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Sept. 4 2014 5:09 PM

Al-Qaida, Which Wants You to Know It Still Exists, Opens New South Asian Branch

In what seems an awful lot like a bid for continued relevance at a time when al-Qaida’s international prominence is being overshadowed by its erstwhile offshoot, ISIS, Ayman al-Zawahiri has announced a new regional expansion in the Indian subcontinent:

In a video spotted in online jihadist forums by the SITE terrorism monitoring group, Zawahiri said the new force would “crush the artificial borders” dividing Muslim populations in the region.
Al-Qaida is active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where its surviving leadership are thought to be hiding out, but Zawahiri said “Qaedat al-Jihad” would take the fight to India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.
“This entity was not established today but is the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahedeen in the Indian sub-continent into a single entity,” he said.

Zawahiri has been conspicuously quiet since ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself leader of a new “caliphate” in July, directly threatening al-Qaida’s leadership position in the global jihadist movement. The language about “artificial borders” also seems a bit reminiscent of ISIS’s emphasis on erasing those borders imposed on the Middle East by outside powers.

Zawahiri’s influence had likely been waning even before ISIS came on the scene. Osama Bin Laden’s death and years of punishing drone strikes in Pakistan degraded his ability to lead the movement, and regional offshoots like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and Somalia’s al-Shabaab grew in prominence. The most prominent al-Qaida groups seem to be sticking with Zawahiri for now, though the BBC reported a few days ago that at least one Afghan Taliban group is considering joining up with ISIS. ISIS certainly seems to be winning in terms of international recruitment.

If Zawahiri is looking to expand into new territory, India makes some sense, particularly following the election of Narendra Modi, a leader with a controversial background as a Hindu nationalist who has been accused in the past of abetting violence against Muslims in his home state of Gujarat. Things have been fairly quiet on the religious front in India since Modi's election, but that could change. Indian authorities have issued a security alert in response to Zawahiri's message, and there are some concerns that al-Qaida may expand its relationship with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based group believed to have carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Al-Qaida central may not be the force it once was, but an international terror network with something to prove is certainly cause for concern.

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Sept. 3 2014 4:11 PM

U.N.: Flight Bans Are Making It Harder to Stop Ebola

Isolating an area affected by a highly infectious disease may make intuitive sense. But according to the senior U.N. officials who spoke at a press conference here in D.C. this morning, the decision by dozens of airlines to suspend flights to countries fighting the Ebola virus may actually be hindering the efforts to bring the disease under control.

“We understand that there are certain countries in Africa that have reduced the extent to which planes may fly through their airports to move on to the countries that are affected,” said David Nabarro, the senior U.N. coordinator for Ebola. “This has had operational implications for ourselves at the United Nations and also for our colleagues at Médecins Sans Frontières who have not been able to move their staff dependably between locations or to move equipment.” He praised the Ghanaian government’s recent decision to set up an air corridor into the affected countries through Accra.

The officials also argued that flights bans unfairly stigmatize people from the affected countries. It seems like it would be a tough sell to get airlines (which are worried about the health of their flight crews) or countries (which are worried about their own outbreaks) to lift restrictions. After all, travelers from the affected countries have already introduced the disease to Nigeria and Senegal.  But Nabarro argued that “it is possible to reduce the risk [the risk of transmission] greatly through the imposition of proper public health measures.”

According to the WHO, there have been 3,052 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola so far in this outbreak, with 1,526 deaths. So far, the outbreak has been primarily in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Given the scale of the problem, it seems a bit strange that public health authorities are still relying on volunteers and commercial airlines to contain the disease rather than coordinated international military efforts involving U.N. peacekeepers or others. But Nabarro insisted that the Ebola response should remain under the coordination of the affected governments and that the current structures were up to the challenge.

“This is doable with the institutions and resources that we have but the scale-up that is needed to actually achieve it in the time that is available before it really does get out of control is on the order of three to four times what is currently in place,” he said.

When I asked for a rough dollar figure for the amount of additional international resources that might be needed, he estimated that “it’s going to be at least $600 million and maybe a lot more.”

Keiji Fukuda, the assistant director-general for health security at the World Health Organization, estimated that for every 80 patients, 200 to 250 personnel are needed to provide care.

