Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

 Boris Nemtsov,  
Advocate for Russia  and Its People
By Robin Wright
Boris Nemtsov, the charismatic Russian opposition leader assassinated Friday night just blocks from the Kremlin, has been an inspiration for a generation. He just refused to give up, defying the growing odds against him and despite the murderous assaults on other opposition leaders.

Back in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s collapse produced a different world order, I searched the globe for new leaders who would shape emerging trends. I called them the “Nine names of the Nineties.” The first person I set out to interview was Nemtsov.

By the age of 25, Nemtsov was heralded as one of the country’s leading physicists. By 32, he was mayor of Gorky, which he returned to the pre-Soviet name of Nizhny Novgorod and designed an imaginative economic reforms to convert the military-industrial complex in Russia’s third largest city.

Under Nemtsov, factories for nuclear submarines, MIG warplanes, armored vehicles and radar were sold off or converted into plants for vacuum cleaners, cars, appliances and televisions.

“The most important result is making people believe they can themselves achieve results they want,” he told me in 1997. “We are proving that Russians are not some sort of lost people without hope. We are showing they are worthy of a better life and can have it.”

By 37, Nemtsov was named deputy prime minister and put in charge of directing Russia’s transition to a market economy, under President Boris Yeltsin. He was often mentioned as a possible successor to Yeltsin.

Then Vladimir Putin came to power.

In gutsy rebukes, Nemtsov relentlessly challenged Putin’s government. He alleged mass corruption over the Olympics in Sochi, his hometown. He contested the fairness of elections. In 2011, he was jailed for 15 days after participating in public protest – against restrictions on public protests. He was scheduled to lead a protest Sunday against Russia’s role in the war in Ukraine.

The BBC reported that Nemtsov’s last tweet was an appeal for Russia’s fragmented opposition to come together for protest against the war in Ukraine. “If you support stopping Russia’s war with Ukraine, if you support stopping Putin’s aggression, come to the Spring March in Maryino on 1 March,” the tweet said.

He bravely ridiculed Putin on media both at home and abroad. “This is a country of corruption,” he told Anthony Bourdain on CNN’s Parts Unknown. “This is the system.”

The impact of his loss has been quickly felt both at home and abroad too.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted Friday, “Nemtsov was a real patriot, who believed in the possibility of Russia's greatness. I cry now both for his family & the country he so loved.”

President Obama, who met Nemtsov in 2009, called him a “tireless advocate for his country, seeking for his fellow Russian citizens the rights to which all people are entitled.” Obama called on Russia to hold a “prompt, impartial, and transparent investigation” into the murder. Nemtsov was shot as he was walking across the Bolshoy Zamoskvoretsky Bridge, with the Kremlin in view.

Secretary of State John Kerry said he was “shocked” by Nemtsov’s brutal murder. “Nemtsov committed his life to a more democratic, prosperous, open Russia, and to strong relationships between Russia and its neighbors and partners, including the United States…In every post, he sought to reform and open Russia, and to empower the Russian people to have a greater say in the life of their country,” Kerry said in a statement Friday night.

When I looked back at the story I wrote about Nemtsov two decades ago, one quote really struck me. “For all the things we have achieved today [in ending communist rule],” he said, “history will say that the real success was changing the consciousness of the people.”

Russia has lost a hero who was committed to raising that consciousness and betting Russian lives.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

