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Aug. 22 2014 3:42 PM

Surprise: American Firepower Doesn’t Make Countries More Peaceful

In addition to airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq, the U.S. has also ramped up its already substantial assistance to Iraq’s military. This effort has only accelerated since the removal of controversial Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. According to the Wall Street Journal, this aid will come in the form of thousands of hellfire missiles and, if Congress agrees, new F-16s and Apache attack helicopters.

U.S. military assistance to allied governments is a common way of restoring stability in fragile states suffering from internal violence. But its track record isn’t great.

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A recent paper from economists Oeindrila Dube of NYU and Suresh Naidu of Columbia takes a look at the effectiveness in a very different context: the decades-old insurgency in Colombia.

Colombia is a good testing ground for this question, having received more than $5 billion in U.S. military aid since 1988 with the aim of stamping out the drug trade and pacifying the insurgency led by left-wing guerilla groups. American aid and weaponry was also distributed unevenly among local bases throughout the country, making it possible to assess the impact of varying amounts of assistance.

American aid was only supposed to end up in the hands of the Colombian military, but that’s not how things worked out. While not allied with the government and formally banned, right-wing paramilitary groups, frequently accused of human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings, often received “informal assistance from military and police officers through unofficial channels” as the officers put it.

The authors found that in the areas they studied, a 1 percent increase in U.S. aid increases the frequency of paramilitary attacks by about 1.5 percent above the mean. On the other hand, it had no measurable effect on attacks by the guerillas or homicides. In other words, the aid seemed to increase the amount of violence perpetrated by pro-government armed groups without decreasing the amount committed by anti-government fighters.

The Colombian situation is obviously a very specific one, but the authors argue their research has wider implications: 

Though we focus on Colombia, our results speak to broad questions in political development and international assistance. Military aid is sometimes proposed as a cure for weak states, as it is presumed to enhance the government’s repressive capacity, and facilitate its ability to secure a "monopoly on the legitimate use of violence." Yet our results suggest that, in environments such as Colombia, international military assistance can strengthen armed non-state actors, who rival the government over the use of violence.

They also briefly discuss the implications for Iraq in particular, noting that during the U.S. occupation, “informal Shiite militias conducted joint operations with the U.S. backed Iraqi army against suspected insurgents, despite accusations of torture and other human rights violations.”

The role of these militias is a concern during this round of hostility. Many took up arms in the wake of the ISIS invasion with the official Iraqi army seeming to be in disarray. Just today, reports have emerged of Shiite militiamen gunning down 30 Sunnis at a mosque in Diyala province, northwest of Baghdad. The actions of these militias are going to make it far more difficult to build the kind of ethnically inclusive government that will be necessary to counter ISIS, but Iraq’s leaders may not have the political capital to rein them in, even if they genuinely want to. 

(The paper also doesn't even get into the question of U.S.-supplied weapons captured by the militants themselves.)

Whether it’s Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Central America, it’s clear that providing weak governments with American firepower isn’t the best recipe for stability. If it’s going to work out better this time around, there needs to be a lot more oversight of how all the guns and money are being used.

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Aug. 22 2014 10:57 AM

The Real Winner of America’s War on ISIS: Bashar al-Assad

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the fairly obvious point yesterday that it will be impossible to deal a definitive blow to ISIS by attacking it on only one side of the increasingly irrelevant Syrian-Iraqi border. Here’s the New York Times:

“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated,” said the chairman … in his most expansive public remarks on the crisis since American airstrikes began in Iraq. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no.”…
“It requires a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is airstrikes,” he said. “I’m not predicting those will occur in Syria, at least not by the United States of America. But it requires the application of all of the tools of national power—diplomatic, economic, information, military.”
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Despite Dempsey’s remarks, it’s not really clear that “defeating” ISIS is actually President Obama’s goal in this conflict. But that could change. Assuming that the U.S. does reluctantly take on the project of defeating ISIS, or at least substantially degrading it, that decision will inevitably deepen America’s even-more-reluctant involvement in the conflict in Syria.

In that case, there’s a pretty big elephant in the room. Up until now, the ostensible goal of the U.S. strategy in Syria—to the extent that the U.S. has had a definable strategy at all—has been to give “moderate” rebel groups a fighting chance against Bashar al-Assad’s forces. If the focus has now shifted to defeating ISIS, where does that leave Assad?

