Remembering Sotloff, Foley, And The Rest

by Jonah Shepp

For the past two weeks, the gruesome death of James Foley has returned to my mind over and over again. Now that Steven Sotloff has met the same fate, I, like many other Americans of conscience, am now haunted by two ghosts. It is well established that journalists, even those of us who do not work in the field, can get PTSD from the horrors we read about and the images we see day in and day out. I didn’t go looking for the videos of these brutal murders, because I don’t need to see someone get his head sawn off from front to back to be chilled by the thought of such an agonizing death. I’ve seen enough as it is. And as long as this war and others drag on, I know there are more horrors to come.

The impulse to make martyrs of our dead leads us to ascribe more importance to some murders than others. Yet Foley and Sotloff are but two among nearly 70 journalists killed while covering the conflict in Syria, hundreds who have been brutally murdered by ISIS jihadists in similarly gruesome fashion, and nearly 200,000 casualties of a civil war gone hopelessly off the rails. We feel for Foley and Sotloff in a way we do not feel for other victims of this compounded Syrian-Iraqi crisis because they look like us and speak our language, because many of us share their Irish and Jewish surnames, and because their grieving families remind us of our own in ways that ululating Iraqi widows don’t. There’s nothing wrong with that: in-group bias can’t be helped, and it doesn’t follow from this outpouring of grief that we do not care about the many others who have suffered so terribly in this war.

Still, as proponents of American leadership-by-war turn to these atrocities as casus belli for an engagement they already wanted, it bears remembering that the forgotten victims of this maelstrom of death are human, too, as Sotloff’s own reporting so eloquently brought out. The humane character of his approach to his job has come up in many of the eulogies written since yesterday. For example, Ishaan Tharoor highlights a story Sotloff wrote from the bread lines in Aleppo:

The piece was the product of a ten-day trip to Syria’s war-ravaged commercial capital at a time when Syria’s “moderate” rebels still appeared to lead the fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It was published on Christmas Eve. In an e-mail sent to a Time editor alongside a link to the Foreign Policy article, Sotloff wrote that the “situation is nothing like the media dispatches from the West depict it,” alluding to the darker forces shaping the rebellion as well as the revolutionary fatigue of Aleppo’s beleaguered populace. “We are people not cattle,” an Aleppo resident told Sotloff, as the pair watched fights break out in a long line for rations of pita bread. “But this war is slowly killing our humanity without a shot ever being fired at us.”

Sotloff, and Foley too, went to Libya, Syria, and other dangerous locales not to cheer for more war or to agitate against it, and not to propagandize for any cause, but rather to bear honest and clear-eyed witness to the human tragedy unfolding beyond the abstracting lenses of policy and strategy through which politicians, elites, experts, the media and by extension the public, often view these “foreign” wars.

The best way to remember Steven Sotloff, then, is not only to remember Steven Sotloff.

Dissents Of The Day

by Jonah Shepp

My assertion yesterday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might have had something to do with the eastward expansion of NATO is drawing some fire from the inbox. One reader writes:

I think that you and John Mearsheimer may think yourselves very clever for understanding that the US and NATO’s hubristic expansion is at fault in the Ukrainian crisis. You claim, that without this expansion there would be no Ukraine crisis, a totally ludicrous statement, for which you give no justification. What you fail to appreciate is that the countries in Eastern Europe who clamored to join NATO are also rational independent actors totally capable of acting independently the US or other Western Powers. Poland, the Baltics, Czech Republic, etc.. all know what it is like to be dominated by an imperial power from the east and they certainly wanted protection again such a thing happening again. They chose NATO, not the other way around. In the 90s, most people in the west didn’t think that NATO was even necessary anymore. I think it is completely preposterous to claim that NATO expansion was borne out of some desire for conquest.

Another reader argues that the eternal Cold War mentality belongs to Putin, not the West:

I kept expecting [you] to acknowledge that this only ‘bears out’ anything if one already views NATO’s expansion from a Cold War perspective. I’ll certainly admit that there’s significant tension between the West’s interests and the Russian government’s and that this is not all Russia’s doing, but until this year I’d never though Ukraine joining NATO was even plausible, and even then until this week I’d never thought it was *likely* that Ukraine would join NATO. Now Putin has made it clear to everyone that regardless of anyone else *he* is waging a cold war, so he will keep creating more Cold War responses in those he’s made his foes. I think it’s a real stretch to say  that the failure of the world to dance around this world-view counts as confirmation of it.

And a third points out that the link between Russian aggression and NATO expansion can also go the other way:

I think you have causality the wrong way around when you say that Russia has attacked Ukraine (and, earlier, Georgia) in response to the threat of NATO expanding to include those countries. But there had been no NATO expansion in Russia’s immediate neighborhood in a decade.  And neither Ukraine nor Georgia were going to join NATO . . . until Russia attacked them.  Then they acquired an enormous motivation to try to join an alliance which could defend them against further Russian attacks.  Georgia wasn’t getting anywhere with its request to join either — until the attack on Ukraine, which has caused NATO to reconsider whether “trying not to provoke Putin” was an impossible quest. I can see why Russia would be upset at the prospect of Georgia or Ukraine in NATO.  But if it happens, the overwhelming reason will be Russia’s actions towards those two countries.  In short, Russia will have nobody to blame but themselves.  (Not that this will prevent them from blaming everybody else in sight, of course.)

