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The Last Fishermen of Kashmir

After waiting for hours, Nazir Ahmad Kondoo rows his boat toward other fishermen on Anchar Lake in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Feb. 16.

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir—On one evening in February, 40-year-old Nazir Ahmad Kondoo returned from Anchar Lake to his single-story house in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Exhausted, he hauled his fishing equipment—a net, a Panzar (a type of rod), and a fishing basket—with him. But no fish.

This was not the first time that Kondoo was unable to catch anything. But it was the third consecutive day he had to come home empty-handed—and that was unusual.

Kondoo, who learned the art of fishing from his father, has been in the business ever since he dropped out of school at age 15. In those days, he would accompany his father to Anchar Lake, which is situated about 5 miles from the capital. They would mostly catch a kind of fish commonly called Kasheir gaed, and they earned a good amount of money—$12 to $15 a day, which was enough to feed their family of 10 people.

“My father raised us solely with the fish business,” Kondoo said, recalling the crystal-clear water of the lake in the 1990s, when it was the main source of income for thousands of fishermen. “But look at the condition of this lake now. It is difficult for me to even meet the ends.” Once 12 square miles in 1893–94, now the lake is only about 3 square miles, a relatively small dot on a map.

Anchar Lake is not alone. According to research by the International Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Studies, Kashmir’s water bodies have been defaced by extensive pollution, siltation (when water becomes choked with silt and clay), and encroaching development since 1990. All of that has slowly diminished fish biodiversity.

The bank of Anchar Lake is surrounded with garbage and polyethylene bags in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Feb. 16.

The bank of Anchar Lake is surrounded with garbage and polyethylene bags in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Feb. 16.

The bank of Anchar Lake is surrounded with garbage and polyethylene bags in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Feb. 16.

In 2019, at a two-day national conference on fisheries and climate change at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences & Technology of Kashmir (SKUAST), Nazeer Ahmad, a professor at the university, said 93,000 people in the region are still dependent on the fishing sector. But it is hard to know how long they’ll be able to get by. Many fishermen have opted out of the business, unable to meet their families’ daily expenses.

Among them is 64-year-old Ghulam Ahmad Shalbab, who was a fisherman for 30 years but quit as profits declined. His wife, 60-year-old Sondree, said he would go to Anchar Lake every day with the hope of a good catch but always came back disappointed. “For a very long time, he would tell me that he should do some other work, but deep down, he couldn’t as he thought that he won’t be able to do some other work,” Sondree said. One day, he woke up and simply decided not to go to the lake.

Shalbab found it difficult to support his family, so his wife found work. Sondree now wakes up early in the morning to join a group of women who sit on the banks of Anchar Lake, peeling the skin off kaanis (sticks used to produce decorative wooden baskets and other pieces). She earns about $4 a day.

“I cannot afford sitting at home. I have to work hard now that my husband is not working. How else can I feed my family? This is the reason that I don’t mind working here in the middle of a pile of garbage,” she said, pointing to the lake, which is spotted with floating piles of trash.

Sondree Begum poses on the bank of Anchar Lake, where she works with other women in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Feb. 16.

Sondree Begum poses on the bank of Anchar Lake, where she works with other women in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Feb. 16.

Sondree Begum poses on the bank of Anchar Lake, where she works with other women in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Feb. 16.

She said she still sees men heading out with their fish catching equipment each day. “I remember how my husband used to wake up with enthusiasm, but in the end, he realized catching fish is going to be the toughest job in Kashmir.” As she spoke, several men made their way down to the water and unlocked their boats.

“These men you see, they are all fishermen, fellows of my husband, but he is no more a fisherman now,” Sondree added with a grin. Minutes later, another group of men came with nets and Panzars. Within 30 minutes, the two groups, including Kondoo, joined in the center of the lake, making what looks like a flotilla of almost 50 fishermen on the hunt for the few fish that still live in the water.

Feroz Ahmad Bhat, who is an assistant professor and head of fisheries resource management at SKUAST, believes agriculture is the main reason fish are harder to come by. He said pesticides used in agricultural activities ultimately leak into Kashmir’s lakes and prove hazardous. “When the environment is not viable for the breeding of the fish, how can you expect that there will be an increase in the production?” he said, adding that four decades ago, the periphery of Dal Lake in Srinagar was sandy and apt for fish breeding. Now, due to waste and pollution, the shallows are no longer a good breeding ground.

Fishermen work to catch fish using Pazars in the middle of Anchar Lake in Srinagar, Jammu and Kasmir, on Feb. 16.

Fishermen work to catch fish using Pazars in the middle of Anchar Lake in Srinagar, Jammu and Kasmir, on Feb. 16.

Fishermen work to catch fish using Pazars in the middle of Anchar Lake in Srinagar, Jammu and Kasmir, on Feb. 16.

Dal Lake, the second largest lake in the region, is also situated a few miles from the capital. A study conducted by the University of Kashmir found that Dal Lake has also lost about 25 percent of its area in the last 157 years due to unregulated changes in land use and land cover.

To address these problems, the regional government formed the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) in 1997 as a self-ruling organization to oversee and conserve the region’s water bodies. LAWDA estimated that nearly 176,400,000 pounds of silt, 68,343 pounds of nitrates, and 8,818 pounds of phosphates are added yearly to Dal Lake. LAWDA said about $150 million have been spent on improving the lake’s condition since the 1980s. Even after that immense sum, though, the condition of the lake shows no improvement.

Meanwhile, Kashmir’s Fisheries Department said it is building fish-raising units for the fishermen community and young people. The department said it has created over 1,000 fish farms, which it touts as a good source of employment.

However, Kondoo and his community feel the man-made farms are a hoax. And even if they do help younger Kashmiris, he believes the old fishermen community is not seeing any benefits. And anyway, “the natural water bodies are obviously better than man-made,” Kondoo said.

Back in Anchar Lake, Kondoo has yet to catch any fish, but he’s still hopeful. He sits patiently, how he passes every day. And one day, he might get a good haul.

Kondoo is afraid not every fisherman is as hopeful as he is. He said he has seen many people quit this profession. “This is the last generation of fishermen, and with our death, we will get finished like fishes in the Kashmir waters,” he said. He may well be right.

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Oscar-Shortlisted Film Puts Bosnian Genocide on Silver Screen

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A photo from the film Quo Vadis, Aida? Toronto International Film Festival

In the summer of 2005, a decade after the genocide in the United Nations-protected area of Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs slaughtered more than 8,000 mainly civilian Muslim men and boys, I received a phone call from a friend in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, who reported that Natasa Kandic, a Serbian human rights activist, had tracked down a snuff film made in Srebrenica by a paramilitary group, the Scorpions. Kandic had heard that members of the Scorpions proudly murdered some of the Bosnian men on camera. At huge personal risk, Kandic found a former member of the group, drove to Croatia, and confronted him. She got a copy of the video and sent it to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

The film is utterly sickening. It shows helpless Bosnian men herded out of a truck—beaten, begging for water, pleading for their lives. Both older men and teenagers, they were forced to dig their own graves before they were shot. I will never forget the killers mocking and deriding their victims as they faced death in raw terror.

A few weeks later, I flew to Bosnia, where I had reported from the war a decade before. With the help of the International Committee on Missing Persons, an organization that uses forensic evidence to piece together and identify the remains of Srebrenica victims, I met with families of the men executed in the video.

Near Tuzla, I found Senada Ibrahamovic. She was only 12 when she saw her father go off into the woods that hot July afternoon in 1995. She remembers being angry at her dad—she didn’t want him to leave her. She stood at a window watching him grow smaller as he disappeared into the forest, raising his hand to wave goodbye. Ibrahamovic remembered that he wore a denim jacket.

Years later, never knowing for certain what had happened to her father, she saw his denim jacket on the Scorpions’ death video. The man begging for water and his life was her father. She watched his execution.

In a half-built house outside Sarajevo, I met Nurijaja Alispahic, whose two sons and husband were killed in Srebrenica. She watched her youngest child, only 16 years old at the time, being tortured and then killed by the Scorpions. She shook as we talked and seemed to me more like a ghost than a woman. She whispered: “I will only have peace when I am dead.”

Then I met Mevludin Oric, one of only 15 men who survived the killing fields of Srebrenica. He stayed alive through the mayhem by holding his 14-year-old cousin’s dead body over his own. When night fell, he clawed his way out of a pile of bodies and escaped in darkness. He told me that every night when he goes to bed and every morning when he wakes up, he sees the same thing: death. The soil, he said, was soaked in blood.