This means that thousands more local health workers and hundreds more international volunteers will be needed. On top of that, more money will be required to provide the equipment necessary to prevent more infections of health workers—a third American doctor was infected this week—and provide the hazard pay necessary to induce doctors into the field.

The toll of Ebola goes beyond those who have the disease. Fears of Ebola may prevent normal health care from being delivered, meaning cases of, for instance, malaria may go untreated. And the economic impact of the business closures and jobs lost due to the disease has only begun to be calculated.

“This Ebola epidemic is the largest and most severe and most complex we’ve ever seen in the 40-year history of this disease,” Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, said at today’s press conference. “No one, not even outbreak responders with experience dating back to [the outbreaks of] 1976 and 1995, have ever seen anything like it.”

Sept. 3 2014 12:20 PM

What Does “Destroying” ISIS Really Mean?

When the United States decided to make its latest military intervention in Iraq, it was difficult to discern the goal of the mission based on President Obama’s statements. Given that lack of clarity, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the object was to make Iraq just stable enough that the U.S. could go back to ignoring it.

Judging by the president’s statement following the killing of journalist Steven Sotloff, that’s no longer the case. “The bottom line is this,” he said at a news conference. “Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy [ISIS] so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.”

It seemed obvious that continued videotaped killings of U.S. citizens would provoke a more steadfast response than what we’ve seen so far. The goal of the U.S. operation has now expanded from averting a “potential act of genocide”—or recapturing control of a critical dam, or even propping up the Iraqi government—to eliminating ISIS as a force entirely.

The thing is, Obama’s own military commanders say that destroying ISIS is impossible without strikes against its strongholds in Syria, a step this administration has been extremely reluctant to take. U.S. strikes on Syria probably aren’t imminent—for one thing, more intelligence gathering is probably needed before the military would take such a step—but eventual military action against ISIS on the other side of the border is starting to feel inevitable.

My colleague Fred Kaplan smartly laid out the probable pitfalls of such action last week. And there certainly don’t seem to be any “good” options on the table. But if Obama really intends to “degrade and destroy” ISIS in any meaningful way, it’s hard to see how this conflict will remain within Iraq.

Sept. 3 2014 9:00 AM

Arab Twitter Users Don’t Like America. But Why, Exactly?

Is anti-Americanism motivated by specific U.S. policies or a more generalized antipathy to American culture? Do people who hate U.S. foreign policy also hate Americans?

These are among the questions addressed in an innovative new study of anti-American attitudes among Arab Twitter users, which was presented at the American Political Science Association annual meeting here in D.C. last week. The short version of the working paper’s conclusion is that Arabic Twitter is generally anti-American (though to a lesser extent than it is anti-Iranian) but that these attitudes are motivated more by specific events than general hostility to American culture. Unfortunately, these attitudes seem to be present on multiple sides of the region’s political divides.

The authors, political scientists Amaney Jamal and Robert Keohane of Princeton and David Romney and Dustin Tingley of Harvard, worked with the analytics company Crimson Hexagon to analyze the sentiment of Arabic Twitter in 2012 and 2013. Twitter users aren’t a perfect proxy for public opinion—the population is likely weighted toward younger, more educated people, and wealthier countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are overrepresented. The data, though, can give a snapshot of what 3.7 million (the number of active users in Arab countries) people are thinking and provide valuable information from a number of countries that have restricted traditional public opinion polling in the past.

Overall, the authors found that “the conversation on Twitter, in Arabic, about the U.S. is especially negative towards U.S. policy; the conversation about U.S. society is also mostly negative but much smaller.” But that’s less interesting than how Arabic Twitter responded to specific events.

The first test case is the 2013 overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Seventy-four percent of the tweets referencing the United States around the time of Morsi’s fall were negative, and only 3 percent were positive. (The rest were neutral tweets noting some piece of news.) You might expect that supporters of the coup would be less negative given Washington’s traditional friendliness toward the Egyptian military and hostility toward Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. But in fact, the authors write, “no matter which side of the domestic dispute an individual was on, he or she was likely to be opposed to the United States.” This fits with what was observed in reporting from the time: Despite U.S. attempts to stay (or at least appear) neutral in the conflict, both military and Muslim Brotherhood supporters believed the U.S. was working on behalf of the other side.

