March 31, 2010

An Unusual Alignment of Interests

More than any other Arab head of state in the world, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has mastered the art of telling listeners what they want to hear.

Last week, he said his country is fully committed to peace in the Middle East, though he worries the Israel government isn’t. He knows this is what bien pensants in the West like to believe. He knows they find it refreshing that he can talk like a liberal while Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten apocalypse.

He also knows how to talk like the right kind of hardliner. Yesterday, he condemned the double suicide-bombing in Moscow’s underground metro and urged the international community to “fight terror around the globe.”

It’s no wonder, then, that some in Washington, Paris, and even Jerusalem think he’s a man they can do business with. All they have to do is convince him that his alliance with Iran is counterproductive, that it runs contrary to his self-evident interests and public pronouncements.

Syria, though, is the most aggressive state sponsor of terrorism in the world after Iran. Assad doesn’t even try to keep up the pretense when he isn’t preening before peace processors. Last week, he said Israel only understands force — a statement perfectly in line with his behavior. And just two days ago, he and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi urged the Palestinian Authority to scrap negotiations with Israel and return to its terrorist roots.

It’s hard to say if Western diplomats and foreign policy makers are actually suckered in by his act or if they’re just playing along because doing so suits them. Either way, they’d be wise to ignore him even when he makes the right noises and pay a little more heed to what other Arab leaders are saying instead. Their interests are far more in line with ours than Assad’s are.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:56 AM | Permalink | 19 Comments »

March 30, 2010

Palestinian Journalists Blacklistsed

Those who believe peace in the Middle East may be just around the corner need to think long and hard about this.

Palestinian journalists who last week met with their Israeli colleagues and an IDF spokesman in Tel Aviv have come under fire from both Hamas and Fatah.

The trip was arranged by the non-profit Israel advocacy group The Israel Project, whose Web site described the group as “an international non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel while promoting security, freedom and peace.”

The journalists met with Maj. Avichai Edri, head of the Arabic-language branch of the IDF Spokesman’s Office.

Three of the journalists -- Lana Shaheen, Mueen al-Hilu and Abdel Salam Abu Askar -- are from the Gaza Strip, while another two are from the West Bank.

They now face expulsion from the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Journalists Syndicate on charges of promoting normalization with Israel.


One of the groups, the Democratic Press Association, called on the journalists to “repent” and express publicly apologize for visiting the “Zionist entity and meeting with Zionist reporters.”

No one has ever demanded I "repent" or apologize for visiting an Arab country or meeting with Arab spokesman or colleagues. I even lived in an Arab country and would do so again, and not a single American has ever accused me of being a traitor. I haven't even been mildly criticized for it. I'm not Israeli, of course, but I know Israeli journalists who have worked in Arab countries and have Arab friends, and they don't face these kinds of problems at home.

If I were blacklisted out of my profession for visiting, say, Lebanon or Iraq, I wouldn't want to live in America anymore.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:17 PM | Permalink | 43 Comments »

Quote of the Day

The present conflict seems to me to be following the twentieth-century pattern exactly, with one variation: the antiliberal side right now, instead of Communist, Nazi, Catholic, or Fascist, happens to be radical Arab nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist. Over the last several decades, a variety of movements have arisen in the Arab and Islamic countries--a radical nationalism (Baath socialist, Marxist, pan-Arab, and so forth) and a series of Islamist movements (meaning Islamic fundamentalism in a political version). The movements have varied hugely and have even gone to war with one another--Iran's Shiite Islamists versus Iraq's Baath socialists, like Hitler and Stalin slugging it out. The Islamists give the impression of having wandered into modern life from the 13th century, and the Baathist and Marxist nationalisms have tried to seem modern and even futuristic.

But all of those movements have followed, each in its fashion, the twentieth-century pattern. They are antiliberal insurgencies. They have identified a people of the good, who are the Arabs or Muslims. They believe that their own societies have been infested with a hideous inner corruption, which must be rooted out. They observe that the inner infestation is supported by powerful external forces. And they gird their swords. Their thinking is apocalyptic. They imagine that at the end they, too, will succeed in establishing a blocklike, unchanging society, freed of the inner corruption--a purified society: the victory of good. They are the heirs of the twentieth-century totalitarians. Bush said that in his address to Congress on September 20, and he was right.

It is worth remarking how often an antipathy for the Jews has recurred in these various movements over the years. Nazi paranoia about the Jews was an extreme case, but it would be a mistake to suppose that Nazism was alone in this. At the end of his life, Stalin, the anti-Nazi, is thought to have been likewise planning a general massacre of the Jews, of which the "doctors' plot" was a foretaste. The Nazi paranoia, just like Stalin's, was owed strictly to ancient superstitions and especially to psychological fears--the fears that were sparked by the mere existence of a minority population that seemed incapable of blending into the seamless, blocklike perfect society of the future. The Arab radical and Islamist antipathy to the Jews naturally displays a somewhat different quality, given that, this time, the Jews do have a state of their own. And where there is power, conflicts are bound to be more than imaginary. No one can doubt that Palestinians do have grievances and that the grievances are infuriating. Israel has produced its share of thugs and even mass-murdering terrorists. It has even managed, at this of all moments, to choose as its leader Ariel Sharon, whose appreciation of Arab and Islamic sensibilities appears to be zero. In these ways, the Israelis have done their share to keep the pot boiling.

