World News Roundup
Some time ago, I decided to take off last week in an attempt to get a little more rest and avoid burnout before going into the end-of-the-year rush and starting work on my new book project. It’s only a week, I thought, what could possibly happen?
A lot, it turns out.
To start with, here’s a roundup of international news, where the global struggle between freedom and tyranny has been breaking out on multiple fronts.
Chile: Get Woke, Go Broke
Since October 18, there have been mass protests in Chile against—well, nominally against a 4% fare increase for Santiago’s public transportation system, which has inspired protesters to set buses on fire. Because that will make the fares go down.
You can read through a lot of explainers like this one and find that not much has been explained, because they’re all dancing around the central issue. You have to read between the lines in comments like this one:
“This protest is not about 30 pesos, but 30 years,” says Stephanie Díaz, a 28-year-old sports teacher from the working-class Quinta Normal neighborhood in Santiago. “It’s 30 years since the return to democracy, but we have preserved a constitution made under the dictatorship.”
Chile’s constitution, which was written into law during the military rule of Augusto Pinochet in 1980, calls for a highly privatized economy.
Notice also the response by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera:
He has promised marginally higher taxes on the rich, a boost to the minimum wage, a 20 percent increase in the lowest pensions, and more reasonable costs for medicine…. But opponents call the new “social pact” proposed by Piñera a cosmetic change that does little to solve underlying problems.
The motto of the demonstrations is Chile despertó, or “Chile woke up.” It might be better translated as “Chile got woke,” since it seems to be an attempt to impose by general riot an anti-capitalist economic agenda.
The best explanation is a piece from a few years ago, during the administration of former president Michelle Bachelet, leader of Chile’s Socialist Party, which asks, “Chile Is Thriving—So Why Is Socialism Rising?”
The background is a pretty familiar story repeated by many a pro-free-marketer. In the middle of the 20th Century, Chile was one of the poorest countries in South America, while Venezuela was the wealthiest. Today, those positions are reversed. The difference? Chile has one of the freest, most capitalist economies on the continent, while Venezuela has gone full socialist. Surely, there is a lesson to be learned there. So why isn’t everyone learning it?
A big part of the problem is how Chile got to be so capitalist. Marian Tupy recounts the economic disaster caused when Chilean president Salvador Allende, a Castro-inspired socialist, nationalized industry and collectivized agriculture in the early 1970s. In response, Chile’s military deposed Allende and imposed a dictatorship.
Today, the black and white images of a stern-looking General Augusto Pinochet, the leader of the military junta that ran Chile after Allende’s demise, evoke the human rights abuses that ensued. Yet, it should be possible to separate the murder of between 1,200 and 3,200 of the government’s opponents from the economic reforms that Pinochet undertook.
The former was inexcusable. The latter was beneficial in that it turned Chile into Latin America’s richest country and, eventually, a full-fledged democracy.
Well, that’s just the problem, isn’t it? It is not entirely possible to separate Pinochet’s dictatorship from its economic policies. We can do it intellectually, given that they were based on opposite principles: government control in politics versus the lifting of controls in economics. But there is always a price to be paid for imposing the “right” ideas by coercion—even for imposing non-coercion by coercion. So we shouldn’t be surprised that over time, Pinochet’s embrace of the free market has served to undermine and discredit it.
The Left has never accepted the “Chilean model” because it was imposed by Pinochet and that makes it, in the eyes of the Left, illegitimate. It does not matter that it works. The same goes for the Chilean Constitution, which the Left is trying to rewrite, and the semi-private education system, which the Left wants to nationalize….
The small government advocates are not blameless either. They assumed that the battle of ideas was over and thought that the positive outcomes of the Chilean model would speak for themselves. They did not think that there was a need to defend it. Moreover, centre-Right political parties have been browbeaten into submission; whoever speaks out in defense of the Chilean model is tainted as a Pinochet apologist.
There’s a lesson here about trying to achieve what you think are the right political results through repugnant or unprincipled political means. I can’t think of what possible application that might have back here in the US.