There’s been speculation for some time that the Syrian leader would seek to use the crisis in Iraq to his advantage. It’s pretty apparent that Syrian forces tolerated the rise of the group in a bid to divide the rebels and scare off wary Western supporters, and only began attacking it after the Iraq crisis began this summer. It was a high-stakes gamble given that ISIS now reportedly controls about a third of Syrian territory, but one that could finally be paying off for the internationally isolated Syrian leader.

More prominent voices—today it’s the former head of the British army—are now advocating the previously unthinkable position that Western governments should open dialogue with Assad. I don’t see that happening, but as Reuters reports, the regime now seems to be expecting a quieter opening:

Assad is not expecting the West to perform a policy U-turn soon, the sources said. But having secured territory seen as vital for his survival, time is on Assad's side as he takes the long view in the struggle for Syria.
“The regime recognizes that the Western opening will be in secret, and via security channels and not diplomacy. The political-diplomatic opening needs longer,” said Salem Zahran, a Lebanese journalist with close ties to the Syrian government. “But the regime believes that the whole world will come to coordinate with it under the slogan ‘fighting terrorism.’ ”

The recently completed destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile (let’s not talk about the chlorine) could also make such an opening easier.

Even if the U.S. doesn’t coordinate with Assad’s government—the White House position as expressed by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes is still that he’s “part of the problem”—the shift in priority to ISIS does make it more likely that the American government is going to accept Assad remaining in power. Or at least it makes it less likely that the U.S. will take any major steps to remove him.

Assad played the long game with a pretty weak hand and now appears to be winning. Meanwhile, the death toll in his country just passed 191,000.

Aug. 21 2014 4:31 PM

Russia to Bulgarians: Stop Repainting Soviet-Era Monuments to Look Like Ronald McDonald

It’s hard to be a Soviet monument these days. The Moscow Times reports that the Russian embassy in Sofia has asked the Bulgarian government to take better care of Soviet-era war monuments, particularly the monument to the Red Army seen above, which has, at various points in recent years, been defaced to make the figures look like American superheroes (and Ronald McDonald), doused in pink, and painted the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Meanwhile, back in Russia, a group of people apparently climbed to the roof of a Stalin-era skyscraper Wednesday morning to paint a Soviet star the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag.

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In Russia, many of the statues and monuments of the Soviet period are still in place. Formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe have been more diligent about removing the Lenins and Stalins from their streets. Soviet-era World War II memorials, though, have been left in place in many cities.

The godfather of Soviet war memorial defacement is onetime enfant (but still terrible) David Cerny. The Czech artist first made a name for himself in the early 1990s by painting the Monument to Soviet Tank Crews—an actual tank on a pedestal in a Prague square—bright pink. The pink tank became a symbol of the country casting off the vestiges of communism following the Velvet Revolution, though Cerny says he did it mainly to impress a girl.

These statues can sometimes become major political flash points. When the Estonian government decided to remove a controversial Soviet war memorial from Tallinn in 2007, it provoked riots as well the largest coordinated cyber-attack in history, which crippled the infrastructure of one of Europe’s most wired countries for days. The attacks emanated from Russia, and there have been various claims of responsibility, but the Kremlin has always denied involvement.

A warning, then, to the Bulgarians: The Red Army may be gone, but tamper with their monuments at your own risk.

Aug. 21 2014 3:09 PM

The Irony of the War on ISIS

The killing of James Foley has highlighted a tragic irony of the Obama administration’s decision to use military force against ISIS months after its rise to prominence in Syria. Advocates of such action have long warned that ISIS could pose a direct security threat to the United States if left unchecked. But these U.S. airstrikes may actually have made the group more likely to attack U.S. citizens and interests.

ISIS and its predecessor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, have long held hostile views toward the United States and its presence in the Middle East. It has issued threats against the U.S. before, including a promise to “raise the flag of Allah in the White House." U.S. and European governments have also warned for some time that the large numbers of international fighters who have traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS could return with the means and know-how to carry out attacks in their home countries.

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So far there hasn’t been much evidence of this actually taking place. (One exception may be the case of Mehdi Nemmouche, the French national suspected of carrying out a shooting at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May, and who is believed to have fought with ISIS in Syria.) In general, ISIS has differed from its onetime patrons in al-Qaida by focusing more on capturing territory and building a viable Islamist state than attacking far-off enemies. In fact, U.S. officials have seemed far more concerned about the threat of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s “official” Syrian affiliate.

This has arguably been to ISIS’s strategic benefit. It’s hard to believe the U.S. would have taken quite this long to send in the drones had there been evidence that ISIS was actively plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland or even U.S. facilities in the Middle East.