Refugees ride a United Nations truck as they flee the Serb-besieged Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica for Tuzla on march 31, 1993.

Refugees ride a United Nations truck as they flee the Serb-besieged Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica for Tuzla on march 31, 1993.

Refugees ride a United Nations truck as they flee the Serb-besieged Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica for Tuzla on march 31, 1993. PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images

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A photo from the film Quo Vadis, Aida? Toronto International Film Festival

Refugees from Srebrenica crowd a local sport hall in Tuzla on April 14, 1993.

Refugees from Srebrenica crowd a local sport hall in Tuzla on April 14, 1993.

Refugees from Srebrenica crowd a local sport hall in Tuzla on April 14, 1993. PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images

Fouad Riad, one of the judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, accurately described Srebrenica as “truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.” This is the precise reason why Quo Vadis, Aida?—a new film by the Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic—is so important and why it has rightly been shortlisted for this year’s Oscar nominations for best international feature film.

Quo Vadis, Aida?—if it wins an Oscar in April—will do for Srebrenica what Schindler’s List did for Auschwitz: burn the tragedy and crime into the public memory so we never forget what happened there.

The film focuses on the three days of killing at Srebrenica through the eyes of a local woman working as an interpreter for the U.N., Aida. While translating for the men who will eventually slaughter her people, Aida is also desperately trying to save her husband and two sons.

It opens with scenes from her gentle prewar life. Aida, a former teacher married to a school principal, goes to carefree parties and family gatherings. Life is good. Then it shifts to the suddenness of war. Srebrenica was under siege for nearly three years, suffering enormous deprivation before the Serbs finally took the town on July 11, 1995. The terrified population, who had been disarmed, rushed to the U.N. peacekeeping battalion for protection.

Srebrenica, along with five other towns—Zepa, Gorazde, Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Bihac—had been declared U.N. safe havens, meant to be protected by the international community. It was a terrible fallacy. They were the towns that seemed to suffer the most.

Like Angelina Jolie’s equally powerful 2011 film about the rape camps of Bosnia, In the Land of Blood and Honey, there is no sentimentality in Zbanic’s film. Quo Vadis, Aida? moves across a landscape of horror. Mothers dress their teenage boys like girls to save their lives as the men and boys are separated from the girls and women—and taken off to their deaths. Neighbors turn on neighbors. Women are shot dead as they cook their lunch.

In one scene, we see a young boy ripped from his mother’s arms. We see people holding pets that they grabbed as they were rushed out of their homes. We see confused men led into a room, guns lowered through windows, and the men sprayed with bullets.

We also see U.N. officials, meant to protect the civilians of Srebrenica, at their worst: bureaucrats tethered to a system. The fact that more than 8,000 souls are no longer on this earth because a message didn’t reach the right people at U.N. headquarters will go down as the biggest failure of the international community.

The Dutch soldiers tasked by the U.N. to defend the town were vastly outnumbered by Serbs. But they were also abandoned by their commanders. Their bosses in the Netherlands and at the U.N. were either out to lunch or on vacation—so no one could give the orders for airstrikes that would have saved Srebrenica. Aida, watching all of this unfold, is powerless. Like the Apostle Peter confronting Jesus on the Appian Way—the Christian fable from which the title comes—she is caught on a terrible journey that twists her own fate.

“The character of the translator seemed to me the right angle to tell the story,” Zbanic told me. “She had more information than the other Bosnians, but she is still Bosnian. She was between two worlds. She thinks in some way having a U.N. badge gives her a privilege. But it does not.”

For me, the most painful scene was Aida desperately trying to hide her son and husband in the U.N. compound. Knocking on the door of the Dutch commander—meant to be Col. Thom Karremans, the head of the U.N. garrison in Srebrenica—she begs him to open the door and intervene. “They are killing people out there,” she says quietly.

But the Dutch commander is paralyzed. When he tries to reach U.N. headquarters, he is thwarted by his superiors, who tell him he should appease the Serbs. He can’t get authorization for airstrikes. He knows, horribly, that he will be forever complicit in the unfolding mass murder. (Since the massacre, the Netherlands has acknowledged its role in the horror; after a particularly damning report in 2002, the prime minister and entire cabinet resigned.)

Bosnian film director Jasmila Zbanic walks the red carpet ahead of the movie "Quo Vadis, Aida?" at the Venice Film Festival in Italy on Sept. 3.

Bosnian film director Jasmila Zbanic walks the red carpet ahead of the movie "Quo Vadis, Aida?" at the Venice Film Festival in Italy on Sept. 3.

Bosnian film director Jasmila Zbanic walks the red carpet ahead of the movie “Quo Vadis, Aida?” at the Venice Film Festival in Italy on Sept. 3. Elisabetta A. Villa/WireImage via Getty Images

Zbanic, who is well known for directing two other powerful films set in Bosnia, divides her time between Berlin and Sarajevo. It took her six years to make the film, largely because she feels “the time was not right.” Now, she said, “with the rise of right-wing governments, political uncertainty, and irresponsible presidents, people understand more what happened in Bosnia.” Her film, she stressed, shows what can happen when people “lose safety.” Surely, living in COVID-19 times, we understand the fragility of our security more than ever.

One of her goals is to educate a new generation of Bosnians who do not know—or whose leaders do not want them to know—what happened.

She also wants to commemorate the survivors. Many family members spent years simply trying to get the bones of their loved ones so they could bury them. The Serbs knew, even as they were doing the killing, that they were committing a war crime: In some cases, they tried hiding the bones in multiple graves.

A group of women known as the Mothers of Srebrenica eventually brought a civil action against the U.N. for its breach of duty to prevent the genocide. “To me, these women of Srebrenica were saints,” Zbanic said. “We always think saints are in the sky, but these women are with us on the ground, on earth. This is the story of their journey.”

To drive home her point that Bosnia is still divided by ethnonationalism today, Zbanic decided to hold the film’s premiere at Potocari, the site of the Srebrenica memorial and cemetery. She invited Serbian journalists and students. One Serbian student came to her in tears, telling Zbanic he had no idea this had happened. Another wrote her asking why this was not in their history books. “For me, that was the most beautiful thing,” she said.

But instead of shedding more light on what happened, a whitewashing of the crime has been taking place. Genocide denial among Western opinion-makers started with the Austrian novelist Peter Handke, winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature. Handke not only questioned the events of Srebrenica but gave a eulogy at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader and ethnonationalist demagogue in power at the time of the genocide who was tried at The Hague for war crimes.

Then, last year, Boston University professor Jessica Stern published My War Criminal, a book based on her interviews with the notorious Bosnian Serb warlord Radovan Karadzic in prison. Stern, who had previously written eloquently about her own personal trauma, probably set out to explore the mind of a sociopath. But she lost her grasp of the book and, as she admitted, fell under the spell of the—in her words—“hypnotic” and “Byronic” convicted war criminal. The entire book is a vehicle for a man responsible for mass murder to demonstrate his lack of remorse for a hideous war that ripped apart a country.

But perhaps the greatest victory for historical amnesia and the ratification of murderous ethnic cleansing occurred in Srebrenica itself. In a 2016 vote for mayor, the town—which prewar held a Muslim majority and is now 55 percent Serb—elected Mladen Grujicic, a Serb who lost his father in the war and refuses to call the crimes at Srebrenica a massacre. “The Srebrenica genocide is still denied,” Zbanic said. “We couldn’t film [in the town] because the mayor still says genocide did not happen.”

Quo Vadis, Aida? challenges all of this. Zbanic hopes that both Serbs and Bosnians will see it. “Serbia is many, many voices,” she said—not just those who would like to forget history. The film ends hopefully. Aida returns to a mixed Srebrenica—to a school with Muslim and Serb children. “There is hope,” Zbanic said firmly. The sooner people see her film, she said, “the sooner they will be healed.”

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Biden’s Syria Strikes Fuel New Debate on War Powers

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U.S. President Joe Biden walks toward reporters on on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Feb. 16. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s directive to carry out airstrikes in Syria has fueled new debates about the president’s war powers authorities, with top Democratic allies on Capitol Hill voicing unease about military action without prior congressional approval. 

Biden authorized strikes on Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria on Thursday, marking the first significant military action of his presidency. Almost immediately, senior Democratic lawmakers began pressuring the White House for answers on what legal justifications were used to carry out the strikes, reviving questions on a president’s constitutional war powers authorities that became a fixture of former President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy battles with Capitol Hill. 