More broadly, this is evidence for my long-held thesis that Latin America really, really wants to have its experiment with socialism. Many Latin American countries were denied that opportunity during the Cold War—Chile being the starkest example—because of the wider geopolitical stakes. An experiment with socialism wasn’t just a local catastrophe. It also meant becoming a Soviet client state. Now that this geopolitical pressure is reduced—though Lt. Colonel Putin is still on the job—these countries are being left free to experiment.
But here’s the thing about “experiments” with socialism. They work the opposite of the way experiments work in science. For a scientist, a single unambiguous demonstration of failure would be enough to cause him to discard a theory. When it comes to socialism, no quantity of failure is enough, so the theory has to be tried again and again in every possible country and every possible variant.
This leads us straight next door, to Bolivia, where “democratic socialism” has just run its natural course.
Bolivia: Individual Freedom and Collective Self-Determination
What is the natural course of “democratic socialism”? Why, tyranny and chaos, of course. To be sure, Bolivia has so far avoided the worst results. In his 14 years as president, Evo Morales was not as radical as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and therefore didn’t burn through all of the country’s natural gas money. But he did prove to be just as dedicated to the “democratic” part of “democratic socialism.”
Under a new constitution adopted during his presidency, Morales was limited to two terms in office, but he got the nation’s highest court to declare that his first term didn’t count since it began before the new constitution. Then as he came to the end of his third term, he demanded a referendum to change the constitution to allow him a fourth term. When the referendum was voted down, he had his loyalists on the court strike it down and ran for a fourth term, anyway.
Then here’s what happened with the vote.
In the hours after polls closed, preliminary results showed Morales slightly ahead of his opponent, former President Carlos Mesa. The tight margin would have prompted a runoff vote in December. But the opposition and international observers became suspicious after election officials stopped the count for about 24 hours without an explanation. When the count resumed, Morales’ lead had jumped significantly.
The Bolivian people responded with mass protests that led Morales to resign last week and flee to Mexico. But that doesn’t mean Morales was doing the right thing. Instead, he denounced the resistance to him as a “coup.” Members of his party then resigned from positions in which they would have been his successors under Bolivia’s constitution. This seems to have been a deliberate attempt to undermine his eventual successor, leaving the country with no legitimate government at all. Then Morales sent loyalist mobs into the streets to demand a reversal of the “coup.”
With tensions running high following Morales’ resignation last Sunday, demonstrators took to the streets to decry the nation’s interim president, Jeanine Añez. The protesters, made up largely of members of Bolivia’s indigenous population, view Añez’s rule as illegitimate and are calling for Morales to return….
The violence in Sacaba is part of a larger pro-Morales movement sweeping the country, as his supporters within the indigenous population of Bolivia protest Morales’ departure from office. Morales, a socialist and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, resigned under pressure from the military three weeks after declaring himself the winner of an election that was marred by widespread allegations of fraud. He has since called his exit a “coup.”
That’s the “democratic socialist” way. The leader always speaks for “the people,” whether or not the people agree. If they decide they want somebody else to speak for them, he will burn the country down rather than accept it.
This is also a warning, I suppose, about leaders who recklessly shoot off their mouths about constitutional opposition being a “coup.” Again, I can’t think of what possible application that might have here in the US.
If Morales does not succeed in plunging his nation into chaos, this will be a good sign that a country can draw back from the brink of “democratic socialist” tyranny before it reaches the stage of total collapse. This would also provide some much-needed hope for the cause of freedom globally.
That’s the optimistic take given by Yascha Mounk.
While liberal democracy has proved much more fragile than most social scientists assumed a few short years ago, an alternative political system that would better resolve its own internal contradictions is not in sight. While populists on both the left and the right have been shockingly skillful at undermining democratic systems with the false promise of returning power to the people, their authoritarian instincts ultimately turn huge swaths of the population against them. The core values of liberal democracy—individual freedom and collective self-determination—may be more universal than recent setbacks seem to suggest.
Morales’s sudden loss of support should not only scare embattled leftist dictators, such as Maduro in Venezuela; it should also terrify far-right populists, such as Hungary’s Orbán or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who still appear to have a firm hold on power.
Mounk might want to check on his formulation about the nature of “liberal democracy”—”individual freedom and collective self-determination”—and ask whether the second half undermines the first. That is precisely the contradiction that dictators on the right and the left will try to exploit, holding themselves up as the self-appointed voice of “collective self-determination,” for which “individual freedom” will have to be sacrificed.
