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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 post-war 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 proven 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. 

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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 to 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.

Aug. 28 2014 2:46 PM

West Africans Aren’t the Only Ones Who Are “Ignorant” About Ebola

Much of the coverage of the ongoing and worsening Ebola outbreak (including my own writing) has focused on how ignorance and paranoia about the disease in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone has contributed to its spread.  This is undoubtedly true. Most Ebola outbreaks are contained much more quickly, and this particular one has been worsened by the fact that many people don’t understand how it spreads (only by direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone currently experiencing symptoms) and are suspicious of health workers.

But I’ve still found something a bit patronizing about the way this narrative has been discussed, because it’s not as if people outside of West Africa have demonstrated a great deal of enlightenment and clearheadedness about this disease.


Today, for instance, the Wall Street Journal reports that the outbreak is hurting the tourist industry in South Africa, more than 3,000 miles from the infected area:

“‘Ebola is in Africa.’ That is what they’re saying,” Mr. Hurter said. He said most of his cancellations have been from Asian clients, who make up about 60 percent of his business.

Korea Airlines has suspended flights to Kenya, also thousands of miles from the outbreak.

Here in the United States, a recent Harvard School of Public Health poll found that “four in ten (39 percent) adults in the U.S. are concerned that there will be a large outbreak in the U.S., and a quarter (26 percent) are concerned that they or someone in their immediate family may get sick with Ebola over the next year.” Public health experts say that even if an infected person did travel to the United States, the risk of it spreading is extremely low.

And those calling the CDC in alarm over the prospect of American health workers being brought back to the U.S. for treatment might be surprised to learn that Ebola has already been in the United States in controlled environments for years.

As Kent State epidemiologist Tara Smith recently noted, movies like Outbreak and books like The Hot Zone have given the public some inaccurate ideas about Ebola. It’s commonly believed, for instance, that Ebola liquefies victims’ internal organs and causes them to bleed out in excruciating fashion. That’s not what happens:

More commonly, patients look weak and are very ill. There may be blood in their vomit or diarrhea, or occasionally from their gums or nose. Dehydration is a big problem, and in some cases getting intravenous fluids may be the difference between life and death. But blood does not typically "pour" from a person as their skin tears off at the touch, as The Hot Zone suggested.

It’s also commonly believed that nearly everyone who gets Ebola dies. In this outbreak, the fatality rate has been a little more than 55 percent, though that could increase. That’s extremely high, though the disease is not necessarily a death sentence if treated properly.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be worried about Ebola. (It’s possible we’re not nearly worried enough about it.) But those of us in countries that are not yet significantly effected shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we’re that much more informed and enlightened.  

Aug. 28 2014 9:00 AM

The U.S. Will Not Ratify Any Treaty Unless It Has to Do With Fish

The New York Times has a big front-page feature on the Obama administration’s plans for next year’s climate summit, which will likely involve a “politically binding” deal to cut emissions rather than a legally binding treaty that would require approval by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate.

A number of advocates for action to combat climate change have been pushing for a strategy like this. A legally binding treaty would have essentially zero chance of passing in the Senate, and other countries know it. But if Obama can effectively make the case that he can cut U.S. emissions while sidelining the global warming deniers in Congress, there might be a chance of securing more ambitious commitments from other major emitters like China, whose rampant coal consumption is finally showing signs of slowing amid fears about air pollution.


The tactic is, of course, consistent with the administration’s strategy of using executive action as an end run around Congress when addressing issues like emissions and immigration. It also highlights just how difficult it is to get a treaty—any treaty—passed these days. If the current climate in Congress has made passing domestic legislation difficult, it’s made the ratification of international law near-impossible.

The Senate still occasionally ratifies treaties. Last April it approved four fairly innocuous agreements dealing with illegal fishing in the Pacific. As Hayes Brown of ThinkProgress noted at the time, these were the first treaties the U.S. had ratified since the controversial New START missile defense treaty with Russia four years earlier.

In the meantime the Senate had declined to ratify (despite an emotional appeal from disabled veteran and former Majority Leader Bob Dole) the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a measure partially based on the Americans With Disabilities Act that is supported by 126 other countries.

It rejected the Law of the Sea Treaty, negotiated in the 1980s and essentially the only regulation that environmental groups, oil companies, the Pentagon, and the last three U.S. presidents have ever agreed on.

The slew of other treaties that U.S. presidents have signed but the Senate has not ratified include measures to prevent enforced disappearance, torture, cluster munitions, and discrimination against women. The U.S. and Somalia are the only countries that haven’t ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Obama certainly isn’t the first president to see a seemingly logical treaty torpedoed by congressional isolationists, but the logjam keeps building.