Now, that’s obviously changed. With the U.S. bombing its forces in Iraq, there’s no benefit for ISIS in refraining from attacks against Americans. And if Iraqi and Kurdish forces, with U.S. help, succeed in rolling back the group’s territorial gains, it may start to act more like a traditional al-Qaida affiliate—operating underground, using tactics like suicide bombings rather than open military confrontations, and striking both local and international targets.

A new front in the war has now opened up. The administration began airstrikes this month in part because ISIS was getting dangerously close to U.S. facilities and personnel in Kurdistan. In response, ISIS has now very publicly killed a U.S. citizen and is threatening to kill more. A number of experts are warning that the airstrikes are likely to prompt ISIS to plot more attacks against the U.S.—an unnerving prospect given the number of ISIS fighters likely carrying clean European or U.S. passports.

Up until now, despite the escalating rhetoric, there’s been an uneasy peace between the U.S. and ISIS. Yes, the U.S. has provided some support to Syrian rebel groups fighting against the Islamic State, and ISIS has attacked the Iraqi government, a U.S. ally, but there had been little direct confrontation between the two. That’s obviously changed now, and while ISIS would certainly incur greater risk by engaging in a direct confrontation with the U.S. military, the Foley execution shows it does have some means to strike back.

None of this is to say that the U.S. shouldn’t attack ISIS. It may be true that the U.S. could no longer tolerate the long-term security threat from ISIS’s rise. But at least in the short term, it certainly seems like that threat has now increased.

Aug. 21 2014 11:38 AM

Why the U.S. Made a Deal for Bowe Bergdahl but Not James Foley

The New York Times is reporting that prior to the killing of journalist James Foley, ISIS demanded a $100 million ransom for his release. Writing for Reuters, David Rohde, who as a reporter for the Times was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2008 but managed to escape from captivity after seven months, argues that the U.S. policy of not paying ransoms for terrorist hostages may have led to Foley’s death.

The moral question of whether to pay ransoms to terrorist groups—which I also wrote about in the context of the Boko Haram kidnappings in the spring—is an agonizing one. It’s hard to stand on principle after reading the accounts of what the Foley family has been through over the past 21 months, or taking into account ISIS’s threat that Steven Sotloff, a journalist for Time who is also in the group’s custody, will be next.

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The United States’ no-ransom policy also stands in contrast to the policy of European governments, which often do make under-the-table deals to bring their citizens home. The consequence is that while dozens of European citizens have been released by terrorist groups during the last half-decade or so, very few from America or the United Kingdom—which also generally doesn’t pay ransoms—make it out alive. According to Rohde, due to these divergent practices “at least one major aid organization is not sending U.S. aid workers to areas where they might be abducted. Instead, they are sending citizens from European countries with governments that will pay ransoms.”

Why would the U.S. resist paying ransoms? Because the money that has been paid to terrorists has done undeniable damage, providing al-Qaida-linked groups with an estimated $125 million in revenue since 2008. The group’s North African affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, has proved particularly adept at the practice. These payments may now make up the bulk of the revenue supporting al-Qaida affiliates.

But again, it’s not that simple. The tough-guy “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” mantra sounds great in practice, but almost all governments do it from time to time. The U.S., of course, released five Taliban detainees from Guantánamo Bay earlier this summer in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s argument that the U.S. “didn’t negotiate with terrorists” because the deal was facilitated by Qatari intermediaries is a bit of a stretch. And Israel, which no one has ever accused of being soft on terrorism, released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captured IDF solder Gilad Shalit (though dozens of them were subsequently rearrested during the recent violence in Gaza).

As counterterrorism scholar Peter Neumann argued in a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, governments must at times negotiate and even grant concessions to groups it considers to be terrorists. The decision about whether to do so should be made less on the basis of the group’s relative odiousness than on whether such a deal could help stop violence.

The British government eventually had to sit down with the IRA. Colombia’s president is currently involved in controversial talks with the FARC to end the country’s decades-old unrest. As I argued after the Bergdahl swap, the deal should be seen less in terms of what the U.S. was willing to give up for one soldier than as the Obama administration settling unfinished business before it pulls troops out of Afghanistan and gets out of the business of fighting the Taliban entirely.

But a truce, or even a de-escalation of hostility, between the U.S. government and ISIS or any of its former affiliates in al-Qaida is hard to imagine. While the payment of a ransom could secure the release of a prisoner, it can do little beyond that except provide the group with much-needed funding. It would also encourage more kidnappings, both by ISIS and other groups that would be inspired by its example.

