May 22, 2007

Syria Targeting Russia?

Mustapha at Beirut Spring makes an interesting point about the escalation of terrorism in Beirut and its expansion into the posh Sunni neighborhood of Verdun. The target was (possibly) the Russian Cultural Center, which reportedly was right near where the car bomb exploded, in order to pressure the Russian government to veto the pending tribunal against Hariri's assassins in the United Nations Security Council.

It's unclear to me how close the bomb actually was to the Russian Cultural Center so I don't know if Mustapha is right or if this is a bit of a stretch. But he could be right, and if so this is a serious escalation.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese government has orders to "finish off" Fatah Al Islam in the Palestinian camp in Northern Lebanon. Fatah Al Islam exists in other camps, as well, and this fight could go on for a while. The group is small enough, though, that they can be erased from the world if the army doesn't stand down. The fact that they are using Palestinian civilians as human shields means they have no sea to swim in and no place to hide.

For background on the Syrian connection to this group, see Tony Badran and William Harris.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:31 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

May 21, 2007

Violence in Beirut Continues

Naharnet reports (no link yet) that a "huge blast ripped through Beirut's Verdun district at 10:50 p.m. Monday, gutting several apartments and storefronts."

This, I believe, is the first time since Syria's withdrawal that a terrorist bomb has exploded in a Sunni area. The others have been in Christian areas.

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari laughably says the terrorists in Northern Lebanon -- who are still battling it out with the Lebanese Army -- are Al Qaeda and that they are fighting for the UN tribunal to punish the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It will require a gullible mind indeed to believe Al Qaeda has taken up the cause of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:12 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

May 20, 2007

Soldiers Without Borders

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has appointed Bernard Kouchner, a member of the Socialist Party, as his new foreign minister. I know something about this man because I wrote about him a while ago in an article that was never published. I shopped it around a bit, then got distracted writing foreign dispatches from the Middle East. It languished unread, but now it’s relevant again. So I’m publishing it here. Enjoy.


Soldiers Without Borders

by Michael J. Totten

The story of neoconservative political conversion is a familiar one. Many liberals, for one set of reasons or another, become conservatives as they get older. What starts them down the well-traveled road from the left to the right is usually some kind of a shock. Less known, or at least less written about, are the stories of militant anti-totalitarian liberals and leftists from the generation of 1968 who didn’t become neoconservatives, who started out on the radical left and who remain radicals of the left in more mature versions.

Paul Berman is perhaps the greatest American intellectual who hails from this tradition. His only real competition is the somewhat better known and more prolific writer Christopher Hitchens. Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism is a masterwork of the “liberal hawk” genre, and is perhaps the best philosophical argument yet written about September 11 and the Terror War. I hope he won’t mind if I characterize it as neoconservatism for liberals who are troubled by neoconservatism.

His new book Power and the Idealists is a sequel of sorts to Terror and Liberalism. It begins earlier, prologue-like, in the dark and euphoric days of 1968 when the New Left thundered onto the world-wide political scene and changed the direction of history forever.

The New Left, as Berman put it, was “a young people’s movement motivated by fear...It was a fear, in sum, that in World War II, fascism, and more specifically Nazism, had not been defeated after all – a fear that Nazism, by mutating, had continued to thrive into the nineteen-fifties and sixties and onward, always in new disguises.”

The New Leftists forged movements, huge movements all over the world, which varied depending on the particulars of each place. New Leftists were libertarians, socialists, anti-racists, counter-culturalists, feminists, and sometimes – in the extreme cases of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Red Brigades - even terrorists.

Sometimes the New Leftists went over the top, and not just those on the fringier side who waged stupid wars against their own societies. Even the moderate New Leftists lacked perspective and maturity on certain questions. As they exaggerated the problems in Britain, France, West Germany, and the United States, they too often failed to acknowledge the brutality of the fascist-like political system in the eastern Soviet bloc. They did have their reasons, though, to look upon the modern Western world with revulsion and even horror.