As for his prediction, I am confident that over the long run, whatever happens now in Bolivia and elsewhere, dictatorships of all stripes breed their own internal enemies, while free nations will ultimately prove stronger.
Mounk is definitely right about one thing: There is no other alternative to freedom—none that is compatible with the requirements of human life.
Hong Kong: Tank Man City
The fragility of dictatorship and the human need for freedom naturally leads us to Hong Kong, where the crackdown we were all breathlessly expecting is currently in process. It began with Hong Kong police beginning to shoot protesters. Then mainland troops started pouring into Hong Kong, and now there is a standoff in which the authorities have surrounded protesters at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which looks like it is about to become a small-scale re-enactment of Tiananmen Square.
The most ominous detail is the nature of the troops China is sending there. (Hat tip to Robert Garmong.)
Among the Chinese soldiers who ‘volunteered’ to help clean up Hong Kong’s streets on Saturday were several dressed in colourful basketball jerseys.
While that might not have meant much to the casual observer, those with a grounding in military matters would have noticed that besides shirt numbers, the fluorescent orange and blue tops also carried a name: “Xuefeng Special Operations Brigade.”
Part of the Western Theatre Command, which oversees a vast area in the west of China, including Xinjiang and Tibet, Xuefeng—according to earlier reports by the PLA Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s military—is one of the country’s leading counterterrorism brigades.
Notice the clever dual message. To a Western audience, the colorful outfits are supposed to look friendly. Choosing basketball jerseys was a particularly nice touch, because we all know how the NBA just loves the Chinese regime. But to a Chinese audience, the message is: we’re going to do to Hong Kong what we’re doing to Xinjiang.
Someone inside China leaked hundreds of documents to the New York Times documenting the planning of the Xinjiang crackdown and verifying that it goes all the way to the top.
President Xi Jinping, the party chief, laid the groundwork for the crackdown in a series of speeches delivered in private to officials during and after a visit to Xinjiang in April 2014, just weeks after Uighur militants stabbed more than 150 people at a train station, killing 31. Mr. Xi called for an all-out “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism” using the “organs of dictatorship,” and showing “absolutely no mercy.”
We can understand the desire to fight back against Islamic terrorism, but Xi’s response is to use state terrorism against a whole population of millions of people. The signature phrase of this crackdown indicates its arbitrary and indiscriminate character: “Round up everyone who should be rounded up.”
The internment camps in Xinjiang expanded rapidly after the appointment in August 2016 of Chen Quanguo, a zealous new party boss for the region. He distributed Mr. Xi’s speeches to justify the campaign and exhorted officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up.”
In his speeches, Xi inveighs against radical Islam: “People who are captured by religious extremism—male or female, old or young—have their consciences destroyed, lose their humanity, and murder without blinking an eye.” So it’s exactly like Communism, then. At least, that is what one would conclude by looking at the history of China’s Communist Party and the stories coming out of Xinjiang’s concentration camps.
The big news from these leaks is the fact of the leaks themselves, which indicates that someone well-placed inside the party wants to expose what is happening. That’s a story that also emerges from the content of the leaks.
The crackdown encountered doubts and resistance from local officials who feared it would exacerbate ethnic tensions and stifle economic growth. Mr. Chen responded by purging officials suspected of standing in his way, including one county leader who was jailed after quietly releasing thousands of inmates from the camps….
Thousands of officials in Xinjiang were punished for resisting or failing to carry out the crackdown with sufficient zeal. Uighur officials were accused of protecting fellow Uighurs, and Gu Wensheng, the Han leader of another southern county, was jailed for trying to slow the detentions and shield Uighur officials, according to the documents.
Secret teams of investigators traveled across the region identifying those who were not doing enough. In 2017, the party opened more than 12,000 investigations into party members in Xinjiang for infractions in the “fight against separatism,” more than 20 times the figure in the previous year, according to official statistics.
Mr. Wang may have gone further than any other official.
Quietly, he ordered the release of more than 7,000 camp inmates—an act of defiance for which he would be detained, stripped of power, and prosecuted….
