The Precarious Predicament of Russia’s Neighbors
Recently, there has been much media ado about how nervous Poland and the Baltic states are about Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry has said that it may need to protect Russian speakers in the Baltics against “xenophobia”—similar language to that used in the early days of the Ukraine crisis. According to some press reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin also warned Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a private meeting that his troops could take not only Kiev but the capitals of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Romania “within two days” if he wanted.
So, those countries—all members of NATO—are worried, and perhaps rightly so. But they aren’t the only ones.
Breaking Up Countries Is Still Hard to Do
The vote on Scotland’s independence turned out to be not quite as close as expected, with the BBC reporting that the “margin of victory for the Better Together campaign—55 percent to 45 percent—was greater by about 3 percent than that anticipated by the final opinion polls.” That margin was a lot closer, though, than most would have predicted a year ago.
There’s going to be a lot of commentary in the days to come about how, despite the result, things have changed forever in the United Kingdom. But while there will be ongoing debate about devolving more powers to the Scottish parliament, I suspect British politics will return to normal fairly quickly. Some have also predicted that the independence movement isn’t quite done yet, and that there’s potential for a Quebec-style “neverendum” in which independence becomes a perennial debate. But with the aftermath of the euro crisis and an unpopular Conservative government in power in London, this was probably the best opportunity available for Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party. The independence advocates took their best shot, missed, and probably won’t get another one as good for a while.
Americans Fault Obama for Giving Them Exactly the Anti-ISIS Strategy They Want
A new New York Times/CBS poll finds that for the first time, as many as 50 percent of Americans disapprove of how the president “is handling the threat of terrorism.” Fifty-eight percent disapprove of his foreign policy in general and 48 percent fault him on his handling of ISIS in particular. (With regards to ISIS, 39 percent approve of the president’s approach and 13 percent don’t know or didn’t answer.) While congressional Republicans are overwhelmingly unpopular, healthy majorities say the GOP would be better at dealing with terrorism and foreign policy.
How Teflon Is Vladimir Putin’s Popularity?
I’m currently in Moscow thanks to a fellowship from the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins. I’ll be posting some lengthier dispatches from here in the coming weeks as well as keeping up the blogging on general world news.
The violence in Ukraine hasn’t entirely dissipated, but at the moment it seems to be in one of its periodic lulls, with most Russian troops believed to have withdrawn from the country. The Ukrainian government has ratified the trade agreement with the EU that set off this crisis in the first place, while agreeing to more autonomy for the country’s eastern regions and further talks with Moscow. In other words, after more than 3,000 deaths and 300,000 people displaced and the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the fall of the Soviet Union, the two sides have reached a deal they probably could have reached a year ago.
As tragic and avoidable as it may seem from the outside, the Ukraine crisis has been great politically for President Vladimir Putin, whose popularity recently hit 87 percent, even amid rising consumer prices and a slumping economy caused by economic sanctions. It’s hard to remember now, but Putin’s ratings were at their lowest level since 2000 at the end of last year.
It’s too soon to say with any certainty that the crisis in Ukraine is over or even close to over, but if the Ukraine situation does start to fade into the background, it will be interesting to see whether the Russian government and Putin in particular will start to take some heat for the state of the economy.
As political scientists Graeme Robertson and Sam Greene noted on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog a few days ago, Russian voters show a particularly strong rally-round-the-flag effect during national security crises, but the effect isn’t always long-lasting.
Denis Volkov, an analyst at the Levada Center, Russia’s largest independent polling organization, compared the current political situation to the last two major spikes in Putin’s popularity: in 1999, when a mysterious series of apartment complex bombings in Moscow prompted the Second Chechen War, and 2008, during the war with Georgia.
During the latter crisis, which also coincided with the lead-up to presidential elections, Putin’s popularity hit its record high of 88 percent in Levada’s tracking polls. “But it went down rather rapidly as a result of the global economic crisis, so we can compare it to this [current situation],” Volkov told me in an interview at Levada’s offices. “From 2008 to the end of 2011, Putin lost one-third of his supporters. The economic situation is also bad now, and sanctions will make it even worse. But there are some differences right now. The way state propaganda works now is very different from then.”