Obama & Bush Sound Alike
On Countering Terrorism
By Robin Wright 

 Despite partisan squabbles in Washington, President Barack Obama’s two speeches on countering extremism could have been given by a Democrat or a Republican. The neo-cons of the Bush era called for the same five-point strategy: confronting extremism, promoting democracy, addressing public grievances, creating opportunities for disillusioned youth, and dignity for all.
Indeed, the two presidents have given speeches with almost identical language on the subject—and the various components of U.S. policy.
Six days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, President George W. Bush spoke at the Islamic Center of Washington.
These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that,” he said. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. . . . Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace.  They represent evil and war.”
Speaking Wednesday, at the White House summit on violent extremism, President Obama said, “
We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam. . . . [T]he terrorists do not speak for over a billion Muslims who reject their hateful ideology. They no more represent Islam than any madman who kills innocents in the name of God represents Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism.”
Nothing different.
Both presidents have also promoted democracy—meaning political participation, equal justice, and basic freedoms–to counter extremism.
President Bush discussed democracy promotion in the Middle East at the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003.
Successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military–so that governments respond to the will of the people, and not the will of an elite,” he said. “Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law, instead of … selectively applying the law to punish political opponents. Successful societies allow room for healthy civic institutions–for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media.”
On Thursday, President Obama said that democracy is an essential part of the cure for extremism.
When people are oppressed, and human rights are denied–particularly along sectarian lines or ethnic lines–when dissent is silenced, it feeds violent extremism,” he said. “And so we must recognize that lasting stability and real security require democracy.  That means free elections where people can choose their own future, and independent judiciaries that uphold the rule of law, and police and security forces that respect human rights, and free speech and freedom for civil society groups. And it means freedom of religion–because when people are free to practice their faith as they choose, it helps hold diverse societies together.”
Almost identical language.
In his 2001 speech at Washington’s Islamic Center, President Bush pointedly lauded Muslims in the U.S.:
“America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”
On Wednesday, President Obama noted that,
To their credit, there are respected Muslim clerics and scholars not just here in the United States but around the world who push back on this twisted interpretation of their faith.”
The same show of respect.
There is no meaningful gap on the guiding principles. So it’s time–for the good of both sides–for petty political bickering over U.S. policy on extremism to stop.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

The Other Powerful Threat
To Iraq's Future
By Robin Wright 
ISIS is not the only threat in Iraq. The future of the state—its mere viability—is being challenged by increasingly powerful militias sanctioned by the U.S.-backed government. Some have engaged in war crimes, human rights groups now allege.
The militias may be the short-term hope for beating back the Islamic State, since the Iraqi army disintegrated last summer and is at least three years away from being fully retrained and reassembled, according to the Pentagon.
But long-term, major militias are also engaging in behavior not all that different from ISIS, also known as Islamic State and ISIL. Rather than recreate modern Iraq, their behavior could deepen Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions and complicate the country’s ability come back together again, if and when ISIS is pushed out of the oil-rich country.
The militias have kidnapped, abused, forcibly displaced and even executed fellow citizens, especially in Sunni areas, according to two international human-rights groups. Homes have been torched, whole communities terrorized by militias firing guns in the air to force compliance.
The latest incident involved an alleged mass execution three weeks ago in Barwana, in Diyala Province. Armed men from militias and security forces reportedly escorted them from their homes and then summarily shot them.
“The Iraqi government and its international allies need to take account of the militia scourge,” Human Rights Watch said in a new report released Sunday. “Any effective response to ISIS should start with protecting civilian lives and holding those who abuse them to account, especially in areas where people have already suffered from ISIS occupation and attacks.”
The existence of these sectarian, unregulated and unaccountable militias is both a cause and a result of the country’s growing insecurity and instability,” it said.Abuses are reportedly widespread. Thousands of people have been detained or simply disappeared across central and northern Iraq in recent months. Scores of bodies have been found handcuffed and shot in the back of the head in other parts of the country, Amnesty International reported in October.
The government is implicated because militias are operating with varying degrees of cooperation from Iraqi security forces militias, whether tacit consent or joint operations, it noted. The government has also either armed or allowed the militias to have arms, Amnesty reported. The problem is that the militias are now have the upper hand.
Shiite militias also now outnumber the Iraqi military, The Washington Post reported Monday. They have between 100,000 and 120,000 fighters, more than double the number of Iraqi fighting forces, now estimated at around 48,000.
“Militias are not subordinate to the regular forces. On the contrary, they appear to have more authority and effective power on the ground than the beleaguered government forces, increasingly seen as weak and ineffective,” Amnesty said.
“For these reasons, Amnesty International holds the government of Iraq largely responsible for the serious human rights abuses, including war crimes, committed by these militias.
Shiite militias are the main problem, both groups charge. Their abuses have been carried out largely in Sunni and mixed-sect areas. ISIS is Sunni and views Shiites as apostates.
Amnesty cited evidence of civilian abductions and executions by Shiite militias in Baghdad, Samarra and Kirkuk, even when families paid tens of thousands of dollars in ransom.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion article in December, Prime Minister Hadi al Abadi vowed to bring all armed groups under state control. “No armed groups or militias will work outside or parallel to the Iraqi Security Forces,” he pledged.
But his government has failed to rein them in, Human Rights Watch reported. As a result, civilians are increasingly vulnerable.
“Iraqi civilians are being hammered by ISIS and then by pro-government militias in areas they seize from ISIS, said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “With the government responding to those they deem terrorists with arbitrary arrests and executions, residents have nowhere to turn for protection.”

