May 30, 2005

The Empty Quarter

I don’t live in the West. I live on the West Coast. The West, somewhat counterintuitively, is east of here. It’s on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, away from the cities linked up to the Asian side of the Pacific Rim, in the desert, in cowboy country, the place Joel Garreau dubbed The Empty Quarter in his book The Nine Nations of North America.

That’s where I went over Memorial Day weekend. It’s where you should go if you want to go camping on a holiday and get away from the screaming children, the RVs, and the jerk who thinks it's okay to listen to ball games on the radio twenty feet from your tent.

Landscape Near Fossil Oregon.jpg

Head east from Portland over Mount Hood and the landscape dramatically changes. You can still find some trees, but you won’t find anything that looks like a rainforest.

Shaniko Bank.jpg

It’s dry enough on Oregon’s eastern side that buildings in ghost towns like Shaniko have not yet disintegrated.

Strawberry Mountains Sunset.jpg

Some people in Portland don’t like Eastern Oregon. There’s nothing out there, they say. Yes there is. There is sky.

Road Through Green Desert.jpg

Behold the green desert in spring time.

Spring Rains Water the Desert.jpg

This landscape is white in the winter. It’s brown in the summer and fall. But right now it’s green. Almost all of Oregon is green in April and May.

Green Desert Near Fields.jpg

In August 1998 National Geographic published a terrific story on what they called Oregon’s Outback. I had never been there when I read it. Imagine that. An outdoors-loving person like me discovers a part of his own state in a national magazine. But that’s how it goes around here. Hardly anyone who lives in Portland ever goes out there. They don’t even know what it looks like because hardly anyone bothers to photograph it. The outback does not appear on our postcards.

I decided I had to go out there when I read that the landscape terrifies people. It’s so open and empty. You can walk 50 miles in a straight line and not even see a single telephone pole. The southeastern corner is, in fact, the least densely populated part of the lower 48 states.

Lone Tree.jpg

There’s something about a lone tree for miles around that demands I take a picture. I don’t know why, but I just had to.

Lake Alvord.jpg

Lake Alvord only exists for a couple of months. It’s hardpan the rest of the year.

Steens Mountain.jpg

You can see parts of four states (Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and California) from the top of Steens Mountain.

Alvord in May.jpg

Some parts of Oregon are arid even in spring time. When people say “back of beyond” this, I believe, it where they’re talking about. Hardly anyone lives here near the Alvord Desert at all. It is the desert of the desert. Those who do live around here came from the Basque country in Spain.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:40 PM

May 26, 2005

Gone Camping

Back Monday.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:13 PM

May 25, 2005

The Gulag of Our Times

Christopher Hitchens has written with great force against the “giggling sadists” who have abused those unlucky enough to be captured and detained by the wrong US soldiers and guards in Iraq.

One of two things must necessarily be true. Either these goons were acting on someone's authority, in which case there is a layer of mid- to high-level people who think that they are not bound by the laws and codes and standing orders. Or they were acting on their own authority, in which case they are the equivalent of mutineers, deserters, or traitors in the field. This is why one asks wistfully if there is no provision in the procedures of military justice for them to be taken out and shot.
One reason he is able to write these kinds of sentences without being dismissed as a knee-jerker is because, well, he isn’t a knee-jerker. He doesn’t exaggerate, he doesn’t describe as torture things which aren’t torture, and he doesn’t wallow in moral equivalency.

Recently he wrote the following about the Koran-in-a-toilet story:

For whatever it's worth, I know and admire both John Barry and Michael Isikoff, and I can quite imagine that—based on what they had already learned about the gruesome and illegal goings-on at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib—they found it more than plausible that the toilet incident, or something like it, had actually occurred. A second allegation, that a whole pile of Qurans had been stepped upon at Guantanamo, is equally credible. But mere objectivity requires us to note that this is partly because every prisoner is given a Quran, and that thus there are a lot of them lying around, and that none of this “scandal” would ever have occurred if the prison authorities were not at least attempting to respect Islamic codes.
This is pitch-perfect. It’s exactly the sort of thing those of us who are repulsed by prisoner abuse, vastly-milder “Koran abuse,” extraordinary rendition, and all the rest of it need to make it all stop – or at least be properly condemned and punished wherever and whenever it is uncovered.

What we don’t need are hysterical heavy-breathers like Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International, describing the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the gulag of our times as she did in the foreword to the group’s latest annual report.

I have read some of the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And I once (briefly) met a man who survived both a Nazi concentration camp and one of Stalin’s slave labor camps in Siberia. It would be a bit much to say I “know” the gulag, but I do have a bit of a clue about what went on there. It was no Guantanamo, as anyone who has ever bothered to study the subject well knows. For one thing, if Guantanamo were the new gulag, Irene Khan would be languishing in it herself right about now – and so would her family.

But she isn’t, she never will be, and she knows it. What she doesn’t know is the gulag.

