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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Why Tyrants Fall

December 25th, 2011 - 1:18 pm

What spells the doom of dictators?  Nobody really knows, and there are so many “whats” that the whole subject defies quantification.  Coups and assassinations, revolutions, defeats in war, and even sudden collapses, are all to be found in the texts, ancient and modern.  Even those of us who have predicted the fall of tyrannies, as I did in the case of the Soviet Empire, are surprised when it happens, and almost always fail to foresee how it happens.

Indeed, it’s the wrong question.  Since there are so many variations, and since one tyrant may survive a crisis that would bring down another dictator, we should ask specific questions about specific tyrants, and use historical examples of similar situations to guide our understanding.

Some years back, when I was working with Walter Laqueur, I asked him what he was reading, and he said something like “I mainly read biographies.”  A good lesson there;  some dictators will fall in crisis, while others grow stronger and more resolute.  Which sort are we dealing with in a given case?  So the question is not, what brings down dictatorships in general, but “how likely is this tyrant to fall?”  We have to look  carefully at the unique characteristics of a given dictatorship, and avoid the fruitless search for “rules.”

Finally, don’t forget that the Almighty put us on earth for entertainment value.  Most of the time we’re likely to get it wrong.  How many of us expected Qadaffi to fight to the death?  How many expected Gorbachev and his Soviet Empire to implode without a fight? We’re usually not smart enough to foresee such things.

That is why the nose, not the brain, is the greatest instrument for sensing when a regime is in danger of coming down.  The nose detects the first hints of rot, which generally attend an imminent failure of will by the ruler.  Ergo, we need to pay particular attention to the odors of the tyrant him/herself, and the nature of his/her tyranny.  While there are no general rules,  there are some patterns that might help us answer — or sniff out — the right questions.  If we even ask them.

I’m always intrigued when somebody thinks he or she can confidently predict that a tyrant is about to fall, as if it’s all a question of applying the good old manual.  I’ve been intrigued for months now, as expert upon expert tells us that Bashar Assad of Damascus is going down.  Just the other day, no less a pundit than Dennis Ross, recently retired from the Obama administration, let us know that he is quite confident about it:

This is a regime that is entirely dependent on coercion, and the coercion is failing, and when a regime is entirely dependent on coercion that is not succeeding, you know that that’s a regime that’s not going to be around for an extended period.

I wish!  Let’s take just two counter-examples from Syria’s neighbor, Iran.  In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeqh drove the shah into foreign exile, and millions marched through the streets of Tehran and other major Iranian cities to celebrate Mossadeqh’s victory. Yet the shah quickly returned, and Mossadeqh was removed, and millions marched to celebrate that event, just days after the pro-Mossadeqh parades. So regimes can fall and rise again.

More recently, in the summer of 2009, millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest the electoral fraud that retained Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential office.  The regime unleashed coercion, but the demonstrations continued. Just as in Syria today, the coercion wasn’t working;  if anything, it was provoking even greater challenges to the regime’s legitimacy.  The regime cracked down harder, dissidents were arrested, tortured, and slaughtered, and the regime survived…for an “extended period.”

There are plenty of such examples, including the “Prague Spring” of 1968, where coercion failed for a while, but then succeeded. And there are other cases, such as the failed “color revolutions” in some former Soviet satellites, where it seemed tyranny had been defeated, but it came back.  Ask Putin and Medvedev how that one works.  Ask the Lebanese, while you’re at it.  Or the Egyptians.

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Havel, Kafka and Us

December 21st, 2011 - 7:22 pm

A friend sent me this Czech tv video on the mourning march to the St Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle.  I can’t watch it without tearing up. It’s entirely worthy of the great Czech poet, playwright, and revolutionary hero.

The leaders of the free world — not, however, the president of the United States, who is sending the Clintons to the funeral on Friday — will pay him homage, as they should.  Havel was  a marvelous leader and a rare man who remained true to his admirable principles without puffing himself up or delivering moralistic sermons.  He was well aware of his foibles and sins, and yet he worked miracles.  This season, in which so many religious people celebrate miracles, is the right time to reflect on his life.

He wasn’t lucky in his choice of birthplace:  Czechoslovakia, 1935, and the Nazis would soon arrive.  He came from a good family (dad was a restaurateur), but that made things harder for the Havels once the Communists took over after the war.  Given his “bourgeois” background, Havel was kept out of prestigious university programs, and he did manual labor for a while. He fought Communism all his life, got thrown into jail for four years, and when he came out the regime offered him the chance to emigrate to the West.  He laughed at them, went on to lead Charter 77 and then the whole country.