Well, the causality is a little more complicated. The effort to bring Georgia into NATO started in 2005 and was a major item on Mikheil Saakashvili’s to-do list long before the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. One can easily argue, as Saakashvili himself did, that this effort was in response to fears of Russian bellicosity, but one can also see it the other way around, as Putin and his cohort clearly do, and argue that Russian assertiveness (they probably wouldn’t say “aggression”) was necessary to check NATO’s nefarious plan to weaken Russian influence in its former imperial holdings. It’s not hard to see how they arrived at that conclusion; that is different, however, from saying that the conclusion is correct.

I don’t actually share Mearsheimer’s conclusion that this mess is all the West’s fault. I think it’s useful to remember, though, how the West has condescended to Russia since the end of the Cold War, and to consider how that treatment might have influenced the mentality that drives Putin to adopt such an aggressive posture. Remember how Germany was demonized, humiliated, and driven hopelessly into debt by the victors of World War I? Well, how did that turn out? When Alexander Motyl compares Putin to Hitler, he focuses primarily on their dictatorial ways, but their countries also have some salient similarities:

Both Germany and Russia lost empires and desired to rebuild them. Both Germany and Russia suffered economic collapse. Both Germany and Russia experienced national humiliation and retained imperial political cultures. Both Germany and Russia blamed their ills on the democrats. Both Germany and Russia elected strong men who promised to make them grand and glorious again.

In other words, Hitler had others to thank for the conditions that enabled his rise to power, and one can say the same of Putin. I don’t mean to engage in some wishy-washy, “it’s all society’s fault” leftish apologetics. Putin clearly believes in restoring the Russian Empire by any means necessary, including force, and has committed many misdeeds in pursuit of that belief. But if the question at had is what the West ought to do about it, it’s worth thinking about our past policy choices and how they might have contributed to the problem. If instead we attribute the crisis solely to Putin’s grandiosity, that implies that there’s not much we can do to change his behavior, and that’s scarier to me than admitting we made some missteps.

Putin’s “Peace” Plan

by Jonah Shepp

The Russian president has unveiled a seven-point plan to end the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, which he claims to have arrived at after consultations with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko (NYT):

Mr. Putin said he and the president of Ukraine, Petro O. Poroshenko, had a similar understanding about what was needed, and he urged Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists in the east to reach a settlement at talks scheduled for Friday in Belarus. The primary conditions on Mr. Putin’s list are that the separatists halt all offensive operations and that Ukrainian troops move their artillery back out of range of cities and large towns in the rebel-held area. Mr. Putin also called for Ukraine to cease airstrikes; the establishment of an international monitoring mission and humanitarian aid corridors; an “all for all” prisoner exchange; and “rebuilding brigades” to repair damaged roads, bridges, power lines and other infrastructure.

Or in other words, according to Armin Rosen’s interpretation, the plan is for Ukraine to retreat and Russia to invade:

The proposal would formalize the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine while requiring the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from their internationally recognized territory in the Donbas region, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting Kiev’s forces since February. This proposal, which both Ukraine and the international community are unlikely to accept, amounts to Russian annexation of eastern Ukraine — Putin would be able to secure and develop the region, and Ukraine would be forced to accept a new reality on the ground. This follows Moscow’s longstanding game plan from other conflicts on the Russian periphery. For instance, the Georgian separatists regions of South Ossetia and Abhkazia are secured with the help of “peacekeepers” from the Russian army, even though both areas are internationally recognized as part of Georgia.

Also, the plan notably omits any mention of the status of the territories in dispute. But Leonid Bershidsky argues that there is “nothing here to which Poroshenko might reasonably object”. He believes the plan should be implemented simply because the fighting needs to end before any other progress can be made. The tricky part, in Bershidsky’s view, is what comes after the peace:

Putin will not want to give up a measure of control over eastern Ukraine. Although it might be tempting for Poroshenko to declare it a Russian-occupied territory and wash his hands of it, he won the presidential election in May on a promise to keep Ukraine together. Hence, there will have to be further negotiations on issues that are much harder for both sides to agree on than Putin’s lenient cease-fire terms. There is every chance that the cease-fire will break down as the political talks fail, and that Poroshenko’s plan to hold a parliamentary election in October will fall through. For now, however, the steps Putin proposes must be taken.

Must they? Those particular steps, in that order? Yes, the fighting must end first and foremost, but ending it on Putin’s terms could mean walking into a trap. Either way, Ukraine appears not to be taking the bait:

“This latest plan is another attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community ahead of the NATO summit and an attempt to avert the EU’s inevitable decision to unleash a new wave of sanctions against Russia,” [Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk] said in a statement. “The best plan for ending Russia’s war against Ukraine has only one single element — for Russia to withdraw its troops, its mercenaries and its terrorists from Ukrainian territory.” His comments come despite Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko saying he and Putin had agreed on the peace plan aimed at ending the near five-month conflict in eastern Ukraine.