Right-wing bombs exploded in Paris as French soldiers massacred Algerians fighting for independence. France had done the same in Indochina, and now the United States was picking up where the French had left off. Americans bombed tiny impoverished villages, and sometimes committed atrocities. It was horrible. The United States, also, was propping up perfectly hideous rightist military regimes in Latin America. These regimes were anti-communist tools. Maybe that was reason enough to support them at arm’s length. But weren’t the communists allies in the fight against fascism? They were, during World War II and also before, in Spain, during that country’s civil war. The Battle of Madrid still, just barely, belonged to living memory in 1968. Spain is a modern liberal democracy now. But in the sixties it was ruled by the monstrous General Franco.

Germany’s de-Nazification wasn’t complete. Many of the same ugly faces ran Germany’s industries then as before. American reactionaries screamed “Go back to Russia!” at New Left protesters. But German reactionaries sometimes screamed “You should go to the gas chambers!” – the very worst thing, and surely the most radicalizing, that any right-wing German could possibly say.

So the New Leftists did have a point. Several points, as a matter of fact. They weren’t entirely imagining things. They wanted to fight fascists, which is an honorable and even necessary thing for decent people to do. They wanted to fight fascists so badly they fought fascists where they didn’t even exist. They hurled slogans, rocks, Molotov cocktails, and sometimes bombs at fascism’s remnants and ghosts.

And it got them in trouble. In 2001 Germany’s foreign minister Joschka Fischer was shown in a newly discovered series of photographs brutally assaulting a police officer back in the days of left-wing street fighting, the days when the Baader-Meinhof Gang waged its left-wing terrorist war inside West Germany. It was a huge scandal, and it spread from one European country to another and, eventually, even to the United States. How could a man who was a street thug in his youth possibly represent Germany to the world in the 21st century?

Fischer survived the scandal. He was a morally serious person who enjoyed wide support in German society. No longer was he a violent reactionary anti-establishment brute. Fischer himself was the establishment now, and he had done a fine job so far. Berman makes a compelling case that Fischer’s radical left-wing past was in some ways a good sort of past for Fischer to have.

Fischer was a militant anti-fascist as a young man. And he was a militant anti-fascist – albeit a much more mature one - as Germany’s foreign minister. This was not such a terrible thing at a time when Slobodan Milosovic was busy building his own Balkan version of a fascist state and bulldozing tens of thousands of undesirable civilians into mass graves. The fire that burned inside Joschka Fischer when he assaulted a Frankfurt police officer was the very same fire that compelled him to lead Germany into war against Serbian national socialism in Belgrade. Here was a chance to fight fascists for real, and this time with NATO’s bombs and not merely with slogans and fists.

Joschka Fischer is by no means the only New Leftist who became, in time, a militant left-wing anti-totalitarian. Nor is Fischer’s the only personal tale told in Paul Berman’s book. Berman also tells the stories of the radical left-libertarian Daniel Cohn-Behndit, French-German politician par excellence and popularly known as Mr. Europe; Poland’s Adam Michnik, leader of the anti-Soviet Solidarity uprising; Azar Nafisi, the hard-nosed Iranian feminist author of Reading Lolita in Tehran; Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi expatriate who wrote the ground-breaking Republic of Fear and who returned home from exile alongside the U.S. Marines; and Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders.

Bernard Kouchner’s story of political evolution may be most compelling of all. The man was practically born a communist, and he remained a communist throughout his youth and into his adulthood. He admired Che Guevara and the way Che did more than just protest and posture. Che went into action. Che created guerilla cells, focos as he called them, in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Che forged a revolutionary doctrine that worked, even if only inside one country. (He got himself killed in his total flop of a campaign in Bolivia.) He helped topple a filthy rightist regime in Cuba, and this was something to celebrate.