In this case, the U.S. government policy seems like the right one. As Rohde argues, however, it would be helpful if all Western governments were on the same page.

Aug. 20 2014 6:54 PM

The Strangely Modern Production Values of ISIS’ Propaganda Videos

The ISIS video of James Foley’s beheading is shocking in its cruelty and brutality. For those who did watch it, the propaganda clip may have been surprising in another way: It’s obvious that great care went into its production. The video, which has been taken off YouTube, opens with President Obama announcing new airstrikes in Iraq, a clip that has clearly been edited to give it the feeling of grainy found footage security video. One of my Slate colleagues quite aptly described this effect as reminiscent of the opening credits of Homeland. The footage of Foley and his executioner in front of a deserted landscape just before the killing, by contrast, is shot in crystal-clear high-definition.

(The Foley video has been removed from YouTube, but isn't all that difficult to find online. Though I watched it as part of my reporting for this post, I won’t be linking to it here and don't encourage anyone to seek it out. All of the links in this story are to news stories about these propaganda videos; though some of those stories do have embedded videos, none of the links in this piece will open a video directly.)

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It may seem ghoulish to discuss this video in terms of aesthetics, but the rise of ISIS (also known as Islamic State or IS) has been distinguished by its messaging and technical savvy as well as its viciousness. “IS is very good at this,” J.M. Berger, a counterterrorism analyst and author who runs the site IntelWire told me, explaining that their videos have high production values and “a strong sense of narrative.”

Sometimes these videos highlight the group’s provision of social services to residents of the areas it has captured. Others are direct recruitment efforts, such as the video released earlier this summer showing British fighters in Syria urging Westerners to leave their “fat jobs” and join the jihad. (The man who beheaded Foley also appears to have been British.)

Others have darker content. Days before it launched its offensive in Northern Iraq in June, ISIS released a video called “The Clanging of the Swords IV,” a slickly produced and brutally violent compendium of propaganda and battle footage. That short film, which focused mostly on ISIS’ operations in Syria, was likely aimed at demoralizing its Iraqi opponents. The Foley video may have been designed to send a similar message to the U.S. public: that American citizens aren’t immune from retaliation for American military actions.

The availability of laptops, editing software, and HD cameras has made it much easier to produce sophisticated-looking videos. The Internet has also made it simple for terror groups to promote them. But as Berger notes, these propaganda videos aren’t new. Rather, they’re part of a tradition of jihadi filmmaking dating back at least to Afghanistan in the 1980s and Bosnia in the 1990s. “Typically productions that jihadi organizations would put out would be, if not quite cutting edge, pretty close to the standards of the day with professional cameras and professional editing. Jihadi media has progressed at the same speed as the rest of the media,” he says. (This has been true of their print efforts as well.)

Al-Qaida in particular was quick to exploit the power of video through its media production wing As-Sahab. The hour-long propaganda documentary State of the Ummah, released shortly before 9/11 and featuring training footage from al-Qaida camps and statements from leaders including Osama Bin Laden, is something of a classic in the genre, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is rumored to have been involved in its production.

Recent videos reflect an increased awareness of global pop culture. A recently released training video from the Ansar Battalion, an Islamist rebel group in Syria, features action-movie-style cuts between slow and fast motion, as well as CGI that mimics the “bullet time” effects made famous in The Matrix. Nasheeds, the sung religious verses that often serve as the soundtrack to these videos, are now often auto-tuned, a high-tech compromise for a religious ideology that frowns on instrumental music. Somalia’s al-Shabab, whose videos are often directly aimed at recruiting Americans, has dabbled in hip-hop and nasheeds sung in English. Raffaello Pantucci, a counterterrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, tells me that videos often seemed designed to mimic video games.

But Jarret Brachman, who consults on international terrorism for the U.S. government and is author of the book Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, says the content of ISIS’s videos is less important than its ability to promote them.

“What I think really matters is the informal use of social media—Instagram, Twitter, and Ask.fm being chief among them—not only by IS’ formal media outlets but by this global following of informal advocates, surrogates, and cheerleaders,” he told me via e-mail. “IS fighters have created fascinating direct lines of communication from the battlefield with fans around the world using these channels.” This savvy was reflected during the World Cup in June when ISIS supporters hijacked soccer-related hashtags to spread news of their victories in Iraq.