“I am very concerned that last night’s strike by U.S. forces in Syria puts our country on the path of continuing the forever war instead of ending it,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders in a statement. “This is the same path we’ve been on for almost two decades. For far too long administrations of both parties have interpreted their authorities in an extremely expansive way to continue military interventions across the Middle East region and elsewhere. This must end.”

Biden’s response to renewed pressure from Capitol Hill, congressional aides said, will be an important bellwether of how he manages relations with Congress and whether he accedes to pressure from the left flank of his party on foreign policy. 

Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy also issued statements signaling unease at the strikes, with Kaine calling on the administration to fully brief Congress on the matter “expeditiously.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden briefed congressional leaders on the action last night and has been briefing lawmakers and congressional staffers today. “There will be a full classified briefing early next week at the latest,” she said in a statement. The White House did not respond to additional requests for comment.

During his four years in office, Trump fended off repeated attempts by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to pare back the president’s ability to carry out military operations without congressional approval. The political battles in Washington stemmed from debates about constitutional powers and struck at the heart of the murky ways that the United States has carried out military engagements in the Middle East for the past two decades.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday that Article II of the U.S. Constitution gave Biden “not only the authority but the obligation” to order the airstrikes. The Pentagon said it utilized two F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft in the strikes, which destroyed nine facilities used by Iran-backed militias along the border between Syria and Iraq, and rendered two more structures unusable. 

Sanders, Murphy, and Kaine have all backed bipartisan measures to repeal nearly two decade-old provisions authorizing expansive presidential war powers that date back to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Kaine in 2018 held up the confirmation of a senior Trump Middle East envoy for months over legal questions over Trump’s decision to order missile strikes in Syria during his first year in office. 

Now some of Trump’s staunchest critics in Congress say they want to hold Biden to the same standards. 

“I have inherent trust in the national security decision making of President Biden, and I know how seriously he takes Congress’s war making powers,” said Murphy. “But Congress should hold this administration to the same standard it did prior administrations, and require clear legal justifications for military action, especially inside theaters like Syria, where Congress has not explicitly authorized any American military action.”

Legal scholars say that Trump’s approach to war powers authorities leaves thorny and open-ended questions for the Biden administration to grapple with over the powers of the presidency, laid out in Article II of the Constitution. “The picture that emerges from Trump’s war powers reporting to Congress is one of an extraordinarily broad vision of the president’s authority to use force abroad without congressional authorization, and of a willingness to exploit loopholes in reporting requirements in a way that obscures information on the use of force from the public,” wrote Tess Bridgeman, a former legal advisor in the Obama administration’s National Security Council and co-editor in chief of Just Security

The U.S. strikes in Syria, reprisals for rocket attacks targeting U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq earlier this month, highlight Iran’s influence in the wider Middle East and its threat to U.S. troops through the use of proxy groups. It also underscores the highly charged tensions between Washington and Tehran even as the Biden administration works to revive Iran nuclear negotiations.

Some critics of Biden, including Republican lawmakers who sharply oppose the president’s efforts to open diplomatic negotiations with Iran, praised the airstrikes as a necessary response to Iranian aggression to deter future attacks.

“After several unanswered attacks against U.S. interests, I welcome the administration’s decision to authorize airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias operating in eastern Syria,” said Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We must not allow the Iranian regime to hide behind Iranian-supported militias that pose significant threats to U.S. national security interests.”

Meanwhile, some dovish Republicans criticized Biden’s decision to strike. “I condemn meddling in Syria’s civil war,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul tweeted on Friday. “I also condemn attacking a sovereign nation without authority.”

Some experts expect attacks from Iranian proxy forces to continue, even if Tehran agrees to reopen talks on curbing its nuclear weapons program with the United States and its European allies.

“The Biden team is learning that extending an olive branch to the regime in Tehran does not impact Iran’s objective of pushing the U.S. from the region, nor alter their methods for pursuing it,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, an expert with the Atlantic Council and a former senior National Security Council official in the Trump White House. 

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Biden’s Plan to Lead From Alongside

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President-elect Joe Biden salutes before boarding a flight for Washington at the New Castle County Airport on day before being inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States January 19, 2021 in New Castle, Delaware. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Here’s a litmus test for you: How do you feel when U.S. President Joe Biden declares that the United States will resume its place as “leader of the free world”? Do you say, “It’s about time”—or “That way hubris lies”? It is, at bottom, a question not about power—about America’s ability to lead—but about moral standing. Biden may have earned the right to lead America, but in what respect has America, in 2021, earned the right to lead the world?

This is an old question; it’s one I grew up with. I became politically conscious in 1969, when I was 15; I handed out leaflets against the Vietnam War at the train station where my father and his friends commuted to New York City. I would have barked with laughter at the argument that the Cold War was a struggle between good and evil. Domestic policy, I would have told you, was the sphere in which justice might be done; foreign policy was spy versus spy.

Fifty years later, most of the students in my New York University classes on U.S. foreign policy find the idea of American leadership similarly risible. Whether Americans, Europeans, or Emiratis—for I also teach at NYU Abu Dhabi—they tend to regard the Iraq War as the signal act of American leadership of the last generation, just as I would have described Vietnam. The more politically conscious would add in the ravages of a made-in-America neoliberalism.

So, too, for many of today’s progressives, who regard the United States as a neoimperialist power gussied up with moralistic window-dressing. Yale University professor Samuel Moyn recently described the “rules-based international order” that Biden vows to revitalize—and lead—as a self-serving fiction that the United States has propagated even as it “bent or broke the rules across the world.” American belligerence has been bipartisan; Moyn bitingly reminds us of the imagery of America as the “indispensable nation,” a phrase associated with Democratic Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

American self-righteousness sticks in the world’s throat; yet Albright used the term when the Clinton administration finally, belatedly, intervened in the Balkans after realizing that Europe would not act on its own. For many liberals, including myself, that moment was a revelation. The lesson was that a world order does not lead itself; it must be led, in concert with others, by its organizing and orienting power.

All such orders, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes in his book World Order, depend on a combination of power and legitimacy. The distinctive feature of a liberal or rules-based order is that it legitimacy proceeds from the willingness of the dominant power to uphold liberal values even though it has the power to ignore them when it wishes. Moyn, and my students, and the me of 1969, would say that the United States has failed that test again and again. Perhaps it has; yet while Vietnam and Iraq and neoliberal excess occupy one side of the ledger, the other includes a largely peaceful and prosperous and democratic Asia and Europe, a vast network of alliances, and a suite of regional and global institutions. The international relations theorist G. John Ikenberry more usefully describes the United States as a “liberal leviathan”—in his book of the same name, as well as in his recent A World Safe for Democracy—that, despite grave lapses, has bound itself to rules and institutions in the name of long-term self-interest.

It is precisely because he understands the moral foundations of leadership that Biden has said that his administration must renew democracy at home before seeking to protect and extend it abroad. The United States, that is, must earn back its leadership role. Nevertheless, Biden is not likely to delay the planned “summit of democracies” until America climbs back up the ranks of Freedom House’s freedom index. In his heart of hearts, Biden probably regards his own election as sufficient proof that “America is back.”

The language of leadership—of “the indispensable nation”—comes more naturally to Biden, a product of the 1950s, than it did to Barack Obama, the first U.S. president to have seen the operation of American power from the vantage point of a developing nation. Obama never actually used the expression “lead from behind,” but the phrase stuck to him in part because one could have imagined him doing so. His circumspect sense of American power arguably constituted a suitable response to eight years of President George W. Bush’s rhetorical and strategic belligerence. Today, however, the liberal values that underpin the world order are under grave threat both from autocratic great powers—China and Russia—and from within democratic societies. The world needs U.S. leadership more urgently than it did a decade ago, even as America’s right to exercise that leadership seems even shakier than it was before.

Once we bring this idea down from the clouds we can see where Biden will and will not run into resistance. In his speech last week to the Munich Security Conference, Biden vowed to convene a global summit on climate change. Leadership on the most pressing of global problems is, of course, a good thing, as would be the case with leadership on public health or on, say, ending the senseless war in Yemen. Nothing neuralgic there. Even Biden’s aspiration to protect democracy abroad is unlikely to encounter resistance on the home front.

That call may, of course, fall on deaf ears beyond U.S. borders. With the multilateralist President Bill Clinton having given way to the unilateralist George W. Bush, and Barack Obama to Donald Trump, America’s allies have every reason to question the metaphor of the United States being “back.” Europe seems more staunchly committed to that rules-based order than is the United States. President Emmanuel Macron of France used his speech at Munich to assert that Europe needs to be “more in charge of its strategic autonomy” than it is now. Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel staked out a less adversarial stance toward Russia and China than Biden.