So he came from the wrong sort of family, didn’t have the credentials to ensure literary or intellectual success, and was singled out for punishment and repression by a very nasty regime.  Yet he was one of a handful of people who changed the world by fighting totalitarian Communism and then, having defeated it, inspired his people to rejoin the Western world, embrace capitalism, and support democratic dissidents everywhere.

Did I mention that he loved music?  Both rock and jazz, because he recognized their subversive power.  He loved Frank Zappa, and made him the Czech “cultural ambassador.”  When Bill Clinton visited Prague in the mid-nineties, Havel took him to a seedy nightclub, where the American president played sax with the locals (and his wife, Dagmar, visited the club on a walking tour of the city shortly after Havel’s death).

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The British Malady

December 20th, 2011 - 7:14 pm

It’s either something in the water, or in the British DNA.  This occurs to me as I read about the poor soccer fan who used to go into “Addisonian crisis” when her beloved Manchester United was in a tense game.

Addison’s is pretty bad.  It’s an adrenal failure that leads to a shortage of cortisol, thereby dropping your blood pressure, and if it progresses further, to coma and death.

It almost killed her, although she did make medical history:

“We believe that our patient was having difficulty mounting an appropriate physiological cortisol response during the big games and therefore we present this as the first description of Manchester United-induced Addisonian crisis,” said Dr Akbar Choudhry who treated the patient.”

But fortunately, the good doctor figured it out, got her proper treatment, and now she can go to the games, scream her brains out, and not risk her life.

I know all about Addison’s disease, and not just because JFK had it.  A very important member of our family—Thurber—has it, and his symptoms are classic, just like the soccer fan’s:  anxiety, lethargy, trouble standing up, and “a sense of impending doom,” which afflicted the woman late in soccer games, but which seemed an integral part of Thurber’s personality.  You could almost hear him thinking, “all is lost.  We’re doomed!”

Thurber is the family Airedale.  A British breed.  The biggest terrier.  He looks like a stuffed animal, with his big head, his wet, black nose, his elegant ears, and his magnificent beard.

Like all terriers, Thurber thinks of himself as a perpetual puppy, and in keeping with the well-known characteristics of the breed, he is basically untrainable.  And he’s very whacky (just like the lady who got his disease).

So far as I know, he doesn’t root for Manchester United (his favorite sport is lurking-under-the-table-praying-for-food-to-fall), but otherwise his symptoms are the same as hers.  And Kennedy’s.  Now you see why I thought this affliction has something to do with the British water or the British DNA.  Three for three!  An Englishwoman, a British dog, and an Irish president.

Q.E.D.

PS:  People are curious why we named him “Thurber.”  Yes, it has to do with the great writer and cartoonist who wrote and drew so much about dogs.  He wrote a wonderful story called something like “The Dog Who Bit People,” about an airedale who bit everyone who came to visit.  Hilarious.  I wanted a dog who did that, and so…

But the experiment failed.  Thurber adores everyone, and when someone visits he flops over on his back and adopts the official State Department Negotiating Position:  legs splayed wide, tongue out, stomach quivering, awaiting a nice scratch.

Who’s REALLY Blowing Up Iran?

December 14th, 2011 - 7:37 pm

It just has to be Israel, according to the pundit class.  You know, that warmonger Netanyahu.  Or maybe it’s us.  Maybe it’s Obama, who after all killed bin Laden and Qadaffi, toppled Mubarak and bin Ali, and has proclaimed that “Assad must go.” Who else could be behind the “mysterious” wave of assassination, sabotage and explosions all over the country, from military bases to factories, from pipelines carrying natural gas to the Turks to automobiles in downtown Tehran carrying nuclear physicists to or from work?

Until recently, I was the only one writing about the systematic campaign of sabotage.  Now it’s all the rage.

The latest attack against a major Iranian target came a few days ago against a plant that manufactures “special steel” that is used, inter alia, for nose cones and other parts of missiles.  It’s the fourth major attack in the past couple of months, three of which you’ve probably read about, and one which has largely escaped notice.  The three you know are the steel plant three days ago, the monster blast at Karaj on November 12th, and the explosion on November 28th at a military complex at Isfahan.  The one you didn’t hear about  took place on yet another military facility in Khorramabad, near the Iraqi border, a couple of days after Karaj.

And then there are “minor” events, such as a couple of Basij gunned down in Balouchistan the other day.

Before we get to the whys and wherefores, a bit of detail:  the huge detonation at Karaj, which, as I have explained, surprised the attackers and distorted our understanding.  The operation was aimed at the Revolutionary Guards Corps, specifically at General Hassan Tehrani Moghadam, who was both the architect of the national missile program and one of the nastiest officials in that legendarily nasty organization.  The attackers did not know that there was a large quantity of rocket fuel on the base that day (which was the reason Moghadam was there).  The special fuel came from North Korea, and it was supposed to double tne range of Iran’s missiles.  The explosion that killed Moghadam and scores of his comrades ignited the rocket fuel, with dramatic results.  To date, 377 dead have been reported to the supreme leader’s office.  Among the dead are the attackers–they couldn’t escape the big explosion–and at least four North Korean officials, who were there for the celebration.

