to be working pretty well to address their grievances. There are always going to be dissident voices here. AMDH is an organization whose leadership is composed of many from the far left that has also been infused with new membership from the rejectionist Islamist political spectrum in Morocco. It’s a curious partnership that seems mostly united by its blanket rejectionist approach to most social and political issues in Morocco.”

Eric Goldstein at Human Rights Watch is also quoted in the Al Jazeera report. He thinks it’s “disturbing that at the moment Morocco is preparing to host this forum on human rights, it’s taking measures to restrict the freedom of its own human rights organizations.”

He neglects to point out that Moroccan courts sided with the AMDH against the Ministry of Interior. Perhaps he did say that and Al Jazeera snipped it, but Human Rights Watch, I’m sorry to say, has been on an anti-Morocco kick now for years, which is part of a most unfortunate pattern.

Robert Bernstein founded Human Rights Watch in 1978 and publicly broke with his own organization in 2009 for spending far too much time and effort beating on Israel—the nation with by far the best human rights record in the Middle East—at the expense of investigating Israel’s neighbors even when they’re guilty of backing terrorist organizations abroad and committing mass murder at home. In 2011 he founded a new organization, Advancing Human Rights, to correct the wrongs of his first organization.

But Israel isn’t the only country his first organization spends too much time grinding its axe against. It does the exact same thing to Morocco. Human Rights Watch at times acts as a volunteer shill organization for the Polisario, the communist guerilla army hatched by Fidel Castro and Moammar Qaddafi in the early 1970s and backed by Algeria. The Polisario to this day holds tens of thousands of citizens from the contested Western Sahara region hostage in “refugee camps” in the Algerian desert. Human Rights Watch reports from the Western Sahara read like ludicrous press releases from the Algerian police state, the Polisario’s primary patron, which resembles nothing so much as an Arab version of East Germany circa 1976.

“Refugees from the Western Sahara conflict who have been living in camps in the Algerian desert for four decades seem to be generally able to leave the camps if they wish,” according to a Human Rights Watch report issued in October of this year.

They seem to be able to leave? No. These people have been held against their will for almost as long as I’ve been alive. I’ve been to the Western Sahara. I know a number of people who fled the Polisario’s camps after being tortured nearly to death. I know people whose family members are to this day held in these camps as bargaining chips and who will be hunted down and perhaps even killed if they dare try to escape. There is no reason to expect anything better of an armed militia backed by the Castros and Algeria’s Soviet-style regime, let alone Qaddafi back when he was still with us. Yet Human Rights Watch takes their side against one of the few Arab countries that is successfully democratizing without bloodshed and mayhem.

There are a number of reasons why certain types of self-styled human rights champions bash Western democracies and their allies disproportionately while giving far worse actors a pass. Partly it’s because they have a double standard, partly it’s because of a reflexive anti-Western bias, and partly it’s because democratic and tolerant nations won’t kill, arrest, or blacklist those who complain. That last problem is built-in and unfixable, but the first two certainly aren’t.

What Al Jazeera, the AMDH, and Human Rights Watch ignore or don’t even care about much in the first place is the fact that Morocco is the most under appreciated Arab Spring success story. The Western media ignore this as well, not because foreign correspondents are generally suspicious of Morocco but because Morocco doesn’t explode. If it bleeds it leads, as we say in the media business, and Morocco doesn’t bleed. It successfully transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected government, and it did so with neither revolution nor war. Morocco, along with Tunisia, adopted one of the most liberal constitutions in the entire Arab world while much of the rest of the region went up in flames. But hardly anyone noticed because the infernos in Egypt, Libya, and Syria sucked up all the oxygen.

*

Though Morocco’s King Mohammad VI did not attend the conference, a minister from the government read his speech at the opening ceremony. In it he explained why so many attendees were from Africa and the Middle East.

“It is a historical fact,” he said, “that international human rights instruments were developed in the absence of Africa. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, there were only four independent African countries. When the 1966 International Covenants were adopted, there were only about 30 African countries which had freed themselves from the colonial yoke.

“Africa cannot remain a mere consumer of international standards devised in its absence,” he continued. “Africa can no longer be the invariable object of international reports and external evaluations. Our continent has become mature enough to claim its rightful place in the global human rights architecture and to fully play its role in it.”

I attended some of the discussion groups in the following days and was curious what the attending Arabs and Africans would say about human rights and democracy considering they hail from regions where human rights and democracy are often in dismal condition at best. I’ve run into far too many people in this part of the world who have only the vaguest idea what these concepts even mean. The Muslim Brotherhood says it’s in favor of human rights and democracy despite championing terrorist organizations and governing like pharaohs after being elected. Many of Egypt’s secular activists likewise proved to be profoundly illiberal when they hailed the military dictatorship of General Sisi, who is far more of a brute than Hosni Mubarak.