That makes it sound like the Ukrainian leadership is divided over how to respond. That wouldn’t be surprising: after all, Poroshenko is known to be a bit friendlier to Russia than Yatsenyuk, and indeed that’s why some people think he’s the best man to make peace. But then there’s the question of whether Putin can actually get the rebels to stop fighting in the first place:

The insurgency clearly does not represent a unified organization with a central command, and furthermore Moscow’s interaction with its leaders is varied, according to Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy head of the Institute of Political and Military analysis, a Moscow-based think tank. “Following rebel advances, the Ukrainian government is ready to make certain concessions. Moscow sees this as a window of opportunity to exploit and come to terms, with the captured territories becoming autonomous within Ukraine. Hence, Purgin came up with the plan,” he told The Moscow Times in a phone interview. “The problem is that many insurgents do not want to settle anything now that they have got the upper hand in the military conflict. It is naive to believe that the Kremlin controls everything there,” he said.

Meanwhile, the West has finally shamed France into suspending a delivery of warships to Russia, and aggressive military posturing continues on all sides. The US and NATO allies are going ahead with a joint military exercise in western Ukraine later in September, while Russia’s defense ministry has announced a 4,000-soldier drill, also this month, by the forces in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal:

RIA news agency quoted the ministry as saying the exercises would take place in Altai in south-central Russia and would also include around 400 technical units and extensive use of air power. The agency quoted Dmitry Andreyev, a major in the strategic rocket forces, as saying troops would practice countering irregular units and high-precision weapons, and “conducting combat missions in conditions of active radio-electronic jamming and intensive enemy actions in areas of troop deployment.” He said enemy forces would be represented in the exercises by spetsnaz (special forces) units.

Surely this is just in case the “peace plan” doesn’t work out.

Can NATO Stop Putin?

by Jonah Shepp

Michael Peck doubts the new rapid response force NATO is proposing to establish in Eastern Europe would be much of a deterrent to Russian aggression:

[A] NATO quick-reaction force is unlikely to actually deter Russia. For starters, a deterrent is only as effective as it is credible. And military credibility is what the new force will lack. Prepositioning mechanized units in Eastern Europe is a possibility. But as U.S. troops discovered when moving from Germany to Bosnia in 1995, it’s hard moving tracked armor long distances. Harder when you have to move fast. It seems more likely that the new force will include light infantry, wheeled armor and special forces—all easier to move by air or road than heavy tanks. While these light troops might have a fighting chance against irregular troops such as Ukraine’s eastern rebels, they wouldn’t stand a chance against a Russian tank regiment. To say nothing of Russian warplanes.

Judy Dempsey also suspects that the new strategy won’t pose much of a challenge to Putin, and that the real threat comes from elsewhere:

NATO strategy still leaves Eastern Europe highly vulnerable. The last thing that Poland, Sweden, Finland and the Baltics want is for Eastern Europe to be turned into a new cordon sanitaire. It would, in fact, create a new, divided and highly unstable Europe, which is why these countries are determined that the EU prevent this from happening. …

What could deter him is his own combustible southern flank and Islamic State, which Russia would be very unwise to ignore. It is these threats that are far, far more dangerous to Russia than NATO’s limited intentions in Poland and the Baltic states. These threats are also more dangerous than the EU, whose openness has hugely profited Russian companies and ordinary Russian citizens. If Putin thinks NATO and the EU are his big threats, competitors and enemies, he hasn’t seen anything yet.

Dempsey alludes to something important here regarding the relationship between the Russia-Ukraine and Iraq-Syria conflicts, and I wish her article explored it in greater depth. ISIS may be a threat to Europe, and even to the US, but it threatens Russia more directly. Could that threat be leveraged to talk Putin down from his war horse? I don’t know, but it will be interesting to see whether the NATO summit touches on it. These crises don’t exist in bubbles. The War on Terror divided NATO, but John Cassidy argues that Putin is helping the alliance overcome its post-9/11 sclerosis:

American officials charged that the Europeans weren’t carrying their weight. (Alliance members are supposed to spend two per cent of their G.D.P. on defense, but few of them do.) European officials muttered about the United States using its hegemony to destabilize things rather than calm them down. Looking ahead, the future of the alliance seemed increasingly uncertain. A 2013 brief from the Atlantic Council warned, “The world is changing rapidly, and if NATO does not adapt with foresight for this new era, then it will very likely disintegrate.” Then, along came the reëlected Putin, singlehandedly providing the NATO members with what all allies need: a common threat. And not only a common one but a familiar one, too: a Russia itching to expand its power and influence.

Meanwhile, Eli Lake highlights some new American sanctions legislation that “would amount to an economic nuclear bomb against the Russian federation” (My goodness. Phrasing!):

The Daily Beast has obtained a draft of proposed legislation from Sen. Mark Kirk, the Republican lawmaker who co-authored the crippling sanctions against Iran. In short, Kirk proposes to do to Russia what he and his Democratic colleague, Sen. Robert Menendez, did to Iran: make it all-but-impossible for any Western bank to do business with the state. If passed, the draft legislation would essentially make Moscow a pariah economy. Specifically, Kirk’s legislation, still circulating among his colleagues, would impose strict limits on any bank that does business with Russia’s central bank to participating in the U.S. banking system. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Kirk also said he supported moves to compel President Obama to support kicking Russian banks out of the SWIFT interbank payment system, a move that would stymie the ability of Russian businesses to efficiently pay foreign companies for goods and services.

