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Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM

Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland

The New York Times reports today that dozens of people have been arrested throughout mainland China for showing solidarity with the protests unfolding in Hong Kong. These included participants in a public demonstration in a park in Guangzhou as well as a number of people who posted material online, including those taking part in a viral “Going Bald for Hong Kong” campaign.

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Oct. 1 2014 11:48 AM

Syria’s “Moderate” Rebels Are Realizing That U.S. Airstrikes Help Bashar al-Assad, Not Them

In any civil war between a government and armed rebels, the government—for obvious reasons—starts with a number of tactical and material advantages. So it’s not surprising that, at least in most circumstances, when an outside power intervenes on behalf of the state, the state tends to be able to crush the opposition pretty quickly.

 

Of course, the U.S. and its allies deny that they are intervening on behalf of the Syrian government, the argument being that defeating ISIS—Bashar al-Assad’s foe—while supporting the country’s “moderate” opposition will give those moderates a fighting chance against Assad’s forces.

Sept. 29 2014 10:25 AM

Do the Protests in Hong Kong Mean the “One Country, Two Systems” System Is on the Ropes?

When I was in Hong Kong last year, I wrote about what seemed to be a glaring contradiction in the “one country, two systems” arrangement between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong is theoretically supposed to be moving toward full democracy, with the city’s chief executive to be elected by universal suffrage in 2017. At the same time, Hong Kong is supposed to be integrating with the rest of China—Beijing has pledged to recognize the territory’s political independence until at least 2047. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.

 

The tension between these two goals—of simultaneously becoming more democratic and more Chinese—finally caused an eruption this week when tens of thousands of demonstrators jammed the city’s streets, and were met with tear gas and pepper spray from the police.

Sept. 26 2014 11:40 AM

Can India’s Prime Minister Ever Escape His Controversial Past?

At this time last year, Narendra Modi was legally barred from entering the United States. Now, he’s preparing to speak to an estimated 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, likely the largest crowd ever drawn by a visiting head of state. Early next week, he’ll arrive in Washington for a meeting with President Obama.

 

Modi had been denied a business visa due to accusations that in 2002, when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, he allowed or even encouraged riots in which more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed. (If you want to learn more about these events, I recommend Vinod Jose’s lengthy 2012 profile.) The U.S. ambassador wouldn’t even meet with him until February, when it became overwhelmingly clear he was about to be elected prime minister of India.

Sept. 25 2014 11:18 AM

A Deep Dive Into the Ayatollah’s Twitter Hate for America

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke at the U.N. General Assembly today as his country negotiates with the United States over their nuclear program and works to normalize relations with the international community. At a press conference during last year’s assembly, Rouhani attempted to offer the Iranian regime a softer image, hailing the United States as a “great nation” and asking that the two countries “stop the escalation of tensions.”

The country’s actual decision-maker, though, is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and he has continued to take a hard line, at least publically, even as Rouhani has appeared more conciliatory. Khamenei (or maybe his social media sherpa) has been broadcasting his views over Twitter for the past few years, and a deep dive into his past six months’ worth of tweets shows, unsurprisingly, that he continues to have two obsessions: hatred of the U.S. and hatred of Israel. Tweets devoted to those two nations made up nearly 40 percent of the Ayatollah’s tweets since March. But which does he hate more—and how many new reasons can you come up with to hate a place? Let’s look at the tweets.

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The Ayatollah’s abhorrence for the United States permeates his feed, regardless of the topic. When the Ayatollah tweets about a seemingly unrelated topic, such as press freedom, he remembers how much he dislikes America:

In 2013 the international watchdog Freedom House rated Iran’s press as “Not Free,” giving it a grade of 92 on a scale of zero to 100 on which 100 meant “the worst.” (The United States got an 18.) The organization deplored the fact that in Iran, journalists are “threatened, beaten, arrested, subjected to unfair trials, and imprisoned.” Ironically, for such a Twitter-obsessed tyrant, social media is officially banned in Iran, although ingenious citizens have found ways to access sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. But the real question for Khamenei is, do present-day Iranians have it as bad as the fictional Tom Joad did in 1930s America?

When Khamenei tweeted about his recent stint in the hospital to undergo prostate surgery, he was again reminded of how much he hates the United States:

The Ayatollah is not the only one in the Middle East to suspect a CIA conspiracy behind the rise of the Islamic State, but even Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has mocked the idea. Still, it’s the Ayatollah who will have the ultimate say in how Iran reacts to the rise of ISIS.

Last April, when the Supreme Leader tweeted about the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, again he saw America’s fingerprints:

Even #HappyFriendshipDay reminded him of his hatred for America!

So how many of the Ayatollah’s tweets are about hating Uncle Sam? In the past six months, 20 percent. That number includes only tweets explicitly about the United States and doesn’t include tweets ostensibly about other topics that allude to the America, such as any of the aforementioned tweets about Friendship Day, press freedom, Rwanda, and the Ayatollah’s medical health.

If you include the tweets that tangentially mention the United States, that number is much higher. Khamenei’s hatred for America is only rivaled by his disdain for Israel. Still, the United States beats out Israel by a smidgen. Just 19 percent of the Ayatollah’s tweets were about how much he loathes the Jewish state, making it his second-favorite topic of conversation. And his hatred for Israel only reinforces his hatred for America:

He even managed to connect Israel’s war in Gaza to this summer’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.