But there was more to Che Guevara than that. And Bernard Kouchner was not the sort of man who could go on pretending. Che hated the very idea of elections. He thrived on brutality and violence. He built a gulag in Cuba. All this looked, ominously, a great deal like fascism. And Che’s comrade Fidel Castro cut a rather Mussolini-like figure in his thunderous demagogic speeches in central Havana. Cuban communism turned out not to be much better than Soviet communism – a huge disappointment. And so Kouchner was out. He joined the Red Cross because he wanted to do some good in this world, and they sent him to Africa.

The Red Cross at the time turned out to be a huge disappointment as well. Such was Bernard Kouchner’s luck. He was doing yeoman’s work in the midst of Nigeria’s brutal civil war in the region of Biafra. Civil war, actually, doesn’t describe what was happening. Fascism and ethnic cleansing, that’s what it was. And the Red Cross was forbidden to speak of it. The Red Cross required all volunteers and employees to remain strictly, maddeningly, neutral. Kouchner was told not to speak or write to anyone, ever, of the wicked atrocities he witnessed on a regular basis.

Kouchner wasn’t the type who could do that. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut about Cuba’s Batista regime, the one before Fidel Castro’s. So he cheered on Che and Fidel. Then he couldn’t keep quiet about Che and Fidel. Now he couldn’t remain tight-lipped about the vicious campaign before his very own eyes in Biafra. Everywhere he looked, it seemed, were new variations of the same despicable story.

Dr. Kouchner had had it. He knew communism was a mendacious lie. But the idea of “Workers Without Borders” (which, as Paul Berman notes, is what “Workers of the World Unite” ultimately means) stirred his soul, even so. Workers didn’t inspire him so much as the idea of the abolition of borders. So he formed his own revolutionary organization of sorts, and he called it Doctors Without Borders. Doctors Without Borders was what the Red Cross would have been if an anti-totalitarian Che Guevara had founded it. Its missions, Berman writes, “were no less dangerous than any guerilla struggle, no less frightening, no less difficult, but [they had] the great virtue, in contrast to a communist insurgency, of refusing to lie.”

Shortly after its founding, thousands of “boat people” fled the cruel abuses of the communist regime in Vietnam. They threw themselves onto rickety boats, set off into the sea, and hoped for the best. Kouchner took note. And Kouchner took action. It wasn’t enough to provide medical care to the brutalized and the poor of the Third World. International law and the sanctity of borders be damned, Kouchner thought. As Paul Berman put it, the supremely oppressed had a right to be rescued.

So Kouchner and Doctors Without Borders rented a French vessel and rescued some of the boat people. Scooped them right out of the sea. Some of his left-wing comrades burned with volcanic rage – rage against Kouchner for saving people! American imperialists, not the Vietnamese communists, were the villains in their mental universe. Kouchner showed up their fantasy as a lie, and they hated him for it.

Later Jimmy Carter dispatched the United States Navy to rescue the rest of the boat people. Doctors Without Borders were followed by Sailors Without Borders. This, from the point of view of the formerly communist and anti-imperialist Kouchner, was nothing short of fantastic.

Little surprise, then, that Kouchner – unlike many of his former comrades on the left – favored the humanitarian rescue of Iraqis from the predatory regime of Saddam Hussein. From Workers Without Soldiers Without Borders. He became frustrated, apoplectic actually, at what he saw as the Bush Administration’s arrogance and incompetence. But he supported the war all the same, and he did so strictly on left-wing grounds.

No one knows, really, whether the regime-change and nation-building project will succeed or fail in Iraq. If it does fail it will be widely interpreted as a failure of neoconservatism. But the war against Saddam Hussein has a left-wing pedigree, too.

Liberal hawks made history in the Balkans. History never did repudiate them for that. Whether Iraq turns into a success or a failure, whether the neoconservatives triumph or whether the neoconservatives fail, the left-liberal ideas that fascism means war and that people have a right to be rescued will not go down without a fight.