To that point, Volkov noted that Putin’s has consistently worked to consolidate control of the country’s television networks, where 95 percent of the public receives its information about the situation in Ukraine, according to Levada’s data. Just last month The Week, a news broadcast on a private network considered to be the last “alternative” news program on Russian TV, was finally canceled.
But even if Ukraine falls out of the headlines, it may not matter all that much for the president. For one thing, his floor is still pretty high. Even at his lowest point, Putin enjoyed a 61 percent popularity rating, a score President Obama (Gallup currently has Obama at a 41 percent approval rating) and most European leaders can only dream of matching.
Putin’s sky-high popularity won’t last forever—it’s already dipped a bit in the last few weeks—but his base is still probably broad enough and his opposition weak enough for him to not have to worry too much about popular disapproval.
Plus, there could always be a new security crisis on the horizon.
Iran and the U.S. Are Allies Against ISIS but Aren’t Ready to Admit It Yet
We are in an era of unacknowledged invasions. In military operations ranging from the Russia’s incursion into Eastern Ukraine to the activities of Iranian military advisors in Iraq, governments refuse to admit what they’re up to even when those engagements are widely reported in the international media.
As the U.S. begins carrying out its first airstrikes against ISIS under the new strategy announced by President Obama last week, we’ve seen the rise of another related phenomenon: the unacknowledged alliance.
Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It?
The autumn of nationalism is finally upon us. Following the Scottish independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 18, Catalonia is holding a vote on Nov. 9 on whether to secede from Spain. The situation is a bit different there, since the Spanish government considers the vote illegal and Madrid will likely not recognize the result if Catalans support independence, setting the stage for a constitutional crisis.
But Catalonia isn’t the only region taking inspiration from Scotland. European regions with separatist tendencies from Flanders to Venice to Greenland are keeping a close eye on the Scottish result.
Could Scotland trigger a wave of disgruntled regions to cut ties with their mother countries? A number of commentators have been reading global significance into next week’s vote. The referendum is at its core “a fight over the world of multicultural modernity that makes today’s global economy possible, but also leaves many people with a deep hunger for the sense of national identity it obliterates,” writes Neil Irwin in the New York Times.
While not commenting specifically on other movements, Scottish independence leader Alex Salmond has also said that this is the start of a trend. In an interview last year, he told me that open markets and the decreased risk of invasion have meant that “the disadvantages of smallness have disappeared” for European countries.
I’m a bit skeptical of this line of thinking, which seems to return every time a new country declares independence—a pretty rare occurrence since the end of the Cold War. There was much talk of the “Kosovo precedent” after 2008. The independence of South Sudan in 2011 had some pundits predicting a “wave of self-determination,” which never really came to pass.
The fact is, there’s still a bias among international institutions and governments against adjusting existing borders (though governments still often disagree of where those borders actually are). When it happens, the circumstances are usually pretty exceptional—in the cases of South Sudan, Kosovo, and East Timor, independence came after years of ethnic violence and concerted international pressure. So, while some overly cautious officials in Beijing may be nervous this week, Scotland’s independence vote probably doesn’t actually mean that much for Xinjiang or Tibet.
While I don’t have a strong opinion on the wisdom of Scottish independence, there may be a positive international precedent in peaceful national separation. As we’ve seen from recent events like ISIS’s efforts to obliterate the legacy of Sykes-Picot in the Middle East and Russian annexation of Crimea, borders usually aren’t redrawn without military aggression and bloodshed. Czechoslovakia aside, there are relatively few precedents for peaceful “velvet divorces” in recent history. A prominent example of nations parting (relatively) amicably might not be the worst thing in the world.
What Does Scotland Want Independence From, Exactly?
With a referendum scheduled for Sept. 18, Scotland may be set to dissolve more than 300 years of political unity with the United Kingdom. Who wants independence, why now, and how does the United Kingdom work anyway? Watch the video above to find out.
