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Michael J. Totten

Published: 2010-01-08T13:00:50-08:00


If You Don't Change Your RSS Feed...

2010-01-08T13:00:50-08:00 won't see any new material from me because this one is now dead. I see that I have thousands of subscribers who use Google Reader, and none of you have seen any of the material I've published in the last three weeks. It looks like I've been dormant, but you've missed lots of good stuff, including an interview with Christopher Hitchens.

You can point your RSS reader here and get caught up.

Change Your RSS Feed


I recently upgraded my publishing software from Movable Type to Wordpress, so if you've been reading my site with an RSS feed, you will need to change it to this one.

The Eclipsing of the Arab-Israeli Conflict


According to a new study of public opinion by the folks who host the Doha Debates in Qatar, a clear majority in 18 Arab countries now thinks Iran poses a greater threat to security in the Middle East than Israel. The leadership in most of these countries has thought so for years. That average citizens now do so should be encouraging news for everyone in the region — aside from the Iranian government, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Some may find it hard to believe that so many Arabs think Iran is more threatening than Israel, but I don’t. Leave aside the fact that Iran really is more threatening. Arabs and Persians have detested each other for more than a thousand years, ever since Arabs conquered premodern Iran and converted its people to Islam. The lasting ethnic enmity between the two is compounded by religious sectarianism. Most Arabs are Sunnis, most Persians are Shias, and Sunnis and Shias have been slugging it out with each other since the 8th century.

After the Iranian revolution against the Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic exploded into the Arab Middle East with a campaign of imperialism and terrorism. Khomeini never concealed his ambition to lead the whole Muslim world, and the government he founded has been hammering the established Sunni Arab order with a battering ram ever since.

Iran had excellent relations with Israel before Khomeini scrapped the alliance and switched to the Arab side. Like his successor Ali Khamenei, he used violent anti-Zionism to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs. It worked to an extent for a while. Most Arab governments didn’t buy it, but the people often did.

As recently as 2006, Iran, despite the fact that it has a Persian and Shia majority, picked up considerable cache among Sunni Arabs for attacking Israel from Lebanon with its Hezbollah proxy. (Lebanese Sunnis weren’t very happy about it, but Sunnis in Egypt and Syria certainly were.) The Egyptian and Saudi governments were alarmed, and they condemned Hezbollah for sparking the conflict.

This was unprecedented. While it barely registered in the West, it was huge in the Middle East, so huge that some of the more paranoid Lebanese Shias started thinking that the Sunnis and the Israelis were conspiring against them.

“Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!” one excitable individual said to me at a Hezbollah rally in downtown Beirut. The guy was bonkers, of course. Israel doesn’t need bombs from the Gulf, and no one in the Gulf would donate or sell them even if Israel asked. Still, the man correctly sensed that Sunnis in the region aren’t as willing to team up with Shias against Israelis as they used to be.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Fresh Material Coming – I Promise


Sorry I haven't been around here much lately. My book has been all-consuming.

It's about two-thirds finished now, and I've reached a break point where I can stop and attend to this Web site again. I had to drop everything for a while to prepare the manuscript-in-progress for a publisher who asked to see more after reading my proposal and sample chapter.

I know it looks like I haven't been writing much, but I've actually been writing a lot. I'm just putting it into a box instead of posting it on the Internet. I have a huge amount of material here on my desk that no one has read. My wife hasn't even read it yet. And it's better than anything I have ever written. I wish I could share it with you right now. The wait will be worth it, though, trust me.

In the meantime, I'll get some fresh material up here.

So Long, Movable Type


Okay, so I've decided to change this Web site's publishing software from Movable Type to Wordpress. Most of you won't care or notice the difference, but those of you who leave comments will have a much easier time of it shortly.

Trouble with the Comments


There seems to be yet another problem with the comments section. I may have to port this site over to Wordpress if the folks at Movable Type can't get this straightened out soon. I've been using MT for years, but my patience with these problems is nearing its end.

Hezbollah's Delusions


Jonathan Spyer has posted a warning at the Global Research in International Affairs Web site for anyone who cares to pay attention. Read the whole thing, but here's the bottom line.