Pantucci notes that videos of beheadings date back at least to the 1990s, when Chechen militant groups released clips showing the beheading of Russian soldiers. The continued influence of these videos is demonstrated by the fact that one particularly well-known European ISIS fighter uses the nom-de-web “Chechclear,” a reference to the title of an infamous and particularly grisly beheading video from the Chechnya war that still makes the rounds in darker corners of the Internet today.

Pantucci also points out that the Foley video is reminiscent—down to the orange jumpsuit worn by the victim and the final display of the severed head—to the 2004 video showing the beheading of U.S. contractor Nicholas Berg by al-Qaida in Iraq, ISIS’ predecessor. (The act in that case was reportedly performed by AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi himself.)

In today’s videos, the style may be slicker, the production values higher, and the means of distribution vastly more effective. But the end goal—to inspire supporters and terrify opponents—hasn’t changed at all. 

Aug. 19 2014 3:55 PM

Record Number of Aid Workers Killed Around the World Last Year

2013 was the deadliest year on record for aid workers, according to a new report from a humanitarian consulting group. There were 270 attacks on aid workers last year, up from 170 the previous year; 155 aid workers were killed, 171 injured, and 134 kidnapped, according to the U.K.-based Humanitarian Outcomes. All of these numbers substantially increased:

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While attacks were recorded in more than 30 countries, violence against aid workers is actually fairly localized phenomenon. Three-quarters of the attacks took place in just five countries: Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Pakistan, and Sudan. These are, not surprisingly, all locations “experiencing armed insurgencies and/or failures of governance and rule of law.” The report argues that the numbers do “not reflect a growing worldwide trend of targeting aid workers, but is mostly limited to this small number of cases where conflict has broken out.”

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Just because a country isn’t on that list doesn’t mean that it’s safe for aid workers. Somalia, for instance, saw a reduction last year mainly because agencies reduced their presence there. Medecins Sans Frontieres, for instance, pulled out entirely in 2013, after 22 years of operating in the country, because of attacks on its staff.

About 43 percent of the attacks targeted national NGOs rather than international or U.N. organizations. Overall, workers seem to be most vulnerable when traveling. More than half of the incidents were roadside ambushes or attacks.

This year is certainly shaping up to be another grim one in the countries noted above. The U.N. reported earlier this month that five aid workers had been killed by a militia group in South Sudan. Afghanistan has seen a number of attacks on aid workers as well.

The political scientist Chris Blattman put forward a prediction recently that “in 20 or 30 years, most of the still poor countries will be today’s fragile states. Everywhere else will probably have reached middle-income levels.” While that could be a slight overstatement, it’s certainly true that humanitarian crisis and political instability tend to be mutually reinforcing and that the same factors that create the need in some countries for emergency aid make them the most dangerous places for aid workers to operate.

Aug. 19 2014 1:08 PM

The World’s Dictators Love the Unrest in Ferguson

With tear gas and military hardware hitting the streets of an American city, the world’s dictatorships—which are typically on the receiving end of U.S. criticism for their crackdowns on public protest—are having a field day turning the tables on Washington. Egypt is the latest country to express its deep concern, reports the country’s English-language Daily News:

A spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, in response to a question from state-run news agency MENA, said the ministry is “following the escalation of protests and demonstrations in the city of Ferguson and reactions thereto”.
The spokesman referred to comments made by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on Monday as a reflection of the “international community’s position towards these events” including the calls for “restraint and respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion”.
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The call for “restraint” definitely seems like a deliberate echo of the kind of language favored by the U.S. State Department during anti-government protests in Egypt.

The Egyptians are hardly alone. China’s state-run Xinhua news agency has editorialized that the “racial divide still remains a deeply-rooted chronic disease that keeps tearing U.S. society apart” and that “what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others.” Russia’s foreign ministry has urged “our American partners to pay more attention to restoring order in their own country before imposing their dubious experience on other nations.” Iran’s FARS news agency is devoting heavy coverage to the “war zone” in Ferguson

Obviously these are self-serving statements, and as bad as things have gotten in Missouri, it doesn’t in any way minimize or even contextualize the state-sponsored political repression in these countries.

But it certainly doesn’t hurt to look at events in America from the outside now and then.

Aug. 19 2014 12:20 PM

What Does “Mission Accomplished” Look Like in Iraq This Time?

In all of his statements on the new U.S. military operation in Iraq, including his remarks yesterday, President Obama has repeatedly emphasized that he’s intent on avoiding “mission creep,” that American objectives are limited, and that this won’t be a new Iraq war.