In any case, Biden will encounter resistance from the Democratic left on defense spending, troop deployment, and everything else associated with the word “military.” One of the most tangible global goods that the United States has provided to its allies over the last 75 years is the forward deployment of troops to deter attack by rivals. Progressives of all stripes regardAmerica’s global military footprint as a waste of money and a dangerous provocation. Biden does not. He has not spoken of cutting the defense budget, nor of significantly reducing troops in the Middle East, Europe, or Asia. And he is prepared to use military force to make a point, as he did earlier this week when he authorized airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria in response to a rocket attack by those forces against an American base in Iraq.

Last week I predicted that Biden will disappoint hard-liners by his preference for diplomacy over coercion in Iran. But I suspect he will equally disappoint progressives who regard military strength itself as a proof of imperial ambitions. Biden would say—and rightly so, I think—that preserving world order doesn’t just mean standing up for democracy and the rule of law or rethinking neoliberal doctrine; it also means stopping Russia from undermining its neighbors through cyberwar, economic blackmail, or proxy forces, and preventing China from gaining dominion over the South China Sea.

Military strength is not to be confused with war. First in Vietnam, then in Iraq, and now perhaps in Afghanistan, Americans have found that war is often far more ruinous and far less effective in producing political change than they imagine beforehand. In a brief for American global leadership in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert Kagan insists that critics have overreacted to “unsuccessful” wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Yet those wars did not just lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and tens of thousands of American soldiers; they utterly destroyed the political consensus at home and blackened America’s reputation abroad. It is because of those wars that so many now recoil at the language of American leadership.

Joe Biden voted for the war in Iraq, but I think he knows the price America paid for that mistake. I am quite sure that he does not plan to adopt the penitential policy urged on him by the left, but also that he recognizes the harm the United States has done in the name of its calling to put the world right. American leadership does not have to mean American bellicosity or high-handedness. It doesn’t mean leading from behind, but it does mean leading from alongside. The world needs American leadership. The alternative isn’t Sweden; it’s China.

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The Human Cost of Endless Pandemic Border Closures

Commuters sleep while waiting for the Otay Mesa Port of Entry to open to cross to the United States from Tijuana, Mexico, in the pre-dawn hours of May 20, 2020. Restricted entry amid the pandemic forced commuters crossing the border to take extraordinary measures to get to essential work and business on time in the States. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images

I have spent my entire life traveling between Canada and the United States—or at least I did until a year ago, when the two countries closed the border to so-called nonessential travel in an effort to stem the growing COVID-19 pandemic. I was born in upstate New York, but my family moved to Vancouver when I was a small child. I returned to the United States in the mid-1980s with my new Canadian wife to attend graduate school, and we largely stayed. Since then, I have crossed the border multiple times each year for work, for vacation, and to visit family and friends. Until the lockdown, we frequently made the one-hour drive from our home in the state of Washington to Vancouver every few weeks—including to see our daughter, who is a student there. All that stopped in March of last year.

Like millions of others similarly affected around the world, I’d hoped the closed border would be a temporary measure. But despite all the encouraging progress on the vaccination front, it appears travel restrictions are going to be with us for the foreseeable future. Canada recently announced more extreme measures, including a mandatory hotel quarantine for travelers arriving in the country by air, in an effort to prevent the spread of the new variations of the COVID-19 virus. One of the Biden administration’s first acts was to block all travel to the United States from countries where the new variants have spread, including most of Europe, Brazil, and South Africa.

A full year into the crisis, there is still no serious international cooperation to reduce the human costs of border closures. And our family is not alone. A Canadian group, Faces of Advocacy, shared some of these stories with researchers at the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, where I teach. The tales are wrenching: A young woman in Washington state has a partner of four years who lives across the border in Canada; when they were separated for eight months, she says it “killed my mental health in a way I never could have imagined.” A young British Columbia woman discovered three months after the border closure that she was pregnant from her Washington state boyfriend; several months later she miscarried, and her boyfriend pleaded with Canadian border officials to be able to go quarantine to be with her in Canada. He was told that caring for her and grieving the loss of their child was not essential and was warned he could be banned from Canada for a year if he returned seeking admission. Many others said they had been blocked from traveling even to care for sick or dying family members.

Canada, to its credit, last October added a “compassionate entry” program to allow some to care for loved ones and permitted many of those in committed relationships to reunite. The United States has offered nothing reciprocal. The group Let Us Reunite has been pushing the Biden administration to permit family members, such as adult children with elderly parents, to cross the land border into the United States—as Canada now allows in the opposite direction. Their website is filled with similarly wrenching stories of people living close to the border who have been unable to see parents, children, fiances, or long-term partners on the other side for the past year.

Multiply these stories by a thousand, if not a million, around the world. They cut across all nationalities and social classes—affecting the migrant worker unable to return to the job on which their hungry family depends; the immigrant, rich or poor, cut off from family and loved ones; and many others who were left stranded and whose plans are now destroyed. The costs have been tremendous and still grow by the day, ranging from lost income to the deep pain of cut-off relationships to mental illness. It’s another, less visible cost of the pandemic: Lives have been destroyed, families have gone unfed, and despair has eaten into countless souls.

It could have been done differently: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. and Canadian governments immediately sat down to negotiate new rules for the border that would harden the perimeter against terrorists and criminals while doing as little as possible to disrupt regular trade and travel. The so-called Smart Border Declaration was a landmark in modern border management. The U.S. government negotiated similar but separate protocols with the European Union, Japan, and many other countries to increase the safety of travel and trade.

This time around, there has been no such cooperation. Countries slammed their borders shut with little or no consultation with their neighbors. Since last March, Canada and the United States have simply been rolling over the border closure on a monthly basis, giving their citizens no signals at all about the circumstances under which the controls might be eased. In the EU—which has made unrestricted travel one of the defining rights of citizens, and where most member states have abolished internal border controls—countries closed borders unilaterally early last year, including to each other. European cooperation was restored later in 2020, but now countries all across the bloc are again closing their borders. While case counts are falling sharply in the United States and Canada, the border is tightening as caseloads remain higher than the first wave last year. At what point might the numbers be low enough to permit further travel? If governments have a plan, they have not shared it with anyone.

Travel restrictions obviously make sense in a pandemic. The basic tool for prevention is social distancing, yet democratic governments have limited means beyond gentle persuasion for enforcing stay-at-home orders or mask requirements. Borders, in contrast, are a hard stop—no one gets in without formal permission. Many of the countries that have successfully controlled COVID-19 are island nations, including Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan, that have kept out most noncitizens. Border bans, coupled with careful contact tracing and lockdowns if community spread emerges, have proved to be a successful strategy for these nations. Looking at their example, many health experts have been calling for more rather than fewer travel restrictions.

The new strains of the virus, too, strengthen the case for border control. They are more contagious and possibly more deadly, and countries would be remiss if they didn’t make serious efforts to keep the new variants out. Evidence suggests that travel bans can make a difference if they are imposed early enough. France in late January banned all travel to and from nations outside Europe. Britain is now requiring travelers to quarantine in hotels for 10 days at their own expense. Germany banned all travel from “areas of variant concern,” including the United Kingdom, and the country’s interior minister said he was considering “reducing air travel to Germany to almost zero.” Germany and other countries have even introduced widespread domestic travel restrictions to try to prevent COVID-19 from spreading from high-risk regions.

But as much as world leaders say they’re following science, we know that they can’t divide policies from politics. Shutting borders is popular: Nearly 90 percent of Canadians believe their border should remain closed, and an Ipsos poll of 28 countries last November found that two-thirds of respondents supported border closures. It is likely no coincidence that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the new restrictions last month in the middle of a media firestorm over the slow rollout of vaccines in Canada—even so, he was chastised by editors at the Globe & Mail for acting too timidly. Canadians have been outraged by stories of politicians flouting stay-at-home rules. Ontario’s finance minister was forced to resign after taking a Christmas vacation in the Caribbean. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair chastised would-be travelers: “Unfortunately, some are making the choice to engage in nonessential travel. If they are going to make that choice, they should bear the full cost.” Canada’s new hotel quarantine requirement will cost them as much as 2,000 Canadian dollars (about $1,500) for the privilege. The move triggered a lawsuit charging the government with “forcible confinement” in violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Travelers arrive outside the international terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 25 amid increased travel restrictions announced by new U.S. President Joe Biden.

Travelers arrive outside the international terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 25 amid increased travel restrictions announced by new U.S. President Joe Biden.