I once said of Senator James (more outraged by the outrage) Inhofe of Oklahoma that “it takes a special kind of person, really it does, to think anger at torture is worse than torture.” All Irene Khan is doing here is encouraging the Inhofes of the world by crying “wolf” instead of properly crying foul. It is, as a certain Secretary of Defense would put it, not helpful.

Anyway, the gulag of our times is in North Korea.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:19 PM

May 24, 2005

Resolving the Clash of Civilizations

My new Tech Central Station column is up: Resolving the Clash of Civilizations. Don't miss this one.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:19 PM

Soft Bigotry

Christopher Hitchens isn’t very impressed with an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal over the weekend.

That great religion expert Kenneth Woodward, who used to write with extreme lenience on such subjects as miracles (for Newsweek, as it happens), has now written a solemn article for the Wall Street Journal saying that Muslims revere the Quran, or “recitation,” much, much more than Christians revere the Bible. The Bible is only a first draft of God's will, set down by mere mortals, whereas the Quran is the unmediated word of God himself. No wonder, then, that pious Muslims will hear of a Newsweek capsule story, assume it to be infallible, and immediately begin to kill and burn. What could be more understandable?

Well, first, most Muslims did not do any such thing, and those who did should not be indulged in the Wall Street Journal.

No kidding. That’s exactly what Mr. Woodward does in his piece. He indulges the thugs.
Three-and-a-half years after 9/11, you would think that we Americans would get it: Muslims take their religion very, very seriously. Now 17 people are dead, Afghanistan is on edge, and there are protests in Pakistan, our most vulnerable and valuable ally among Muslim states—in part, it seems, because of six words in a brief item in Newsweek magazine.

See where he places the blame? The blame is on us. Those who actually killed 17 people are given a pass. Why? Because they’re Muslims. Apparently, in Mr. Woodward’s universe, that’s how Muslims behave - and that behavior is not going to change. This is what we Americans are going to have to “get.”

Well, I call bullshit on Woodward. Those people didn’t riot because they’re Muslims. (How many riots were there in Tunis, Istanbul, Beirut, and Casablanca? Zero, as far as I know.) They rioted because they’re intolerant xenophobic ignorant bumpkins.

Hitchens is right when he later implies that if a mob of their Christian equivalents were to go on a murderous rampage over “Piss Christ” (or whatever else) the Wall Street Journal would never excuse them by saying “The Christians do love their Jesus.” If the Journal were to write such a thing, Christians would have every right to be just offended all over again. Hundreds of millions of people can’t be fairly defined by the behavior of a violent fanatical fringe.

Woodward and his ilk are trying to be nice to Muslims when they make these kinds of excuses. But their view of the people of Islam is no more “enlightened” than what I hear on the radio from vituperative hate-mongers like Michael Savage. Moderate Muslims don’t count or sometimes even exist in their view. Only the nutters do.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:41 PM

May 23, 2005

The Post Blows It

A reader sent me an article by Annia Ciezadlo in the Washington Post called Lebanon’s Election: Free but Not Fair.

I thought I would like it. I wanted to like it, especially after I read the first couple of sentences.

Every week, my husband and I take a rickety old taxi to Hezbollah country. The emerald city of downtown Beirut, with its glittering luxury towers, drops away behind us; ruined buildings, their shell-shocked hulks festooned with laundry, loom ahead like ghost ships.
I took that very trip only a month ago. And I must say her description of what it’s like to arrive in Hezbollahland is just perfect.

But the rest of the piece didn’t sit right with me at all. Some stories about Lebanon have a certain, shall we say, smell to them. This story is one of them.

I forwarded it to my friend in Beirut at the Lebanese Political Journal and asked for his feedback. He’s the one who drove me down to Hezbollahland when I went down there. He didn’t like it. At all. And he ripped it to pieces.

His critique is worth reading for two reasons. One, you’ll learn a lot about Lebanese history. Two, it just goes to show how utterly wrong you can be and still get published in the Washington Post.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:41 PM

May 22, 2005


Marcus Cicero says he’s in purgatory for now, stranded somewhere between the political left and the political right because neither deserves his loyalty. I know how he feels.

The political right isn't much fun. And yet life-long lefties like Keith Thompson at the San Francisco Chronicle are still abandoning the fold, even after the 2004 election, for reasons that I am entirely sympathetic with.
Eight-million Iraqi voters have finished risking their lives to endorse freedom and defy fascism. Three things happen in rapid succession. The right cheers. The left demurs. I walk away from a long-term intimate relationship. I'm separating not from a person but a cause: the political philosophy that for more than three decades has shaped my character and consciousness, my sense of self and community, even my sense of cosmos. I'm leaving the left — more precisely, the American cultural left and what it has become during our time together.

I choose this day for my departure because I can no longer abide the simpering voices of self-styled progressives — people who once championed solidarity with oppressed populations everywhere — reciting all the ways Iraq's democratic experiment might yet implode.


One aspect of my politics hasn't changed a bit. I became a liberal in the first place to break from the repressive group orthodoxies of my reactionary hometown.