Harder sanctions on Russia make sense, and might even be more effective than beefing up the NATO presence in the Baltic countries. My fear, though, is that we will end up with another “all stick, no carrot” approach that does a lot of economic damage without offering the Kremlin a way out. Coercive diplomacy is all well and good, but putting pressure on an aggressive state only goes so far when that state doesn’t see any benefit to behaving more responsibly. After all, we still don’t know for sure that the sanctions we imposed on Iran worked, and every time the nuclear talks have broken down it’s been because the Iranians didn’t think we were serious about lifting the sanctions if they played nice. Rewarding a bad actor for being less bad isn’t exactly justice, but war is much worse.

The Death Rattle Of Islamism?

by Jonah Shepp

Graeme Wood isn’t the first writer to touch on the significance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a “caliphate”, but his substantial exploration of the meaning of the term gets to why it’s so weird that Baghdadi has chosen it to describe his so-called Islamic State when other radical Islamist groups have steered clear of such declarations:

Mostly … caliphate declarations have been rare because they are outrageously out of sync with history. The word conjures the majesty of bygone eras and of states that straddle continents. For a wandering group of hunted men like Al Qaeda to declare a caliphate would have been Pythonesque in its deluded grandeur, as if a few dozen Neo-Nazis or Italian fascists declared themselves the Holy Roman Empire or dressed up like Augustus Caesar. “Anybody who actively wishes to reestablish a caliphate must be deeply committed to a backward-looking view of Islam,” says [University of Chicago historian Fred] Donner. “The caliphate hasn’t been a functioning institution for over a thousand years.”

And it isn’t now, either. The designation of the ISIS “caliphate” still smacks of delusional grandiosity more than anything else. There is no downplaying its brutality or denying that it would do great violence to the West if given the chance, but the Islamic State is no superpower: more than anything else, its sudden rise owes mainly to the fact that Syria and Iraq are fragile states, and its savagery has alerted the sleepwalking states of the Arab world to the threat of jihadism like never before. The enemies it is making on all sides, especially among other Muslims, would seem to suggest that ISIS may burn out nearly as quickly as it caught fire. Could the madness of ISIS be the final fever of a dying ideology?

What seems most promising to me in the backlash against ISIS is the extent to which that backlash relies on the genuine principles of Islam itself. We know that some of the fighters traveling from the West to fight alongside ISIS know next to nothing about the religion. We have evidence that jihadist movements like Boko Haram and the Taliban are widely despised in their spheres of influence. Here, Dean Obeidallah takes a look at how leaders of Muslim countries and communities are more or less unanimously condemning the false Islam of the jihadists:

The religious and government leaders in Muslim-dominated countries have swiftly and unequivocally denounced ISIS as being un-Islamic. For example, in Malaysia, a nation with 20 million Muslims, the prime minister denounced ISIS as “appalling” and going against the teachings of Islam(only about 50 have joined ISIS from there). In Indonesia, Muslim leaders not only publicly condemned ISIS, the government criminalized support for the group. And while some allege that certain Saudi individuals are financially supporting ISIS, the Saudi government officially declared ISIS a terrorist group back in March and is arresting suspected  ISIS recruiters. This can be a helpful guide to other nations in deterring ISIS from recruiting.  A joint strategy of working with Muslim leaders in denouncing ISIS and criminalizing any support appears to be working. And to that end, on Monday, British Muslim leaders issued a fatwa (religious edict) condemning ISIS and announcing Muslims were religiously prohibited from joining ISIS.

This all has me wondering if ISIS, the reductio ad absurdum of radical Islamism, doesn’t herald the downfall of that ideology altogether. Bear in mind that political Islam hasn’t always been exclusively reactionary: the first avowedly Islamic politics of the modern era, first articulated before the Muslim Brotherhood’s founders were even born, was the Islamic Modernism of Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Here were pious Muslims arguing that Islam was fully compatible with rationalism and making arguments for universal literacy and women’s rights from the same Muslim revivalist standpoint from which Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb would later espouse a more conservative vision of Islamic politics in modernity.

The illiberal strain of Arab Islamism, its Iranian counterpart, and the more radical jihadist movements that grew out of these movements (or alongside them, depending on which historian you ask) have been the major representatives of political Islam in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There’s no reason, however, to believe that this condition is permanent or that a less reactionary form of Islamic political thought, or even an Islamic liberalism after the model of the Modernists, could not take hold in the Muslim world given the right set of circumstances. Islamism, particularly in its more extreme varieties, has long articulated an Islamic state operating under a “pure” interpretation of Islamic law as a utopian vision. Now, here is an Islamic State, a “caliphate” no less, that claims to do just that, and the outcome is rather dystopian. Torture, gang rape, slave brides, beheadings, crucifixions, and child soldiers are not what most Muslims have in mind when they imagine the ideal Islamic society. I would wager that these horrors will turn more Muslims against radical Islamism than toward it.