Hezbollah's new manifesto condemns the United States as the "root of all terror," and a "danger that threatens the whole world." The document also reiterates the call for the destruction of Israel, describing the need to "liberate Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa" as a "religious duty" for all Muslims. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that these sentiments are intended for the printed page only. Indeed, recent visitors to Lebanon speak of a high, almost delusional state of morale among circles affiliated with Hezbollah. In the closed world around the movement, it is sincerely believed that the next war between Israel and Hezbollah will be part of a greater conflict in which Israel will be destroyed.

The true balance of power is rather different, of course. And as Hezbollah slowly swallows other elements of the Lebanese system, the conclusion being reached in Israel is that any differentiation between the movement and the nest it has taken over is increasingly artificial - and will not be maintained in a future conflict.

The history of the region shows that anti-Western ideological waves can indeed eventually be accommodated and dealt with pragmatically - but this cannot be achieved at the moment of their rise. The examples of pan-Arabism and Palestinian nationalism suggest that only following military defeat and socioeconomic failure are flexibility and pragmatism likely to make an appearance. Political Islam has not yet reached this stage. Current events in Lebanon show its local Shi'ite manifestation to be in a state of rude health. It is brushing aside local foes, marching through the institutions, as tactically agile as it is strategically deluded. Yet its latest manifesto suggests that it remains the prisoner of its ideological perceptions. The recent history of the Middle East, meanwhile, indicates that gaps between reality and perception tend to be decided - eventually - in favor of the former.

How Crowded is Gaza?


Like almost everyone who has written about the Arab-Israeli conflict, I've described Gaza as one of the most densely populated places on earth. It's one of those "media facts" that get mindlessly repeated because it has been printed so many times it seems true, like it's the sort of thing everybody just knows.

Maybe it's time to lay this one to rest.

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(Thanks to Roger L. Simon for finding this video.)

UPDATE: Martin Kramer has more, including interesting visiual comparisons of Gaza to New York, Paris, and London.


1.5 million people live in Gaza. How many more millions do you suppose live in the Gaza-sized space in New York shown above?

The Calm Before the Storm?


The Middle East is quieter than usual right now, but I'm afraid it's not going to stay that way for much longer. Michael Young in Beirut is concerned, too, and his new piece in NOW Lebanon is a must-read.

Obama has always prided himself on being a realistic assessor of American limitations. However, listening to Hassan Nasrallah gloat at the weakness of the United States, you had to wonder if the US president misses the point. Power and success are in many respects fruits of perception. Just look at Nasrallah himself, who persuaded many a fool that the hecatomb of 2006 was a divine victory for Lebanon. Modesty in the exercise of foreign policy is a bad idea, particularly for the leader of the world’s most powerful country, whose destabilization, whether we like it or not, only destabilizes the global political and economic order.


Obama’s caution is defensible in some regards. War alone cannot be the benchmark of American power. Nothing would do more to harm the US than for it to sink itself into myriad conflicts it cannot win outright. In some ways, however, Obama failed to pick up on that lesson in the political realm, making ambitious promises concerning several complex Middle Eastern issues, without setting clear priorities, so that today, with little progress evident in any of them, the president stands discredited.

The mounting perception of American weakness will, arguably, be the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East in the coming years. It will alarm Washington’s allies and empower its foes, and Barack Obama’s stiff-upper-lip displays of candor, his persistent enunciation of American inadequacies, will only make things worse. Power may be a source of great evil, but not nearly as much as a power vacuum.

The New West Bank


Tom Gross describes the new West Bank in the Wall Street Journal.

It was in much better shape than I expected when I visited in 2006, but it did not look like this:

[W]e had driven from Jerusalem to Nablus without going through any Israeli checkpoints. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu has removed them all since the Israeli security services (with the encouragement and support of President George W. Bush) were allowed, over recent years, to crush the intifada, restore security to the West Bank and set up the conditions for the economic boom that is now occurring. (There was one border post on the return leg of the journey, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, but the young female guard just waved me and the two Palestinians I was traveling with, through.)

The shops and restaurants were also full when I visited Hebron recently, and I was surprised to see villas comparable in size to those on the Cote d'Azur or Bel Air had sprung up on the hills around the city. Life is even better in Ramallah, where it is difficult to get a table in a good restaurant. New apartment buildings, banks, brokerage firms, luxury car dealerships and health clubs are to be seen. In Qalqilya, another West Bank city that was previously a hotbed of terrorists and bomb-makers, the first ever strawberry crop is being harvested in time to cash in on the lucrative Christmas markets in Europe. Local Palestinian farmers have been trained by Israeli agriculture experts and Israel supplied them with irrigation equipment and pesticides.