The attackers came from the internal opposition, and so far as I know they had no ties to any foreign anything, not a foreign intelligence service, not a foreign military organization, not a foreign government.

Of course, as always with things Iranians, you’ve got to caveat what you think you know.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been misinformed.  But, on the other hand, I’ve been a lonely voice for quite a while, saying that the opposition (call it the Green Movement, for lack of an updated logo) would become more violent, that the movement was, if anything, more powerful than it was at the time of the big demonstrations a year and two years ago, and that the regime was full of opposition sympathizers and collaborators.

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Returning the Terrorists to Tehran

December 13th, 2011 - 4:32 pm

In January, 2007, five American soldiers were brutally murdered in Karbala, Iraq,  by a team of operatives who had been trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ foreign legion, the Quds Force. The mastermind of the operation was a senior member of Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based terrorist organization that is a virtual part of the Iranian regime. That man, a Lebanese named Ali Musa Daqduq, was subsequently captured in southern Iraq, as were other key members of the assassination team.

Daqduq is still under American control in Iraq, the last of the killers from the 2007 remaining in prison.  Not so the others.  Incredibly, the other captured terrorists were subsequently released to the Iraqi government in the summer of 2009, and speedily repatriated to Iran, part of a swap for British soldiers who had been taken hostage by Iranian-run thugs.  American military officers were not happy about the release, and when I discovered what was going on, and wrote about it, I received very vigorous denials from the (Bush) Pentagon, along the lines of  “what do you take us for?  We would never do such a thing.”

But they did, and not just with the Karbala killers.  Hundreds of Iranian and Iranian-trained terrorists who were once under U.S. control were sent home via the Iraqis, despite the predictable and entirely justifiable rage of American military men and women.  But they were told to do it by their political bosses, and they followed orders, as they must.

It seems they are now on the verge of liberating Ali Daqduq, who has a lot of American blood all over his claws, not only from the Karbala Five. He worked directly for the Iranians, training Iraqi terrorists — sometimes in Iraq, sometimes in Iran itself — to assassinate our troopsThey are planning to turn him over to the Iraqi government, which will, as it always has, arrange for his onward travel to Iran.

The symbolism of the release would be awful.  Daqduq is the last prisoner in American hands, and he is a proxy for Iran, our major enemy.  Everyone in the region, from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan to Israel and Jordan, would see it as proof positive of Obama’s fecklessness, a final act of self-humiliation in the last hours of the Iraq War.

For once, Congressional Republicans have been fighting on the side of the angels, sending very strong letters to Attorney General Holder and Secretary of Defense Panetta, demanding that Daqduq be retained under American control, and suggesting that the best course of action is to transfer him to Guantanamo.  So far, there is no indication that anything of the sort is about to happen, and one will get you five that Daqduq gets a hero’s welcome in Tehran very soon.

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For those who may have thought the Obama administration lacked real spine on responding to the 32-year old Iranian war against us, there is now a dramatic response (mild sarcasm alert).  The State Department has launched a “virtual Embassy” to Iran, a website with some useful material about the Iranian regime’s systematic distortion of America, and American policy towards Iran, a collection of old speeches and statements from Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama, links to Hillary herself doing TV interviews, and “news” from the Voice of America.

The best of it, aside from information about visas and student exchange programs (stuff that is easily available online in any event), comes in a section about “myths” about American policy, in which the “Embassy” takes pains to point out that the United States is aware of the repression of the Iranian people, and has sanctioned the officials guilty of it:

We have designated numerous Iranian officials and organizations for their responsibility in the serious human rights abuses carried out after the disputed 2009 elections.  The Iranian government is responsible for jailing, intimidating, and isolating Iran’s preeminent thinkers, filmmakers, lawyers, journalists and civil society activists, depriving the world of their contributions to the international community of ideas.

True enough, but there are two missing words in the list of regime abuses:  murdering and torturing.  And the “myths” carry on some of our unfortunate past errors, such as apologizing for our presumed sins in 1953, when we and the Brits supported millions of Iranians calling for the return of the shah and the removal of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeqh.  Indeed, both President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright both apologized for this.

And the number one myth the State Department is at such pains to knock down is the very idea that the United States wants to topple the regime in Tehran — which is what most Iranians want.  No way, they are told:  “Fact: U.S. policy is to support international norms, respecting both the rights and responsibilities of all nations.”

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