Christian Caryl is a Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute and the editor of Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab website. His latest book is Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the Twenty-first Century.
 (February 2016)

The Force of Nostalgia

Rey (Daisy Ridley) freeing the droid BB-8 from the net of the scavenger Teedo and his semi-mechanical Luggabeast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I’d expected the theater to be populated by teenagers in Jedi robes and white plastic armor, but most of the audience looked pretty much like us: middle-aged moms and dads and their offspring. The uniquely broad demographic appeal of the Star Wars universe probably goes a long way toward explaining the astounding success of the film.

My Star Wars

Opening day of George Lucas's Star Wars at Grauman's Chinese theater, May 25, 1977

What a lot of the current rumination about the Star Wars franchise misses is the way the original movie stood out from the rest of Seventies filmmaking. All we knew was that we’d just seen something amazingly fresh and we left the theater feeling mysteriously liberated.

Burma: How Much Change?

An illustration of Aung San Suu Kyi, chair of the National League for Democracy (NLD), at the NLD party headquarters in Rangoon, Burma, November 13, 2015

“Change” is a word that crops up in many conversations in Burma these days. After decades of struggle Aung San Suu Kyi has achieved her greatest triumph—her NLD appears to have won an overwhelming 80 percent of parliamentary seats—one can only hope that she will wield her mandate to the best effect, and that she can successfully overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of the transformation her voters want.

The Bombs in Boston

A surveillance photo released by the Boston Police Department during its search for the Tsarnaev brothers, showing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in a gas station while fleeing the police, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 18, 2013
The trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the sole surviving perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombings, took only thirty-three days. On April 8 a jury declared the twenty-one-year-old guilty of one of the most heinous crimes in recent American history; then, on May 8, they sentenced him to death. Many years will …

Saving Alan Turing from His Friends

Alan Turing as a young man
I can imagine many possible ways of turning Alan Turing’s story into a movie. Yes, one can imagine the obstacles—among them the sheer eventfulness of the man’s life, and the fact that many of his most dramatic discoveries were predicated on knowledge of sophisticated mathematics (that well-known bane of the moviemaker). Yet none of this should serve as an excuse. The choice seems clear: either you embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience to follow you there, or you simply capitulate, by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius. The latter, I’m afraid, is the path chosen by The Imitation Game’s director and screenwriter.

A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, 2014

The Imitation Game, the new film about the mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turning, seems determined to suggest maximum tension between him and a blinkered society. But this completely destroys any coherent telling of what Turing and his colleagues were trying to do.

The Small Sects Under Fire

Yazidi men from Sinjar, northern Iraq, at a makeshift camp on the outskirts of the Kurdish-controlled town of Derek, Syria, after fleeing Islamic State militants, August 2014
In August, President Obama announced a series of air strikes against the advancing forces of the Islamic State (IS), the self-declared “caliphate” in northern Iraq. The aim was not only to support embattled Kurdish forces in the region, but also to protect thousands of beleaguered members of the mysterious religious …

Putin: During and After Sochi

A weathered newspaper article on a wall in the Russian city of Voronezh, with a photograph of the local human rights activist Roman Khabarov, October 2013. The ad on the right reads, ‘Are they taking away your driver’s license? Or have they already? Call 232-41-20.’
Vladimir Putin’s regime rests on the pretense that he has brought internal peace to Russia by enforcing a tough regime of law and order (“dictatorship of the law,” as Kremlin doublespeak calls it). By exposing the reality of police malfeasance, the opposition activist Roman Khabarov gives the lie to such claims. Yet Khabarov, who was arrested during the recent Olympics, remains virtually unknown, both inside and outside of Russia.

Why Sochi?

Monument to Russian-Georgian Friendship (1799–1817), Gudauri, Georgia, 2013

Why on earth would the Kremlin decide to host the Games in an underdeveloped place where terrorists lurk nearby—a place that The New York Times describes as “the edge of a war zone”? The answer is not as complicated as it may seem. Vladimir Putin comes from St. Petersburg. He rules from Moscow. But it is the North Caucasus that launched him on his path to the summit of Russian power.

The Bombers’ World

From left: Anzor Tsarnaev and Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the parents of the alleged Boston bombers, and Patimam Suleimanova, their aunt, at a press conference, Makhachkala, Russia, April 25, 2013
The biggest question surrounding the marathon bombings is the one of motive: Why did they do it? Given what we know so far, it seems likely that it was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother, who instigated and planned the attacks—but he, of course, is dead. The imprisoned Dzhokhar has told investigators that the brothers undertook the bombings as retaliation against the US for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That sounds plausible enough on the face of things, in view of what we know about the politics of jihadi terrorists in other parts of the world. At the same time, there are many other details of the Tsarnaev brothers’ case that make it seem starkly unique, more of an outlier than something that can be easily slotted into a larger pattern.