But Mr. Wang’s greatest political sin was not revealed to the public. Instead, the authorities hid it in the internal report.
“He refused,” it said, “to round up everyone who should be rounded up.”
The vast crime being committed in Xinjiang is partly being done in the name of fighting radical Islam, but it is mostly being done in the name of fighting the Communist Party’s biggest bugaboo: “separatism.” In this regard, Xi looks to the collapse of the Soviet Union, not as a warning about the failures of tyranny, but as a cautionary tale of how a dictator can lose his empire by not being tyrannical enough: “the speeches underscore how Mr. Xi sees risks to China through the prism of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he blamed on ideological laxity and spineless leadership.” We can expect all of this panic and paranoia to be brought to bear on Hong Kong.
The obvious contradiction is that the regime is paranoid that any region would want to separate from China, so they respond by giving them plenty of reasons to separate from China. Check out this thread of updates from Hong Kong. In their mania for control and their pathological fear of losing it, they have created a whole city full of Tank Man.
And they’re not the only ones.
Iran: “Out, Out Iran”
The Islamic Republic of Iran is another dictatorship that always presents a front of strength and unshakeable certainty, even as it is constantly riven by internal dissent and regular uprisings. The latest is the biggest yet, comparable in scale to the 1979 revolution that brought down the shah and brought the current regime to power.
Here’s one brief overview, but it’s hard to find reliable information about what is happening there, particularly since the regime shut down the entire Internet to keep anyone from knowing anything.
(This has become state-of-the-art for dictatorships. Russia is currently planning its own separate Internet so that Vladimir Putin can hide his country behind a Digital Iron Curtain.)
But this is happening in a wider context we know a little more about: a revolt against Iranian influence elsewhere in the Middle East.
Across the Middle East, from Baghdad to Beirut, the citizens of countries thought to be part of Iran’s axis of influence have begun to revolt against Tehran. In the face of brutal crackdowns, millions of Iraqi and Lebanese protesters, in movements led by Shiite Muslims that defy reductive sectarian narratives, have erupted in revolt against the corruption and failure of their governments and Iran’s domination over their national politics.
In early October, predominantly Shiite youth took to the streets in Iraq calling for their government’s resignation, and chanting slogans like: “Out, out Iran, Baghdad remains free!” Iraqi protests have a long list of grievances over the Baghdad government’s failure to deliver a ‘peace dividend’ of stability and prosperity given the country’s oil wealth, that was finally supposed to arrive after the major campaigns to defeat ISIS ended last year. But as demonstrations have spread across Iraq and led to violent confrontations with government security forces, the protests have also become more pointed in their anger at Iran and its domination of Iraqi politics leading to the public burning of portraits of Iran’s supreme leader and the torching of offices linked to Iran-aligned paramilitary groups….
Tens of thousands of Iraqis flooded Baghdad’s Tahrir square, waving Iraqi flags in the largest anti-government demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In Karbala, on the 40th anniversary of the US Embassy siege in Tehran, a crowd stormed the Iranian consulate, raising an Iraqi flag in place of the Islamic Republic’s and fire bombing the building. Three protesters were shot dead by security forces. In the south, disgruntled Iraqis set ablaze dozens of PMF buildings including those belonging to Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Badr factions. Iraqis renamed Khomeini Street in the holy city of Najaf as “Martyrs of the October Revolution.” Demonstrators are spitting on, and beating bloodied pictures of Iran’s supreme leader and Gen. Suleimani with their shoes. Protests show no sign of abatement as Iraqis from all backgrounds throng the streets of the capital despite the brutal security crackdown which has left at least 250 dead and over 6,000 injured. Gen. Suleimani has interfered once more, this time to prevent the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi….
[A] similar revolt is taking place in Lebanon where Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned last week amid mass anti-government protests that have been rocking the country since Oct. 17…. Shiite protesters torched Hezbollah offices in the group’s heartland of Nabatieh, in a sign that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, has weakened Iranian clients like Hezbollah…. Two million demonstrators flooded the streets in Lebanon, a country of only 4.5 million. Tens of thousands of protesters formed a 170-kilometer human chain last week, connecting north and south in a sign of unity. This is the stuff of Iran’s worst nightmare.