A new Palestinian city, Ruwabi, is to be built soon north of Ramallah. Last month, the Jewish National Fund, an Israeli charity, helped plant 3,000 tree seedlings for a forested area the Palestinian planners say they would like to develop on the edge of the new city. Israeli experts are also helping the Palestinians plan public parks and other civic amenities.

Outsiders are beginning to take note of the turnaround too. The official PLO Wafa news agency reported last week that the 3rd quarter of 2009 witnessed near-record tourism in the Palestinian Authority, with 135,939 overnight hotel stays in 89 hotels that are now open. Almost half the guests come from the U.S or Europe.

Read This Web Site on Kindle


Remember, you can read my blog on Kindle(image) if you haven't already signed up. If you don't own a Kindle, you can pick one up here(image) .

I'm spending a lot of time on my book right now and am making good progress, and I have more long-form material coming here soon, too.

Obama's Afghanistan Speech


I'd rather spend a day working on my book than picking apart President Obama's speech where he announced a "surge" of troops in Afghanistan, so let me just say I agree with both John Podhoretz and Tom Ricks, two men who often don't see eye-to-eye on foreign policy and the military.

Here's John Podhoretz in Commentary:

Whatever the flaws in the speech itself — and they were considerable — Obama’s announcement and the details of the plan together represent a landmark moment. After spending a few months desperately looking for another choice, a third choice, a cute choice, Obama did in fact surrender to the logic of the presidency. Having called the conflict in Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” he has committed the nation to it, and himself to it.


He is clearly acting against his own gut instincts and those within the ideological tendency that is his natural and longtime home, and that does take courage. Indeed, that is what accounts for the unsatisfying quality of the speech he delivered. He was trying to find language with which he could make his decision explicable to people like him — indeed, perhaps even to an alternate-universe Barack Obama who hadn’t won the presidency and would almost certainly have viewed the notion of committing more troops to Afghanistan in a Bush-like “surge” an awful proposition. That mollification isn’t really possible, and so the speech didn’t work as a matter of rhetoric or suasion.
But that is a missed opportunity for him. It doesn’t really matter. It’s the policy that matters.

And here is Tom Ricks in Foreign Policy, basically seeing things the same way, yet from the other side of the political spectrum:

This speech was an ode to ambivalence, an aria of ambiguity, a rasher of reluctance. It was addressed to those who, like him, really didn't want to send more troops to Afghanistan. It was for those who care more about rebuilding New Orleans than Kandahar or Mosul. He was explaining to them why he was breaking with them. He had after great deliberation concluded that it was necessary to escalate.

To really get this speech, I think you had to be someone who voted for Obama, who believed he was elected to end our wars, and was feeling terribly and personally disappointed with the president over the possibility of a surge in Afghanistan -- and the failure to close Guantanamo, and the lift the ban on gays in the military, not to mention the bailout of Wall Street fatcats. Hence the explicit discussion of the Vietnam analogy, and the review of the folly of invading Iraq in 2003.

The Other Shoe


Maybe you won't think this is funny, but I do: The famous shoe-throwing Iraqi has a shoe thrown at him by another Iraqi in Paris. Don't miss the video.

The Dubai Effect


Max Boot is quite right that the Middle East needs Dubai, and not only because it embraces modernity and flouts the region's taboos. It's also an example of good government, at least by the Arab world's standards, and good economics if you look past its excesses.

The United Arab Emirates' most extravagant city-state has a more or less transparent market economy and a degree of personal freedom rarely found elsewhere in the Middle East outside Israel and Lebanon. The government doesn't micromanage the personal lives of its citizens as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nor does it smother the economy with heavy state socialism as in Egypt and Syria. Its bureaucracy is efficient -- investors don't spend years acquiring permits and filling out paperwork before they can open a shopping center, a hotel, or a Starbucks. The Islamic religion is respected as it is everywhere else in the Middle East, but clerics don't make the rules.