Part of the problem with passing treaties is that while most Americans don’t care either way, those opposed to them care a lot. The Law of the Sea is a particular bugaboo among those who fear U.S. sovereignty is being eroded by international law. The child and disability rights treaties are strongly opposed by America’s very politically organized homeschooling movement. The two-thirds requirement for ratification makes it fairly easy for a concerted lobbying campaign to scuttle a treaty.

So what does it mean for the future of global governance that the world’s most powerful country is essentially incapable of ratifying an international treaty? Potentially, not that much.

While the U.S. is not in compliance with the Law of the Sea, for instance, it recognizes it as customary law and is largely in compliance with it. And arguably, the fact that Syria has signed a treaty on the rights of children but the U.S. hasn’t says less about the treatment of children in the United States than the effectiveness of the treaty.

It would certainly be preferable for the U.S. Senate to ratify treaties that signaled its commitment to addressing pressing global issues and didn’t—despite the arguments of opponents—do anything to contradict U.S. domestic law. But it doesn’t surprise me that the White House is looking for an alternative route to address an issue as pressing as climate change.

As Dan Drezner noted yesterday, “there are plenty of international agreements that are reached without using the treaty provision in the Constitution. Most trade deals, for example, are now negotiated as congressional-executive agreements rather than treaties.”

In June, rather than announce that the U.S. would sign the U.N. treaty on landmines, a step that disarmament advocates have been hoping for since Obama’s first term, the administration simply announced that the U.S. would “no longer produce or acquire antipersonnel land mines or replace old ones that expire.” This essentially moves the U.S. closer to compliance with international norms without having to send along yet another treaty for the Senate to leave on a shelf. 

Binding international treaties may still be the best way to ensure global action on pressing issues. But unless drastic and unexpected changes come to the Senate sometime soon, more informal, second-best measures like Obama’s new climate push may be the best we can hope for.

Aug. 27 2014 1:20 PM

Why Does ISIS (or the Islamic State, or QSIS) Have So Many Names? What Should We Call It?

The Guardian reports that an influential Egyptian group has requested that Western observers make a crucial nomenclature change. Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, which the Guardian describes as “a wing of the Egyptian justice ministry … [and] a source of religious authority both inside and outside Egypt,” says that it’s not appropriate to refer to the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” that’s currently fighting in Iraq and Syria. Instead, according to Dar al-Ifta, we should call them “al-Qaida Separatists in Iraq and Syria,” or alternately QSIS. You can learn more by following the group’s “Call it QS not IS” social media campaign.

It makes a lot of sense that Dar al-Ifta doesn’t want the generic term “Islamic State” applied to a terrorist group. But I don’t really see “QSIS” gaining traction given that governments and the media still haven’t reached a consensus about which of the group’s (at least) four previous names to use.  


Slate’s style is to refer to the group as ISIS, for the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” This is as much for the sake of consistency as anything else: It’s what we were calling them before they became a household name in the United States. During its initial rise, the group was often referred to in the U.S. media simply as “al-Qaida” or “al-Qaida-linked,” though that hasn’t been accurate since at least February.

According to Poynter, the New York Times, L.A. Times, ABC News, CBS News, and NBC News all use “ISIS.” However, the U.S. government, including President Obama, the Pentagon, and the State Department, uses “ISIL,” for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The group’s full Arabic name until recently was Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham—but there’s some confusion over what exactly “al-Sham” refers to. It’s a regional term for Syria, or “Greater Syria,” that given the group’s territorial ambitions, could potentially refer to the entire Levant region, including Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and Lebanon.

Then, in June, the group declared a caliphate and rebranded itself as simply the “Islamic State,” reflecting more global ambitions. This presented a dilemma to news organizations. The AP, which had been using ISIL, switched to Islamic State, as did the Washington Post, which had been using ISIS. Reuters seems to use ISIS and Islamic State interchangeably.

Among people in the region, including senior government officials, the group is often referred to as Da’ash, its Arabic acronym. This name is usually used by the group’s opponents and, according to some reports, saying it can be punishable by 80 lashes in ISIS-controlled areas.

Terrorist groups think about branding as much as any other type of organization. Documents seized from Osama Bin Laden’s compound show that he considered changing the name of his network from the generic-sounding al-Qaida (“the base”). The new names he pondered included the Monotheism and Jihad Group, the Monotheism and Defending Islam Group, the Restoration of the Caliphate Group, and the Muslim Unity Group. None of these stuck.

Often, terrorist organizations don’t get to decide what they’re called. “Boko Haram” started as a local nickname for a group whose full name translates as “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad." (Boko Haram also doesn’t exactly mean “western education is a sin,” as it’s usually translated. According to scholars of the Hausa language, boko can also mean “fraud” or “inauthenticity.”)

For ISIS and others, this much is clear: It’s not easy to control the message when the people you’ve sworn to kill are going to be the ones delivering it.