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

A "Drastic Decline" 
in Media Freedom
By Robin Wright 

It’s been a tough week for the news media. Bob Simon, a journalism war horse dating to Vietnam whose courageous coverage won him dozens of awards, including 27 Emmys,died in a fluke car crash WednesdayJon Stewart, impresario extraordinaire on “The Daily Show,” announced that he is abandoning us. And Brian Williams gotsuspended—and may have ended his career as NBC’s evening anchor—for lying.
The toughest news, however, is that media freedom is in “drastic decline” worldwide, according to a survey released Thursday by Reporters Without Borders. Press freedoms were diminished in two-thirds of the 180 countries surveyed, the report reveals.
The 2015 World Press Freedom Index, titled “Decline on All Fronts,” warns of a “worldwide deterioration in freedom of information. Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.”
In 2014, 66 journalists were killed. There has also been an “explosion” of journalists kidnapped in war zones, including Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine, says Delphine Hagland, the group’s U.S. director. Some 40 journalists were still in captivity at the end of last year.
Reasons vary widely: Extremist movements and criminal groups have silenced or slain reporters, photographers, and bloggers. States tightly control media, whether through censorship, Internet access, intimidation, or prosecution.
“Non-state groups follow no laws and disregard basic rights in pursuit of their own ends. From Boko Haram to Islamic State, Latin American drug traffickers and the Italian mafia, motives may vary but their modus operandi is the same–the use of fear and reprisals to silence journalists and bloggers who dare to investigate them or refuse to act as their mouthpieces,” the report concludes.
The index is also highly critical of the United States, which ranks 49th– down 13 from its ranking last year. Countries that scored better (some far better) include Ghana, Belize, Niger, Slovenia, and Botswana.
Some U.S. allies fared poorly, too. France, home to Charlie Hebdo, came in at 38; Japan at 62; Israel at 101; Turkey at 149; and Egypt at 158. Italy fell 24 places, down to 73, because of mafia threats and “unjustified defamation suits,” the survey said.“Democracies often take liberties with their values in the name of national security. Faced with real or spurious threats, governments arm themselves routinely with an entire arsenal of laws aimed at muzzling independent voices. This phenomenon is common to both authoritarian governments and democracies,” the report warns.
Wars, the breakdown of nation states, and the proliferation of militias produce grave threats to journalists. The beheadings of Western journalists by ISIS underscore the dangers in Syria. Libya, where NATO airstrikes helped oust Moammar Gaddhafi, ranked 154; seven reporters were murdered and 37 kidnapped there last year.
The report describes some countries in North Africa as “black holes” because they are controlled by non-state groups.
Russia is among the worst places to work because of its draconian laws, blocking of Web sites and independent news “either brought under control or throttled out of existence,” the report says. It ranks 152.
Finland scored highest, followed by Norway and Denmark.
Perpetually near the bottom are North Korea, China, Turkmenistan, Syria, and, at the very end, Eritrea.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

The Sad History of Hostage-Taking
By Robin Wright 
Kayla Jean Mueller is not the last American hostage in Syria. The White House confirmed Tuesday that another American is still being held, almost surely in horrid isolation. It may be Austin Tice, a journalist who disappeared in Syria in 2012. It is unclear who holds him or why. Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has never mentioned him.