This past January, my liberalism was in full throttle when I bid the cultural left goodbye to escape a new version of that oppressiveness. I departed with new clarity about the brilliance of liberal democracy and the value system it entails; the quest for freedom as an intrinsically human affair; and the dangers of demands for conformity and adherence to any point of view through silence, fear, or coercion.

True, it took a while to see what was right before my eyes. A certain misplaced loyalty kept me from grasping that a view of individuals as morally capable of and responsible for making the principle decisions that shape their lives is decisively at odds with the contemporary left's entrance-level view of people as passive and helpless victims of powerful external forces, hence political wards who require the continuous shepherding of caretaker elites.

Leftists who no longer speak of the duties of citizens, but only of the rights of clients, cannot be expected to grasp the importance (not least to our survival) of fostering in the Middle East the crucial developmental advances that gave rise to our own capacity for pluralism, self-reflection, and equality. A left averse to making common cause with competent, self- determining individuals — people who guide their lives on the basis of received values, everyday moral understandings, traditional wisdom, and plain common sense — is a faction that deserves the marginalization it has pursued with such tenacity for so many years.

All of which is why I have come to believe, and gladly join with others who have discovered for themselves, that the single most important thing a genuinely liberal person can do now is walk away from the house the left has built. The renewal of any tradition that deserves the name “progressive” becomes more likely with each step in a better direction.
Plenty more where that came from, so read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:57 PM

May 20, 2005

Saddam Hussein Exposed

The Sun is in trouble for publishing this:


The US military has condemned the Sun for publishing photographs of a captive Saddam Hussein and said it was “aggressively” investigating who took them.

Today's paper carries a series of photographs showing the former Iraqi dictator in his cell, including one on the front page showing him in his underwear. Another shows him washing clothes under the headline “Tyrant? He's washed up”.

The Sun says it obtained the photos from “US military sources” who handed them over “in the hope of dealing a body blow to the resistance in Iraq”.

“Saddam is not superman or God, he is now just an ageing and humble old man,” the paper quotes its source as saying. “It's important that the people of Iraq see him like that to destroy the myth.”
I guess the U.S. military should at least go through the motions of looking into this. But I doubt anyone outside George (wide boy) Galloway's circles are going to get bent out of shape about it.

Galloway and Saddam.jpg

(Reuters caption: George Galloway is pictured speaking in Baghdad during a conference on solidarity with Iraq in September [2002].)

UPDATE: Yahoo news headline: Bush promises probe into Saddam underwear pictures. I would have written that another way myself.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:25 PM

May 19, 2005

The U.S. and Lebanon

Yesterday I linked to a post at the Lebanese Political Journal that briefly mentioned how U.S. foreign policy intersected with the Cedar Revolution. Today the lead writer at the site, who uses the psuedonym Lebanon.Profile, wrote a longer essay that focuses specifically on this very question.

Read it. Read the whole thing. Whether you're politically left, right, dovish, or hawkish, I can almost guarantee you'll be surprised by at least part of what he has to say. Things look different in Lebanon than they do in America. But don't take my word for it. Get it straight from the source.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:03 PM

Compliment to Readers

A guy who goes by “Mike #3 or 4” left the following comment on the thread beneath this post. I thought it was funny and felt like sharing.

I have enjoyed reading a comment list with posters from each “team” and even some internationals (what up Spain and Lebanon!). As far as I can tell from the comments on this blog most people are “moderate”. The people on the “left” do not want to destroy America and make everyone have abortions and the people on the “right” are not trying to make everyone go to church and kill non-whitey.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:24 PM

May 18, 2005

Cedar Revolution Exported to Syria

Recently I wrote the following in a Tech Central Station column:

Anti-regime protests in Syria were unthinkable just a few weeks ago. They aren't any more, not because Syria is more open to dissent than other Middle Eastern countries — it's arguably the most oppressive state in the region now that Saddam's regime has been dismantled — but because the Lebanese protests and Assad's cringing response prove he is far more vulnerable than almost everyone thought. He doesn't win every battle. He can lose and his enemies don't even have to fire a shot. This is news in Lebanon, and it is news in Syria. If he loses the showdown in Beirut — and he's well on his way to doing just that — he might find he's facing one in Damascus.
And so it comes to pass. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution is reverberating powerfully inside Syria. If the Baath regime falls in Damascus as it did in Beirut, chalk Syria up as a domino.
Beset by U.S. attempts to isolate his country and facing popular expectations of change, Syrian President Bashar Assad will move to begin legalizing political parties, purge the ruling Baath Party, sponsor free municipal elections in 2007 and formally endorse a market economy, according to officials, diplomats and analysts…

Emboldened opposition leaders, many of whom openly support pressure by the United States even if they mistrust its intentions, said the measures were the last gasp of a government staggering after its hasty and embarrassing troop withdrawal last month from neighboring Lebanon.