Next, they analyzed tweets about the conflict in Syria, particularly following the chemical weapons attack in August 2013, when it appeared likely the U.S. would launch a military intervention against Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Again, there was little support for the United States—just about 2 percent of tweets, all of them from opponents of Assad. But while regime supporters were more anti-American, “even for the anti-regime Tweeters there were 250 percent more anti-U.S. tweets than pro-U.S. tweets before the chemical weapons incident, and about 1,000 percent more after the event.”

While on opposite sides of the Middle East’s bloodiest conflict in decades, these Twitter users were fairly united in antipathy to the U.S.

But attitudes toward the U.S. are a bit more nuanced than you might think. Looking at the online response to the anti-Muhammad Innocence of Muslims video, which prompted large and often violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world in the fall of 2012, the authors found that the majority of Arabic tweets either urged followers to ignore the film or pushed for individual action against it. Relatively few, however, could be construed as “clear condemnation of American society in general.”

The authors write: “We did not find tweets with statements such as ‘This means that all Americans hate us’ or ‘All of American society and people should be condemned.’ ”

They also looked at instances where Americans were the victims. Following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the largest number of non-neutral tweets (20 percent) expressed the opinion that the attack wasn’t a significant news event, followed by those expressing fears of a backlash against Muslims in the U.S. Eight percent supported conspiracy theories blaming the U.S. government for the attack.

Again, there’s evidence of anti-Americanism—only 5 percent of tweets expressed sympathy for the victims—but in this case the authors didn’t observe tweets celebrating the attack on U.S. society.

In the case of a non-political event, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, there were again a large number of users saying the storm wasn’t important. Ten percent said the U.S. had it coming. But virtually the same number of tweets rejected that view, and “25 percent of tweeters (almost 80,000) commented favorably on the U.S. government’s handling of the disaster, often as a contrast to the incompetence of Arab governments.” Overall, about a “third expressed views that can be interpreted as generally favorable toward American society.”

If all this makes it seem as if Arab tweeters are knee-jerk anti-Americans, you should see how they feel about Iranians. While trailing the United States in total references, Iran got more mentions on Arab Twitter than any other non-Arab country, ahead of Israel, Turkey, and India. The authors found political sentiment toward Iran to be “overwhelmingly negative,” with so few positive tweets that the proportion was impossible to estimate. While attitudes toward America itself, rather than American policy, often seem more ambivalent than negative, views of Iran are starker. “In both the polling data and even more in our Twitter data, one observes admiration for American popular culture, helping to create such ambivalence. There is no such Arab admiration for Iranian popular culture, and no discernible ambivalence,” they write.

In terms of efforts to improve America’s image in the Arab world, the paper contains both good and bad news. Arab Twitter users’ antipathy toward America itself, or Americans, doesn’t appear to be exceptionally hostile. But suspicion and opposition to U.S. foreign policy appear to be so deep and so widely shared, even by those on opposite sides of other contentious issues, that it’s hard to imagine how the U.S. could begin to rebuild trust.

There may be a lesson here for the Obama administration’s foreign policy. For understandable and sometimes admirable reasons, the administration has often tried to avoid being identified with one side or another in domestic disputes in the Arab world. The U.S. admonished the Egyptian military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, but eventually normalized relations. It provided aid to some of the rebels fighting Assad, but not enough to really turn the tide of the civil war.

Obama’s intention here may have been to combat the perception that the U.S. meddles in the internal affairs of smaller states. But in some cases, by refusing to take a side, the American government may have deepened the suspicion that nobody should trust the United States.

Sept. 2 2014 5:49 PM

What Is ISIS Thinking? 

As I noted in my last post, it’s a little hard to figure out ISIS’s strategy following its second videotaped execution of an American citizen in less than a month. Over the last two years, the group has shown impressive strategic acumen, growing into the world’s wealthiest terrorist group and something close to a viable theocratic state. It has achieved those aims via a strategy of gaining and consolidating control within Iraq and Syria—two of the world’s most unstable states—while, unlike al-Qaida, avoiding action that would provoke a major U.S. response.

Why is it now carrying out very public killings that seem designed to provoke an escalation of U.S. military involvement in Iraq, and maybe even in Syria? The fate of al-Qaida over the last 13 years doesn’t seem like a wise model to follow. But here are a few possible explanations for what ISIS higher-ups are thinking.

