Foreign correspondent Michael Totten talks Egypt, Iran and ‘Where the West Ends’

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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An independent foreign correspondent, Michael Totten has explored the world.

In his latest book, “Where the West Ends: Stories from the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Caucuses,” he tells of his adventures in the outer edges of the Western world.

Totten lived for a time in Beirut, Lebanon and his work is heavily focused on the Middle East. In an extensive interview with The Daily Caller, Totten discusses the state of Egypt, what would happen if Israel attacked Iran, why he believes the West should intervene in Syria and, of course, his latest book:

You’ve spent some time reporting from Egypt. What’s your take on what’s going on there? Do we have a full-fledged Muslim Brotherhood coup on our hands already? Or is the military still plotting behind the scenes?

I have no idea what the military is plotting behind the scenes. The brand new presidency of Mohammed Morsi could expire tomorrow morning for all we know. For now, though, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader is consolidating power as though he wants to rule Egypt the way [former President] Hosni Mubarak did, only as an Islamist rather than as a military man.

When I was in Cairo last summer, that’s exactly what I was told we should expect by some young Egyptians I met who had recently resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood. None of them thought the Brothers would govern the way the Christian Democrats do when they win elections in Germany. And since these guys once belonged to the organization, I trust they have a much better understanding of what their former bosses are up to than any Western journalist like me ever could acquire by parsing the leadership’s unreliable, and often bogus, public statements.

I know you were conflicted about the Egyptian revolution. If I remember correctly, you feared an Islamist takeover but couldn’t find yourself siding with Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak against some of your liberal friends in the country who were protesting in Tahrir. If there was a way to implant Mubarak back in power today, would you pull the trigger seeing what has happened so far and could very well happen in the near future?

You’re right: I was conflicted about the Egyptian revolution, and I still am. I want to see the end of every dictatorship in the world. But at the same time, the idea that it’s springtime in Egypt right now is absurd. Cairo is not Budapest, and it is not Prague. It has more in common with Tehran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, although it’s not as bad as that yet. At least Egypt has a national army, while the Brotherhood has nothing like Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guard. Still, I would not put Mubarak back in power today if I could.

The biggest reason I wouldn’t restore Mubarak isn’t because I think the Muslim Brotherhood is the lesser of evils. In all likelihood, a Muslim Brotherhood government is the greater of evils. The reason I wouldn’t put Mubarak back in the saddle is because it has been apparent to me for years that Egypt was sooner or later going to pass through a period of Islamist government. Keeping someone like Mubarak around was only going to prolong the inevitable.

The only way Egypt will stand a chance at having anything like a liberal democratic government at peace with itself and with its neighbors is if it experiences an anti-Islamist revolution like the one that that has been brewing in Iran. I don’t like what happening in Egypt at all, but it’s a gate through which the Egyptians must pass and it’s probably best to just get it over with.

You wrote one of the best cases for U.S. intervention in Syria to aid the rebels that I have read. We are getting more reports of al-Qaida in Syria fighting President Assad’s regime. What do you say to those who fear that as bad as Bashar al-Assad has been — and he’s been pretty damn bad — the potential for an Islamist-led Syria, even if more remote a possibility than Egypt, is even more frightening?

It’s true that al-Qaida fighters are showing up in Syria, but they’re a microscopic percentage of the rebel force. Their numbers are all but certain to keep growing, though, the longer this drags on, so the sooner Assad is overthrown the better.

But Syria is far less likely to be ruled by Islamists than Egypt, partly because Syria has a much larger percentage of non-Muslims living there, but also because radical Islam isn’t as popular even among the Muslim population. Radical Islam is more popular in Egypt than anywhere else in the world, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, and it’s a mistake to assume that what happens there will happen everywhere else as a matter of course.

And it’s pretty unlikely that Assad’s replacement will be worse for us than he is. What are we worried about? That Syria will become a state sponsor of terrorism? That the government will be hostile to the United States? That it will be hostile to Israel? Syria is already all of those things.

Are we worried that the next government will terrorize its neighbors? That it will mass-murder it citizens? That it will use al-Qaida fighters in proxy wars against the United States? Assad already does all of those things.

If he falls, our biggest enemy in the region—the Iranian government—will be dealt a terrible blow.

Those who think we should have stuck with Mubarak need to think long and hard before extending Assad the same courtesy. The debate over what we should have done with Mubarak is worth having because he was sort of an ally, but Assad is an enemy of the United States. He has more American blood under his fingernails than any other Arab head of state in the world. Enough. Out with him.

From your time in the region, how do you think an Israeli attack on Iran would play out? How would Iran respond?

I’ll give you two scenarios.

Scenario one: Israel destroys Iran’s nuclear weapons and only kills a small number of people — almost exclusively weapon scientists. The Iranian government, not wanting to risk a wider war that could lead to its destruction, chooses not to retaliate. The world sighs in collective relief.

Scenario two: Israel’s first strike against Iran triggers a massive missile barrage from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Skyscrapers in Tel Aviv explode and kill thousands of people. Israel invades Lebanon and conducts the biggest military operation since the siege of Beirut in 1982. Iran fires missiles at strategic American and Arab targets in the Persian Gulf, drawing in the United States and the Saudis. The entire region comes apart. Oil prices spike and crash the global economy.