Even so, how can it be that, after 120 years of Arab-Zionist conflict and more than 50 years of a Jewish state, the hostility to Israel seems to have remained more or less constant? For Israel's borders have been broad, but have also been narrow; its leaders have been hawkish and contemptuous, but have also been dovish and courteous; there have been West Bank settlements, and no West Bank settlements; proposals for common projects for mutual benefit, and no proposals. There have even been times, such as the 1980s, before the Russian immigration, when most of Israel's Jewish population consisted of people who had fled to Israel from the Arab world itself, instead of from Europe. And not even then, in a period when Israel, in its dusky-skinned authenticity, could claim to be a genuinely third-world nation, did the Israelis win any wider or warmer acceptance. Why was that, and why is it still?

It is because the anti-Zionist hostility may rest partly on the hard terrain of negotiable grievances; but mostly it goes floating along on the same airy currents of myth and dread that proved so irresistible to Nazis in the past. The anti-Zionist hostility draws on a feeling that Arab and Islamic society has been polluted by an impure infestation that needs to be rooted out. The hostility draws, that is, on a lethal combination of utopian yearning and superstitious fear--the yearning for a new society cleansed of ethnic and religious difference, together with a fear of a diabolical minority population. Does that sound like an unfair or tendentious description of Middle Eastern anti-Zionism? The curses of the clerics, the earnest remarks of the presidents of Syria and Iraq and other countries, the man-in-the-street interviews that keep appearing in the press and on radio--these are not pretty to quote. Even now the newspapers in parts of the Islamic world are full of stories claiming that the World Trade Center was attacked by (of course) a Jewish conspiracy. And so, the Arab and Islamic world burns with hatred for Israel in part because of issues that are factual, but mostly because of issues that are phantasmagorical.

From Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:36 PM | Permalink | 31 Comments »

March 24, 2010

The Innocents Pack for Damascus

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth about Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria's Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:08 AM | Permalink | 69 Comments »

March 23, 2010

The Wealth and Health of Nations

Take a look at Hans Rosling's extraordinary graphic presentation of advancement in the wealth and health of nations.

If you like that, take a look at the interactive version at his Gapminder Web site.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:55 PM | Permalink | 31 Comments »

March 22, 2010

The Resistance Bloc Will Not Be Appeased

Hezbollah’s reaction to Israel’s plan to build 1,600 apartments in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem might help President Barack Obama understand something that has so far eluded him: the Syrian-Iranian-Hamas-Hezbollah resistance bloc will not allow him to appease it.

“The scheme is yet another part of a Judaization campaign,” Hezbollah said in a statement quoted by the Tehran Times, “that targets the holy city of al-Quds [Jerusalem] and a provocation of Muslim feeling.” If Obama expected a little appreciation from Israel’s enemies for making the same point with more diplomatic finesse, he was mistaken. “The Zionist plan to construct hundreds of homes in al-Quds,” Hezbollah continued, “truly shows American cover to it.”

So not only is Obama denied credit for standing up to Israel’s government, he is accused of doing precisely the opposite.

Anti-Americanism is ideological oxygen for partisans of the resistance bloc. They will no sooner let it go than they will stop breathing. Their entire worldview and political program would turn to ashes without it, much as Fidel Castro’s would without socialism. When the United States doesn’t follow the script, they just lie.

If we extend a hand in friendship, they’ll bite it and try to chew off a finger. If we take their side once in a while to appear evenhanded, they’ll twist the truth until it looks like a sinister plot, then they’ll bite us again.

A couple of years ago Hezbollah stretched a banner across an overpass near Lebanon’s international airport that said, in English, “All our catastrophes come from America.” Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah would have an awfully hard time climbing down from that high a tree even if his Iranian masters would let him — and they won’t. They’ve been calling Israel the “Little Satan” and the U.S. the “Great Satan” since Jimmy Carter, of all people, was president.

The resistance bloc would remain viciously anti-American even if the United States declared war on Israel and bombed Tel Aviv. Maybe — maybe — that wouldn’t be true if the U.S. were the little Satan instead of the great Satan, but even then it probably wouldn’t matter that much. Resistance-bloc leaders, like anyone else in the world, may enjoy watching their enemies slugging it out with each other, but that doesn’t mean they’ll warm to one or the other all of a sudden because of it.

That’s how the Iran-Iraq war looked to us in the 1980s. It was a “red on red” fight where two regimes we detested bloodied and weakened each other. Henry Kissinger summed up the sentiment on our side: “It’s too bad they can’t both lose.”