1. They feel cornered.

ISIS accomplished quite a bit in 2013 and the first half of 2014, including taking over nearly a third of Syria and the city of Fallujah in Iraq. Most remarkably, it managed to do this in such a way that both the Syrian and U.S. governments largely left it alone.

It’s interesting to ponder what might have happened if ISIS had stopped conquering territory after Fallujah and simply focused on consolidating its rule over the areas it already controlled and enforcing Shariah law. If that were the case, it’s possible that there might be a de facto, relatively stable Islamist state between Iraq and Syria right now.

But a group that proclaims itself a caliphate can’t really stop expanding, and it couldn’t stay under the radar forever. The fall of Mosul was one tipping point, leading the United States and Iran to up their assistance to the Iraqi government and muscle out the problematic Nouri al-Maliki. Last month’s encroachment into Kurdistan and the potential massacre of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar were another tipping point, pushing the reluctant Obama administration to finally launch airstrikes.

At that point, with the bombs already dropping, ISIS may have calculated that there was nothing more to be gained from avoiding a confrontation with the United States, and struck back with one of the most politically powerful weapons in its arsenal.

2. They don’t think the U.S. will act.

ISIS can read polls too. They know how reluctant Americans have been to see the country involved in another Middle East entanglement. This administration has been extremely hesitant to increase American involvement in Iraq and even more reluctant to get involved in Syria. A president who tells the press that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for ISIS certainly doesn’t sound like one who’s in a rush to go to war.

ISIS may believe that it can continue to demonstrate that it can strike the U.S. by executing these prisoners, and that the U.S. isn’t going to do anything about it. If this really is their thinking, ISIS honchos don’t have a very good grasp of history. Americans are traditionally reluctant to go to war right up until they do. Saddam Hussein didn’t think the U.S. would really attack him either.

3. They think this is working.

Terrorist groups thrive on attention, and the Foley killing has done more to make the group a household name than any of its other actions. Beyond media attention, we don’t know what impact the killing had on international recruitment. ISIS is an extremely media-savvy organization that has sustained itself on its ability to recruit fighters from abroad, including from Europe and the United States. If the group’s leaders believe these killings further that goal, they may keep at it, despite the possible consequences on other fronts.

4. They’re upping the price.

We all know that the U.S. government has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists (except when it does). ISIS apparently asked for $132 million for Foley, which, to put it bluntly, does not sound like the demand of a group that plans to release its hostage. That amount is more than al-Qaida affiliates earned in total from ransoming dozens of European hostages over the past five years.

By contrast, ISIS is reportedly asking for $6.6 million for a 26-year-old American woman in custody, which sounds like a figure you might quote if you’re actually looking to make a deal.

Is there any chance of this? The Obama administration would lose all credibility if it paid a ransom at this point. But Jabhat al-Nusra’s recent release of American writer Peter Theo Curtis may have demonstrated an alternative plan. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power apparently introduced Curtis’ family to emissaries from Qatar, who negotiated with the al-Qaida-linked group for his release. (We still don’t know the terms of that deal.) ISIS, which has released European hostages in the past, may be wondering if third-party intermediaries might make a similar deal for the Americans it still has in custody.

It also seems significant that ISIS is apparently now threatening a British citizen in its custody. The British government also doesn’t pay ransoms to terrorist groups, but perhaps ISIS is testing how steadfast the Brits are in adhering to that policy.

5. This was the plan all along.

It may not seem very logical from the outside for ISIS to provoke the United States into open warfare. But while ISIS’s tactics have differed form al-Qaida’s thus far, it shares its former patron’s antipathy to America’s presence in the Middle East and now may feel it’s acquired enough territory, money, weapons, and manpower to pursue a time-honored strategy of provoking the U.S. into military overreach. This seems like hubris, but that too is not exactly unprecedented.

Sept. 2 2014 3:41 PM

What Happens If ISIS Keeps Beheading Americans?

ISIS has now beheaded a second American hostage. According to the SITE Intelligence Group, the terror group posted a video showing the killing of Steven Sotloff, a journalist who has been held for months but whose captivity was made public only two weeks ago, when he was shown at the end of the video depicting James Foley’s killing.

Though I have not seen the video, a still image circulating online shows a similar setup to that of the Foley killing, with Sotloff kneeling in an orange jumpsuit in a desert landscape next to a fighter in a black mask holding a knife. The New York Times reports:

In the video, Mr. Sotloff describes himself as “paying the price” for the Obama administration’s decision to strike ISIS targets in Iraq. The same masked fighter with British-accented English who appeared in the video of Mr. Foley’s beheading also appears beside Mr. Sotloff, asserting, “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.”