I encountered none of this Egyptian-style faux liberalism at the World Human Rights Forum. Instead I heard one Arab and African speaker after another extolling the virtues of liberal constitutions, the separation of powers, the protection of minority rights, the right to worship freely, the need to dismantle authoritarian and unaccountable institutions, and the necessity of flourishing civil society organizations that act as buffers between individuals and the state.

A panel on democracy and human rights sponsored by the Embassy of Switzerland and the Council of Europe pondered a serious question: Can the Middle East and North Africa preserve human rights during democratic transitions and prevent the Arab Spring from turning to winter? The answer in Tunisia and Morocco is yes. The answer in Egypt, Libya, and Syria is an unambiguous no. 

Sectarian and ethnic divisions complicate things as well in the Arab world and in Sub-Saharan Africa. One speaker pointed out what simply can’t be denied: ethnically and religiously fractious nations that hold elections prematurely may discover that elections are civil war by other means. Iraq has proven that to everybody with eyes. Sunnis voted for Sunnis, Shias voted for Shias, and the Shias, with their demographic majority, used the power of the state to smash the minority. Some despondent Sunni leaders then made a fateful alliance with ISIS in order to keep Baghdad’s boots off their necks.

One speaker at the forum passionately argued that human rights existed before states and cannot be taken away by states, and that everyone on earth is born into this world with inalienable rights. He quoted Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism. Thomas Jefferson would have smiled. Many of the people who made these points spoke in the language of the Middle East and North Africa. They proved that Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir was right when he said, shortly before Syria’s Assad regime murdered him in Beirut with a car bomb, that “political liberalism can be conjugated in Arabic.”

On occasion I hear Arabs saying such things in opposition to their governments, but genuine democrats are thin on the ground in most of the Middle East, and they’re rarely numerous or powerful enough to transform their political systems. But in Morocco these things were said under the auspices of the government and the head of state. Nothing remotely like this will happen any time soon in Egypt, Libya, or Algeria. The very idea is absurd. It certainly won’t happen any time soon in Syria where would-be democrats are trapped between the anvil of the Assad regime on one side and the hammer of ISIS on the other. They have no choice, really, other than exile.

Al Jazeera can pre-emptively dismiss all this from thousands of miles away as a “masquerade” if it wants, but the real masquerade is Al Jazeera pimping human rights to its audience while elsewhere supporting the narrative of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations

Morocco doesn't have a perfect record—not even the US or Canada in 2014 have perfect records—but it has been moving in the right direction for years. Freedom House—a far more serious organization than Human Rights Watch—used to rank the country as Not Free, but now says it’s Partly Free and improving. Yet it remains imperfect. Even if were Free instead of Partly Free it wouldn’t be perfect. The country did not snap its fingers and transform instantly into a Jeffersonian democracy. But the Al Jazeera bosses in the quasi-medieval Qatari sheikhdom—which Freedom House bluntly dismisses as Not Free—have no clue what a Jeffersonian democracy even looks like.

Israel Bombs Syria – Again

The Israelis bombed Syria again. That’s what the Syrian and Iranian regimes are claiming anyway, though the Israelis won’t confirm or deny it.

Generally we should take Israel’s word over Syria’s and Iran’s, but not this time. Israel’s refusal to deny it is a tacit admission that it did indeed launch air strikes against Syria, this time on the outskirts of Damascus.

Israel is not bombing Syria randomly. It’s targeting weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The rest of us are focused on ISIS and ignoring what the Assad regime and Hezbollah are up to, but the Israelis have to live in that neighborhood. The main reason Hezbollah is fighting Sunni jihadists in Syria is because it desperately needs the Assad regime as backup in its relentless war against Israel. If ISIS defeats Assad, Hezbollah loses.

The Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers are claiming Israel is “in the same trench” as ISIS since it’s attacking those who are fighting against ISIS. There’s a certain logic there, but it’s circular. The United States is “in the same trench” as Israel, which according to these characters puts us “in the same trench” as ISIS. Yet the United States is also “in the same trench” as Assad and Hezbollah since we’re bombing ISIS. That’s a heck of a trench! It’s a circular trench, or perhaps even a three dimensional möbius trench. But that’s the Middle East for you.

Russia is furious about all this, of course, but that’s no surprise. There’s nothing complicated about which trench Vladimir Putin is in.

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