If the Ayatollah comes off as an angry man, there are still a few things that he loves. For example, he loves #women. Women are the best. They are better than the best; to the Ayatollah, each woman is “a flower.” Six percent of the Supreme Leader’s tweets are dedicated to his love for women and how to provide them with peace in the home, which is where all flowers belong:  

And as it turns out, America is not nearly as good as Iran at loving its women:

Unsurprisingly, the Ayatollah loves religion. Seventeen percent of his tweets are about faith, including Christianity and Judaism, which makes this his third-favorite topic of discussion:

Khamenei also loves books. He loves to read them, he loves to talk about them, and he would love for other people to love them as much as he does:

As long as people read the right kind books, of course. The previous Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, famously issued a fatwa against British author Salman Rushdie for his 1988 novel about the life of Prophet Mohammad, The Satanic Verses, and his successor has also made sure that Iranians don’t “poison” their minds with “harmful books” such as Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night.

But for the Ayatollah, the best thing about books is that they give him more reasons to hate America.

Soon after taking office in 2009, President Obama reached out a hand to Iran in an effort to negotiate over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, including in recent years by exchanging letters with President Rouhani and eventually talking to him over the phone. But after years of negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program, the Ayatollah has yet to offer the slightest public hint of conciliation, certainly not on Twitter. While publically accepting that the foreign minister’s team pursues its nuclear talks with the six world powers, the Ayatollah wants to make it known that he still does not trust his sworn enemy and doubts that the negotiations will have a positive outcome for Iran.  

And if U.S. officials think they can count on Iran to cooperate in the fight against ISIS, they should check out the Ayatollah’s Twitter feed:

President Rouhani has been open about his goal to improve relations with America and the West, particularly in order to ease international sanctions and improve Iran’s economy. If the Ayatollah’s Twitter feed tells us anything, it’s just how hard Rouhani’s job must be.

The Ayatollah’s Tweets

March 26 – September 17,  2014

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Sept. 24 2014 4:44 PM

Why Is the U.S. Bombing ISIS and ISIS’s Sworn Enemy?

Let’s say you believe the White House’s argument that bombing ISIS, the most serious threat to Bashar al-Assad’s government, does not mean that the United States is fighting on Assad’s behalf. Perhaps you also buy that while the U.S. and Iran are fighting the same enemy, the countries are in no sense allies. And maybe you’re even the open-minded sort who has no qualms with the U.S. launching a campaign against violent extremism with the help of countries that are themselves accused of backing violent extremism. After all, though the Middle East seems hopelessly riven by religion, political ideology, and ethnicity, everyone pretty much hates ISIS.

 

But even if you’re on board with all that, there’s something new you need to reckon with: While the U.S. bombs ISIS, it’s also attacking one of the most powerful groups fighting against ISIS.

Sept. 23 2014 10:55 AM

This Isn’t the Syria Intervention Anyone Wanted

Since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, President Obama has, by my count, ordered new or expanded military operations—including airstrikes, special operations raids, and troop “surges”—in seven countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and now Syria. (And that’s not counting a number of smaller U.S. military engagements in Africa aimed at targets including Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army.) That’s a lot by the standards of the modern presidency.

 

You can argue that Obama’s foreign policy is reactive, unfocused, or hypocritical, but it’s time to acknowledge that one thing he’s not, despite the criticism often leveled at him, is some sort of pacifist who’s reluctant to use military force and deferential to the views of the international community.

Sept. 22 2014 12:30 PM

Turkey Just Got Forty-Six Hostages Back From ISIS. How Did That Happen?

In a rare bit of good news over the weekend, Turkish intelligence agents secured the release of 46 hostages who had been held by ISIS in Syria for more than three months. The 46—diplomats, their family members (including children), and special forces soldiers—had been taken hostage at the country’s consulate in Mosul, Iraq, when the city fell to ISIS in June.

 

The deal is a victory for the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the longtime prime minister who was controversially elected president in late August. But it also raises some tricky questions.

Sept. 22 2014 11:10 AM

Protesters and Counterprotesters at Moscow’s Big Anti-War March

MOSCOW—When I first arrived at Pushkin Square about an hour before the start of a planned anti-war rally on Sunday, I thought I might have been in the wrong place. The plaza beneath the statue of Russia’s favorite poet was dominated by supporters of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, brandishing the Dixie-esque flag of Novorossiya and signs denouncing NATO, the United States, and the “fascist” government of Ukraine. The counterprotesters, evidently, got an early start.

 

Over time, however, the ranks of those attending the “March for Peace” grew to become the overwhelming majority. It was Moscow’s first major anti-war rally since March and the first since violence began in eastern Ukraine. Estimates of the crowd size varied. Organizers had hoped for a turnout of 50,000, the official police estimate was 5,000, and the AP put it at 20,000.

 

It was difficult to get a handle on the size of the event—a fact that seemed like it could have been intentional. A slow-moving police checkpoint complete with metal detectors and pat-downs at the entrance to the fenced-off march route created a bottleneck that kept the crowd divided. Beyond a few shouting matches and some finger pointing and shoving along the edges, I didn’t see any violence, though the police presence was massive. But it was abundantly and depressingly clear from talking to both sides of the crowd that there’s a divide not between political ideologies or geopolitical positions but between versions of reality.

Sept. 19 2014 12:33 PM

The Precarious Predicament of Russia’s Neighbors

Recently, there has been much media ado about how nervous Poland and the Baltic states are about Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry has said that it may need to protect Russian speakers in the Baltics against “xenophobia”—similar language to that used in the early days of the Ukraine crisis. According to some press reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin also warned Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a private meeting that his troops could take not only Kiev but the capitals of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Romania “within two days” if he wanted.

 

So, those countries—all members of NATO—are worried, and perhaps rightly so. But they aren’t the only ones.

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