Travelers arrive outside the international terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 25 amid increased travel restrictions announced by new U.S. President Joe Biden. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

All of this makes for good political rhetoric. Those of us stuck at home responsibly social distancing are understandably peeved when others flout the rules and jet off on vacation. But the crude and heavy-handed nature of the border closures is also imposing enormous human costs for those separated from family and other loved ones. The massive expansion of migration, international education, and transnational careers over the past several decades has not surprisingly led to many people building the most intimate parts of their lives across national borders.

The absence of government-to-government cooperation has produced wildly different approaches that make no sense from a health perspective. The United States has kept the land border closed to all but essential travelers such as truck drivers and a handful of health care workers. But for inexplicable reasons, Washington has not enforced the same regimen in air travel. A Canadian citizen living in Vancouver cannot drive south to Seattle—but is permitted to get on a plane and fly. Which is riskier: driving in a private car or mingling with strangers for hours at airports and on planes? And unlike in Canada, that air traveler faces no requirement to isolate after arriving. There have also been broad exemptions for anything related to cross-border trade, perhaps out of a desire to prevent further disruption to fragile supply chains—or due to the power of corporate interests. Of the nearly 10 million entries into Canada since the March 2020 border closure, half have been by truckers arriving by land. And truckers are exempted from all isolation and testing requirements that other arrivals in Canada must face.

For the first several months after the outbreak, governments could be forgiven their fumbling and improvising. It was a novel threat for which there was no clear playbook. And those separated by borders aren’t the only ones missing loved ones—stay-at-home orders, lockdowns at nursing homes, and other restrictions have kept many families apart. But one full year into the border closures, the millions of people whose lives have been upended deserve better.

At a minimum, there should be formal procedures to consider compassionate and family exemptions rather than crude across-the-board restrictions. The United States, for one, should adopt Canada’s broader approach to family and loved ones, and other countries should follow suit. In the EU, fewer than half of the Schengen countries have exemptions for binational couples, and these only apply to partners from other EU nations. Many countries have imposed onerous requirements that make it difficult for non-married couples to prove their relationship. Politicians should avoid cruel gestures like a high-cost, mandatory hotel quarantine, which may deter most casual travelers but will make it prohibitive for others with a more urgent need to travel.

Governments must also start working together on plans for reopening as conditions permit instead of leaving their citizens guessing from month to month. Here, too, we all deserve better. Former U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Robert Bonner, who played a big role in building the post-9/11 border architecture, has called for similar international coordination among governments to use borders intelligently as part of a strategic counterpandemic strategy. One of the key elements should be benchmarks that would allow for gradual reopening as more people are vaccinated and the pandemic is brought under control. Many U.S. states have phased reopening plans that define when schools, gyms, restaurants, and other businesses can at least partially reopen as the spread of COVID-19 is reduced. Countries should create a similar set of benchmarks affecting borders.

The pandemic may be under greater control later this year—or further new variants may turn it into a multiyear battle. It is past time for politicians to drop the cheap rhetoric of border crackdowns—where it’s ever so easy to score points by keeping foreigners out—and instead begin managing their borders in a smarter, more differentiated, more humane way to address the long-term threat. They should work closely with other governments, restricting travel where necessary while minimizing the human cost as much as possible. Compassion demands no less.

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Who Is Hot and Who Is Not in the Middle East

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with Lebanon’s Christian Maronite patriarch on Nov. 14, 2017, in Riyadh. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

This week, Politico ran a story revealing the Biden administration is deprioritizing the Middle East. It was an interesting read. Yet even without the reporting from Natasha Bertrand and Lara Seligman—two of the best journalists anywhere covering national security and foreign policy—the signs were clear that team Biden was going to try to do what it could not to get wrapped around the axles of Arabs, Israelis, Turks, Kurds, and Iranians. It took four weeks for U.S. President Joe Biden to call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then another week or so for him to phone the Iraqi prime minister and the Saudi king. The White House likewise does not seem in a hurry to make calls to the Egyptians, Turks, Emiratis, Qataris, and others.

The National Security Council has adjusted accordingly, downsizing the Near East directorate, and U.S. executive agencies are not hiring as many Middle East hands as in previous administrations. These changes are happening against the backdrop of nonstop, foreign-policy discussions about “great-power competition” and China. If 2001 to 2020 was the golden age of the Middle East analyst, it is clear that Washington is now entering the era of the China expert (and public health specialist). This is a good thing. The Middle East has sucked up a lot—too much—time, attention, and resources of decision-makers who were often chasing unrealistic goals and pursuing poorly thought-out policies. This came at a cost, deflecting attention from other important issues like the implications of China’s ambitions, Russia’s return to the world stage, Europe’s stability, and the impacts of climate change.

At the same time, it is easy to exaggerate. It took a little more than a month before President Biden ordered up airstrikes in the region, hitting Iranian proxies in Syria after Iran’s allies hit a base in Iraqi Kurdistan, where American forces are located. Also, the folks who advocate for the United States’ withdrawal, reduction, or retrenchment from the Middle East tend to downplay the risks of these approaches. There is no doubt that the United States’ Middle East policy needs to evolve; there are issues in the region that no longer seem as urgent as they once did and countries that are not as important as they once were. Part of the challenge of crafting a new approach to the region is determining who and what is important to the United States.

So, in the spirit of helping clarify these issues—and aping “The List,” the annual Washington Post feature—here is an entirely subjective ranking of the Middle East. Countries that are IN need the Biden administration’s attention. OUT countries would like to think they matter, but they should prepare for a future of being ignored.

Saudi Arabia is IN—but mostly because it’s on the outs. During the presidential campaign, then candidate Joe Biden had tough words for the Saudis. A good deal of Washington has been up in arms about the Saudis since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. (It was only then that Saudi Arabia’s disastrous intervention in Yemen received sustained attention in Washington.) There was also, of course, the blockade of Qatar and the mistreatment of Saudi activists. It is all coming home to roost now for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The White House announced it will not talk to him, has docked the Saudi military weapons that could be used to prosecute the war in Yemen, and released a report detailing what the U.S. intelligence community knows about Khashoggi’s murder. Human rights campaigners, Saudi dissidents, analysts, and members of Congress have all welcomed these moves, but…but…Saudi Arabia remains the United States’ primary interlocutor in the Arab world. If Biden wants to get a new deal with Iran and hopes to relieve the suffering in Yemen with an eye toward ending the conflict, he is going to need to elicit Saudi cooperation.

Iran is IN. It’s been in since 1979, at least. The Biden administration believes the best way to arrest Iran’s nuclear development is through diplomacy. It is certainly the case that “maximum pressure” did not work. The general view in Washington is Iran’s nuclear program has progressed further than it might have had if former President Donald Trump stayed in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There is also a lot of discussion about extending the deal to cover Iran’s malevolent behavior in the region—an issue that is often underplayed in Washington—as well as Tehran’s arsenal of missiles. It seems that Iran will not be willing to give up its proxies or its rockets. Whether it does or does not, Iran is going to occupy lots of attention in the coming years. It already begun with the strikes in Syria aimed at the Iranians.

Israel is IN because it is Israel. U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has long been based in significant part on ensuring Israeli security. There are political, historical, moral, and strategic reasons for the close relationship between the two countries. Although analysts, activists, and some politicians are asking more critical questions about the “special relationship”––not to mention Biden’s somewhat cool approach to Netanyahu, which may portend changes to future ties—Israel nevertheless remains an important player in which the United States is deeply invested in. And just like Saudi Arabia, if Biden wants to cinch a new deal with Iran, he is going to have to elicit Israeli cooperation. The U.S.-Israel relationship is institutionalized, so even if Biden runs into trouble with the Israeli prime minister, as former President Barack Obama did, the relationship is likely to remain “robust” as they say. Even when Israel seems out, it is still in.

The United Arab Emirates is IN, but mostly because it is not Saudi Arabia. The Emiratis have studiously backed away from the Saudis and Mohammed bin Salman in a variety of ways. Recognizing the Yemeni war was a losing proposition. Abu Dhabi withdrew its military from Yemen and has not been so visible in defending the Saudis inside Washington or anywhere else. This has not exactly garnered the Emirates goodwill, but it is no longer in the direct line of fire among the folks in Washington who want to punish the Saudis. Of far greater significance is the Abraham Accords, which did garner the Emiratis good favor. Biden praised the normalization deal as a candidate and has indicated he will work toward expanding normal relations among Israel and its neighbors. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party does not much like the Emiratis—citing its jailing of critics, its intervention in Yemen, and how it sells out the Palestinians—but the fact is the Emiratis remain important security partners to the United States whose interests are also affected when Biden’s team sits down to talk to the Iranians.