That is understandable given American public opinion right now, and so far the limited U.S. airstrikes do appear to be succeeding in helping Kurdish and Iraqi forces push back ISIS fighters from northern Iraq and allowing an international humanitarian aid mission to ramp up.  

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On the other hand, it’s not really clear from what the president has said how he defines success in this mission. Obama has several times emphasized that he has no plans to allow the U.S. military to serve as the “Iraqi air force” and that the Iraqi government is responsible for its own security. In some sense, we seem to be back to George W. Bush’s old “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down” mantra. But this time expectations are far lower and goals far more vague.

“We can and should support moderate forces who can bring stability to Iraq,” the president says. But how much stability is enough?

Clearly ISIS’s gains in northern Iraq two weeks ago and the humanitarian crisis faced by the Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar was seen as a tipping point. Obama has spoken of preventing a “potential act of genocide” and noted that if the Mosul Dam had been breached, “it could've been catastrophic.”

"The wolf's at the door," Obama said of ISIS yesterday. But the wolf has been there for a while. After all, ISIS’s offensive in Iraq began not in June when it captured Mosul but back in January when it took Fallujah, a development that garnered little attention in the United States, or at least prompted few calls for intervention.

Is stability a situation in which only one major Iraqi city is under the control of terrorists? Or perhaps one in which the monthly death toll from violence in the country is around 1,000 instead of above 2,000? Or perhaps one in which ISIS commits its mass atrocities only on the Syrian side of the border?

From recent discussion, you would think that the removal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was a long-standing goal of U.S. policy. The United States seems to have played a behind-the-scenes role in hastening his departure from power and is rewarding Iraq’s government with more assistance now that he’s gone. But the administration also seemed more than willing to support Maliki for years even as it was abundantly clear that he was hollowing out Iraq’s institutions and using his security forces to stifle political opponents, paving the way for exactly the sort of situation we’re seeing now. Are we really going to keep that much closer tabs on his successor?

The cynical answer is that the goal seems to be for Iraq to become just stable enough that we can go back to not paying attention to it. And I suspect that in the end, that may have more to do with how long the U.S. media continues to treat Iraq as a major story than with what’s actually happening there. 

Aug. 18 2014 5:34 PM

Could Scotland Really Break Away From the U.K.?

We’re now a month away from a vote to determine whether Great Britain will have to continue on as not-quite-as-great Britain. On Sept. 18, Scots will head to the polls for a long-awaited independence referendum, and while the “no” camp—those opposing secession—continue leading in the polls, it’s still too close for comfort as far as London’s concerned.

One recent poll has support for independence at 38 percent versus 47 percent opposed with 14 percent still undecided. Another is at 42 to 46 percent with 12 percent undecided.

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Interestingly, support for independence has slightly increased in spite of a lackluster televised debate performance by Scotland’s First Minister and independence leader Alex Salmond.

Salmond (whom I interviewed last year during a visit to D.C.) has been stumbling over the question of what currency an independent Scotland would use. The ideal arrangement from the point of view of the independence campaign would be for Scotland to remain in a currency union in Britain and continue using the pound, at least until a new currency were created. But British parties may not allow that, meaning that Scotland may have to simply use the pound without a formal arrangement, the way that countries like Panama use the U.S. dollar. There’s also the thorny question of whether an independent Scotland would be a member of the EU.

With due respect to high-profile appeals from the likes of David Bowie and J.K. Rowling, practical concerns like these seem as if they would be the most likely to sway voters. National independence is a romantic notion, but it will also lead to years of debate over how responsibilities, revenues, and resources are allocated.

Least helpful to the unionist cause may be appeals like that of Australian leader Tony Abbott, who said recently that those favoring independence “are not the friends of justice [and] not the friends of freedom.” Barack Obama has slightly more subtly voiced his opposition to a breakup.

Despite the recent polls showing some undecideds breaking for the pro-independence camp, the smart money’s still on Scots sticking with the U.K. There’s been some concern that the country could be in for Quebec-like “neverendum” in which the question of independence reappears year after year.

On the other hand, this vote is taking place at a time when, thanks to a confluence of economic and political circumstances, European voters are uniquely fed up with the status quo, rewarding populist parties of all political stripes at the ballot box, and a number of separatist movements—not just in Britain—are seeing their popular support surge. If the Scottish nationalists can’t make it happen this time, they’re unlikely to get a better chance anytime soon.  

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