The world made hostage-taking a war crime after World War II. It was codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949. When the practice reemerged in the 1970s, Germany launched an initiative that led the United Nations to pass the International Convention Against Hostage Taking. It was adopted in 1979, six weeks after the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, where 52 diplomats were ultimately held for 444 days.
“It is urgently necessary to develop international cooperation between States in devising and adopting effective measures for the prevention, prosecution and punishment of all acts of taking of hostages as manifestations of international terrorism,” says the convention, which has been signed by 174 nations.
Yet hostages continue to be taken. The FBI warned in October that extremists in Syria are plotting to seize Americans and other Westerners, even crossing borders to get them.
ISIS is not the only danger. Americans are being held against their will elsewhere in the world. The U.S. government does not release numbers for security and privacy reasons.
The value of hostage-taking became evident in Lebanon in the 1980s. The embryo of what became Hezbollah was involved in the suicide bombings of two U.S. embassies in Beirut as well as the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks. The 241 American service members killed represented the largest loss of military life in a single incident since Iwo Jima.
For the Shiite militants, those hostages proved more effective in projecting power, winning prestige among followers, and producing trauma among their foes. After a terrorist bombing, victims were buried and, eventually, life went on. But with hostages, whole nations became caught up in the open-ended drama of a few individuals and their loved ones.Then Hezbollah shifted tactics, partly because it wanted the release of operatives convicted and imprisoned in Kuwait for bombing a U.S. embassy and other sites there in 1983. Seizing Americans and Europeans—journalists, university professors, even a priest—off the war-torn streets of Beirut had unexpected benefits.
The yellow ribbon became a national symbol with the hostage drama in Tehran between 1979 and 1981. The 52 Americans became household names. Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” was initially a nightly wrap-up of the daily drama; the program survives almost four decades later.
When Hezbollah freed former AP correspondent Terry Anderson after more than six years, he made the cover of Time magazine. Hostages become a cultural phenomenon as well as a national security nightmare.
And seizing them doesn’t require high-tech weaponry or resources, just sleuth and a hideaway.
The nation is grieving Kayla Mueller. Unfortunately, she is not likely to be the last hostage to die in captivity.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

Islamic State Buries Children Alive

By Robin Wright 
Just when you thought  Islamic State could be no crueler, a United Nations report charges that the extremist group has buried children alive, crucified some and beheaded others.
The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child also reports that Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has abducted and sold children as slaves, dispatched them as suicide bombers, and deployed them as human shields at sites vulnerable to U.S.-led air strikes.
“We have had reports of children, especially children who are mentally challenged, who have been used as suicide bombers, most probably without them even understanding,” said Renate Winter of the U.N. watchdog agency. Islamic State also exploits children displaced, orphaned or living on the streets as a result of the strife.
“The scope of the problem is huge,” Ms. Winter told a press briefing Wednesday.
Children as young as eight have been recruited as soldiers for the Islamic State. Boys as young as 12 have been recruited as bomb-makers and guards. Last month, the group released a video that showed a young boy, believed to be a foreign fighter from Central Asia, executing two unidentified men.
Since it seized large chunks of Iraq and Syria last year, the Islamic State has bragged on social media about children in its virtual army. It has released videos and photos of children holding automatic weapons during training or in formation.
The U.N. report, compiled by 18 independent experts, warns that the most vulnerable category are children of minorities, such as the Yazidis. Islamic State has engaged in “systematic killing” of minorities, including several cases of mass executions of boys. The report also states that some children have been beheaded, crucified or buried alive.
Now in control of an area about the size of Indiana, Islamic State has engaged in systematic sexual enslavement of abducted children in its territory as well. Kids are sometimes detained in makeshift prisons and subjected to rape. Others are sold at markets with price tags affixed to them, the report said. One of the makeshift detention centers is the former Badoush Prison outside Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Islamic State is not the only party in violation of several international treaties. The U.N. report also notes that Iraqi militias battling Islamic State have recruited underage fighters, while the Free Syrian Army has pressured refugee youths to join its ranks.