Order Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists from

Post-script: I wrote this article for money, but I never got paid because it did not find a home. If you feel like pitching in a few bucks, which will go toward travel expenses in Baghdad, I promise not to get mad.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:34 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

Street Clashes in Northern Lebanon

by Michael J. Totten

Syria's Bashar Assad ratchets up his war against Lebanon using the Palestinian terrorist organization Fatah Al Islam as his proxy to trigger the biggest street battles in the city of Tripoli since the civil war ended. Abu Kais explains.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, another car bomb exploded in the Achrafieh neighborhood of East Beirut and killed a 67 year-old woman.

UPDATE: If you want to know why Syria does what it does in Lebanon, read Tony Badran.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:37 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

The Case Against Withdrawal

by Michael J. Totten

I will admit that sometimes I am this close to deciding the US should withdraw from Iraq. Honestly, I do not expect we will succeed there, not because we can't but because not enough of us want to in the time it would take. We might not succeed after even ten years. I do not know, and I'm working on a long essay now about what I think the least disastrous way to withdraw would be. (To Kurdistan, basically, and lose only part of Iraq instead of all of it -- a Korean war style exit instead of a Vietnam War style exit.)

Frederick Kagan makes the best case against withdrawing at all. Tempting as it is to cut our losses, I cannot argue with this.

Please don't leave comments until you have read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:29 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

May 18, 2007

Good and Bad Mainstream Journalism

by Michael J. Totten

I'm a bit slow with the blogging right now because I'm writing two long magazine articles that are taking up most of my time. Once these are out of the way, or at least when I have some breathing space before my deadlines, I'll have some more original material for you.

In the meantime, two articles I read today stand out.

The first is a critique by Jonathan Foreman of mainsteam media reporting out of Afghanistan, which he says at times recklessly damages Western armies fighting the Taliban there.

The accusation that 21st-century German soldiers were desecrating Muslim graves was a possibility transmuted into fact by a media that all too often — consciously or unconsciously — assumes the worst of Coalition forces and their mission in Afghanistan.

First of all, it was far from clear from the photos and initial reports whether the bones in question had been dug up by the soldiers or merely found on the ground. It is not hard to find skulls littering the rocky earth in the Konduz area where the Germans have their main base. The wrecked vehicles scattered about Konduz bear witness to the many battles fought in this part of Afghanistan over the years. Indeed, though the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban on a number of occasions here, it is most likely that any skulls the Germans found were actually those of Soviet troops — the mujahedeen did not usually trouble themselves to bury the bodies of their slain enemies. In other words, the remains that the Germans posed with were probably neither Muslim nor obtained by grave robbing, but had been bleaching under the sun for up to two decades before they inspired a juvenile digital photo-op.

The damage, however, was done. Though the “atrocity” might one day be refuted — most likely in some little-publicized investigation that takes months to unfold — the news had flashed around the world that German Coalition troops were treating Muslim corpses with contempt. The Western journalists who reported the story with such concerned relish may not have realized that by treating the photographs as prima facie evidence of a genuine scandal they were undermining the Coalition in Afghanistan, supporting the myth of “Islamophobia,” and fomenting anti-Western hatred. They probably thought they were just doing their jobs in the normal, “neutral” fashion.

Beating up on the mainstream media isn't a hobbyhorse of mine, though. Some journalists do a very good job. Here is a report on the tinderbox of Kirkuk, Iraq -- a subject I know something about -- that is excellent.


Sunni-based insurgent groups want to exploit the tension and ignite a broader war, Browder says. The groups operate from nearby Arab villages and often target police patrols or offices of the two main Kurdish parties, he says.

Browder's biggest concern is a large-scale bomb attack on a civilian Kurdish area, such as a market, he says.

That likely would trigger Kurdish leaders to send battalions of the well-armed Kurdish militia, the peshmerga ("those who do not fear death"), into Arab areas of Kirkuk. A sectarian battle similar to the Shiite vs. Sunni violence in Baghdad then could erupt, further complicating efforts to stabilize the country.