Syrian Government: Go Ahead, Bomb Our Country!
Since the United States started getting serious about military action against ISIS, politicians and policymakers have worried that such an initiative would play into the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In his speech last night, President Obama was careful to stress that strikes against the group would not in any way imply that the United States was allied with the Syrian government. “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people—a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost,” the president said. Instead, he said, Washington would step up its efforts to strengthen the Syrian opposition.
But, in somewhat trolling fashion, the Syrian government today welcomed its new allies to the fight, with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad telling NBC News that his government has “no reservations” about American strikes against ISIS in Syria:
“When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences… and forget all about the past,” Mekdad said. “It takes two to tango...We are ready to talk."
Of course, it’s fairly apparent that the Syrian government avoided attacking ISIS for months and began bombing its positions only after the international community saw the group as a major threat. U.S. officials are almost certainly not going to sit down with Assad’s government, but my guess is that as this operation escalates, we’re going to hear a lot more from the regime about its “partners” in the war on terror, the Americans and Europeans.
Another interesting wrinkle is the ramifications of this Amerian operation for Assad’s backers in Moscow. Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said today that if the United States bombed Syrian territory “without the Syrian government’s consent,” it would “complicate international operations and will pose problems for Russia as well as for many other countries respecting international law, including China.”
But Russia may be the only country bothered by Obama’s campaign. It appears the Syrian government isn’t going to object too much to the operation. China, which has concerns about its own citizens cooperating with ISIS, seems likely to offer quiet support. Even Iran seems finally to have found an American war in the Middle East it can get behind.
This is, after all, something fairly different than previous U.S. interventions. The goal is not to help rebels overthrow an autocratic government, but to preserve the status quo in the face of a new destabilizing force. The “sovereignty caucus” of autocratic powers that opposed previous U.S. operations, of which Russia was the most vocal member, may not exist this time around.
Obama: We Need to Fight ISIS, But Not for the Reasons You Think
Overall, I agree with my colleague Fred Kaplan’s assessment that, in the plan he laid out for an offensive against ISIS, President Obama is doing “as close to the right thing as the mess of the Middle East allows.” Still, I want to focus on one of the odder aspects of this administration’s case for war: the fact that the president is arguing for the necessity of destroying ISIS without making a strong case that it poses a threat to the U.S.:
While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our Intelligence Community believes that thousands of foreigners—including Europeans and some Americans—have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.
A lot of facile comparisons are being made right now between this initiative and the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it’s true that Obama will now likely be the second president in a row to leave an incomplete war in Iraq to his successor. But that caveated, hypothetical scenario in the president’s remarks—“these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks”—is a long way from “we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
Obama’s advisers have been even more skeptical about the ISIS threat to the U.S. homeland. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Wednesday, just hours before the president’s speech, that “at present, we have no credible information that [ISIS] is planning to attack the homeland of the United States.” Matthew Olsen, departing director of the National Counterterrorism Center, has made almost the exact same comment, as did White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
ISIS has, of course, killed two American citizens in a very public way. But with the very notable exception of Mehdi Nemmouche, the French citizen who returned from fighting in Syria to attack a Jewish museum in Brussels last May, the much-discussed threat of ISIS’s international fighters returning to their home countries to carry out attacks has been theoretical.
As David Sterman pointed out in an analysis for the New America Foundation this week, “no one returning from or seeking to join a Syrian jihadist group has even been charged with plotting an attack inside the United States.” Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, the Florida man who returned to the U.S. for a time after training in Syria in 2012 and was under surveillance by the FBI, tried but failed to recruit friends to the cause, and eventually returned to Syria, where he carried out a suicide bombing. If anything, greater U.S. involvement in the conflict will make ISIS—a group that until recently was most concerned with local territorial gains—more rather than less likely to target U.S. interests and citizens.