Most likely, we’d see a series of events somewhere between those extremes. Accurately forecasting much more than that is beyond any human being’s ability. It would be akin to predicting all of 2013’s hurricane landfalls in 2012. It’s impossible. There are too many chaotic variables.

Getting to your new book, “Where the West Ends,” what compelled you to write it?  

I didn’t plan on writing and publishing “Where the West Ends” until I had already completed all the field work that went into it. I realized two years ago that I had spent a great deal of time on the part of our planet between Turkey and Russia, and between the Balkans and the Caucasus, where Western Civilization blends with Russian and Islamic civilizations. It’s an absolutely fascinating part of the world, both familiar and exotic at the same time. When it dawned on me that I had a whole book’s worth of material from there, I knew at once that “Where the West Ends” would, in fact, become a book.

Where does the West end? And how do you define the West?

I think of the West as all the world’s nations that are the children of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, but it’s debatable, and even that straightforward definition crashes into the rocks east of Greece. Russia, for instance, is a bastard child of the Roman Empire, but is it Western? It sort of is, but it’s also the bastard child of medieval-era despotism from the far East. And what about Turkey? Its largest city was once the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, but it was conquered from Asia and today it’s Islamic.

And what about Israel? It’s either part of the West or similar to the West. There’s a debate there that will never end. Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that it’s Western. If so, the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank may be the only place on earth where Western civilization suddenly stops and another — in this case, Arab civilization — abruptly begins. Everywhere else, the West falls away in degrees.

North America’s Pacific Rim is the western edge of the West. In the east, the West fades slowly like twilight.

What do you hope readers get from your book?

First and foremost, I want readers to be entertained. This book was certainly the most fun of my three books to write. I want people to ride along with me as I explore near — yet strange — parts of the world that hardly anyone ever visits on holiday: Places like the wrecked parts of the former Soviet Union. “Where the West Ends” is basically a literary road trip. If you’re looking for a dull information dump, read something else. And the last thing anyone should expect from me this time around is policy analysis.

The first 50 or so pages is about the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my life, when I took a road trip to Iraq on a lark from Istanbul without any planning. My best friend, Sean LaFreniere, and I rented a car so we could visit the ruins of the ancient city of Troy, and we decided, what the hell, Iraq is only 1,000 miles away, let’s go there instead. We didn’t have nearly enough time to do it properly, so we decided to just drive there for lunch and come back as quickly as possible.

It was the most excruciating and trouble-plagued trip I’ve ever taken. Everything went wrong. Everything. That journey was unrelentingly miserable, but I’ve never had so much fun as a writer as I did when I told that story in print. It brought to mind a quote by the great travel writer Tim Cahill: “An adventure,” he wrote, “is never an adventure when it happens. An adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.”

I also went to Georgia when Russia invaded, and I drove behind Russian lines with a bad-ass dude named Thomas Goltz. He’s a professor in rural Montana, but he looks like a biker with his shaved head and his whisk broom moustache. He lived in Chechnya and wrote a first-person narrative account of the apocalyptic war with the Russians.

Sean and I also drove through blasted-up Bosnia, the Wild West of Albania, and through the post-Soviet disasterscape in Ukraine on a botched journey to the radioactive wasteland around Chernobyl. That was another trip where absolutely everything went off the rails, partly because we were totally unprepared, and also because a road trip through Ukraine from Poland is much more difficult than it sounds — or at least it was when we did it a couple of years ago.

With the exception of Iraqi Kurdistan, none of the destinations in this book are part of my regular beat. I visited 13 countries, and all but two are formerly communist. If I have expertise anywhere, it’s the Middle East — not Eastern Europe, Western Asia or the former Soviet bloc. This was mostly just a fun book to write. It’s hopefully a fun book to read.

And it’s devoid of partisan political commentary — with one exception. I went to places in the former Soviet Union that no tourists visit for pleasure, and I was shocked at how ruined some of those places still are. If anything, these journeys made me more of an anti-communist than I already was, and I’m sure that comes across in the book.

Why do you do what you do? Is it pure adventurism, as you intimate in the book, or something deeper?

 A huge part of it is pure adventure. Sean and I have been wondering lately about how we can ever top our on-a-lark road trip to Iraq for lunch. The only thing we’ve been able to come up with is to drive to Afghanistan, for breakfast, from Hong Kong.

I do this sort of thing because I write for a living and traveling gives me material, but there’s something else, too — something deep inside that drives me. Partly, it’s because I want to see the world, and I quickly get bored visiting places tourists like to go (though I wouldn’t say no if someone offers me plane tickets to Paris); partly, because visiting the broken parts of the world makes me appreciate more what we have in the United States.; partly, it’s a way to ward off boredom and torpor.

There’s also something else — something I can’t explain — that’s just wired into my personality. My brother also likes to take trips like this and he doesn’t write for a living. Our parents didn’t raise us to be travelers — they hardly took us anywhere — but both of us turned out like this anyway. In another era, he and I would have explored parts of our planet that no one has ever seen.

You can buy Totten’s book here.

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