Sunni insurgents have been hesitant to cross that line, Browder says. The reason is a mystery, but he says they might be scared of peshmerga reprisals.

"The terrorist organizations know what buttons to push," he says. "They understand what the no-penetration line is."


Some Kurdish leaders have threatened to withdraw from the federal government in Baghdad if the referendum is not conducted on time. Al-Maliki's coalition depends on Kurdish support to keep its majority in parliament and could collapse if the Kurds leave.

Mahmoud Othman, a leading Kurdish member of parliament, says any delay is unacceptable. "We're not flexible. It has been four years," Othman says.

The whole thing is worth reading. Kirkuk gets little media attention, but it could potentially turn into the most violent -- and significant -- city in the entire country. Several foreign powers in the region have a stake in that city. They don't call it Iraq's "Jerusalem" for nothing. If it truly blows -- watch out. Especially if the US is no longer around.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:47 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

May 16, 2007

Another Hostage in Iran

By Noah Pollak

Haleh Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, and in December of last year she traveled to Iran to visit her ailing mother. In a statement on its website, the Wilson Center explains that in late December, “on her way to the airport to catch a flight back to Washington, the taxi in which Dr. Esfandiari was riding was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men. They took away her baggage and handbag, including her Iranian and American passports.” Her visit to a passport office four days later instigated six weeks of interrogations. Last Monday, just over a week ago, she was arrested and taken to the notorious Evin prison, where she stands accused of being a Mossad agent, a U.S. spy, and of trying to foment revolution inside Iran -- the same charges that were leveled at the American embassy staff in 1979 when it was taken hostage.

One might think that at this heady moment of entente with the Iranian regime, when American officials are expected to meet with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq, members of the media and political classes would have their diplomatic seismographs particularly attuned to the signals emanating from Iran. Yet that appears to not be the case: the Esfandiari abduction has been downplayed, and almost as appalling as the scant attention the story has received is the tepidness of the comments from those who have broached the matter.

The Washington Post’s editorial page, which can usually be relied upon for relatively sound judgment on foreign affairs, wrote on Friday that “Arresting an Iranian American scholar is no way to win the world’s respect,” and concluded its mushy, insipid statement by boldly reemphasizing that Esfandiari's imprisonment is causing the world to “lose respect for Iran.” One might start by noting that the question of the world’s respect for Iran was settled almost 30 years ago, when the regime held the staff of the U.S. embassy hostage for fifteen months. I’m not sure what’s more troubling: that among the editorialists of the Post there are apparently reserves of “respect” remaining for Iran, or that the same editorialists appear to believe that losing the world’s “respect” (whatever that entails) is actually a source of apprehension for the mullahs. Indeed, isn’t the ideology of the Iranian Revolution founded quite explicitly on disrespect for the West? Hasn’t the entire question of “respect” been long settled, given that for thirty years Death to America! has been a central organizing principle of the regime?

Several politicians have also weighed in, and they haven’t done any better. In a statement sure to send an ominous chill across the Iranian political establishment, Barak Obama announced that "If the Iranian government has any desire to engage the world in dialogue, it can demonstrate that desire by releasing this champion of dialogue from detention." Haleh Esfandiari’s senators, Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, asked Iran to make a “gesture of goodwill” to the American people by releasing their latest hostage. Respect, dialogue, gestures of goodwill. I’ll bring my acoustic guitar and some big fluffy pillows and we can do a sing-along for Ahmadinejad.

I probably shouldn’t be so flippant. Aside from the fact that Esfandiari’s detention brings the number of American citizens being held by Iran to three, there is a deeper problem, and that is the apparent inability of American elites to grasp why the regime continues to take hostages. The Washington Post and LA Times editorials, not to mention many of the politicians who have spoken on the matter, seem to take Ahmadinejad seriously when he claims to desire the world’s respect and express their befuddlement when the mullahs do something audacious and cruel that will undermine Iran’s ability to cultivate that respect -- like imprisoning a well-known, well-connected scholar.