The debate over the changes comes during a remarkable surge in what constitutes dissent in this country of 18 million. For the first time in years, opposition figures and even government allies are openly speculating on the fate of a party that, in some fashion, has ruled Syria since 1963 in the name of Arab nationalism, and today faces perhaps its greatest crisis.

Whatever connection exists between a rising imperfect democracy in Iraq and a renascent democratic movement in Lebanon is debatable and indirect at best. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad didn’t trigger the upheaval in Beirut. The assasination of Rafik Hariri did. Still, when the U.S. ordered Bashar Assad to withdraw Syrian troops he said “I am not Saddam Hussein. I want to cooperate.” He did. Now he’s screwed.

Syria’s dissidents are skeptical about the Baath regime’s sincerity, as they should be. That way they’ll keep the pressure on. Dictatorships (particularly of the Soviet and Latin American varieties) have been known to insincerely reform themselves out of existence. Assad doesn’t have to like it. But he or one of his successors will eventually have to do it or face a rude retirement on somebody else’s schedule and terms.

UPDATE: If you want a perspective from inside Lebanon on how much American support helped the Cedar Revolution, read this post at the Lebanese Political Journal.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:27 PM

May 17, 2005

Buchanan: Conservatism is Dead

Pat Buchanan says American conservatism is dead.

“The conservative movement has passed into history,” says the one-time White House aide, three-time presidential candidate, commentator and magazine publisher.

“It doesn't exist anymore as a unifying force,” he says in an interview with The Washington Times. “There are still a lot of people who are conservative, but the movement is now broken up, crumbled, dismantled.”

I almost never agree with Pat Buchanan. I’m rather partial to Stephen Greene’s argument that Buchanan is, as ever, a Nazi apologist. And I don’t use that term lightly. Neither does Stephen.

But Buchanan is right about this. “Conservative” is as useless a label as “liberal.” Neither term describes anything unified. “Conservatives” are a coalition of competing, and often mutually hostile, groups of people with different ideas. So are “liberals.” Just because we have two dominant political parties doesn’t mean there are only two kinds of Americans or only two schools of political thought.

Let’s say (just for fun) that conservatives are defined as those who are members of the Republican Party. Well, you’ve got your isolationist and traditionalist paleocons like Pat “Old Right and Old Church” Buchanan. Then there are the socially liberal Wall Street conservatives like Steve Forbes, whom Buchanan and his ragtag band of “peasants with pitchforks” deeply despise. Liberal Republicans like Arnold Schwartzenegger and Rudy Giuliani can plausibly be called RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) because they are really only “conservative” when compared with their fellow blue-staters. Libertarian Republicans - most of them anyway - are only Republicans in the first place because they think the GOP is the lesser of two evils. Theocons like James Dobson often make libertarian Republicans wonder if the Democrats might be the lesser of two evils after all. Don’t forget the neoconservatives – recent converts to Republicanism who still retain some of their old liberalism (whatever that is these days).

Lord only knows where swing voters who pulled the lever for Bush fit in – if they fit in at all, which is unlikely.

Cox and Forkum summed up the fight on the right quite nicely in one of their cartoons a couple months back.

Schiavo Rift.JPG

Here’s more on Buchanan:
He suggests that in some respects, traditionalists might be fighting for a lost cause. “We say we won a great victory by defeating gay marriage in 11 state-ballot referenda in November,” he says. “But I think in the long run, that will be seen as a victory in defense of a citadel that eventually fell.”

As he later says, “I can't say we won the cultural war, and it's more likely we lost it.”

The evidence? He says it was all over the tube, in prime time, at last year's Republican National Convention, which featured California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Gov. George E. Pataki and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, all social liberals.

“They are indifferent to those moral issues because they see them — and correctly — as no longer popular, no longer the majority positions that they used to be,” he says.
That’s how it goes. Buchanan’s brand of conservative wants to freeze history in place and leave everything as it is. Such people are useful as a social anchor, but they are doomed to fail always and everywhere. People change, cultures change, history rolls on. What is conservative today was progressive yesterday.

Sometimes I feel sorry for Pat, even though I think he’s wrong about practically everything - especially foreign policy, from World War II to the present. He no longer recognizes his own country. He’s experiencing culture shock inside his own country. It must be ten times worse for the Islamists of Saudi Arabia.

Today’s more mainstream conservatives, those a bit to the left of Pat Buchanan, can expect to feel a similar sort of alienation if they can’t adjust to the times as they grow older. The same can be said of some of the so-called liberals (of the 1960s variety) as well. Like I said before, there are many kinds of conservatives.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:59 PM

May 16, 2005

Dump Karimov

Uzbekistan was instrumental in assisting the United States in the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Declaring bastard-in-chief Islam Karimov a realpolitik “ally” of the United States was justifiable under the circumstances. It was the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin anti-Hitler alliance writ small.

But all bogus friendships must come to an end. The United States had no choice but to break with the Soviet Union and send “Uncle Joe” Stalin packing after the Nazi regime was demolished. Likewise, it’s time to dump Islam Karimov. The Taliban are history. They are not returning to power. Meanwhile, here is what our pal in Tashkent has been up to.
Residents of Uzbekistan's eastern city of Andizhan searched desperately for missing relatives and friends yesterday after the massacre of hundreds of civilians by government troops sent in to crush an armed uprising.