The first question brought on by the repetition of this horror is how long it can continue. According to SITE, ISIS is threatening a third captive, a Briton named David Cawthorne Haines. ISIS is also believed to have at least two more Americans in custody. Last week it was reported that one of them is a 26-year-old female aid worker.

What would ISIS gain by continuing to behead hostages? The purpose of the Foley video was fairly clear—to demonstrate its ruthlessness to potential supporters and make clear to the United States that there would be consequences for its military intervention in Iraq. (The method of execution also may have been a nod to ISIS’s founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and an implicit rebuke to its former partners in al-Qaida.)

But if the first video made these points, what strategic objectives will its sequels accomplish? It certainly seems unlikely to deter U.S. military action. In fact, the Foley killing seems like the impetus that pushed the administration into at least considering expanding military action into Syria.

The killing also seems to have had a measurable impact on U.S. public opinion:

Almost exactly a year ago, national surveys showed Americans opposed strikes in Syria by more than 2-1. But a USA TODAY/Pew Poll earlier this month found Americans backing airstrikes in Iraq by 54 percent to 31 percent.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans now identify ISIS as a “major threat” to the U.S., more than Iran’s nuclear program and second only to al-Qaida. Until recently, ISIS was dealing with a White House that was extremely reluctant to involve itself in more Middle East conflicts. Now it’s facing a U.S. public that wants action and an administration that’s going to have a much harder time avoiding it.

ISIS may be ruthless and fanatical, but it would be impossible to expand as quickly as it has thus far without an understanding of strategy. The group’s leaders surely know that they are likely drawing the U.S. military further into this conflict and believe this is to their advantage. Kurdish and Iraqi forces, with help from the U.S. and Iran, seem to be rolling back ISIS’s territorial gains in Iraq, so the group’s best hope of remaining a viable and prominent militant group may be to go underground and continue to inflict terror on its enemies. And those enemies aren’t just American. ISIS also recently released videos showing the beheading of a Kurdish peshmerga fighter and a Lebanese soldier.

Hopefully this strategy will backfire before any more hostages are killed.

Sept. 2 2014 1:24 PM

The Invasions That Dare Not Speak Their Name

Last week, I wrote about the rhetorical contortions the Russian government and its rebel allies have employed to discuss the increasingly obvious and blatant presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. While the Ukrainian government is describing Russia’s actions as “undisguised aggression,” the Kremlin still hasn’t publicly acknowledged any Russian military presence across the border. President Vladimir Putin, though, may be a bit more brazen in private. According to a leaked report today, he told the president of the European commission that his forces could easily conquer Kiev if he wanted them to.

While Russia’s behavior vis-à-vis Ukraine is particularly brazen, it’s not the only example of this type of open but unacknowledged military action. Isabel Coles of Reuters reports today on the role Iranian forces seem to have played in fending off the ISIS siege of Amerli, a predominantly Shiite town in Northern Iraq:

By a convoy of armored police vehicles, a man speaking Farsi described himself as coming from Iran and said he was there to help with training police.
A peshmerga commander in Suleiman Beg acknowledged the part played by Iranians in the assault on Islamic State positions. “The Iranians had a role in this. They supplied weapons and helped with the military planning,” he said on condition of anonymity. …
On Saturday, a senior member of the Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told Reuters the Iraqi military, Kurds and Iranian advisers had joint operation centers

It’s not clear if these advisers are actually fighting or just providing expertise, but at the very least, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s statement last week that “We have no military presence in Iraq” seems not to be the full truth.

Covert operations in warfare are nothing new, but these appear to be a bit different: military operations conducted in full view of the international media but without the official acknowledgment of the governments ordering them.

It’s not only dictatorships that engage in this kind of thing. The United States’ covert drone program has been “covert” only to the extent that the administration has refused to acknowledge individual drone strikes. Until 2012 the U.S. didn’t discuss the program at all, and the CIA has continued to maintain its total silence regarding drones, a stance that a federal appeals court criticized in 2013, noting that the “president of the United States has himself publicly acknowledged that the United States uses drone strikes against” al-Qaida.