Aug. 26 2014 4:01 PM

What a Settlement Between Israel and Hamas Will Look Like

The residents of Gaza, at least, seem to believe that the cease-fire that went into effect between Hamas and Israel this afternoon is something different than the many that came before it, as seen in the public celebrations above.

It’s tricky to predict whether such an arrangement will hold. The 72-hour deal that went into effect in early August also had an air of permanence about it, then collapsed a few days later. But at the very least, the intensity of the violence has abated. This isn’t to say that things have been quiet. Just prior to the deal going into effect today, a rocket fired from Gaza killed one person on an Israeli kibbutz near the border. And just yesterday, 16 Palestinians were killed in Israeli airstrikes. It’s sad to say that this represents a de-escalation, but it does.


I don’t think a brief return to fighting is out of the question, but a return to the level of carnage we saw in July seems improbable. It’s likely that Israel will agree to ease but not entirely lift the travel and trade blockade on the territory. This could involve some opening of the checkpoints on the territory’s borders, the construction of a port and expanding of fishing rights, the expansion of humanitarian aid, and talks on prisoner releases.

It’s been obvious for weeks that this is what a final settlement would look like, which raises the question of why it couldn’t be reached earlier. The deal became possible only after Israel had finished its mission of destroying Hamas’ tunnels into Israel and Hamas had fought long enough that it could plausibly sell this to the Palestinian public as a “victory of the resistance.” (The Israeli government has been a lot less enthusiastic about touting this particular cessation of combat, with a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying only that Israel has accepted “an open-ended cease-fire.”)

The talks will continue and will get messy, and they may be punctuated by renewed bursts of violence, but things are slowly returning to normal. Which is to say that things are returning to an intolerable situation that is unsustainable in the long run for both parties.

There may be some signs that the conflict’s delicate status quo is beginning to shift. The violent protests and heavy-handed Israeli response on the West Bank didn’t quite become the new intifada that many commentators were whispering about, but could be a signal that future eruptions of violence might be more widespread than this one. And Netanyahu no longer appears to be buoyed by high poll ratings, perhaps a sign that the fighting went on a bit too long for the Israeli public, which was initially strongly supportive of Operation Protective Edge.

But even if political winds are slowly shifting, the smart money is still on the cycle of violence continuing.

Aug. 26 2014 2:04 PM

We Have No Idea What’s Going on Inside Syria

The AP reports today that President Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, a move that could be the first sign of the U.S. expanding its operations against ISIS to the other side of the porous Syria-Iraq border. It makes sense that such a mission would begin with an extensive intelligence-gathering effort. That’s because, compared with other areas of the world, the U.S. military knows very little about what’s happening in Syria.

Why is the U.S. making this move now? At first glance this surveillance would appear to be exactly the sort of “mission creep” the president said he was intent on avoiding in authorizing limited airstrikes against the militant group earlier this month. But the killing of U.S. journalist James Foley, combined with recent warnings from military leaders that there’s no way to effectively roll back ISIS without addressing its base of operations in Syria, may have changed the White House’s thinking.


It’s logical that a campaign against ISIS would involve strikes on the country where it reportedly controls about one-third of the territory. But Syria is very different from other countries where the U.S. has launched strikes against terrorist groups. Before the recent airborne intervention in Iraq, in contrast, the U.S. had military advisers in place for weeks, not to mention years of experience fighting there. We have nothing of the sort in Syria.

In countries like Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. operates drones with the tacit cooperation of national governments, and even there, it’s not as if the intelligence is always flawless

In Syria, the CIA has been working for some time to arm rebel groups, but its assets on the ground are likely minimal. It’s also dealing with a hostile government committed to defending the country’s airspace. As the Washington Post reports:

[S]enior U.S. intelligence and military officials—speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations—said American spy agencies have not yet assembled the capabilities that would be needed to target Islamic State leaders and provide reliable-enough intelligence to sustain a campaign of strikes …
A senior U.S. intelligence official said that “it would probably take some number of months to really build up the necessary intelligence architecture” to expand the U.S. air campaign underway in Iraq against Islamic State positions in Syria. “This is not going to end anytime soon.”

In other words, we may be in for quite a long and deepening engagement in Syria’s civil war. And Bashar al-Assad’s government already seems to be angling for opportunities to turn this to its advantage. 

Aug. 26 2014 12:17 PM

Do the UAE’s Airstrikes in Libya Mean the United States Is Losing Influence in the Middle East?

U.S. officials say that jets from the United Arab Emirates, using airbases in Egypt, attacked an Islamist militia in Libya this week in an (apparently unsuccessful) attempt to turn it back from Tripoli. There’s been intense fighting between regional militias near the Libyan capital in recent days, and the group from Misrata, which was targeted in the attack, has now apparently taken control of the Tripoli airport.