‘Misha’ Speaks: An Interview with the Alleged Boston Bomber’s ‘Svengali’

Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2010

As the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings continues, one of the more clouded aspects is the tale of “Misha,” a mysterious US-based Islamist who has been accused by members of the Tsarnaev family of radicalizing Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two alleged bombers. “It started in 2009. And it started right there, in Cambridge,” Tamerlan’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told CNN after the attacks. “This person just took his brain. He just brainwashed him completely.” These accusations set off a frenzied search for what some reports have called an Islamic Svengali, and over the past few days, the FBI has said it has located and has been talking to “Misha,” though his identity has remained unknown. Today I was able to interview “Misha.”

The War We Couldn’t See

US troops in Baghdad, Iraq, May 16, 2008

Americans never quite seemed to figure out what they thought of Iraq. Those who renounced the invasion engaged in few demonstrations once the war was underway, while those who approved of it seem to have largely tuned out the resulting conflict. Journalistic treatment of the war was spotty—the war coincided with a dramatic decline in the fortunes of US media organizations, which eroded resources for reporting. The Bush Administration promoted this indifference through its information-management efforts, including the overwhelming emphasis on “embedded” reporting at the beginning of the war, as well as the restrictions it imposed on the coverage of the arrival of those killed in action at Dover Air Force Base.

Islamist Déjà Vu: The Lessons of 1979

A protester near the US Embassy in Tunis, September 12, 2012

The year 1979—when Iranian student revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of American diplomats hostage, and Muslim radicals in Saudi Arabia, a staunch US ally, brazenly laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca—marked the debut of a new political phenomenon known as “Islamism.” Perhaps it’s helpful to recall those events as we contemplate the tragic death of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and the storming of American diplomatic buildings in Cairo, Sanaa, Tunis, and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Once again, a growing political force from within the Islamic world—one of which Westerners were only dimly aware—has dramatically and violently demonstrated its capacity to shape global politics.

Burmese Days

Aung San Suu Kyi at the Thanlyin township election office on the outskirts of Rangoon, after winning a seat in Burma’s parliament, May 9, 2012
In January, Min Ko Naing, one of Burma’s leading dissidents, walked out of prison. When the government ordered his release, he was over three years into a sixty-five-year jail term he had received for political activities in support of the “Saffron Revolution,” a nationwide uprising launched against the ruling military junta by Buddhist monks in 2007.

That was not the first time in his life that Min Ko Naing had run afoul of the authorities. He began his career as an activist during another protest movement in 1988 that was brutally suppressed by the reigning generals, who ordered troops to open fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing thousands. Thousands of the survivors disappeared into jails or labor camps, where they endured conditions of unstinting brutality, sometimes for decades. Min Ko Naing survived the crackdown, but as one of the best-known student activists he was squarely in the sights of the government and soon ended up under arrest. Altogether he has spent twenty-one of the past twenty-three years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

North Korea’s Not-So-Simple Succession

Local party officials paying respects to a statue of Kim II Sung as a young military leader at Mt. Paekdu, Pyongyang, 1982

The Kim is dead. Long live the Kim. That, at least, is the story you’ll get from most of the initial takes on the death of Kim Jong Il, whose death was announced Monday around noon, Korean time. His designated political heir, his son Kim Jong Un, is now set to take the reins. That, at least, is how it’s supposed to happen according to the peculiar rules of the world’s only communist monarchy. After all, isn’t the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea a staunchly totalitarian state where nothing ever changes? Actually, no. You could have gotten away with writing that just a few years ago. But too much has happened in North Korea in the interim.

America, Achilles

Activists of Jamaat-e-Islami protesting, September 11, 2011, Lahore, Pakistan

Until September 2001, North Americans had not witnessed the spectacle of mass death on their own territory for at least a century. Then, our enemies suddenly staged a devastating attack on some of our most significant places. That was a trauma—on top of the sheer loss of life—that seemed impossible to swallow. As we sent our armies out into the world, we felt that our actions were automatically legitimized by our new awareness of our vulnerability. Surely, we felt, this was self-evident; it required no further explanation. The rest of the world, however, has a hard time seeing our wounds. Today the rest of the world sees us, straightforwardly, as the country that spends more on its military than the next eighteen or so nations combined.

Predators and Robots at War

The US Air Force’s 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron launching an unmanned Predator drone with laser-guided Hellfire missiles mounted on its wings, Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, November 2009
Drones are in the headlines. We read daily about strikes against terrorist targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—remote-controlled aircraft equipped with elaborate sensors and sometimes weapons as well. Earlier this summer the US sent Predator drones into action against militants in Somalia, and plans …

Pakistan: When The State Loses Control

Supporters of Pakistani religious party Sunni Tehreek chanting slogans in favor of Mumtaz Qadri, alleged killer of Salman Taseer, and throwing rose petals while waiting for him outside an Anti-Terrorist Court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, January 6, 2011

In his great book of reportage on the revolution in Iran, Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes that mysterious tipping point when a demonstrator loses his fear of the Shah’s security forces and refuses to listen when the once all-powerful police order him to step back. Suddenly, all involved realize that the power of the state to cow people into obedience has been broken. I was reminded of that episode by the tragic January 4 murder of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, by a member of his own security detail, in a public shooting just a mile from the presidential palace in Islamabad. As with Kapuscinski’s demonstrator, the killing seemed to mark an epochal shift in the political landscape—though here the poles are reversed. In the case of modern Pakistan, it is now the tyranny of fear that is reaching into the heart of the political system. It has become extremely hard to see how anyone can pull the country’s political culture back from the brink.