As calm returned to the city of 300,000 people and the first burials took place, it became apparent that the assault, ostensibly aimed at armed insurgents, swept away many innocent lives. As many as 500 bodies were retrieved after the violence. Uzbek soldiers reportedly fired into a crowd of thousands protesting over hardships in the former Soviet republic as police officers begged them not to shoot.

“They shot at us like rabbits,” one youth said. Troops later moved in among the bodies, finishing off some of the wounded with a single bullet, according to another witness. Panic broke out as security forces fired on the crowd from roof tops and pursued fleeing demonstrators down narrow alleyways.

“Those wounded who tried to get away were finished with single shots from a Kalashnikov rifle,” one man said. “Three or four soldiers were assigned to killing the wounded.”
At this point, buddying up with Karimov is likely to cost more in PR than it’s worth in tactical assistance on the ground. It’s bad politics. A serious case of blowback isn’t hard to predict. Plenty of people who were fired on in that crowd could be counted as America’s friends – but not if we’re overly chummy with the men who would kill them. It’s also immoral.

George W. Bush knows this as well as the next person. He said it himself at the Air Force Academy in 2004.

For decades, free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability and much oppression, so I have changed this policy.
Time to apply lessons learned to Uzbekistan.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:42 PM

May 15, 2005

Postcards from the Pacific Northwest

Shelly and I spent a long weekend on the Olympic Penninsula - three hours north of Portland and three hours west of Seattle - because two friends of ours got married there Saturday. It would be hard to find a more beautiful place.

Lake Crescent.jpg

Lake Crescent is surrounded on all sides by mountains.

Lake Crescent Lodge.jpg

The Lake Crescent Lodge likes to brag about the famous people who stay there. Laura Bush has apparently been there many times - without George W. for whatever reason. Franklin Roosevelt once stayed in one of the cabins. What he had for breakfast - rainbow trout and scrambled eggs - is still on the menu as the “Roosevelt Breakfast.”

Clear Water.jpg

The water is deep and, as you can see, clear.

Hurricane Ridge.jpg

Hurricane Ridge rises a mile above the Strait of Juan de Fuca and overlooks the entire interior of the Olympic Penninsula. The microclimate is arctic, the ecosystem is sub-alpine tundra, and the ridge gets its name from the hurricane-force winds that blow in the winter. It is not a place you want to visit in January.

Olympic Penninsula Valleys.jpg

This is what almost all the penninsula looks like - snow capped peaks above steep glacier-carved valleys.


Believe it or not I snapped this photo on the dry side, in the rain shadow. The Pacific side, the rainforest side, is something else. Greener than you can imagine. I would post a photo, but I didn't make it over that far on this trip.

Michael and Shelly Lake Crescent.jpg

Shelly and me at the lake on our friend's wedding day.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:21 PM

May 12, 2005

A Beirut Diary

The LA Weekly is still holding onto the story I wrote for them about my trip to Libya a few months ago. They say they will publish it soon. In the meantime, I wrote a piece about Lebanon for them and they rushed it into print. This one, unlike my Libya piece, is timely.

So here it is, my first (published) LA Weekly story. A Beirut Diary: Inside the Forest of the Cedar Revolution.

Here’s a preview.
Beirut, Lebanon — Just as the last Syrian troops were ending their 30-year occupation, I traveled with three young leaders of the Cedar Revolution on their campaign up the coast to the ancient Christian stronghold of Mount Lebanon.

As we got to the gates of the Lebanese American University, in the hills above Byblos, we were met with a scene that suggested democracy was, nevertheless, still not quite at hand.

We came upon not only photo murals and monuments to Christian war criminals Samir Geagea and Bashir Gemayel but a surly mob of students — all of them men — arranged before us in a phalanx. All wore the same brown shirts with a picture of Geagea on the front and a black Christian cross on the back. They loudly chanted Christian war songs, raised their right hands and aped the Nazi salute. Others, behind the phalanx, banged drums. Someone rang the church bells furiously and violently. Far from a celebration in the new Lebanon, it looked more like a political pep rally in General Franco’s Spain.

The three activists from the democracy movement I was traveling with — Ribal, Michel and Alaa — ran up to the mob of radical Christians and hugged them. I felt sick to my stomach. What on earth were so-called democracy activists doing buddying up with sectarian ethnic chauvinists? I snapped some digital pictures because I didn’t know what else to do.

Just then a bald university administrator wearing a suit and a tie got in my face. “Where are you from?” he screamed. It was the first and only time anyone yelled at me in Lebanon. “You erase those pictures,” he said. “And you erase them right now.”
Want to know what happened next? Read the rest.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:15 AM

May 10, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

So I saw Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. How could I not watch Kingdom of Heaven? I love almost all of Ridley Scott’s movies. (Hannibal is the big whopping exception.) Blade Runner ties with Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V as my favorite movie of all time. And I can still watch Gladiator no matter what kind of movie I’m in the mood for. I’m a sucker for the big epics.