I’m not drawing a moral equivalence between these examples. I’m simply comparing them to note that it seems to be quite easy for governments to pretend they’re not engaging in large-scale military operations that everyone in the world knows about.

It seems intuitive that in a world of high-detail satellite imagery, instantaneous media coverage, and frequent massive national security leaks, it should be harder for governments to carry out military operations—whether you’re talking about counterterrorism operations, military coups, or atrocities against civilians—with no public accountability. Indeed, this assumption is at the core of organizations ranging in ideology and institutional support from WikiLeaks to the Harvard-based, George Clooney-supported Satellite Sentinel Project.

But even in the era of big data and increasing access to information, “neither confirm nor deny” is still a surprisingly effective answer. 

Aug. 29 2014 2:51 PM

The Cruel Irony of NATO Membership

In a reversal of the old Groucho Marx/Woody Allen line, NATO is now a club where the only countries who want to join have no choice of becoming members.

With Russia ramping up its military involvement in Ukraine, Kiev is reopening the question of NATO membership in what Reuters calls “its most decisive step yet to pursue Western military protection from what it now describes as an invasion by its neighbour.” Article 5 of NATO’s charter would require other members of the alliance to come to Ukraine’s aid in the event of an outside attack.

NATO membership has long been a goal for Ukraine, but one vigorously opposed by Russia. Back in April 2008, the question of membership for Ukraine and Georgia split a NATO summit in Bucharest, with the Bush administration pushing for the two post-Soviet states to be admitted and most European states opposing.

Four months later Russia invaded Georgia, which could be seen as a vindication of Bush’s position—Article 5 protection could have acted as a deterrent against Russian aggression—or as a vindication of Europe’s: The treaty could have drawn the United States and its allies into a costly and potentially catastrophic war with Russia.

Much of the postwar analysis of the Georgia war suggested that it had made membership less likely for those Eastern European nations that aren’t already part of NATO. After all, few governments want to shoulder the burden of protecting Vladimir Putin’s neighbors. And indeed, NATO stopped short of offering a membership plan to Georgia at a summit in June, and the United States reportedly didn’t put up much of a fight over the issue this time.

This is the irony of NATO membership. The events of the past few months have made it very clear why Ukraine is interested in Article 5 protection. Past agreements, which affirm the country’s territorial integrity but don’t include any guarantees of military assistance, have proved pretty useless. NATO membership is the main reason why the risk to countries like Poland and the Baltic States is likely pretty minimal.

But NATO is never going to offer a security guarantee to a country under imminent risk of attack—or in Ukraine’s case, under actual attack. In short, the countries most in need of a security guarantee are the least likely to be given one.

The crisis also makes clear that the Eastern European countries that are in the club are lucky to have gotten in during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when tensions weren’t running quite so high. The road to membership is a much tougher one now. 

Aug. 29 2014 9:00 AM

Will Everyone Shut Up Already About How the Nordic Countries Top Every Global Ranking?

The Nordic countries are paradigms of equality, good education, female empowerment, and progressiveness. We know this because we are told. And told and told and told.  

To take one example, the latest Global Gender Gap rankings from the World Economic Forum were topped by Iceland (for the fifth year in a row), followed by Finland, Norway, and Sweden. (Denmark came in eighth.) Iceland and Denmark took first and second place respectively in this year’s Global Peace Index (Finland was sixth, Norway took 10th, and the comparatively violent Swedes came in 11th). Sweden was deemed the least fragile country in Foreign Policy’s 2014 Fragile States Index . This year’s four best countries in which to be a woman, according to the Global Post? All Nordic. Four of the top 14 “greenest” countries in the world, according to this year’s Environmental Performance Index? Nordic. (Filthy Finland came in at a still quite green 18th.)

The country examined by the Economist this summer to explore the benefits of paid paternity leave? Sweden. The country touted by long journalistic profiles and best-selling books alike for its education system? Finland. The country profiled by the BBC for its creative approach to bettering the lives of the homeless? Denmark. The first country profiled by Slate in its examination of how good life is elsewhere for working parents? Norway. Where did NBC welcome us to this summer? Sweden

If only we could be more like the Nordic countries, we say, looking sadly at our ill-assembled Ikea furniture. Then we, too, would be better educated. Then we, too, would be more equally paid. Then we, too, would be more peaceful. Then we, too, would have dreamy blond men narrate our coffee drinking.