This is all by way of saying, as a reminder, that “Caliph Ibrahim” (Baghdadi) represents Muslims about as thoroughly as Tony Alamo represents Christians. The fact that he has attracted enough funding and followers to run roughshod over northern Iraq and eastern Syria is nothing to brush off, but it’s not winning him any friends, and it doesn’t make his ideology any less ridiculous. It’s certainly not “Islam”, at least not as any Muslim I know practices it. That’s why I suspect it will fail, like most grandiose visions of world domination do. And by radicalizing the Islamic heartland against radicalism, as it were, perhaps ISIS will take the entire edifice of radical Islamism down with it.

Syria’s War At Israel’s Door

by Jonah Shepp

The Syrian civil war took an interesting turn late last week as fighters from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra overran the Quneitra checkpoint between Syria proper and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and captured or surrounded dozens of UN peacekeepers from Fiji and the Philippines. Juan Cole finds precisely none of this surprising:

The London-based Al-`Arabi al-Jadid reports that Israeli Gen. Aviv Kochavi, now head of the Northern Command but until recently chief of military intelligence, has for two years been warning that the Syrian civil war could spill over onto Israel. Haaretz has also shown alarm at the developments. Not only is the Succor Front consolidating its hold on Golan, but the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) is alleged to be infiltrating Syrian villages near Israel in the north. The Syrian army, once responsible for Israel-Syria border security, has “evaporated” after losing battles with the militants. The likelihood that Israel could in the long run be completely insulated from a raging civil war right next door, which has displaced 3 million abroad and more millions internally, was always low. The view that it is good for Israel when the Arabs fight one another is a glib and superficial piece of cynicism challenged by seasoned observers such as Gen. Kochavi.

One of the many side effects of Israel’s regional isolation is that it tends to treat conflicts in and among its neighbors as the Arabs’ problems and pay them relatively little mind, compared to the interest one might expect a country to take in violence so close to its borders. This isolation emerges from the intractability of the conflict and, to my mind, represents a noteworthy obstacle to regional peace.

The concept of linkage, i.e., that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the “core conflict” of the Middle East from which most or all other chaos derives, is too facile and reductive to account for the region’s many and manifold problems, but it’s not complete bullshit either. And even if Israel is not the proximate cause of these external conflicts, it certainly ought to be worried about them, especially considering that the plight of the Palestinians has served as an excellent recruiting and propaganda vehicle for Islamist radicals throughout the greater Middle East.

Because Israel remains technically at war with most of its neighbors, because its leadership expects to remain so indefinitely, and because overt cooperation with Israel remains anathema to Arab governments, the most powerful military in the Middle East has little involvement, or even interest, in addressing regional security challenges like the Syrian civil war, the failure of the Iraqi state, and the ISIS menace that emerged from the confluence of these crises. One of the often overlooked benefits of a permanent peace settlement is that it would enable Israel to function in regional diplomacy and politics as something other than a pariah state. You may believe that “the Arabs” would never do business with “the Jews”, but of course, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia already do, albeit quietly and probably not as effectively as if they could do so openly.

Just imagine how quickly the well of ill will toward Israel would evaporate if Israel were able to participate in facing the threats endemic to the region, whether that means Islamist militancy or water and food scarcity. But of course, as long as the Palestinians remain under occupation, without a state, and with no closure or reparations for the refugees, that sort of cooperation can never happen. Maybe Netanyahu and his allies prefer it that way, but if so, they are awfully short-sighted. That’s why I stand by my suggestion that Israel, not America, offer to assist in ridding the region of ISIS. If nothing else, it would be very interesting to see how such an offer would be received. And it’s also why I think Israel has more to gain than to lose in negotiating a permanent peace deal that is maximally generous to the Palestinians. Goodness knows some things are more valuable than land.

Is The Ukraine War All About NATO?

by Jonah Shepp

The war between Ukraine and Russia continues to escalate as heads of NATO member states arrive in Wales for a summit on the crisis. Russia has announced (NYT) that it is revising its military strategy in response to what it sees as belligerent behavior on the part of NATO, including the prospect of expanding the alliance to include Ukraine. Of course, Putin doesn’t help matters by telling European officials that he could “take Kiev in two weeks”, as he apparently did in a recent phone conversation with José Manuel Barroso. Marc Champion takes him seriously:

Earlier this year it was only those on the lunatic nationalist fringe in Moscow who talked about taking Kiev. Now it’s Putin. This is part of a disturbing pattern. For a long time, only ultranationalists talked about a place called Novorossiya, or New Russia. In April, Putin took that up, and by June the separatists in Ukraine had merged their self-proclaimed republics to found Novorossiya. So what are the Russian lunatics talking about now? Ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians in Novorossiya, and attacking Poland and the Baltic states.