And that’s how the American-led invasion of Iraq looked from the point of view of Iran’s rulers in 2003. They had every reason in the world to hate Saddam Hussein more than anyone else in the world. His army killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians in an eight-year war he started less than a year after Ayatollah Khomeini became Supreme Leader. (Israel, meanwhile, has never fought a war with Iran and hasn’t killed any Iranians.) Yet the United States earned no points whatsoever for taking out their most dangerous enemy and placing their Shia co-religionists in the saddle in Baghdad.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:38 AM | Permalink | 84 Comments »

March 18, 2010

Libya Still a Basket Case

Every now and then I read an article somewhere by someone who just returned from Libya and says the country is much more open and in much better shape than it was recently. I never believe these articles. They seem to be describing an alternate universe. When I visited Qaddafi's mad outdoor laboratory myself not long ago, the place stank so badly of oppression that I can only imagine improvement being measured over decades, not years, and that it can't begin in earnest until somebody else is in charge.

Maybe I'm wrong. I haven't been there for six years, and even Soviet-style countries aren't entirely static. Michael Moynihan's dispatch from Libya in Reason magazine, though, describes the exact same miserably ideological basket case state that I saw in 2004.

His piece is as entertaining as it is educational, and I recommend it to you whole heartedly. Here's a taste.

Tripoli, Libya—Perhaps I overestimated the bien-pensant British understanding of “modernity.” When the BBC reported that “at Tripoli’s ultra-modern airport…you could be almost anywhere in the world,” I expected at bare minimum a Starbucks, a fake Irish pub, and (this is the ultra bit) a bank of vending machines dispensing iPods and noise-canceling headphones.

Well, perhaps we came through Libya’s spillover airport, its Midway or Stansted, because this is “anywhere in the world” only in some mad, dystopian-novel sense. Available for purchase are Egyptian gum, cheap watches celebrating 40 years of the Libyan revolution, and glossy magazines with Hugo Chavez on the cover. Sinister men in baggy uniforms, all puffing Marlboros, shout at each other and disappear with my passport. I later find out this bit of theater was required because I possess a passport stamp from Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. After some discussion, my personal government apparatchik informs the entire staff of Libyan customs that, on orders from high, this particular learned elder of Zion can be allowed through.


Libya ought to at least resemble a wealthy country, with its vast oil reserves and all those desperate politicians willing to do almost anything in exchange for access to them. Yet Tripoli is covered from end to end in garbage. Among the few benefits of living in a dictatorship, I had presumed, were that the trains run on time, crime is low, and armies of revolutionary trash collectors ensure that tourists tell their friends the country might not have elections but is at least exceptionally clean.

Remove the oil economy, and it isn’t entirely clear what Libyans do for money. The only shops I spot are selling either vegetables or cigarettes, sometimes both. There are markets trading in all manner of junk: old sewing machines, toilets, fake perfume (Hugo Boos seems particularly popular). The most frequently promoted product (aside from the ubiquitous face of Qaddafi staring down from countless billboards) is, inexplicably, corn oil. After decades of crippling trade sanctions under an aging and increasingly batty dictator, and with no tourism industry to speak of, Libya’s economy is a shambles. In their latest Index of Economic Freedom, the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal rank the country 171st out of 179, only slightly edging out the Union of the Comoros and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Besides sucking the economic life out of Tripoli, Qaddafi determined that the capital city, once a playground for Italian and British colonizers, must also be denuded of fun. Alcohol, which for years helped people forget they lived in Libya, is prohibited. Nonalcoholic beer is available in our hotel (a five-star, though it appears to have been graded on a curve), but only to placate (or taunt) the few Western visitors who pass through. The pious Muslims of Libya are not unlike vegetarians, surrounding themselves with pointless facsimiles of the forbidden, from beef bacon to bottles of booze with all the booze removed.

No matter how hard governments try, though, it is increasingly difficult to close a country to all malignant Western cultural influences. The tighter the controls, the more pedestrian the content that sneaks through. Libyan teenagers have scrawled “50 Cent” and “Tupac” throughout Tripoli’s largest souk. On a crumbling yellow wall outside a bootleg DVD shop, someone was inspired—doubtless by a contraband hip-hop CD—to scribble “fuck yo” in defiance of nothing much at all. Inside the DVD shop, the Hollywood film Fat Albert is available for a few dollars—popular, presumably, because the title character, like most Libyans, lives in a junk yard.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:54 AM | Permalink | 16 Comments »

March 17, 2010

Syria and Iran Think We’re the Sick Horse

Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse (which is still required reading for those of you who haven't yet ordered your copy) pens a smart piece for Slate that ought to be required reading for Obama Administration officials who don't want to fritter away what influence the U.S. has left in the Middle East.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:55 PM | Permalink | 64 Comments »

Good Advice, Indeed

I have to agree with Noah Pollak that David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy has good advice for our president.

"Tough on your friends, weak with your enemies" is neither a common trait among great leaders nor is it a particularly good campaign bumper sticker.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:33 AM | Permalink | 22 Comments »
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