Thursday, November 20, 2014

Russia's Short-term and Long-term Prognosis

Laina Farhat-Holzman
November 22, 2014

If the thugs in ISIS were not so busy decapitating people, we might have been paying more attention to a longer-term hostile force, Russia. Russia has been an important target of Western attention since the 19th century, when this once backward, frozen backwater came to life and proceeded to conquer and colonize all the countries across Central Asia (the old Silk Route), ending on China's border on the Pacific Ocean. They controlled 11 time zones and warranted watching.

Russia was an empire from the 18th century onward, a process only temporarily arrested by the Russian Revolution. After the communists briefly recognized the independence of their former colonies, they took them all back again under a new imperial rule, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). After a long Cold War with the west, that empire collapsed and Russia was, briefly, once more a single country, the imperial holdings given (or taking) independence.

Today, Russia is governed by an adept politician with a single-minded program of restoring the glory of the lost empire. Vladimir Putin is a modern, educated, one-time Soviet Intelligence operative and, unusual among Russians, a teetotaler. His brain does not get muddled with vodka, unlike many of his predecessors. He is fueled by a barely concealed rage at how the Soviet Union collapsed and how the United States emerged as the single hegemon in the world.

Liberal Democracy is not his thing; Russia's long past with autocratic governance is more natural to him----and, unfortunately, to the majority of Russian voters. Russia's brutal history has taught the lesson that "better the devil you know than the anarchy you get without him."

For the Russian analyst, there are a few givens that must be considered:

o     Russia can only project power in land war, concentrating on obtaining buffer zones in their periphery. This explains why the Ukraine is so important to them.
o     Their naval power has always been flawed. Most of their territorial waters are icebound much of the year, with outlets so narrow they are easy to watch. The US could see every submarine or vessel leaving these frozen ports.

o     The Black Sea offers the only warm water ports available to the Russian fleet, which explains the seizure of the Crimea. However, it is also well known that the ships are in poor shape, as are the submarines (horrific accidents killing all on board in the recent past). Russia cannot be a great naval power, as are Britain and the US. Even Japan trounced the Russians in 1906 at Port Moresby, a national humiliation.

o     Russian military training is brutal and their mandatory military service is as always corrupted by those with money to avoid it. Leo Tolstoy, the great 19th century writer and once military officer, wrote that the Russian officer corps could barely communicate with their ignorant recruits and they took their orders from a narrow upper crust of aristocratic senior officers.

During World War I, although the recruits themselves were often brave, loyal, and obedient, when faced with the literate and modern armies, the Russian infantrymen were at an increasing disadvantage. “The trinity of Tsar, Church, country still had power to evoke unthinking courage; but defeat and drink, could rapidly rot devotion to the regiment's colours and icons.” (John Keegan, The First World War, p. 141.)  Although today's soldiers are literate, they did not do well in the Afghan war for much the same reasons as they faced during World War I, bad leadership.

o     Russia's old foe, Turkey, still controls the outlets of the Black Sea, which hampers egress of the Russian fleet and the Turkish fleet is far more modern and dwarfs the size of the Russian fleet.
o     Russia's population has declined by half since 1950, whereas the Muslim populations of its neighbors is burgeoning. This is a great threat to its future. Its main source of income, energy, is not enough to make a modern state thrive over the long haul. In addition, they make nothing that anyone wants. Putin's belligerance smacks of desperation.

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Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or  

Friday, November 14, 2014

We Must Put the “Crises of the Moment” in Context

Laina Farhat-Holzman
November 15, 2014

Critics of President Obama have an easy job. They do not have to make the decisions that will impact long-term American wellbeing. That is his job, and like making sausage, it is not a pretty process. It involves heavy lifting and complex issues.

Two principles have governed American foreign policy for the past two centuries: first, make certain that no one power controls all of Europe or all of Asia. We would be standing alone if such a powerful enemy controlled all other countries and natural resources. Imagine our fate if the Nazis had conquered and held Europe from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of Russia.

The second principle is one that began began in the late 19th century: a world with global trade, an international economic system, and at least tacit agreement on the rules governing civilized countries. Although such a world actually existed, it did not save Europe from descent into World War I. Wilson believed that the international system was not enough without the clout of a league of nations which would sustain peaceful rule of law.

Unfortunately, this too did not work because there was no leadership; America opted for isolationism instead. World War II took up where World War I ended. International law was unenforceable. It took the US and its allies to defeat two powerful and ruthless outlaw states, Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan.

Once more, a new league of nations was formed, this time led by the US. But it was soon apparent that United Nations laws were unenforceable and nation-states, most of which were dictatorships, would not defend liberal rule of law. Liberal democracies were in a minority, but with the leadership of the United States, they prevailed over the advocates of Communism.