I have no idea where Putin is going with this, and I think it’s wiser not to speculate too much, but he seems to be in the thrall of an ideology that lends itself to the logic of imperial aggression, as do his soaring poll numbers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he continued to escalate. On the other hand, as John Mearsheimer puts it in an essay (paywalled) on the origins of the Ukraine crisis, Putin’s belligerence didn’t come from nowhere:

Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it. This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory. After all, the United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, much less on its borders. Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it. Logic aside, Russian leaders have told their Western counterparts on many occasions that they consider NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine unacceptable, along with any effort to turn those countries against Russia — a message that the 2008 Russian-Georgian war also made crystal clear.

This is a very important point that even Ukrainian chauvinists ought to grapple with: we would not be where we are if Western leaders had not chosen to ruffle Russian feathers by inching the NATO umbrella steadily eastward since the end of the Cold War. That is not the same as saying that this is all America’s fault, but it does acknowledge the basic facts that actions have consequences, that countries tend to respond rationally to real or perceived threats, and that Putin had every reason to believe that Ukraine would eventually join NATO absent some kind of Russian intervention. Putin’s ethno-religious and political ideologies should be judged independently on their merits (or lack thereof), but his belief that the Cold War never ended is readily borne out by NATO’s expansion, as well as other signs, such as the IMF’s misguided handling of post-Soviet Russia in the 90s. Putin can be a bad dude in general and not solely to blame for this crisis in particular, just as surely as he can ride a horse shirtless and chew gum at the same time.

On the ground, meanwhile, pro-Russian separatist forces are advancing closer to the port city of Mariupol. The situation seems terribly precarious, and it’s not clear how NATO will respond. In the same piece cited above, Marc Champion previews what plans will be on the agenda at the NATO summit and offers his take on whether they will work:

It appears that the NATO summit this week will do two things. First, the alliance is expected to agree to equip bases in Poland and the Baltic states and begin a “persistent rotation” of a few thousand troops through them. That wording amounts to Putin-like double-speak, to get around commitments the alliance made in 1997 not to position permanent bases in eastern Europe. Second, it seems NATO will devote a 10,000-strong rapid reaction force to deploy eastward at short notice. This would all be good, but it needs to be done in such a way that Putin clearly gets that when it comes to the Baltic states in particular, NATO’s commitment is ironclad. If not, he will test it.

Jakub Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell advocate a more muscular response:

Russia’s assault on Ukraine is certainly not an invasion of a NATO country, but it cannot but be seen also as a test run of sorts. It is a violent way of asking: What would NATO, and the U.S., do when a small group of unmarked armed men takes over a border village in Latvia or Poland? What is the response to a few Russian tanks getting “lost” in Lithuania? And more broadly, what is NATO’s response to Russian power suddenly coming much closer to its eastern frontier? A simple restatement of NATO’s Article 5 is not sufficient: extended deterrence was not designed to counter such threats. A readjustment of NATO bases and U.S. presence in Europe is needed.

Matthew Gault argues that the alliance’s strategies, developed during the Cold War to repel a traditional invasion, are useless against the covert tactics of Russian maskirovka:

It’s no wonder that Latvia and other Baltic area NATO countries asked the alliance to deploy more troops within their borders—and NATO agreed. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told The Guardian that NATO would build more bases in Eastern Europe. But new bases and extra troops will do little to deter maskirovka. If Russia can badly undermine a country without actually invading—withholding direct military force until the conditions are just right—then NATO troops could end up just standing around while the society around them disintegrates. The collapse could slowly render a traditional allied military presence politically unsustainable—it might look like an occupation—while simultaneously giving Russia an excuse to eventually send in “peacekeepers” whose true intentions are anything but peaceful. That’s how 21st-century maskirovka beats dated Cold War thinking.

Reid Standish wonders if Putin’s popularity will take a hit as more Russian soldiers turn up dead in Ukraine. He also notes that the Kremlin is trying to keep such casualties under wraps:

Putin has seen his approval ratings sky-rocket amid the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but mounting casualties are likely to undercut the political benefits Putin has accrued from his stand-off with the West. “Short, bloodless, victorious wars are popular everywhere,” Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy. “It’s only afterwards, when the casualties begin to mount, that people start to ask, ‘Was that really worth it?’” Russia’s unwillingness to honestly report on the deaths of its soldiers harkens back to the days of the Soviet Union, where the fate of servicemen returning from Afghanistan was covered up.

ISIS Murders Another American

by Jonah Shepp

News broke today that ISIS has made good on their threat to behead kidnapped journalist Steven Sotloff, when a video of the murder appeared on social media:

A masked figure in the video also issued a threat against a British hostage, a man the group named as David Haines, and warned governments to back off “this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State”, the SITE monitoring service said. The purported executioner appeared to be the same British-accented man who appeared in an Aug. 19 video showing the killing of American journalist James Foley, and it showed a similar desert setting. In both videos, the captives wore orange jumpsuits. “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings and … on Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings,” the man said. “So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”

For those who must have the details, the Wire provides a fuller account of the video, including Sotloff’s last words, in which he is forced to lament that he is “paying the price” for the US intervention in Iraq. Much as I’m convinced that Sotloff’s murder will do nothing for the jihadists but shock and disgust the world even more than their past atrocities already have, that’s not much comfort to his poor mother.