Egypt is OUT. Despite some unhappiness in Cairo that the president has not called Trump’s favorite dictator, the Egyptians are probably okay with being out. It will allow some among the Egyptian elite, intelligentsia, and officialdom the freedom to indulge their fantasy that the United States is out to undermine Egypt. More serious Egyptians want to stay under Washington’s radar screen; outmaneuver the Turks in Libya; focus on economic development; figure out how to manage the challenge of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; and balance relations among Washington, Moscow, and Beijing. Of course, the Egyptians have demonstrated that they sometimes cannot help themselves when it comes to the United States. The harassment of the families of Egyptian activists who reside in the United States or who are U.S. citizens has drawn the ire of members of Congress, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointedly informed his Egyptian counterpart that human rights will be part of the relationship.

Turkey is also OUT. The Turkish government used to have a lot of friends in Washington, but now it only has a few––plus a bunch of highly paid lobbyists. The Biden administration’s early moves suggest Ankara is not going to get a pass from the Oval Office. The U.S. State Department’s spokesperson, Ned Price, has already called out the Turks on a number of issues, including their mistreatment of the LGBTQ+ community as well as the detention of businessman-philanthropist Osman Kavala and the indictment of professor Henri Barkey on similarly ridiculous accusations concerning the failed 2016 coup. So far, the administration has spurned Ankara’s offer to have a working group on its acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense system. Still, as much as Turkey is out, it is also a NATO ally, so it is unclear whether Turkey’s recent record will keep it out for long.

As for the others, despite Biden’s phone call to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqis are mostly OUT. No one in Washington wants to invest in trying to fix Iraq’s politics, so Iraqis are going to be left with State Department bromides about elections and corruption. And Iraqis want to avoid being a battleground between the United States and Iran so even they would prefer to be more OUT than IN. Syria is OUT because no one can figure out what to do about it, and maybe the quagmire there will consume the Russians. The Palestinian National Authority is sort of IN but only because it is always OUT. The Biden administration has reestablished relations with the body, and its diplomats will continue to go through endless discussions with Israelis and Palestinians about a two-state solution that will never occur. Qatar is IN because it isn’t Saudi Arabia and, of course, Al Udeid Air Base is there, though questions about Doha’s relations with various Islamist groups around the region will, at times, dog its ties with Washington.

Of course, things will change and surprises will happen. The best laid plans often go awry, so it may prove impossible for the United States to downgrade its role in the Middle East. If and when some crisis occurs, Washington will be confronted with the same group of difficult partners, rendering even those countries that the United States would like to be OUT most definitely IN.

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Report: Saudi Crown Prince Approved Khashoggi Operation

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrives for a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May (not pictured) at No. 10 Downing Street in London, on March 7, 2018. Leon Neal/Getty Images

The Biden administration released a U.S. intelligence assessment Friday concluding that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, marking another flash point in Washington’s relationship with Riyadh that has already dramatically changed in the first month of the Biden administration.

The report, which the Trump administration repeatedly refused to provide to Congress after Khashoggi’s killing, is based on the crown prince’s control of decision-making in Saudi Arabia, the involvement of close advisor Saud al-Qahtani, and Mohammed bin Salman’s “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad,” such as Khashoggi. But the four-page declassified report provides no specific evidence of the crown prince’s involvement. 

Democrats on Capitol Hill were quick to use the report to challenge Trump’s legacy. “That President Trump refused to disclose this information for years and even went so far as to defend the heinous actions of a foreign leader over the integrity of his own intelligence agencies will be one of the many stains on his tenure,” said Senate Foreign Relations chairperson Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. 

“If the Saudis can get away with killing a U.S. resident in a foreign consulate and not suffer any consequences, it will be open season on journalists everywhere,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who pressed the Trump administration to release an unclassified assessment of the killing. 

Although the crown prince was widely believed to have been behind the operation, the release of the report could signal a dramatic reshaping of the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, which got cozier under the Trump administration.

Reuters reported on Friday that the Biden administration was considering limiting future arms sales to the kingdom to “defensive” weapons. The new administration is also pressuring Riyadh to help facilitate an end to the war in Yemen, where it has been fighting for nearly six years. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Friday new visa restrictions on 76 Saudi nationals who have sought to threaten or stifle the work of dissidents overseas, including Khashoggi. “As a matter of safety for all within our borders, perpetrators targeting perceived dissidents on behalf of any foreign government should not be permitted to reach American soil,” Blinken said. 

The administration is not expected to sanction the crown prince, in an apparent bid to preserve the United States’ relationship with the Saudi royal family. On Friday, the U.S. Treasury announced it would be imposing sanctions on a number of people believed to have been involved in Khashoggi’s murder, including members of the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force, the crown prince’s personal protective detail.

Human rights advocates condemned the Biden administration’s decision not to target the crown prince personally. “To avoid imposing these sanctions on Mohammed bin Salman would undermine the credibility of the sanctions that have been imposed on the other culprits,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, the organization founded by Khashoggi shortly before his murder. Amrit Singh, lawyer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, which attempted to sue the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release the report, called the decision “unconscionable.”

Biden had his first call with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a sign that the administration would resume the U.S. relationship with the kingdom’s head of state, a departure from the Trump administration. It’s unclear whether Biden raised the Khashoggi murder on the call. 

I can tell you broadly that the president raises … as does every official at every level, concerns we have about human rights abuses and steps that we expect the government and officials in the country to take moving forward, and certainly that was a part of the conversation,” said White House spokesperson Jen Psaki during a press briefing on Friday. 

But Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the Obama administration and now the senior vice president at the Middle East Institute, said the Biden team will likely have to balance punishing Saudi Arabia for its actions with its desire to achieve regional peace between the Arab countries and Israel and enter into a new nuclear deal with Iran. 

“They can’t get to any of those places unless they can work with the Saudis,” Feierstein said. “My guess is that they’re going to come up with something that makes it clear that this murder was egregious, and we can’t pretend that it didn’t happen, and we’re going to see how we can go forward.” 

Khashoggi, a former ally of the royal family, was murdered in a gruesome fashion at the consulate in Istanbul and was later dismembered with a bone saw. Khashoggi’s remains have never been found. 

The four-page report issued on Friday based its conclusion on the Saudi crown prince’s tight control of the kingdom’s security and intelligence services, and it deemed it unlikely that operatives would undertake an operation of such magnitude without the sign-off of Mohammed bin Salman. 

The Saudi government said Khashoggi was killed in the consulate as the result of a “rogue operation” by a team dispatched to return him to the oil-rich kingdom.

Update, Feb. 26, 2021: This article was updated to include remarks from human rights advocates.

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In Kolkata, Only a Few Lions Are Still Dancing

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A lion dancer moves down the street outside the Chinese Kali temple in Tangra, Kolkata, on Feb. 11, the eve of Lunar New Year. Hamsini Hariharan for Foreign Policy

On the eve of the Lunar New Year, the streets are dotted with red and yellow lights. Large red banners hanging between the buildings read xinnian kuaile and gonghe xinxi (variations of “Happy New Year” in Mandarin). There is a buzz of excitement in the air. At 10 p.m., the loud beats of the wushu drums begin: thang, thang, thang. Four groups of lion dancers appear, parading up and down the streets as small children stare open-mouthed. One lion eats leaves of cilantro and then scatters the leaves all over the audience for good luck. Finally, the lions bow to a small shrine, indicating the show is over and the audience of barely a few hundred people can disperse. This scene would be an ordinary one in southern China. But this is not Chengdu or Guangzhou but Kolkata in eastern India.

When you think of Chinatowns, you think of San Francisco, Bangkok, or London. But Kolkata has been home to an Indian Chinese community since the 18th century. The Chinese community in Kolkata was once thriving, with some estimates pegging its high at 70,000 people. Most of them immigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries, when India was under British colonial rule, setting up community clubs in Kolkata to connect migrants with others from their original home provinces, like Shandong or Hubei, or from their ethnic groups, like the Hakka. At one point, there were even two Chinatowns in Kolkata: in Tangra, where the leather factories were located, and in Cheenapara, the old Chinatown, home to Chinese churches, shoemakers, and community clubs. Even today Kolkata has the highest concentration of Indian Chinese people in the country, though a few of them have moved to other Indian cities.