But Kingdom of Heaven? I won’t watch that one again.

I can’t say it totally sucked. It had some powerful moments, as well as some nice subtle touches. But it’s not a good movie, and I can’t recommend it unless you’re a hardcore geek about Jerusalem, Saladin, or the Crusades.

For one thing, when you want to film a Mediterranean city, don’t put the set out in the Sahara. Those of us who have been to both the Med and the Sahara will scoff. We’ll be thrown out of the story every time the camera pans wide. We may not be the majority of the audience, but come on. At least try to find a location that looks vaguely like the one where the story is supposed to be set.

Another serious problem: Saladin conquers Jerusalem waaaaay too easily in this movie. The surrender of the city comes like a bolt out of the blue. People don’t surrender just because there’s a war on. They surrender when they’re getting their asses handed to them and the choice comes down to surrender or die. Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to understand that. If he does understand that he couldn’t be bothered to set it up properly and make the most crucial scene in his movie believable. I had a hard time believing what I was watching, and I know that what happened in the movie really did actually happen in history.

The film is shot through from beginning to end with a much bigger problem, though, a problem I’m surprised a filmmaker as brilliant and accomplished as Ridley Scott allowed into his movie. I need to turn you over to Dr. Frank here because he managed to nail it better than anyone. Not even Oliver Stone would have done this.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:31 PM

Republicans Slipping

From the Washington Post.

The gender gap is now 25 years old and, according to recent polling, it is alive and well. A Democratic polling memo released yesterday found that women, who voted for President Bush last year in large numbers, have begun migrating back to their traditional home in the Democratic Party as the public's agenda has shifted from homeland security and terrorism to domestic concerns such as jobs and the economy.

There has long been a gender gap between the parties, with women tending to vote Democratic in disproportionate numbers. Bush all but closed that gap last year, losing the female vote to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) by three percentage points. But the memo pointed to a March survey that found women favoring Democrats when asked which party's candidates they would support if congressional elections were held today.
I doubt women are the only ones doing a re-think on this one. I voted for Bush last year, but I don’t expect I’ll vote for any Republicans next year. Bush won, as I’ve said before, on security issues not “moral values.” Bush isn’t up for re-election next year so the Republican national security advantage won’t likely exist. He’ll be in the White House no matter what. It will be safe to vote for the Democrats again, at least for one election. I suspect they will do well.

If the Republicans want to keep the swing voters who are willing to cross the center line they are going to have to do something for them. Having Tom DeLay throw bloody chunks of red meat to the Religious Right isn’t it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:42 AM

Cat Blogging

We have a new member of the household – a baby Siamese kitty named Roland. He weighs two pounds and can lay down on my open hand. I don’t think he could possibly be any cuter.

Roland with Shelly.jpg

Roland on Couch.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:29 AM

May 8, 2005

Where I Left Off

I’ve been out late with Mom tonight, since it’s Mother’s Day and all. So I don’t have anything prepared for the blog.

What I do have, for those of you who still want to read about what’s happening over in Lebanon now that I can’t be there to cover it, is a link to this blog – the Lebanese Political Journal.

The head writer, who goes by the anonymous handle Lebanon.Profile, gave me great tours of Beirut, Mount Lebanon, and the Shia regions in the south of the country. I couldn’t have asked for a better, more fun, or more informed guide. He has forgotten more about Lebanon than I currently know. And I learned more about the place from him than I can even begin to get into here.

He has the skinny about what’s going on now, as well as some pretty solid analysis of what it all means. Some of his references may be obscure to you. But after hanging out with him for a while they aren't obscure to me anymore. And they won't be obscure to you either if you hang out at his site long enough.

If you regularly read Middle East blogs, this is one you need to bookmark.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:02 PM

May 6, 2005

Heads Up

I just taped a radio interview for Canada’s The World Tonight. It went pretty well, I think, and you can listen to it live here at 7:00 pm West Coast time. (That’s 10:00 pm for you East Coast laggards.)

UPDATE: It has been pointed out in the comments that those on the West Coast are laggards. Well, I can't be right about everything, can I?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:06 PM

May 5, 2005

Babes of Lebanon!

I’ve received more email asking for a Babes of Lebanon photo gallery than I could even begin to count. And so, by popular demand, here it is!

A few words, though, before we begin. If any of you think only the Christian women of Lebanon walk around without their own portable tents, forget that. It’s isn’t even close to true. My hotel was on the Muslim side of Beirut and I saw almost as many modern-looking women on that side of the city as I saw in the Christian areas. Even Hezbollah doesn’t mandate the veil or the hijab.

Two Hezbollah groupies invited me to have coffee with them downtown. We argued rather passionately about politics, as you can imagine, but they were good sports about it. They gave me a Cuban cigar as I went on my way, but first one of them asked me: “So, whaddaya think of our women, eh?” and elbowed me good-naturedly in the ribs. Lebanon ain’t Saudi.















Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:17 PM

May 4, 2005


Jet travel is a funny thing. One day I'm driving around South Lebanon near Fatima's Gate at the Lebanese/Israeli border looking at the Golan Heights, Hezbollah's roadside propaganda, and scorched tanks.

Golan Heights.jpg

Hezbollah Roadside Propaganda.jpg

Scorched Tank.jpg

Next day I'm in calm and collected Portland sipping espresso while surfing the Internet. As if jet lag weren't enough, I'm still experiencing culture shock inside my own country. A month really is long enough for that to kick in.

I'm still only vaguely aware of what has been happening on this side of the ocean. Laura Bush apparently said something controversial about horses and sex. (I have no idea what she said, nor do I care.) I have some remote flickering awareness of Bill Frist saying or doing something that alienated people on the center-right, but again I neither know nor care what it was. American politics seems utterly trivial to me at this moment.

I had dinner with an American who had just arrived in Beirut who had a hard time getting over his fear of car bombs. I tried to get him to relax by pointing out that it was vastly more likely he'd be hit by one of Lebanon’s homicidal maniac drivers. It didn't really make him feel better. “Thank God I'm American,” he said. We didn’t vote for the same guy in the last election, but we never once argued about politics. There was no point. “This place really puts it all in perspective, doesn't it?” he said.

Indeed, Beirut does that.

Does anyone in this country walk down the street and worry that one of the parked cars next to the sidewalk might explode at any moment? Um, no. But if you lived in Beirut you would think about that. I did. It didn’t frighten me, but I thought about it. No sane person here worries that secret police in the service of a foreign regime will rat them out to death squads. There is no terrorist-ruled state-within-a-state within walking distance of any downtown area on this continent.

When I wake up in the morning I still think I'm in Beirut and that these are some of the things I'll have to contend with during my day. Then I open my eyes and am first disoriented then shocked that I'm so far away from where I thought I was. I look at the newspaper and think: Iraq looks like a country that has some serious problems. But America is fat, content, and happy. Life in this country is experienced the way a cat experiences a nap in the sun compared to the way Middle Easterners live. I'll forget this in a week or so, but for now that's how it looks.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:35 PM


More blog posts really are coming. In the meantime, I'm interviewed in Willamette Week, one of my local newspapers, here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:31 AM

May 3, 2005

I'm Back

Just letting everyone know I'm back and will update this page again shortly. It takes a bit more than five minutes to recover from a month in the Middle East and a loooong plane ride home. Don't go away…

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:11 PM

May 1, 2005

Unintended consequences

Posted by Mary Madigan

The next installment of neo-neocon’s thoughts on Vietnam and political conversion A Mind is a Difficult thing to Change, is up.

This particular post was sparked by a comment by Dean Esmay, found on this thread. His comment is as follows:
What continues to confound me is how many people who were staunchly against the Vietnam War still have not confronted the brutal reality of what our leaving that conflict wrought. The death camps, the millions of refugees who barely made it out alive, the horrors perpetrated on the people by Ho Chi Minh once he was victorious
I'd like to try to tackle the difficult question implicit in Dean Esmay's comment, which, as I see it, is, "Where were you in the mid- to late-70s, oh bleeding-heart Vietnam War protesters? Didn't the terrible aftermath of the Vietnam War convince you that you had been wrong to work so hard for US withdrawal? And, if so, why not?"

I think this is an excellent, although difficult, question (perhaps all excellent questions are difficult?) I don't pretend to have a definitive answer--the situation is extremely complex--but this post is my attempt at a response.

The difficulty of facing unintended consequences..

Dean responds...

Posted by Mary Madigan at 7:27 PM

The Power of Myth

Posted by Mary Madigan

In his essay The Arab Street: A Vanquished Cliché, Christopher Hitchens described how the “annoying expression” Arab street began to expire. It unofficially expired when millions of Iraqis defied the terrorist “Insurgents” by voting in January’s elections. But it was on its last legs before then:

Other Muslim streets are even more problematic for those who lazily assume that the jihadists are the voice of the unheard. The populations of Bosnia and Kosovo—populations that actually did have to confront anti-Muslim violence on a large scale—are generally hostile to Bin-Ladenism. Nobody has ever used the term "Iranian street," at least in print or on broadcast news, if only because everyone knows that Iranian opinion, as registered during the mock elections or voiced to visiting hacks, is strongly against the reigning theocracy.
When the real man on the street was allowed to speak his own mind, without fear of the secret police or the terrorist who lives next door, the myth of the "Arab Street" and the media’s dream that jihad was the "voice of the unheard" died. The Cedar Revolution was the final nail in the coffin. Hezbollah’s jihadis defied the will of the ordinary people and marched in support of the Syrian Ba’thists. Michael Totten described Hezbollahland's streets as:
a terrorist-ruled security-state within a state. The Lebanese Armed Forces are not allowed to enter Hezbollah's territory. Most Christians and Sunni Muslims never dare set foot inside. Buildings are sandbagged. Surveillance and security watchtowers are erected in front of restaurants and stores. A Lebanese-American historian based in West Beirut told me that Hezbollah is better armed and more militarily powerful than the Lebanese army.
In contrast to the average streets in Beirut:
East and West Beirut are as free-wheeling as Hong Kong, but Hezbollahland is a virtually sovereign fascist police state.
The Cedar Revolution also destroyed the cliché that Ba’thists like Saddam were secularists, opposed to the Islamists. Hezbollah and the Syrians, both inspired by fascist imagery and salutes, have been united towards a common goal for some time.