But even if the administration isn’t selling ISIS as a clear and present danger to American citizens, those citizens seem to believe that it is. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll published this week, 91 percent of Americans saw ISIS as a “serious” threat to the vital interests of the United States. This could be due to a number of factors, including the visible brutality of the killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the tone of U.S. media coverage of ISIS, the more alarmist assessments made by politicians like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, or the utter nonsense voiced by politicians like Rick Perry.
ISIS fighters could pose a direct threat to the U.S. in the future, but to their credit Obama and his senior officials haven’t been overstating it. If anything, Obama’s case for intervention rests on an argument that his critics often accuse him of ignoring: that despite presenting minimal immediate danger to Americans outside the region, ISIS poses a unique and serious threat to the stability of the Middle East. If left unchecked, its spread will lead to more violence and chaos that will threaten U.S. interests in the long term, and that any serious international effort to stop it will require the participation of the world’s pre-eminent military power.
But that’s the kind of argument that goes over better among think tank scholars and magazine feature writers than with the public. A war-weary American populace has come to favor yet another open-ended military commitment in the Middle East because it believes that ISIS poses a threat to America. Even if Obama himself hasn’t been hyping that threat, in this case he’s been aided politically by his most vocal critics, who certainly have been.
How Come This Time Obama Doesn’t Think He Needs Congress’s Permission to Bomb Syria?
Ahead of his speech tonight, the Washington Post reports that President Obama “does not believe he needs formal congressional approval” to use airstrikes in Syria.
Today, a number of commentators, from both the left and right, seem to be making versions of the argument David Frum—a guy who knows a thing or two about convincing the American public that bombing the Middle East is a good idea—puts forth here:
It seems like only last year that this president was asking Congress for authority to bomb Assad. Twelve months later, he will bomb Assad’s enemies. Why does bombing one side of a war require congressional permission, while bombing the other side does not? The administration doesn’t answer, because nobody is asking. Something must be done! This is something! Let’s do this!
There are good reasons to be wary about U.S. intervention in Syria, and I suppose it’s fair to bring up the president’s inconsistency here. But when you look at historical precedent, there’s nothing all that surprising going on here, and the difference between these two situations—bombing Assad and bombing Assad’s enemies—isn’t all that mysterious.
We know, from past example, that this president—and Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan before him—is not opposed to taking military action without congressional authorization. In addition to the numerous covert actions taken against terrorist groups under the increasingly flimsy authorization of 9/11-era legistlation, the administration argued in the face of criticism from Republicans as well as liberal Democrats that no approval was necessary for a months-long military campaign against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government in Libya.
In September 2013, when the administration briefly considered military action against Bashar al-Assad’s government following a massive chemical weapons attack, the decision to go to Congress was a break in precedent and treated at the time as something of a novelty.
Obama went to Congress in part because public opinion was overwhelmingly against bombing Syria. But as I wrote at the time, it doesn’t seem like the political fallout from a brief punitive bombing campaign would have been all that great if Obama had just gone ahead and ordered it.
By going to Congress, the administration suggested that it never wanted to carry out the strikes, but felt pressured to act to preserve U.S. credibility due to the “red line” over chemical weapons that Obama had set months earlier. Putting the decision in the hands of Congress gave the White House an out and the problem eventually went away—for the president and his advisors, not for Syrian civilians—thanks to a surprise Russian-negotiated deal under which Assad turned over his chemical weapons.
Things are very different this time around. ISIS’s rapid expansion combined with the disturbing videos of beheaded American journalists have had an impact on American public opinion. Those factors, too, seem to have changed the president’s assessment of the threat posed by the group. Recall that back in January, Obama dismissed concerns over a (then) al-Qaida-linked group taking over Iraqi cities with the analogy, “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
It’s certainly valid to argue that just because ISIS have proven themselves to be more Kobe than jayvee, it doesn’t mean that airstrikes in Syria are a prudent policy. And there’s a good debate to be had about the role of Congress in authorizing military action in an age of asymmetrical threats and drone warfare. But let’s not kid ourselves: Shooting first and asking Congress later has become the rule, not the exception.