But we cannot be more like the Nordic countries. And so it is time—past time, in fact—to say enough already to these pointless comparisons.

First of all, the policies that we hold up as examples of Nordic supremacy are not tasteful turtleneck sweaters crafted from the finest Norwegian wool—we cannot put on a policy here or there and become Nordic. They exist within a broader societal context. The small gender gap, the chance for all students to succeed in school, the respect for the dignity of the homeless, paid leave—all of this exists because the Nordic countries are, proudly, welfare states.

Every one of the aforementioned policies exists because it is part of a welfare state, and because, in the Nordic countries unlike in America, there is no shame (and, in fact, quite a lot of pride) in being a welfare state. There are many who think that we, too, should move to a welfare model. However, in a country wherein healthcare is deemed “a part of a socialist vision for America” (and wherein that is necessarily understood to be a bad thing), the establishment of this kind of political system does not seem very likely.

Even putting aside the vast difference in attitudes toward welfare and equality, these comparisons ask too much. The Nordic countries are too small for the comparisons to work. The population (as estimated by the World Factbook in July of 2014) of all of the Nordic countries combined—Denmark (5,569,077), Finland (5,268,799), Iceland (317,351), Norway (5,147,792), and Sweden (9,723,809)—is roughly equal to the population of Texas. And it is all well and good to say that the education system of New York City stinks compared to that of Finland, but there are about 3 million more people in the former than the latter. This is to say nothing of the homogeneity of the Nordic countries, on which, one could argue, their stability and equality hinges.

Plus, we should keep in mind that the Nordic countries occasionally fall short of their reputation for equality and tolerance. Certainly, the fact that Sweden intends to ameliorate its appalling record on employing foreign non-citizens in the EU by removing the word “race” from legislative documents suggests that the country wouldn’t be quite so progressive and equal were it to have more diversity. Nor does the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland.

We cannot be the Nordic countries. The Nordic countries may not even be able to be what we envision the Nordic countries to be. We can strive to be more forward-thinking, and smarter, and better. But if we strive to be Nordic, we are setting ourselves up for a hirvikolari.


Aug. 28 2014 3:09 PM

Vladimir Putin Ramps Up His Postmodern Non-Invasion Invasion of Ukraine

The Russian government and the pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine used to deny that they were cooperating. All that advanced weaponry, including tanks and anti-aircraft systems, were simply captured from Ukrainian government forces, the explanations went. The Russians fighting with the rebels were simply private citizens and the Russian government had no control over them.

In the last few days, however, we’ve seen an escalation in both Russia’s military involvement in Eastern Ukraine and the creativity of the explanations for this involvement. You see, the thousands of current Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine aren’t an invading army—they’re just on vacation. Here’s the New York Times:

[T]he leader of the main separatist group in southeastern Ukraine said that up to 4,000 Russians, including active-duty soldiers currently on leave, had been fighting against Ukrainian government forces, Russian television reported.
“There are active soldiers fighting among us who preferred to spend their vacation not on the beach, but with us, among their brothers, who are fighting for their freedom,” Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a rebel commander and the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said in an interview on Russian state-run television.

You can see satellite imagery of what NATO says are Russian military convoys here, as well as video here. The Russian government continues to deny that Russian forces are crossing the border or that the government is arming the rebels. One can only imagine what creative explanations they’ll come up with next.

Just a few weeks ago, in the wake of the MH17 crash, the conflict seemed on the verge of being snuffed out with Ukrainian forces rapidly regaining rebel-held territory. Now, even as Ukrainian forces close in on the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhanks, Russian troops appear to have opened a new front of the battle along the southeastern portion of the border.

Incredibly, this has been done in such a way that President Vladimir Putin can continue denying that Russia is playing a direct military role in the conflict while holding talks this week with Ukrainian President Poro Petroshenko.

For now, my prediction made in the wake of the MH17 crash still holds. Russia’s government will continue to supply the rebels with enough help to keep the conflict going, prevent Ukraine’s new government from asserting control over the country’s territory, deny that it’s doing anything of the sort, and—at least publicly—continue to push for a negotiated solution to the conflict as if it’s not doing anything to prolong it.

This strange postmodern war, in which the two sides are operating not only from different points of view but from entirely different versions of reality, isn’t ending any time soon.