So, let us ask: Why does Iran abduct British sailors and marines, supply weaponry to insurgents in Iraq, imprison American scholars, and take so much delight in repeatedly doing things that frighten and bewilder the western world? The answer is to be found in the Iranian conception of the significance of its revolution and its relationship to the West, especially to America. In the eyes of the revolutionaries, the overthrow of the American-backed shah in 1979 was a supreme victory, proof not only of the revolution’s divine ordination but of America’s weakness and the ease with which the great power could be disgraced (at least through its allies). Having succeeded in expelling the shah, the radicals believed that the United States should be next. And it was: the assault on the U.S. embassy in Tehran happened only nine months after Ayatollah Khomeini’s arrival in Iran.

And the hostage-takers and the government that sponsored them never paid a serious price for the ensuing fifteen-month humiliation of the United States. Iran has also never paid for its various assassinations and bombings in Europe, the murder of hundreds of American marines and French soldiers in Lebanon in 1983, the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, its lavish funding of Hezbollah and destabilization of Lebanon, the abduction of the British sailors, its nuclear program, and so on. In other words, the Iranian regime, since the first day of its existence, has seen its every provocation go unanswered -- which has perfectly reinforced its conviction that the West, and America in particular, is a brittle facade, economically powerful and technologically sophisticated but weak-willed, indecisive, risk-averse, and easily intimidated.

And so all the fretting about “respect” and “dialogue” amount to more than just comforting creations of the western imagination and impositions of a hoped-for reality. For the Iranian regime they are yet another layer of evidence vindicating a set of beliefs about America's inability to stand up for its interests -- or even for its citizens. Meanwhile, inquiry into the more plausible sources of Iran’s actions, such as the regime's ideological contempt for America and its need to demonstrate revolutionary strength and western weakness, continues to be avoided. In 1981, after the American embassy hostages had finally been released, Iran’s chief negotiator said, “We rubbed dirt in the nose of the world’s greatest superpower.” His comrades are no doubt saying the same thing today about their newest hostage, Haleh Esfandiari.

Posted by Noah Pollak at 2:14 PM | Permalink | 4 Comments »

May 14, 2007


From Appeal for Courage. Hat tip: Instapundit.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:14 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

May 13, 2007

Assad Getting Desperate, Belligerent

by Michael J. Totten

From Lebanon's Naharnet:

Syrian President Bashar Assad has threatened to set the region on fire, from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, over differences with the United Nations regarding Lebanon's stability.

The independent daily newspaper an-Nahar quoted well informed diplomatic circles as saying Assad made the threat last Wednesday in a telephone discussion with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The sources, according to the paper spoke of a "heated dialogue" between Assad and Ban, during which the Syrian President "threatened to set the region on fire, from the Caspian to the Mediterranean."

The focus of the telephone discussion was creation of the international tribunal that will try suspects in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese ex-Premier Rafik Hariri and related crimes, the report explained.

First Assad threatened to burn Lebanon. Now he's threatening to burn the whole Middle East.

Assad truly believes a conviction against his regime in a United Nations tribunal will be the first step toward a UN-approved American-led regime-change in Syria. He has no idea that the American appetite for such an adventure is somewhere near zero, but he really is scared to death of it.

He would rather (at least threaten) to turn the region into a fireball than have his regime be accountable for murders in Lebanon under international law. Those who wish to negotiate with this man should take note.

UPDATE: See also Abu Kais, who has more time to think and write about this right now than I do.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:03 PM | Permalink | Comments Off
« Older Entries | Newer Entries »

Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Read my blog on Kindle

Sponsored Links

Buy a used boat

Shanghai Hotels

Yachts for sale

Recommended Reading