The problem of child soldiers dates to ancient times. But Islamic State is setting savage new standards for the 21st century. Its barbarity truly knows no bounds.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

Jordan's Burdens
By Robin Wright 

Poor, oil-less, and often overlooked, Jordan is the little kingdom that could.

It has been the focus of the world this week after Islamic State’s savage murder of pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive as he stood trapped in a metal cage. But Jordan faces a growing array of existential challenges that it didn’t create and doesn’t have the resources to resolve—and that make it vulnerable.
The issues start with simple geography. For decades, the Hashemite kingdom, a country slightly smaller than Indiana, has been a dumping ground of sorts, with refugees and political strays from neighboring countries seeking shelter. Jordan’s population is under 7 million—and sparse. Most of its land is arid and inhospitable desert.
Yet it is now home to more than 2 million Palestinian refugees from the Arab-Israeli conflict on its western border. The first wave arrived in 1948 and the second in 1967. Many still live in the 10 U.N. camps, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.
Since 2003, Jordan has taken in tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees; at least 30,000 are still there, says Refugees International.
Since 2012, Jordan has taken in 622,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war, the U.N. Refugee Agency reports. Zaatari Refugee Camp for Syrians has become Jordan’s fourth-largest city. Its rows of tents stretch for miles. The largest share of refugees are women and children.
Jordan is also home–legally or illegally–to an additional 5,000 from countries not on its borders or even the same continent, including Somalis and Sudanese who have fled conflicts at home. Jordan gets substantial international aid to help, but refugees generally have been a strain on the country’s social fabric, social services, and social tensions.
And Jordan already had problems tending to its own. “Jordan’s economy is among the smallest in the Middle East, with insufficient supplies of water, oil, and other natural resources underlying the government’s heavy reliance on foreign assistance. Other economic challenges for the government include chronic high rates of poverty, unemployment, inflation, and a large budget deficit,” according to the CIA Factbook.
Its water shortages are so chronic thatNational Geographic noted in a piece last year, “If Jesus were to plunge into the Jordan River today, he might well injure himself. The great biblical waterway is now little more than a shallow, unimposing trickle of sludge, a murky body of water that is in danger of withering into nothingness.”
Jordan is among the most water-stressed countries in the world. Every additional person weighs on a system already running dry.
With the wars in Syria and Iraq looking like they may drag on for years, even greater tensions are rippling across Jordan’s borders. Many refugees are looking for jobs, competing with Jordanians in a country that already can’t employ many of its own, especially a young generation most vulnerable to the appeal of extremism. Unemployment among those ages 15 to 24 is almost 30%, according to the CIA Factbook.
Jordan is not flush with oil for its own population, much less for export. It relies on the largess of the rich Gulf kingdoms and the West to survive. Of the Middle East’s eight monarchies—the others are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Morocco—Jordan has the lowest per capita income: just over $500 a month. In Qatar, by contrast, it’s almost $8,000 a month, the World Bank reports.
When ISIS released the video of First Lt. Kasasbeh’s execution, King Abdullah was in Washington winning a U.S. pledge to bump up aid to $1 billion annually for economic support and security.