An Actual Fight Over Democracy

by Jonah Shepp

The crises in the Middle East and Ukraine are frequently described in ideological terms, as battles between freedom and tyranny, liberal democracy and illiberal authoritarianism. The latest piece in this vein is from Lilia Shevtsova, who calls Russia “an advance combat unit of the new global authoritarianism, with China acting as its informal leader and waiting in the wings to seize its own opportunities”. I think this argument may give both Russia and China too much credit, especially as the informal leader of the new global authoritarianism is feeling threatened by a pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong. Evan Osnos looks in:

On Sunday, the Beijing government rejected demands for free, open elections for Hong Kong’s next chief executive, in 2017, enraging protesters who had called for broad rights to nominate candidates. China’s National People’s Congress announced a plan by which nominees must be vetted and approved by more than fifty per cent of a committee that is likely to be stacked with those who heed Beijing’s wishes. … Hong Kong’s growing activist network, known as Occupy Central (named after the city’s downtown) has increasingly alarmed leaders in Beijing, and they now describe the activism as a brush fire that could sweep over the mainland. In a piece published on Saturday, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, hinted about foreign agitators “attempting to turn Hong Kong into a bridgehead for subverting and infiltrating the Chinese mainland. This can absolutely not be permitted.”

Osnos analyzes the situation as a competition between nationalism and globalism; his analysis is instructive, but at a time when political thinkers are worrying themselves over the possibility that the Western model of liberalism is in decline or failing to gain traction in the developing world, this long-simmering conflict looks to me like the most clear-cut test case of liberalism vs. authoritarianism in the world today.

When the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre came around in June, Hong Kong stirred. And as Isaac Stone Fish points out, the Hong Kong protests point to the PRC’s bigger-picture problem of containing the demand for democracy, which people tend to like and want to keep once they get a chance to try it out:

Beijing could crack down on Hong Kong, but it needs to be careful not to push too hard — that risks alienating the majority of Hong Kongers who aren’t bothered by the status quo. More importantly, Beijing is very wary of the message communicated to Taiwan, the self-governing island of roughly 23 million people claimed by China. For decades, Beijing’s paramount foreign policy goal has been the reunification of Taiwan to the mainland. Probably the most likely way for that to happen would be a situation similar to Hong Kong — whereby Taiwanese would enjoy significant autonomy and a wide range of political freedoms. But the more Hong Kongers suffer, the more difficult it will be for the CCP to make the case that Taiwanese should voluntarily join the mainland.

Noah Feldman also sees the decision as a message to Taiwan:

The latest Hong Kong development strengthens the case for taking the risk of promoting independence. China is signaling that it will not democratize even at the margins during Xi’s leadership. That means nationalism — Xi’s “Chinese Dream” — will continue to be an important source of legitimacy, and that in 10 years, China will probably only be closer to insisting that Taiwan become Chinese.

And Rachel Lu connects it to Hong Kong’s declining economic clout relative to the mainland, which is highlighted in a new report:

In taking a hard-line stance against granting true democracy to Hong Kong, the Chinese government has made clear to the rest of China — as well as Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province — that threats of civil disobedience will not lead to political concessions. The central government probably also believes that it can now cast a menacing shadow over Hong Kong with its increasing economic weight. The report by Trigger Trend does not appear to be commissioned by the Chinese government, but the report’s conclusions have been widely publicized in mainland media and align nicely with the central government’s unspoken message to Hong Kongers: The special administrative region is no longer very special.

I have little background in Chinese politics or history, so I have no expert insight to render here, but even from casually following the news out of China, one has to wonder how tenable the status quo is. Capitalism has won the day, as it has in most of the world: does liberalism necessarily follow? It certainly hasn’t done so everywhere, but what’s interesting to me about China is that there are about 30 million people in Taiwan and Hong Kong who have long since proven that liberal democracy can speak Mandarin. In other words, one can’t credibly say that China is culturally indisposed toward democracy, as is often said (unfairly, I think) of Russia, Iran, and the Arab world. Of course, the legacy of Maoism and the past half-century of history bear heavily on the politics of the mainland, but it’s entirely possible that a free China could emerge in the long run, provided a catastrophic war doesn’t derail everything.

In any case, again, it’s certainly worth watching. China’s political trajectory has huge implications for American foreign policy (and indeed, for the entire world) in the coming decades. Which brings me to a couple questions I’ve had in the back of my head for a while and would like to pose to the collective brain that is the Dish readership: 1) what do you think of the prospects for democracy in China? and 2) given the choice of an ascendent Russia and an ascendent China, which should the US prefer? My off-the-cuff answer is “obviously China”, but I’d be curious to hear what you all think. E-mail me your ideas at I’ll revisit these questions later this week, hopefully with some brilliant insights from the inbox.


by Jonah Shepp


As a child and teenager, I attended one of those New York City magnet schools that you read about from time to time, such as when an alum tentatively proposes to shut them all down. Accordingly, I share an alma mater with some notable individuals. The year I graduated, our commencement ceremony attracted a moderate crowd of local paparazzi on account of our guest speaker: Cynthia Nixon, class of ’84. In terms of pure star power, we had outdone the class of 2002, whose distinguished alumnus had been Elena Kagan, at the time merely the first female dean of Harvard Law School. Yeah, that kind of high school.