Part of the reason this is happening is because Iran’s religious dictatorship leads to massive corruption and brutality wherever it is imposed. The other reason has to do with the fact that Iran’s theocratic system is actually somewhat alien to Shiite Muslim tradition.
Shi’ite Muslims embrace a religious hierarchy somewhat analogous to that in Roman Catholicism but instead of having cardinals select a single pope, every Shi’ite picks his own personal pope from amongst the leading ayatollahs. Shi’ites then show their allegiance by paying religious taxes to the ayatollah they embrace.
Here’s the problem: Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic, calls himself the Supreme Leader and claims both ultimate political and religious authority. Most Shi’ites don’t buy it. Not only do most Iranians not pay their religious taxes to the Supreme Leader—preferring instead more moderate ayatollahs in Iraq—but the Iraq-based ayatollahs daily contradict Khamenei. This creates a crisis of legitimacy for Iran.
Iran expert Michael Rubin wrote that in 2011 as Barack Obama was precipitously withdrawing US troops and influence from Iraq, giving Iran a clear shot to attempt to impose control there. That’s why the protests in Iraq are so significant.
Part of those protests have been revelations—by way of leakers who support the rebellion—about the extent of Iran’s attempt to turn Iraq into a puppet state. Note particularly the damaging role of Obama’s 2011 withdrawal.
Iranian officials also cultivated networks of informants who had once worked for the Americans. After the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, many of those informants were jobless and fearful that their work as spies would be revealed. One former CIA asset, known by the nickname “Donnie Brasco,” offered to sell Iran the locations of agency safe houses, details of weapons and surveillance training, and the names of other Iraqis who had spied for the Americans.
So Iran now faces an economic squeeze from sanctions, rebellions against its domination of Lebanon and Iraq, and a widespread uprising at home. Conditions have never been better for the collapse of the regime. But I am afraid the people of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere are going to have to do this almost entirely on their own.
Here’s the point at which I advocate vigorous American action to support the protests and kick Iran while it’s down—which of course we should be doing. Yet the Obama policy of withdrawing from the Middle East, doing as little as possible to support our interests there, and abandoning our allies has mostly continued.
Tony Badran argues that this has become the new bipartisan foreign-policy consensus. He sums up the prevailing view:
What America should, and must, do when confronted with such a tinderbox is obvious: backpedal away, fast, while kicking our former allies in the region to the curb, hard. The sentence warning of the dangers of Houthi drone strikes and effective Israeli operations encapsulates an attitude perhaps best captured in former Vice President Joseph Biden’s famous line: “Our biggest problem was our allies.”
Here I have to point out that Badran is playing a little fast and loose. If you follow the link he provides, you will find that Biden is making a much narrower and absolutely correct point: criticizing the Saudis, Turks, and others for pouring money into radical Islamists in the war in Syria.
America’s allies are a problem, Malley, Biden, and other Obama administration policy kingpins–starting with Obama himself—have publicly stated, because of their capacity to involve the US in a costly regional entanglement with Iran. In other words, America’s allies are actually our enemies…
Speaking of a foreign policy “consensus” in Washington may sound strange these days, given that the partisan divide in Washington has reached a level where people rightly ask whether an American consensus has become a thing of the past, whether on foreign policy or anything else. Yet a quick look at the foreign policy headlines from Washington shows a strong level of agreement among elites of both parties despite the high-decibel talk show noise.
The only problem I have with this analysis is that Badran implies President Trump is not on board with the new consensus. But what is his policy toward the Kurds in Syria, if not “backpedal away, fast, while kicking our former allies in the region to the curb, hard”? Donald Trump is even more explicit in seeing allies as a cost and a burden—NATO first and foremost—and as a source of entanglements rather than as a resource for promoting US interests and blunting the aggression of dictatorships.
The United States has an essential national interest in the spread of liberty across the world. It makes the world a better place in general, and it makes it a far safer and friendlier place for us. We are going to have to hope that the cause of liberty is powerful and appealing enough on its own to be able to sustain itself without America’s active support—at least for a while.
Events in Tehran and Hong Kong and many other places around the world give us some confidence that it will be.—RWT