Now, the Indian Chinese population of Kolkata numbers around 2,500, though there is no official count. While showing me around the Cheenpara neighborhood, the Indian Chinese pop singer Francis Lepcha pointed out how the entire area, once occupied by Indian Chinese people, had rapidly changed. As the younger generation migrated to countries like Canada with better opportunities, the older generation is slowly passing away. Long-standing establishments have been sold and replaced, storefronts have changed identity, and historical apartments are now home to newer communities—it is hard to tell there was once a bustling Indian Chinese presence in the area. Tiretti Bazaar, once famous for its Chinese breakfast, now hosts Indians halfheartedly selling momos, rolls, and dumplings.

Diasporas all over the world are used to hyphenated identities, and Indian Chinese are no different. Many of them stress their Indianness—they speak to each other in Hindi or Bengali, and very few of them know Mandarin, though a good number speak Hakka. Intermarrying and assimilation have meant that most of them feel more Indian than Chinese.

But this is also a community hard hit by the pandemic—and by the new distrust of China in India. “Before corona, everyone would come from abroad, and there would be big reunions,” said Peter Chen, an Indian Chinese businessman who was born in Kolkata but now lives in Chennai. The lack of international travel has meant that Lunar New Year celebrations are much smaller. Fears of the coronavirus have also dampened festivities. Most families held private dinners instead of participating in public festivals. Previously, the lion dancers would visit the home of every member of the community to give blessings and receive hongbao (red packets containing money). But this year, people closed their doors to this much-loved tradition in order to limit physical contact.

To keep the spirit of the Lunar New Year alive, some members organized a food festival featuring a lion dance, a music performance, and a sound and light show. The food stalls featured more Indian food than Indo-Chinese, and the light show was filled with stereotypical motifs of China—coins, dragons, cherry blossoms, Asian-style buildings, etc. Outside Pei Mei High School, where the fest was happening, one woman told me, “It’s so boring. That’s why everyone is leaving at 9:30. Last year was not like this.”

But boring or not, the muted celebrations are prudent because of the increased racism toward Asians, particularly Chinese people, in the wake of COVID-19 and the Galwan Valley clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers last June. In India, the Indian Chinese community is used to keeping its head down. Like Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II, shortly after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Indian Chinese people in Tangra and Cheenapara (and across the country) were interned at Deoli in the deserts of Rajasthan. The Indian government sent some of them to China in ships. Some of them were held for years before they were allowed to go back to find their homes and property seized. The everyday racism that people from the Northeast and the Indian Chinese community face has peaked during the coronavirus. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs even issued an advisory last March to all states to ensure that legal action was taken against people who indulged in racial harassment.

To make things worse, in 2020 Sino-Indian relations hit their lowest point in half a century. In May, Indian and Chinese troops clashed at various points along the northern border. Videos began circulating of a fistfight near Pangong Tso in Ladakh and West Tibet. In June, things took a turn for the worse when both sides engaged in hand-to-hand combat near the Galwan River. It resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers. Because the use of weaponry is banned at the Line of Actual Control that divides the two nations, the crude battle saw the soldiers using rods, sticks, and even metal nails to attack each other. After nine rounds of corps commander-level talks and back-channel discussions over nearly seven months, the two sides have finally begun a disengagement process—although China’s recent acknowledgement of the deaths of its so-called martyrs from last June has resparked tensions.

During this time, however, the Indian public and government pushback against China has been immense. The Indian government banned Chinese apps, including WeChat, TikTok, and VooV, citing national security concerns. Many Indians have made a conscious effort to boycott Chinese goods, with some making a public show of destroying their Chinese-made products, including televisions and toys. Some people even burned effigies of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, mistaking him for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Against this backdrop, it is only understandable that the Indian Chinese community has dwindled. Living in India has meant that Indian Chinese are forced to prove their love for the country every day—even if they are second or third generation. It is a complicated identity to straddle, made even more difficult with the current political climate. This is also one of the reasons that the community is shrinking every year.

Even the lion dance, a signature of the community, is declining as members go abroad and the younger generations are unenthusiastic to take up the tradition. This year, there were only four lion dance groups. But James Liao, the founder of the India Hong De fitness club who teaches the lion dance and martial arts, remembers a time in the 1970s when 50 lion dance groups were performing. “[In] 1978, I remember my first time coming out to join the club, and I love that. Because during the new year … all the lions come out at midnight to go to each and every family in Tangra and give the family blessings,” he said.

Whether the celebrations will be resuscitated in the future depends on the pandemic and if tensions between the two countries lessen, but a community that has been there for two centuries is still disappearing.

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America’s Conspiratorial Delusions Weren’t Born Under Trump

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A person wears a QAnon sweatshirt during a pro-Trump rally borough of Staten Island in New York City on Oct. 3, 2020. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

As the United States slowly wakes from the Trump administration, millions of Americans—including congressional representatives—linger in a delusional reality. In their world, their leader won, but his victory has been denied by traitorous enemies of the people. Evil forces lurk, empowered by a Biden administration that is at best communist and at worst demonic—though in this worldview the two are generally synonymous. The most visible representative of these fantasies, recently applauded by around half of sitting Republican members of Congress, is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon supporter and believer in Jewish space lasers. But she is just the tip of the iceberg of theories that have been fermenting inside the United States for decades.

Former President Donald Trump lost the election, but he won the election cycle. His conspiracy-mongering and high-profile support of right-wing propaganda outlets have left an indelible mark on American culture. But while Trump may be the undisputed champion of these tactics, he didn’t create them. Far-right politicians and media personalities have been creating false realities for decades, and they’ll keep doing it as long as possible—regardless of whether it spurs extremist groups or even terrorist attacks.

The most violent members aren’t the only concern. Normal people are being recruited into fringe groups, immersed in alternate realities, and convinced that the world is a terrifying place ruled by child-molesting cannibals and the servants of demons. They become isolated from dissenting friends and family, making them even more vulnerable to brainwashing tactics. Among other things, they’re frequently manipulated into ignoring their own safety during a deadly pandemic. My grandfather’s steady diet of Fox News propaganda caused him to dismiss the coronavirus as a hoax and refuse hospitalization even as he was collapsing under its effects. Fortunately, he received quick treatment and survived, but others have been less fortunate.

Most extremist groups are unstable and short-lived, and many collapse after they achieve their purposes—although they never seem to lack for successors. The alt-right and the Proud Boys popularized open support for white nationalism and have attacked left-wing demonstrators. QAnon has lured millions of people into a cult, including half of all Trump supporters. They’ve also gotten representation in Congress. The language of violent extremism has become the norm in many white evangelical churches, which tap into a legacy of both Confederate resentment and extreme Christian nationalism to justify the language of revolt against a supposedly unjust government.

And yet, none of this is new, however much some recent converts away from the Republican Party might want to present it as such. Activism against former President Barack Obama served as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and hatred. Birther conspiracy theorists claimed then-candidate Obama was born in Kenya and not eligible for the presidency, and many continued to suggest his presidency was illegal after his election. Some conservative pundits continuously emphasized that his middle name is Hussein as a racist dog whistle, continuing even as Obama and his allies embraced the name.

Franklin Graham, a right-wing evangelical and future Trump ally, falsely claimed Obama was born a Muslim, tying his genetics to a religion long used by conservative commentators as a hated boogeyman. A few figures inside the party at the time, such as Sen. John McCain, spoke out against this so-called birtherism—but many more embraced it or winked at it. By the end of Obama’s presidency, 72 percent of Republican voters claimed to have doubts over the president’s citizenship—roughly the same percentage as embraced false claims about the 2020 election. They were the fuel for Trump’s election run.

The political kidnapping and assassination schemes against politicians and election officials aren’t new, either. In March 2010 in my own district, Tea Party members posted what they wrongly believed to be liberal Rep. Tom Perriello’s home address on Facebook. They invited his opponents to “drop by” and “express their thanks” for his vote on the Affordable Care Act. Someone took them up on that, slashing a propane line on the home’s screened-in porch, and the residents received a threatening letter in the mail. When confronted with the news that the address belonged to Bo Perriello, the representative’s brother, local Tea Party leader Nigel Coleman unconcernedly called it “collateral damage.”

The Tea Party’s tolerance for extremism and false narratives didn’t diminish their political effectiveness. Tom Perriello lost his reelection campaign, defeated by voters who had overwhelmingly bought into the core beliefs of the local Tea Party, if not their methods. Republicans have held the seat ever since, and when Democrat Jane Dittmar mounted a serious challenge in 2016, an armed Republican protester intimidated her staffers, and internet trolls bombarded her with rape and death threats.