Today the world is facing what David Brooks calls “The Revolt of the Weak against the rules of civilization.” We cannot let ourselves panic over the resurgence of primitive Islam in ISIS, which decapitates captives, ethnically cleanses captured territory, and rapes and sells women into slavery. They move quickly, just as the Nazis did in their blitzkrieg campaigns, but it is one thing to take territory and another to hold it. A wise President will not have to wait long before this scruffy terror group actually has a return address (they think they can run a modern state). Geography will kick in with a punishment for their boldness. Hitler learned that too late.

President Putin of Russia is much admired by some of our senators for his “ability to act decisively,” in contrast to our president who is weighing the best responses to this attack on global rule of law. Putin is reckless, and like Hitler and ISIS, is resorting to speed to take what he wants before anybody can react.  Again, it is one thing to take and another to hold. Mr. Putin represents weakness, weakness of a country that lost the Cold War, lost its empire and its ability to cow its neighbors, and has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, a symptom of its economic and moral bankruptcy. When a country makes and sells nothing that anybody wants except for its oil and gas, it does not have much of a future.

For a long-term foreign policy to meet today's needs, we need a president who can see when intervening is in our long-term national interest and when it is not. All irritants in such places as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Russia, individually do not affect the larger interests of the United States. But if taken together, and they do, we can focus on the Black Sea as a whole region with consequences.

Around that sea are Ukraine (under siege by Russia); Russia opposing us in support of Syria's dictatorship and Iran's nuclear aspirations; Turkey, which as it Islamizes is increasingly undependable; and Europe which depends on Russian and Middle East oil and gas. All such issues are tied in to the Black Sea, a place that must be our focus. This is like triple deck chess.

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Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or

Friday, November 7, 2014

Debates About “Intrinsic Islam” Miss the Mark

Laina Farhat-Holzman
November 8, 2014

Some noisy public debates are going on about the sensitive issue of the “intrinsic” nature of Islam. Two members of the liberal intelligentsia (Bill Maher and Sam Harris), who do not find any religion logical, have dared to say that the well-intentioned mantra that “Islam is a religion of peace” is baloney. Islam, they say, is intrinsically violent. The respected public intellectual Fareed Zakaria chastised Maher and Harris for condemning this huge world-wide religion. Too broad a brush, he said, to designate a 1300-year old faith as intrinsically violent..

It is true that most Muslims are not Jihadist, but all Jihadists are Muslim.  Harris says that from its inception, Islam has always made the worst possible choices (medieval institutions) and Maher gives plenty of examples of beliefs anathema to western liberal: killing apostates, abusing women, murdering followers of other religions in the name of Allah, issuing edicts condemning to death those who “insult” the Prophet Mohammad, and rampant sexual violence.

Zakaria makes a good point that Islam is not practiced just one way. Over the centuries, Muslims have adhered more and sometimes less to Sharia law, a code frozen in time in 1200. There are pious Muslims living in non-Muslim countries who obey the host country's law, as well as some in even Muslim-majority countries such as Iran who are only nominally Muslim. However, recently in Egypt a poll was taken asking whether it was right to execute those Muslims who convert to another faith or reject Islam altogether. The vast majority thought it was right. The current military government, fortunately, will not do so. However, nobody has polled the majority of Muslims around the world to ask this, and other questions, that make the faith so primitive.

Maher and Harris find Islam intrinsically flawed, and do so based on its practices for the past 1300 years. Zakaria objects that this condemnation is only valid for a relatively small cadre of extremists, not for the Muslim world as a whole. But what only a few scholars are doing is looking at the religious sources that make the arguments of the Islamists legitimate in the eyes of most practicing Muslims. The radical Islamists are going back to their first model, the life and practices of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions.

If one imitates the life of Islam's founder, one could, of course, imitate his first ten years as a missionary using persuasion and a kindness. However, Islamists note that the last ten years when Mohammad was a warlord trumped the earlier. Arab Muslims are allergic to the very notion of history, claiming that everything before Mohammad was darkness and ignorance. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Islam is not a linear religion in which changes occur in time, yet in this one instance, choosing the last ten years rather than the first, they are practicing a horrible historicity.

During the Prophet's last ten years of struggle (jihad) to convert all Arabs to his new religion, he led a guerilla army that waylaid merchant caravans to steal their goods and money; personally tortured captives to find out where the gold was hidden; gave the conquered people the option to convert to Islam, pay an extortion tax if they were “people of the book,” or be decapitated. After killing the men, the women and children were parceled out as booty. When he was finished, only Muslims were permitted to remain in Arabia, a prohibition that remains even today.

Imitating the life of Jesus is very different from imitating the life of Mohammad. Throughout history, many Christians did not imitate Jesus, but those who did, such as St. Francis of Assisi and the Quakers, provided a sterling model. Christianity today has pockets of crazies, but these are not a model for the Christian world. Islam's crazies, alas, are such a model. This explains their success in recruiting foot-soldiers to their cause.

Although we are told that only 5% of the world's estimated 1 billion Muslims are committed Islamists, 5% equals more than 50 million crazies! Not a happy thought. The faith of Islamists is certainly not a religion of peace.

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Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or