But celebrity aside, Nixon’s address to our class was actually more insightful than I, at 17, had expected. After the customary platitudes about lifelong friendships and school pride, she got to the point, which she summed up in four words: “Get out of here.”

Now what she meant by this was that if we lived our entire lives in New York, we’d limit the expansion of our minds much more than we realized. Growing up in an international megacity, it’s easy for native New Yorkers to fool ourselves into thinking that we are citizens of the world simply because the world has moved in down the block. The thrust of Nixon’s address to us was that this was a fallacy, and that if we really wanted to get some perspective on how unusual our metropolitan upbringings had been, we ought to spend some time not just traveling but living outside the city, and if we had the chance, outside the country as well.

Four years later, after finishing college in the opening act of the Great Recession with no prospects or plans for the future, I took advantage of a random opportunity and got out of here. Specifically, I moved to Jordan, where I lived for the better part of the next several years. For those who say you can’t learn anything from Hollywood, let me tell you something: Cynthia Nixon was right.

Living abroad, especially in a milieu so different from that of my childhood, did for me what no amount of formal education could: it challenged me to look at myself, America, and the world, from the standpoint of a foreign Other; and revealed the limits of my ability to inhabit that standpoint. It complicated my narrative of history and showed me how incredibly privileged I was to be an American citizen, starting with the fact that most people can’t just up and decide to move to another country for a while.

Probably the most significant impression Jordan made on me was how it guided the evolution of my views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordan bore the brunt of both the 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugee crises and at least 50-60% of its population is of Palestinian origin (or rather, was; the Syrian crisis has increased Jordan’s population by 10 percent). In any case, a majority of the friends I made in Jordan are of Palestinian descent, and it’s harder to deny people’s rights or historical narratives when you actually know them. I’ve written at length elsewhere about what it was like to live there as an American Jew, and I’ll likely touch on this again in a separate post this week, but the moral of the story is that people’s world views are always and everywhere shaped by experience, and it is always worth considering how someone arrived at an opinion before holding them in judgment over it, even if I don’t share it, and even if I believe it to be objectively incorrect. This is a skill I find lacking in the most polemical of the opining class, and not only in discussions of Israel and Palestine.

I also got a good firsthand look at how incredibly lucky I am to be an American. A US or EU passport remains an object of envy around the world, even among people who care little for American or European culture or values. There’s an awful lot to be said here, most of it obvious, but it bears remembering that the accident of my birth on American soil holds open doors for me that remain shut to the majority of the world. My experience of expatriate life was completely different than those of the vast majority of emigrants, who leave their countries because they have to, not because they want to. And needless to say, living in a country that does not quite have a free press, free speech, or free religion made me all the more appreciative of what America does right. These are privileges worth checking from time to time.

More broadly, I think the experience of living abroad showed me the extent to which the culturally progressive, “when you’re cut, you bleed” attitude toward people of various races and religions—the notion that we are all fundamentally the same—is true, as well as its limits. We are not all the same. Culture matters; it is as much a product of history as anything else that matters. But the human condition is a general state of affairs. A major feature of that condition today is the city, with its attendant poverty, crowding, crime, pollution, and traffic. These problems take a variety of shapes: Amman’s unemployment problem is very different in its origins and expressions than that of Caracas or Harare or Los Angeles, but the problem is fundamentally the same, and endemic to large cities. And global events like the Great Recession really are felt everywhere, in similar ways.

My point is that those who are fortunate enough not to live in failed states or active warzones (and let’s not forget about the millions who are), are worrying from day to day about the same things: rent, bills, food, family disagreements, lovers’ quarrels. When we pay attention to world events, we think of them first and foremost in terms of how they affect us directly. This narrow perspective is a natural result of the parochial concerns that rule our day-to-day lives, but a little appreciation for how universal those concerns are (that is to say, empathy) can go a long way toward broadening the individual perspective, softening prejudices, and healing enmities, which is the only way to permanently end wars.

I arrived at all these insights, such as they are, in the same way: simply by standing in another person’s shoes. That’s why I think my time as an expatriate strengthened my conviction, which I call humanism, that empathy is a sufficient cause for ethical action.

So now I put the question to you, dear Dishheads. I know by the views from your windows that we have readers from Denver to Dushanbe, and I know you didn’t all start out where you ended up, so to those of you who live or have lived outside the country of your birth: what motivated you to do so and how did the experience change you? Perhaps you haven’t lived abroad but have moved from, say, rural Kentucky to San Francisco, or vice-versa: a bigger change of scenery than crossing some international borders. I’d ask you the same question. Migration has always had a significant hand in history; in a global economy, that role is even greater. What has it meant to you? Email me your thoughts at

(Photo: The view from my window—OK, balcony—in Amman, Jordan, by my roommate Matt, who was slightly better about taking pictures than I was.)