Lebanon and Iraq have both been hailed as possible models for the rest of the region, but they aren't really. Maybe they will be someday, but they aren't today. Freewheeling Lebanon is more or less democratic, but it's unstable. It blows up every year. The Beirut Spring in 2005 ousted the Syrian military dictatorship, but shaking off Iran and its private Hezbollah militia has proved nearly impossible. Iraq is likewise still too violent and dysfunctional to be an inspiring model right now.

Many of the skyscrapering steel and glass cities of the Persian Gulf feel like soulless shopping malls. It wouldn't occur to anyone to suggest that one of these places is "the Paris of the Middle East," as Beirut has often been called. Dubai's outrageous attractions and socially liberal atmosphere, however, makes it something like a Las Vegas of the Middle East as a traveler's destination. And it really is something like a Hong Kong or Singapore as a place to do business.

It features prominently in Vali Nasr's compelling new book Forces of Fortune(image) , where he argues that the Middle East may finally liberalize politically after it has first been transformed economically by a middle-class commercial revolution. Most in the West haven't noticed, but that revolution has already begun. And what he calls "the Dubai effect" is a key part of it.

"People in the region who visit Dubai," he writes, "return home wondering why their governments can't issue passports in a day or provide clean mosques and schools, better airports, airlines and roads, and above all better government."

He's right. Most Beirutis I know look down on Dubai as artificial and gimmicky, but just about everyone else in the region who isn't a radical Islamist thinks it's amazing.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Terrorism's Mask of Sanity


The following article appears in the print version of the Autumn issue of Azure. As of this writing, a war of words is heating up between Israel and Hezbollah that may lead to yet another round of armed conflict between the two. Hezbollah recently threatened to carry out overseas operations against Israeli interests in order to avenge the assassination of its military commander, Imad Mugniyeh, last year in Damascus; the Israeli government, for its part, warned Hezbollah that a steep price will be paid if it dares to proceed. Will Hezbollah make good on its claims, and risk bringing the wrath of the IDF down on Lebanon’s already-battered southern villages and the Shiite quarter in Beirut? True, predicting the course of events in the Middle East is difficult, if not impossible. When it comes to Hezbollah, however, one can play it safe by assuming the worst—or at the very least, being wary of rosy predictions. And there have been no lack of those: Ever since Lebanon’s “Party of God” (a literal translation of hizb allah) stopped hijacking airplanes and taking Westerners hostage, chronic underestimation of its intentions and capabilities has been the norm among journalists, policy analysts, and even Hezbollah experts. One such widely-acknowledged expert is Augustus Richard Norton, whose book Hezbollah: A Short History is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. Norton has earned his reputation as a serious authority on Hezbollah, having conducted research in Lebanon for more than two decades and authored several volumes on that country in particular and the region in general. During the 1980s, when Hezbollah first emerged, he was a U.S. Army officer and military observer for the United Nations near the south Lebanese border with Israel; in 1993, he became a tenured professor of both international relations and anthropology at Boston University. Like all good academics, Norton strives here for an objective view of his subject: “The purpose of this book,” he writes in the prologue, “is to offer a more balanced and nuanced account of this complex organization” than has been provided before. He mostly succeeds. His short history is not a polemic, after all: He does not grind an axe, nor does he serve as a Hezbollah apologist, as some sympathetic Westerners have been wont to do. On the contrary, the book is long on facts and refreshingly short on opinion. Moreover, the new 2009 paperback edition includes an afterword that corrects some of the mistakes in the first edition. In this short but dense volume, Norton documents in detail how and why Hezbollah was founded in South Lebanon in the crucible of civil war, and goes on to explain the group’s role during that war and how it emerged as the champion of Lebanon’s ideologically fractious Shia community. Like Hamas, Norton shows, Hezbollah acquired much of its support by providing social services such as education and medical care to parts of the country long neglected by the state—even as it waged a proxy war against the “Zionist enemy” to the south. During the last decade or so, however, Hezbollah has attempted to show a more moderate face to the world, following the laws of war a bit more than Hamas, and a lot more than Al Qaeda. Yet if Hezbollah may be described as “restrained” in comparison to some other terrorist groups, it is hardly moderate in any objective sense, a fact of which Norton is well aware. Indeed, he points out that toward the end of Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s, Hezbollah’s kidnapping spree made the country so dangerous for Westerners that the U.S. State Depa[...]