WikiLeaks in the Moral Void

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in London, October 23, 2010

WikiLeaks changes everything. We can act as if the old standards of journalism still apply to the Internet, but WikiLeaks shows why this is wishful thinking. On November 28—as pretty much anyone who has the capacity to read this should know by now—the Internet organization started posting examples from a cache of 251,287 formerly secret US diplomatic cables. The few thousand journalists in this country who regularly track the State Department’s doings would have needed a couple of centuries to wheedle out this volume of information by traditional methods; the linkage of disparate government computer networks (a well-meaning response to the compartmentalization of data in the pre-9/11 period) apparently allowed one disgruntled Army private to pull it off in a few moments. As WikiLeaks itself boasts, this is “the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain.”

The Tired Terrorist

We are accustomed to thinking of the novel as an art form of openness. In this view, the purpose of the novel is less to convey understanding than to offer an aesthetic experience; it should not draw our conclusions for us. Novels, of course, are certainly capable of engaging with …

Unveiling Hidden China

Sunday picnic, Chongqing, 2006; photograph by Nadav Kander from his book Yangtze—The Long River, which collects his images of life along the Yangtze from its mouth near Shanghai to its source on the Tibetan Plateau. It has just been published by Hatje Cantz.
Napoleon famously described China as a sleeping giant that would shake the world when it finally awoke. Well, now the giant is up and about, and the rest of us can’t help but notice. 2010, indeed, could well end up being remembered as the year when China started throwing its …

North Korea’s New Prince

Kim Jong Un, son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, in an image from the state-run Korean Central Television

So now it’s official. North Korea’s ruling party has given its blessing to Kim Jong Il’s choice of a successor. The lucky man is Kim’s third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un. On September 28 a special conference of the Korean Workers’ Party named the heir to the party’s Central Committee and also appointed him to a position as vice-chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. Just for good measure Kim Jong Un also earned a promotion to four-star general (pretty impressive for someone who’s never actually served in the military).

North Korea: The Crisis of Faith

Kim Jong Il, right, and his third son, Kim Jong Un, inspecting the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex in North Hamgyong province, North Korea, early March 2010
The two Koreas are entering a dangerous new phase in their tortuous relationship. In a speech on May 24, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak suspended trade relations with Pyongyang, barred Northern vessels from passing through South Korean waters, and promised immediate retaliation for any North Korean incursions into the …

The Conjurer

Robert Walser, Berlin, circa 1907
We’re only just getting to know the work of Robert Walser, the Swiss writer who died, in 1956, on a walk in the snow at age seventy-eight after wandering away from the mental institution where he had spent the previous twenty-two years of his life. In the first two decades …

China: The Fragile Superpower

Some China watchers believe that China’s dramatically rising prosperity will inevitably make the country more open and democratic. President Barack Obama’s highly-scripted trip this week provided little to support that claim. As The Washington Post noted, in contrast to 1998, when Bill Clinton, standing in the Great Hall of the People, criticized the Tiananmen Square crackdown and “traded spirited jibes with President Jiang Zemin,” Obama and Hu Jintao held a “Chinese-style news conference of read statements, stares, and no questions.” Nor did the Chinese government make any concessions on the major issues—the valuation of China’s currency, pressure on Iran, action on climate change—that the White House was hoping to see addressed.

Al-Qaeda: The Uzbek Branch in Pakistan

Most of the reports about the Pakistani Army’s offensive in Waziristan have mentioned the Islamist extremists from Uzbekistan hiding out there—but they’ve often done so without really explaining what’s up. If you follow the coverage closely enough, you might learn that the Uzbek militants are tough fighters much feared by the Pakistani military, that they’re loyal auxiliaries of al-Qaeda who have displayed little inclination to negotiate, and that they’re being targeted by both the US and the government in Islamabad for these same reasons. The Uzbek Islamist leader, Tahir Yuldashev, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Waziristan in August of this year—which says a lot about how seriously the Uzbeks are taken both by the US and the Pakistanis (who probably supplied the CIA with the information needed for the hit).

IEDs: What We Don’t Know

Someone really needs to write a “History of the Improvised Explosive Device”—the IED—covering the period since September 11. This seems like a much-neglected aspect of the Long War—or whatever you want to call it—that hasn’t really gotten its due. Take some of the ominous reports that have cropped up in the news over the past few weeks:

Pixar Genius

From the 2008 Pixar film WALL·E, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature
There are underdogs and then there are underdogs. It is eight hundred years in the future. Earth is a toxic, dusty junkyard, awash in Himalayas of refuse, and the only one left to do the job of cleaning it all up is a waist-high, trash-compacting robot who goes by the …