Her opponent, then-state Sen. Tom Garrett, initially denied any responsibility and changed the subject to unverified DUI allegations against her. He later made a tepid joint call for civility before easily defeating her. While his success can be largely attributed to campaigning and the down-ballot effects of Trump’s victory that year, it certainly didn’t hurt that the Dittmar campaign had been worn down by a barrage of threats.

And before the Tea Party, there was the white evangelism that powers the Republican base—which from the 1970s onward increasingly disappeared into conspiracy theories. The obsessive symbol-finding of QAnon is a descendent of the hunt for Satanic influence that reached a peak in the 1980s, when chain letters—the ancestors of today’s Facebook groups—regularly claimed that Procter & Gamble was in league with the Church of Satan. Before that, in turn, there were the fantasies of the John Birch Society, which believed in vast communist conspiracies driving the civil rights movement. None of these ideas ever entirely disappear; they merge and fuse into each other over time.

Over and over, irresponsible politicians spread conspiracies, use violent rhetoric, and claim that dissenters are puppets of fake news conjured up by enemies of the people. When their followers take things to their logical violent conclusion, they feign ignorance and issue weak condemnations while the extremists celebrate and interpret their comments as directives from their leaders. In the absence of real political or legal consequences for their actions, they only stand to benefit from this pattern.

Trump’s pandering to extremists may be the most obvious source of the problem. But that’s only because he lacked the self-discipline and political subtlety of ideological allies like Sen. Mitch McConnell and former Attorney General Bill Barr, both of whom acted to sabotage President Joe Biden’s legitimacy without tweeting their plans to the world. Future right-wing politicians will fine-tune their messages and orchestrate more deniable intimidation campaigns, and it’s entirely possible that the smaller left-wing extremist movements will swell up in response as more people give up on democratic norms. This may not cause the U.S. system of government to collapse, but they can certainly make the next few decades unpleasant.

This outcome isn’t inevitable, but responsible Americans from all parties need to act swiftly. Deceitful politicians need to be held accountable at the ballot box, and right-wing grifters need to see their profits dwindle. Most importantly, all Americans need to be aware of the supposed alternate realities that dominate so many lives.

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 Ukraine’s Debt Problem Spells Trouble

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a press conference marking his first year in office at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 20, 2020. Sergey Dolzhenko / POOL / AFP) (Photo by SERGEY DOLZHENKO/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine has a growing debt problem that the government under President Volodymyr Zelensky is only making worse. The International Monetary Fund’s financial support for Ukraine is conditioned on the country making various reforms that will reduce its dependence on international assistance in the future. Kyiv, however, appears to be looking for ways to circumvent the IMF’s conditions while still tapping into the market for government debt. That’s a dangerous strategy for a country whose relationships with the United States and the countries of Western Europe—which together constitute the main source of IMF funds—remain indispensable as it fights off Russia on its eastern border.

The government’s avoidance of reforms should worry the Biden administration in the United States: A Ukraine sliding away from democratic reforms will be more vulnerable, while a sluggish economy could reverse its trade reliance from the European Union back to Russia. A more prosperous, democratic Ukraine, on the other hand, means a less powerful Kremlin. But by aggressively tapping into capital markets, where Ukraine pays very high interest rates, and by dragging its heels on reforms expected by the IMF, Ukraine’s current administration is only putting the country at more risk, while facing a worrisome level of debt.

The IMF’s $5 billion financial package for Ukraine, agreed on in mid-2020, has stalled, with the most recent review mission ending in February without a deal on the next tranche of funding. The IMF is waiting until Ukraine’s leadership decides to recommit to the agreed priorities, which include bank independence and judicial reform, as well as anti-corruption measures. This is not the first time Ukraine’s cooperation with the IMF has been delayed due to the pace of Kyiv’s corruption reforms. Back in 2016, Christine Lagarde, then the managing director of the IMF, gave a harsh warning to Ukraine that it would stop a $40 billion bailout program for the country unless it was serious about fighting corruption.

At the same time, the debt problem is only becoming more urgent. Ukraine’s public and publicly guaranteed debt increased from 50.4 percent of GDP in 2019 to a projected 65.4 percent in 2020, according to the IMF. In December alone, Ukraine’s Finance Ministry raised roughly $4 billion in government bonds, with the majority of the securities at interest rates between 10-12 percent. Among other debt, Ukraine also announced a $350 million short-term loan from Deutsche Bank that month. According to Ukraine’s finance ministry, the country will have to repay roughly $11 billion during the first half of 2021, or about 7 percent of the country’s GDP. It will then have to repay roughly an additional $10 billion during the rest of 2021.

The picture becomes even gloomier when you count in Ukraine’s sales of GDP-linked warrants. These securities have been criticized by economists and financial experts. With a payout that rises as Ukraine’s growth improves, these warrants can provide a potentially hefty win for investors but put a struggling economy like Ukraine’s at even more risk and dampen its potential to grow.

In 2015, Ukraine’s creditors agreed to write off 20 percent of their original holdings as part of a sovereign debt restructuring. In exchange, the bondholders received these GDP-linked warrants, which will have to be paid as soon as GDP growth exceeds 3 percent and nominal GDP exceeds $125.4 billion. The payouts become especially lucrative for bondholders once real GDP growth exceeds 4 percent, when Ukraine must pay 40 percent on wealth created above the $125.4 billion GDP threshold. With Ukraine’s economy forecast to grow at 4.2 percent in 2021, that’s very likely to happen. Substantial payments can take place in 2021, but the warrants extend through 2040—potentially resulting in huge payouts for the next 19 years.

Easy access to expensive debt is also slowing down Ukraine’s reform agenda, as the country’s current administration has other options for finding cash without the need to reform. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, global debt markets have reached historic volumes, allowing developing countries such as Ukraine to more easily fish for cash.

Due to the failure to act on corruption, further disbursements to Ukraine by the IMF could be in jeopardy. The Zelensky administration has hesitated to take decisive action against systemic corruption, which is among several priorities on which the IMF has conditioned its support. So far, Zelensky has been trying to juggle between three major hubs of influence in Ukraine: oligarch-backed lobbyists, promoters of the Kremlin’s agenda, and politicians committed to a Western-allied trajectory. All the while, his administration has been sending contradictory messages to potential allies and the IMF.

At home, Zelensky’s ratings have plummeted: He has been criticized as serving a corrupt system that he had pledged to fight against during his campaign. According to a poll published on Dec. 16, 2020, 42 percent of Ukrainians considered Zelensky the worst disappointment of the year among political figures. The same poll also indicated that his party, Servant of the People, had lost half of its electoral support. This could make it even more difficult for him to pursue reforms.

Some members of the Ukrainian business community have emphasized that cooperation with the IMF is key to Ukraine’s economic success. Its support, they say, has symbolic weight and acts as a litmus test for the international community to assess Ukraine’s level of anti-corruption commitment. Andy Hunder, the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, said in an October 2020 interview that he considered the IMF program a “seal of approval” for international investors. Ukraine’s largest business association, the European Business Association, found in a recent survey that investors would react negatively if Ukraine failed to reach an agreement with the IMF on its next loan tranche.

For Ukraine to break its vicious cycle, it needs to send a strong message that it is moving forward with its anti-corruption reform agenda. This means establishing a just judicial system while also reforming and removing state-owned enterprises that breed corruption.

To decrease its debt vulnerability and save its economy in the long run, the government should buy back or restructure the GDP warrants while Ukraine’s international reserves, at roughly $30 billion, are at an eight-year high. The Ministry of Finance already repurchased around 10 percent of the notes last year. This will reduce the loan burden going forward, helping to free the country from a progressive warrant system that charges more the more successful the economy becomes. Ukraine should also limit its current selling of securities, at least as long as it has to pay sky-high interest rates because of political risk. If Ukraine does decide to tap the capital markets again, it should be with more thought of lowering the long-term financial burden.

It’s unlikely, however, that this will happen. Zelensky’s staff has had too much turnover to carry out systematic reforms—during his presidency, Ukraine has had three finance ministers alone. What’s more, it will be easy to leave the debt issue for future administrations to deal with.

But that doesn’t make the situation any less urgent. Although still distant, a debt default is a possible consequence if Ukraine keeps loading up on expensive credit. A default is ruinous for a country’s investment climate. Investors worrying about such an outcome may continue pulling out their money from Ukraine, as many have already been doing. Increasing debt will also escalate Ukraine’s political vulnerability, both at home and abroad. If Ukraine’s government decides to continue piling up debt without much-needed reforms, it is only setting itself up for a perfect storm.