The UAE’s foray into Libya feels like a turning point both in the dynamics of the region and regarding the United States’ involvement in the Middle East. Despite all the various ways that regional powers have sought to influence each other’s internal politics, the U.S. and Europe (and on a few occasions Israel) have largely had a monopoly on airstrikes and direct military intervention. With crises elsewhere taking up diplomatic attention, U.S. involvement in the worsening situation in Libya has been limited. It shouldn’t be too surprising that others have stepped in to fill the void.


The New York Times, which originally reported on the strikes, puts them in the context of a larger proxy battle in the Middle East between Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia—which have sought to roll back the gains made by Islamist groups—and Turkey and Qatar, which have largely supported them. This battle will mostly be fought within the region’s most unstable countries, including Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

This isn’t the UAE’s first venture into Libya. The country participated in the air operation that led to the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011. More recently, it’s believed to be backing militias from the western Zintan region—one of the groups battling for control of the increasingly chaotic country.

The U.S. and four European governments issued a statement warning against “outside interference” in the Libyan conflict, and the strikes apparently caught U.S. officials off-guard, though a skeptical report in Foreign Policy casts doubt on whether this could really have taken place without U.S. knowledge. The UAE has been silent about the strikes, and Egypt has denied direct action in Libya, which leaves open the possibility that it merely supported a strike by another party.

But the big picture here is that while America’s ostensible enemies—Iran and Syria—are carrying out military operations in Iraq, its ally, the UAE, is bombing Libya. And it doesn’t seem like the United States is calling the shots.

Aug. 25 2014 5:28 PM

“El Qaida”: The Persistent, Baseless Claim That Terrorists Will Swarm the U.S. From Mexico

The Mexican government is expressing some irritation with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who suggested last week that there’s a “very real possibility” that members of ISIS or other terrorist groups are entering the U.S. illegally via Mexico. As Perry acknowledged in his own remarks—and as the Pentagon confirmed—there’s “no clear evidence” that this is happening. But as is generally the case when fears of “El Qaida” periodically emerge, a lack of evidence is no barrier to bold sweeping claims.

Intelligence officials have warned for some time that there’s a possibility of terrorists entering the U.S. from Mexico, and there is indeed some evidence of groups like Hezbollah operating in South America. It would be foolish, then, to completely rule out the possibility that terrorists have crossed into the United States from down Mexico way. But the frequent claims that this is already a major problem are, well, ridiculous. 


Last year, for instance, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert declared on C-SPAN that "We know al-Qaida has camps over with the drug cartels on the other side of the Mexican border” and that the group’s operatives are being trained to “act Hispanic.” This claim appears to have been based on essentially nothing.

Also last year, Deroy Murdock of National Review argued that “there are at least 7,518 reasons to get the U.S./Mexican border under control.” That figure refers to the number of citizens of State Department-listed “state sponsors of terrorism” arrested entering the U.S.—not just at the Mexican border—in fiscal 2011. More than half of those were from Cuba, a country which is still on the State Department’s list for a variety of reasons but whose immigrant population in the U.S. is not known as a hotbed of jihadist sentiment. (This isn’t to imply that those entering the U.S. from Syria or Afghanistan are likely terrorists. More likely, they’re fleeing terrorism.)

In 2012, and a number of other conservative sites claimed that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had “admitted” that terrorists enter the U.S. from Mexico “from time to time.” The evidence for this supposed admission: what seems like a deliberate misreading of a garbled answer during congressional testimony. (Napolitano hasn’t always helped her own cause on this issue. In 2009 she had to walk back comments that seemed to suggest, falsely, that the 9/11 hijackers had entered the U.S. from Canada.)

The best-documented case of a connection between Middle Eastern terrorism and Mexican drug cartels was actually facilitated by the U.S. government. Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American car dealer in Texas, was arrested in 2011, and later convicted, after trying to recruit a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The Obama administration’s allegations that senior Iranian officials were likely in on the plot were met with some skepticism at the time. Whether or not that part of it’s true, we do know that no actual Mexican gangs were involved: Arbabsiar’s contact was an undercover DEA agent.

The DEA also set up a 2009 bust involving a deal between alleged members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Colombia’s FARC to smuggle cocaine through West Africa to Europe. This was cited by the agency as evidence of the possibility of an “unholy alliance between South American narco-terrorists and Islamic extremists.” This despite the fact that there were never any actual South American narco-terrorists involved and DEA agents had set the whole thing up themselves. This case was also used in Congress to argue for tougher immigration rules—in this case, more scrutiny of travelers from Venezuela.

Again, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that someone planning an attack could sneak over the border. But the scant reports of terrorists trying to enter the U.S. illegally are far outnumbered by the numerous well-documented plots by native-born Americans, naturalized citizens, and foreigners entering the country with valid passports and visas.

Border security and counterterrorism are both important issues, but at this point the case for linking them seems pretty weak.