This week, we saw the benefit of the end of destructive myths - the final, wonderful victory for the Cedar Revolution. The Lebanese government formally announced the election would be held on time. Pro-independence and pro-democracy forces were able to make their voices heard. As the Iraqi voters and millions of Lebanese proved, the goals of the fascists are actively opposed by the majority of the "Arab street."

Unfortunately, also last week our President exploded another myth. He just killed the belief that American has been fighting a war against terrorism by publicly begging the financier and the source of most Islamist terrorism for a favor.

Appeasing the Saudi government and helping the Royals in any way they can has been a long-standing policy of our Government. It’s doubtful that the Democrats could criticize Bush for his actions when Clinton accepted millions in Saudi donation towards the building of his library, or when Jimmy Carter accepts many millions in Saudi donations for ‘peace’ in Africa.

But like many Democrats, the Bush administration still seems to be living in a 9/10 universe. According to this article, Pump Dreams, published in the New Yorker and in the Energy Bulletin, Dick Cheney stated that the war in Iraq was necessary to protect America’s friends in the region:

.. in August, 2002, seven months before the war started, Cheney warned that Saddam would be able to seize control of the world’s economic lifeline if he acquired weapons of mass destruction: “Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop ten per cent of the world’s oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies, directly threaten America’s friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail.”
America's friends as in Saudi Arabia. Saudi oil wealth pays Osama bin Laden’s salary, and the salaries of most Islamist terror organizations around the world. They are responsible for 9/11. As our president held Abdullah’s hand, Abdullah’s employee and friend, chief justice of Saudi Arabia's Supreme Judicial Council Sheik Saleh Al Luhaidan encouraged young Saudis to go to Iraq to kill American soldiers.
"This statement shows the real face of the Saudi government," says Saudi dissident Ali Al-Ahmed of the Saudi Institute, based in Washington.

Al-Ahmed says that while Saudi officials — including Sheik Luhaidan — publicly oppose jihad in Iraq, privately some send a different message.

"He is telling Saudis it's OK to go to Iraq and kill Americans and Iraqis and they won’t be punished for doing that," says Al-Ahmed.

Young Saudis don’t need Al Luhaidan to tell them to kill Americans. They were happy to do that on 9/11, and they’ve been killing, maiming American soldiers and destroying the Iraqi oil fields since the ‘end’ of the Iraq war. As we can see from oil prices, terrorism has been very profitable for the KSA.

These are our friends?

We fought the war in Iraq for many reasons: the elimination of Ba’thist Saddam’s genocidal dictatorship, the threat he posed. The Iraqi elections and the Cedar Revolution wouldn’t have been possible without this war. But there’s a profound disconnect between the real world and the logic-free reasoning of the RealPolitik stategists and the energy establishment. Also from the New Yorker:

From an economic vantage point, a strategy based on Realpolitik makes sense. To meet the rising demand for oil in the coming decades, the Gulf states need to spend tens of billions of dollars on expanding their capacity, an enormous capital investment that is unlikely to materialize in a hostile environment. Some opec members already favor keeping the supply tight so that prices will stay high. As in the past, the West will have to rely on the Saudi government to be the voice of moderation. “If you are sitting on a very large reserve base, as Saudi Arabia is, you don’t want somebody coming along and saying, ‘We are really going to make a push to develop an alternative to the internal-combustion engine,’” Robert Ebel said. “You have a division of opinion within opec, but Saudi Arabia is big enough to call the shots.”
Clueless can’t begin to describe this policy. Realpolitik strategists don’t want to offend the ‘moderate’ sponsors of worldwide terrorism by discussing alternative energy? They want to give these terror supporting tyrants more power over their OPEC buddies and their neighbors in the Middle East? The myth of our moderate Saudi friends is obviously more powerful to them than the facts about Saudi support of terrorism and the slaughter of thousands of Americans on 9/11.

The KSA is the terrorism and the tyranny we’re supposed to be fighting. But our government is continuing its long-standing policy of coddling, pampering and legitimizing them. This destructive alliance alienates potential friends and allies.

The death of lies and myths is a good thing – we can’t fight a war if we don’t understand our friends, our enemies, or ourselves. Until we understand all of the elements involved, we can’t claim to be fighting a war on terrorism.

Posted by Mary Madigan at 7:23 AM