Those basic survival challenges don’t include a separate range of political problems. Jordanians cover a range of political sentiment. The king may reflect the moderate side of the spectrum. But Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, was Jordanian. He was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006. But his movement has survived and expanded—and now controls territory also the size of Indiana.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The New Yorker

The Illusion of a Hostage Policy 
By Robin Wright
        So what do we do now? It has been a day of unfathomable savagery by ISIS. Who would even think of caging a human being and then burning him alive? 
       Unfortunately, the US faces the same dangers as it gets ever more deeply enmeshed in what is almost certain to be a long war against the Islamic State as well as al Qaeda franchises on three continents. My piece in The New Yorker today on a conundrum the US faces over our own hostages. Read on....

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

What Was Africa Thinking?
By Robin Wright 

       Pity Africa!
On the eve of his 91st birthday, Robert Mugabe has been selected to head the African Union, the 54-nation organization designed to promote unity, economic cooperation, and social development across the world’s poorest continent.
Zimbabwe’s autocratic president is a dreadful role model. His party has been charged with intimidation, vote-rigging, or other forms of fraud in every election since it first won in 1980. He never intended to share power, as he indicated when I interviewed him the day after that vote.
“As you saw from the decision of the people, it is virtually only one party, the Patriotic Front, that is in power. The rest of the parties have been rejected so we have a one-party state already,” Mr. Mugabe, still the revolutionary, told me then. “If we had just one party by decision of the people that to me would be preferable.”
In fact, his party didn’t sweep the vote. It won 57 of 100 seats. But, in that spirit, Mr. Mugabe’s rule has been ruthless and often bloody through seven terms since then. Shortly after taking power, his party was associated with a campaign of ethnic cleansing of tribal and political rivals in Matabeleland that killed as many as 20,000 people.
The tragedy is not just draconian politics. The Zimbabwe that Mr. Mugabe inherited had such promise: a well-run former British colony with the highest proportion of college graduates anywhere in Africa at independence. Zimbabwe still has vast resources: mineral riches, verdant game parks, epic waterfalls and a tropical climate for tourism, and lush agricultural land that could have been a breadbasket for Africa.
Today, however, the country–slightly larger than Montana and slightly smaller than California–is on the verge of imploding. “Zimbabwe is an insolvent and failing state, its politics zero sum, its institutions hollowing out, and its once vibrant economy moribund,” International Crisis Group reported last fall.
The stats are astounding. Per capita income is around $600 a year, according to the CIA Factbook. Unemployment in the formal economy is as high as 80%, while industrial production has fallen below 40% of the nation’s potential, the International Crisis Group noted. Many companies have shut their doors. Life expectancy has dropped to 54 years. Zimbabwe has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS, which accounted for more than half of all deaths in 2011.
“Zimbabwe’s growing instability is exacerbated by dire economic decline, endemic governance failures, and tensions over ruling party succession,” the International Crisis Group concluded. “Without major political and economic reforms, the country could slide into being a failed state.”
The International Monetary Fund announced last year that it would not lend Zimbabwe more money for development because it was so far in arrears, dating to 1999. The World Bank takes a similar position.
Mr. Mugabe, who in 2006 likened the IMF to the devil, seems oblivious to economic realities. Three-quarters of tax revenues go to pay some 250,000 workers employed by the state, the IMF reported. Yet last year, Mr. Mugabe kept a campaign promise and raised salaries 14%. In 2000, he raised the salaries of his own office and his cabinet by 200%.
“The current situation is not sustainable,” said Comfort Ero, Africa program director of the International Crisis Group.
On top of all the other problems, Mr. Mugabe’s capabilities are “visibly waning,” the group reports. His succession has been muddied by indications that his second wife, Grace—often referred to as “Gucci Grace” because of her legendary shopping excursions—may be Mr. Mugabe’s favored political heir. She heads the ruling party’s women’s league.
But she and others may have to wait. Mr. Mugabe has indicated that he wants to run again—in 2018—after he turns 94.